Bow River is one more knife in my collection made by Phil Wilson. Since I am interested in all sorts of exotic steels and high performance knives, it isn't surprising I have more than half a dozen knives from Phil. Not many makers work with those alloys, as they are not that easy to work with. Anyway, difficulties aside, it was a new design suggested by Phil, when I was inquiring about Bohler-Uddeholm K294 steel. I'll discuss the steel in detail below, in the steel section, however, that was why I was looking for a new knife from Phil.
K294 steel appeared in knives couple years ago, and I meant to get it at some point. I knew Phil was working with the alloy, and I've contacted him during the spring of 2014. Luckily, he had a knife made out of K294 steel, which was up for grabs. Even though the design isn't exactly my choice, it was quite ok, purely from visuals perspective, and the steel was what I wanted, so I went for it. I suppose, instant gratification thingy had something to do with it, I don't really like waiting for my new toys for months or years even. A week later I've had a new knife in my possession.
Like I said, the knife had a different design. Different from what I have in my collection for sure, otherwise it's nothing really unusual, curved, trailing point blade. Either way, that just added one more bulletpoint to the list to my "research and investigate" list. Blade geometry in general is an important aspect of a knife performance, and for certain cutting tasks, specific blade geometries work better or worse, depends what do you pick. I had no specific cutting technique or material in mind to investigate, at least not at the time when I was picking up a knife, and perhaps not for next few weeks either. Bow river looked like a good slicer, and probably would do decent job as a skinner, but while I have plenty of things to slice through, skinning things is a more demanding test. Living in SF bay area suburbs is not exactly a place where you get a lot of game to skin, and frankly, that's not my favorite type of knife testing, way too messy.
General- The bow river knife arrived packed in a box, accompanied with a kydex sheath. Overall description would be medium size, thin, curved fixed blade knife. For its size, it's rather light, exact weight is 110.80g(3.75oz). Most of it comes from the handle actually, the blade is really thin and not too long either. Based on curved design, obviously it would do well for slicing, and should also be good as a skinner. As mentioned above, I don't have much of a use for a skinner. On the other hand, I have plenty of the official skinner knives which work just find for utility uses, including 3 skinners and semi-skinners from Phil Wilson(CPM S110V Meadows Skinner Knife, CPM S125V Meadows Semi Skinner Knife, CPM M4 Large Meadows Skinner Knife). Bow River is no different. I have used it a lot by now, haven't done much skinning with it, but I can honestly say it is a very efficient cutter. Plus, it isn't officially a skinner type anyway, if qualifications matter for you.
Other than that, I followed the unusual inspection steps, examined the knife using magnification glass, paying special attention to the edge. Visual inspection of the knife revealed no defects or issues with it. Phil Wilson always pays a great attention to the details, small or big. Everything is well ground, machined, rounded and fitted. Satin finish on the blade is very even and smooth, and keep in mind, K294 steel is notoriously hard to machine, just like CPM 10V, CPM S125V and CPM S110V. Handle is also very well made and fitted perfectly with the tang and spacers. In short, everything fits perfectly, nothing is loose, no gaps, no wobbly pieces. Well made knife, from well known maker, using very good steel. If you are into knives, then the combination is hard to beat, isn't it :)
Blade- Bow River features a positively curved blade, on the straight line, from the tip to the hill, the blade measures exactly 110.00mm(4.33"). Around the blade hill area, the spine is 2.75mm thick. In the same place, the width is 32.5mm, but the tip is very fine, less than a millimeter thick. This isn't a knife to stab hard objects with, the tip is too fine for that. However, it is well suited to get into tight places and perform delicate cutting if necessary. As I said above, satin finish on the blade is very smooth and even, which isn't an easy feat to achieve with high wear resistance alloy like K294.
Blade geometry, aside from the curved shape is typical Phil Wilson knife. In other words, it is a very efficient cutter, designed to perform with maximum efficiency just for cutting. That in fact is a primary intended use for any knife, at least before other things, like chopping and prying come into picture. I have plenty of those knives as well, starting with Busse Combat knives and finishing with bunch of Kukri knives. Bow river isn't designed or intended for heavy use, but it is a superb performer as far as light/medium cutting goes. One of the reason for such high cutting performance, is its geometry, and I am not referring to the curve. Flat ground blade evenly tapers from spine to the edge, and behind the edge thickness is extremely low, on bow river it is just 0.25mm. With the bevel so thin, cutting ability is extremely high, granted one has a sharp edge to go with that thin bevel and edge.
Other than that, there's not much to say about the blade. Partial tang construction, on the right side the blade has "Phil Wilson" etched on it. No logos, or any other fancy decorations. Original edge was about 15°-17° per side, and was on the coarse side, about 800 grit I presume. As I've come to realize after few years of experimenting, 600-1000 grit range is where this group of alloys performs best, at least as far as the knives are concerned. As you will see later, during the tests, I've used even coarser edge, and the results were very positive.
Steel- Few words about the K294 steel. It is produced by Bohler-Uddeholm corp, using 3rd generation powder metallurgy alloy. If you want to read more about PM process you can read about it in the Modern Steel Making Technologies article. As for the K294 alloy, it confirms to AISI A11 tool steel, which doesn't really have European standard specification counterpart, at least I couldn't find it. I have used Crucible's version of A11, CPM 10V steel, in Phil Wilson Utility Hunter, and with very good results.
Two alloys confirming to the same standard are bound to be close in their composition. Still, K294 and CPM 10V are remarkably close in their makeup - see CPM 10V vs. K294 composition comparison. I suppose, more differences in alloy properties and behavior would be introduced by heat treatment and production process, CPM vs. PM. Realistically speaking, I can't see a way of detecting noticeable differences in edge holding without mechanical testing equipment, similar to CATRA machine. I did considerable amount of cutting with K294, and a ton more with CPM 10V during almost 10 years I had it. Sharpened them side by side, on the same stones, and if you ask me k294 is a bit easier to sharpen, but that is rather imprecise and can be purely in my head. Other than that, edge holding and degradation are too similar to be noticed by a human, under normal use/testing by hand. In short, a very good knife steel when properly heat treated and used.
Handle- The ironwood handle on the Bow River knife is similar to the handles I have on other knives from Phil Wilson. Personally, I like ironwood as a knife handle material very much :) That includes my kitchen knives, and utility knives as well. I like ironwood for multiple reasons. It is hard, dense, has a very nice feel to it, at least when it is properly done. Ironwood is also very durable, as far as wood handles go anyway. As for the bow river handle itself, is has two slabs, which are fastened to the knife tang, using two pins and a tube fastener, which also doubles as a lanyard hole. Personally, I don't have much use for it, but does come handy on occasion. Specific Bow River in my possession has no lanyard if you are interested.
As for the handle comfort, generally speaking, I've always found handles made by Phil Wilson very user friendly and at the same time they have straight, unconvoluted shape. I've used those knives for hundreds of hours, if not thousands, often few hours in a row. Never had a complaint with handle comfort, and Bow River is no exception either. Aside from couple 2 hour long cardboard, plus various junk cutting sessions, the knife was used to prep two 20lbs lambs, and neither me, nor my friend who did the lamb prep had any complaints, neither about handle comfort, not for its security. Despite of being pretty smooth on the surface, it provided enough grip security during the lamb prep process, not to be worried about the knife slippage.
Usage, Coarse Edge- Jumping ahead, I have to state here, all the testing was conducted using coarse edge. Based on past experiments with CPM 10V steel, and test results of K294 with coarse and very coarse edges, there was no point in testing high polish edges. First round of test was done in March/April 2014, which was mainly utility cutting, and later in May 2014, I had one major session with food cutting. All in all very positive results, details below.
Utility Use- Skinners or not, Phil Wilson knives have always served me in utility cutting roles supremely well. I had no reason to doubt K294, especially that it is almost identical with CPM 10V. The original edge on the Bow River was plenty sharp, and I've started with it. I suppose you can guess, first test was cardboard cutting, which I've accumulated in very sufficient amounts, lucky me ;) All in all, I've spent about 3 hours cutting cardboard, till the blade got hot, literally. No edge degradation to speak of. As I said, test was performed with initial coarse edge, and those tend to last very long time. I was slicing using most of the edge, save for the half an inch at the tip. Since I wasn't concerned about how fine the cuts would be, and on cardboard it's not easy to tell fine cut from not too fine, it was all good.
At that point, it was quite clear K294 behaved very much like CPM 10V, just as expected. Still, I wanted to do more cutting, mainly coarse vs. fine edges, since CPM 10V which is the closest thing to K294, was sharpened using King 1000 grit synthetic whetstone. Bow River had coarser edge, and for touchups I was using Bester 700 grit synthetic whetstone. Since food cutting tests were planned for the later stage, I've proceeded with two ingredients, clear plastic tubing, which had 0.25" internal diameter and 2mm wall thickness, and 5mm thick rubber matt, which is both, soft and sticky, especially when rolled.
I've picked up another knife, since push/saw catting comparison was involved. Another knife being Watanabe Nessmuk in Aogami 2 steel, 64HRC. Nessmuk, sporting 100K, ~10° per side edge is suited for push cutting a lot better than k294 with 800 grit edge. First test was with the tubing. Using just downward force for cutting, Bow River needed about 2 times greater force compared to nessmuk, although that's rather an approximation. Obviously, part of the reason was the thinner edge on the nessmuk, 20° inclusive vs. 30° inclusive, and edge is far more refined. Slicing was entirely different story. On the surface of the tube, initial slice was still easier with nessmuk, due to sharper edge, but as the blade dug in, it got embedded inside the tube walls, and required greater force to cut through. Bow River on the other hand, sliced through a lot easier, making rougher, wider cuts because of much more aggressive edge, it was rather a rip than super fine incision made by nessmuk.
The same results were observed while cutting the rubber pad. Nessmuk made very fine cuts, using less force, when push cutting, and Bow River made through easier with saw cutting. Needless to say, nessmuk made finer cuts. None of that surprising, but it was an observation/experiment I wanted to make, to make head to head comparisons between two completely different types of edges. Otherwise, both knives are in high performance cutter category. In other words, you can achieve high cutting performance using different edge types, but steel has to support the edge configuration. To be specific, thin, very high finish edge like on the nessmuk can be supported by an alloy like Aogami 2, but not so much with K294, at the edges so thin and refined they loose most of the carbides. On the other hand, coarse edge will also work on Aogami 2, but K294 has a lot more hard carbides to provide very aggressive cutting edge, and those carbides on the edge resist abrasion much better compared to low alloy steels.
To conclude utility cutting test section, let's summarize the rest. I did about 50 cuts on the tube, rubber was too easy to cause any significant edge degradation. I sliced off those 50 pieces, tested the edge, but I wasn't very sure if the edge really degraded or not, it could still cut through free hanging paper and shave. After another 50 pieces in, tested the edge again. This time edge was degraded, it's miss a hair or two on shaving test, but free hanging paper cut test was still good. About 5 strokes on 700 grit stone restored the edge, at least as far as I could tell testing it using tactile feedback, in other words my fingertips, and I suppose I have to warn against that unless you really know how to do that. I gave the edge couple more strikes per side, tested again, it was 100% back, and felt a bit more toothy.
During next few weeks I diligently used Bow River as much as I could. Usual mix for utility cutting tests, more cardboard, tubing, plastic, wood whittling and wire cutting. Wood whittling did include twist tests, sinking the edge 1-2 mm deep into the wood and twisting it to the side. Rather brutal test for the edge, but Bow River, and K294 at 64HRC in it passed the test with flying colors. Wire cutting is another test for edge strength, and it is not recommended for soft edges, unless they are too thick. Standard selection of copper, aluminum and steel wires were cut, followed by 10 cuts of the RCA-61 cable, which is comprised of plastic jacket, copper shield, core plastic and copper wire. The edge was examined using 20x magnification glass. No damage was observed. To clarify, the wire cutting test was done once, not on regular basis, while cardboard and plastic cutting has been a part of routine. Each time 700 grit stone has been used to restore the edge. Never needed more that 10 strokes per side.
One reason I emphasize the low number of strokes for edge restoration is that K294, CPM 10V and other high wear resistance alloys have rather bad reputation for being near impossible to sharpen, which isn't accurate representation of matters. I've said in many other reviews, but worth repeating here along with the numbers, restoring lightly or moderately dull edge on the knife made out of those alloys is very easy. What is indeed difficult, compared with other alloys, the removal of significant amount of metal, like grinding a new bevel, or repairing severely damaged edge, which is done by grinding a new bevel, pretty much. That shouldn't be happening often, if the knife is used properly and the steel is correctly heat treated.
Kitchen Use- I wasn't very interested in using coarse edge knife in the kitchen cutting, but I was interested how the specific blade geometry would work as a small general food prep knife. Bow River managed quite alright for its size. I won't be replacing my 270mm gyuto knives with it, but Bow River sure can handle food cutting, and will do fine on a camping or a hunting trip. It was highly unlikely any food would cause edge degradation anytime soon on K294 slicer. Long running tests on veggies and such were rather pointless, just cut few things here and there to see how efficient and comfortable cutting process itself would be. No big reveals there, blade length was the main limiting factor, at least when tackling large bunches of parsley and asparagus. Tomato is better cut with much more refined edge though :) Zipping through Brussels sprouts and celery stock was well suited for Bow River knife. Bread cutting was ok, but lack of blade length was an issue here as well. That is if you compare 110mm long blade 320mm Gude bread knife, which is what I use on a regular basis. On its own, Bow River is quite capable as a bread knife too.
And the last part of the official testing was concluded in may, when we(me and my friends) had a party, where 2 lambs were prepared using Bow River. Actually, my friend did all the cutting, I warned against prying with the delicate tip, other than that he did whatever he needed. First lamb was a tad under 20 lbs. another was a tad over 20lbs. First one was carved or cut up raw, and we made few dishes out of that, second was spit roasted and then carved up and cut into portions. Bow River was used on both lambs, for all cutting tasks except chopping through the spinal cord, chopping off the ribs from the spinal cord and chopping through the ribs, except for the roasted lamb, we did cut through the ribs using bow river on that one, which was a specific test I wanted to conduct. Normally I would advise against cutting through the bone using delicate knives, in this case it was a test for edge strength, but by no means it is a normal use for Bow River or any similar knife. For the record, all chopping mentioned above was conducted using Swamp Rat Knife Works Paul's Ratchet.
First was the raw lamb. Obviously, slicing through the meat was easy. Disjointing, removing fat, cutting tendons, etc, naturally are more taxing on the edge, still none of that posed any challenge to the Bow River. Coarse edge did work for tendons and ligaments very efficiently, those things tend to be slippery, and tough by design. Overall, a relatively small knife was enough to to all cutting. At the end of the first lamb processing I've examined the edge. No edge damage, and the only place that lost aggressiveness was about 1" long section on the belly, about 1" distance from the tip, which is exactly the place that was going against the board the hardest. Here's the interesting part, as usual I was using about 700 grit stone or ceramics to touch up, takes about from 5-10 strokes to restore edge, depends on the blunting of course, but in this case, I've used DMT Diafold sharpener, the blue one. That would be coarse, 320 grit. 3 strokes per side and the edge was back to shaving sharpness on that 1" section, the rest didn't really need anything.
Second lamb was spit roasted as I said. Same cutting procedures as above, but at the end, I wanted to test the edge strength on the bones, so we cut through the ribs using bow river, push cutting through the ribs. Interestingly enough, zero damage to the edge, no chipping, no rolling and no blunting that I could detect by shaving test or examining the edge. I knew the edge was strong, based on the wire cutting tests described above, yet bones are different, since they are much thicker compared to the wires. Lateral loads on the knife would produce greater stress on the edge compared to wires. Still, the edge withstood all the abuse and emerged victorious :)
Conclusions- Exceptionally high performance cutter, well made and well designed. K294 steel offers very high performance with coarse edge. Restoring the edge was very easy, cutting performance is very high, knife is quite user friendly so, no complaints from me. If I was designing the knife, I'd choose different geometry, based purely on visuals, but as it is, Bow River's curved blade does very good job slicing and utility use in general. The rest it up to you as usual. If you like the design, go for it, steel, performance and execution will be top notch.
- Blade - 110.00mm(4.33")
- Thickness - 2.75mm
- Width - 32.45mm
- OAL - 223.00mm(8.78")
- Steel - K294 steel at 64HRC
- Handle - Ironwood
- Weight - 110.80g(3.75oz)
- Acquired - 03/2014 Price - 460.00$
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