Great Eastern Cutlery : The Good, The Bad, The Ugly – Today’s American Pocket Knives, Part II
From time to time a customer will get a knife in the mail and email or call me to ask questions. Like, “This blade has a little play, is that common”, or “I just snapped a thumbnail, it this bear trap normal”. So, it may be time to have a conversation from a dealer perspective on what generally can / can not be expected from the different brands. This document will probably be an ongoing work, but will have more detail than what I want to put in the FAQ’s. Also, this is my opinion and the facts are from my understanding; if someone challenges me I will abandon them completely ;>
Great Eastern Cutlery : The new guys on the block
The newcomer to the collectible pocket knife industry in general, and American cutlery companies more specifically, is Great Eastern Cutlery. In 2006 Bill Howard left Queen Cutlery and found himself interested in starting his own cutlery company. With a long time customer and friend, Ken Daniels, the adventure began in the fall of the year. By the end of 2006, Great Eastern Cutlery had around 10 employees and had collected a treasure trove of old American machinery to fulfill their objective. Many parts were stamped and components being readied for a spring 2007 debut of the new American cutlery kid on the block.
First Quarter 2007 saw the first components assembled into two patterns and ready to see what the market would decide. The #23 (Pioneer) and #73 (Scout) were the only two patterns made with 2006 stampings. As with many things Great Eastern, I can guess at them but will probably just be told how wrong my guesses were at a later time. But with the two most popular Remington patterns of old being the 1123 and 1173, which were of similar shape/size, I think we can at least feel comfortable in understanding the simple numbering of the first two patterns at least.
There were approximately 250 sets of each blade pair produced with 2006 stamps; and from each 250 they would comprise 2-4 handle materials for each. So there would be @250 Northfield #73’s, @250 Tidioute #73’s, and @250 GEC #73’s. Same for the #23’s, for a total production of approximately 1500 knives. They didn’t start the serial numbers over when they changed handle materials, so the serial numbers on the 2006 models has little to do with how many of that actual variation was produced only the sequence that a particular knife was made on that frame / brand combination. But Great Eastern did commit to only serialize the first 250 of each frame/brand combo. Since there were a few extra parts produced for anticipated flaws, there were some non-serialized variants made from these parts at the end of production. Thus, this is one situation where documented non-serialized models were very rare birds and highly sought after. Because for each frame/brand run of 250, there may be only a handful of overruns.
These 2006 models were shipped in the tubes like you see today, but no COA. Even the label on the tube was very somewhat nondescript. For example: “Burnt Stag 171” (for serial# 171 Burnt Stag Pioneer) – didn’t even have the frame number on them, because you could tell by the size of the tube. So distributors quickly had to improvise their own unique identifiers for reference when selling these 2006 Great Eastern knives.
Transition knives: At the end of 2006 production there were some blade sets left over. These were used on 2007 models by just adding a “2007” date below the 2006 date. They were called transition dating knives and came as Primitive and River Valley Green #23’s.
Overall the initial releases were a booming success. Some of the bigger name dealers at the time had signed on and were doing very well with this new brand. Bill Horn and CumberlandKnifeWorks and Perry Miller at Spaceport Cutlery were two of the biggest names in this niche market and they sold a ton of these first releases. We got a little bit of a late start and came on board around April or May, but are now the longest running active distributor of the brand.
The Second Half of 2007 brought with it a realization that this tight knit band of GEC employees were slowly, but surely, getting the attention of the industry. And with that, new complications. New patterns and new variations of old patterns required a little more detail in identifying the Great Eastern patterns produced in the second half of 2007. They didn’t really have a set production number that they were shooting for on any particular variation. Thus, they did start serializing each unique run; but there may be 5 or 350 made. There were a couple of examples of non-serialized overruns, but I don’t know how they came to be.
Still no COA’s, but the tube labels would now be more informative. For example: “#53M 2007 Exotic Mexican Bocote 017” for serial# 17 Bocote Cuban Muskrat. The cuban frame was new and named after the “cigar” equal ended frame. Only two variants were introduced in 2007; the straight #53, which was a stockman, and the #53M Muskrat. Great Eastern also added an “EC” suffix for a #73 variant with an “end cap” (bolster on non-pivot end). Going forward the new frame numbers and prefix/suffix added here and there became an art form with hundreds of variations in the combinations hand written on the tubes. Thus, as Forrest once said, “that’s all I got to say about that”.
Inadvertently, some #23 stainless blade sets had the pull stamped on the wrong side. Waste not, want not; these were called left handers and released as “23M” models (M = Muskrat Clip) in three bones. They weren’t actually assembled as left handers, just standard knives with the pull on the wrong side…
As most everyone that has handled the scout or pioneer is aware, these early models (and even more recent variations) tend to have a very heavy backspring. My right thumbnail has had many surgeries with the clippers / superglue / emery to try and get it back to a usable condition. I don’t personally like a hard snap, but there are a couple of pet peeves at the factory that were not tolerated – open backsprings and blade play. Thus, the tight backsprings allowed the joints to be tightened much more without the concern of losing opening / closing pressure and having a lazy blade.
Another issue that I saw a lot was etching stains. When they etch the blades they must followup with a neutralizer to clean the blade and remove acid remnants. But this neutralizer itself must be cleaned off when the process is finished. Many times the blade would appear clean when leaving the factory, but by the time I received them there would be a brown haze around the etch of smeared neutralizer that would eventually turn to a deep stain. It was bad enough that I checked every knife and coated them with silicone on their arrival for the biggest part of 2007. I have seen this issue every once a great while since, but not nearly in the same proportion.
By 2008, Great Eastern was figuring out their infrastructure to take them forward. They implemented a few changes that made their life much simpler later down the road. The pattern number schema was born. FFMBYY (FF = Frame number, M = Main blade style, B = # Blades, YY = Year) was introduced. They also decided to limit the serialized versions to the first 50 in most runs (stag, primitive, etc. had some exceptions). They could charge a little more for the serialized models; or a little less for the non-serialized, depending on how you look at it. You also received a little COA in the tube with the serialized versions. Some of the premium handles have the COA attached as a secondary label on the tube itself.
New patterns start to roll out at a fairly good rate. The #36 & #25 frame are introduced; and where the toenail has some stiff blades the little #25 has some secondaries that would rival the scouts from earlier. I sent several back to get them loosened up a little. There were a handful that I literally never got open until sending them in for work.
One confusing point is that each year Great Eastern did not finalize the previous years production count until May or June because they would still be using blades stamped with the previous year. Instead of making transitions knives as they did in 2006/2007, they just held the production numbers until they had the previous years blades moved thru the factory. Other makers do this, but they don’t get caught as much because they don’t publish production numbers each year. For example, I get Case knives all the time with an April date on the box; but blades from the previous year on the knife.
By the middle of the year, GEC was really getting a following in the collector and hard use markets. More dealers started to show up and the factory implemented a MAP (minimum advertised price) policy and still had a verbal agreement with each new seller on the volume required to maintain a distributor / dealer pricing tier.
Time rolls on and although there are many new patterns and variations, the quality and processes remain consistent. By 2010 many collectors were opting for the non-serialized versions, which were generally in short supply due to the first 50 being serialized. A lot of runs would not even make it to 50, thus there would be no non-serialized models at all. Thus, the factory decided to serialize on the first 25 in most runs going forward. Exceptions will be burnt stag and other runs that there is anticipated increase in demand. Also, primitive bone, genuine stag, and other exotics will all be serialized as before. Later, they even decided that in general if there were not going to be 50 pieces made, they would not serialize them at all.
Here we are in early 2014 and we are seeing some phenomenal patterns. I cannot get enough of the improved trapper (pictured above). There are other patterns that have been at the top of my list, but today, this is it. Along with the great ones are some dogs as well. But one thing I have learned is to not try and figure out what the customer is going to want; because I am usually wrong. I got started collecting with the canoe; thus when Great Eastern brought out the canoe pattern I bailed into them with both feet. Sadly, I still have a majority of what I bought that fateful day. I don’t know why they were not well received, but they were not. Lady Leg knives were another dog. They will sell from time to time, but generally a very slow pattern. Anything with a punch seems to get a lot of chatter before it is released, but once it hits the shelves you can hear crickets chirping. We don’t get too bogged down in these hits and misses, because over the last 30 years some of the best values in cutlery were the ones everyone avoided when they came out. The Case lockbacks and fixed blades made in Germany by Boker were avoided like the plague when they hit the market – now they are worth their weight in gold (ok, maybe silver).
Great Eastern Cutlery lockbacks have been one area that I just don’t feel the engineering has been perfected. Not all, but a good portion of #72’s and #42’s, have play in the locked position. They are getting better with each release, but we are not ready to claim a victory on the factories behalf for these patterns yet. It is not a functional issue, but when a name is so attached to near perfect products, any issue is too many.
Many times over the last 7 years I have wondered why something looked like or functioned like it did on a GEC knife. So, I would call and ask to talk to Bill. Within a few minutes of patient discussion I understood, and in 95% of the scenarios could agree that the product was as it needed to be.
They are not perfect knives, but I don’t remember the last knife I held and thought “I see nothing I would like done differently with this knife”. And the GEC factory is not new technology that would allow for a streamlined process to deliver low cost / high value knives to the market. But, for the money, I don’t feel like there is a better value available in an America where the dollar is getting you less every day regardless of what the guy on television is telling you.
Updated for 2017. Not a lot has changed, but there are some things worth noting. Many of the big retail shops that had ignored GEC for several years have figured out they needed to throw the weight around in this arena. Thus, supply has gotten spread much thinner and there are many more SFO’s being made than a few years ago. GEC is trying to manage their time such that SFO’s do not consume them, but production runs have went from a few hundred to a few thousand now. Because one never know when the tide will change, GEC has not dramatically grown their workforce. This has caused a shortfall between dealer supply and consumer demand. Who know how long this cycle will last.
Issues that are common with Great Eastern Cutlery Knives:
Stiff springs causing nail breakers in some (#23, 73, 25,36, 45, 46, 78, 53, 54) patterns.
Some blade staining from etching neutralizer (mainly in very early patterns).
Blade play in a good percentage of lockback patterns.
Some “rapping” (blade contacting backspring on hard close) on a couple patterns (#85 comes to mind).