How do you become a world renowned knife designer without actually making knives . . . with Liong Mah
Welcome to the 12th episode of the Hardest Kit on the Planet Podcast brought to you by Heinnie Haynes. In this podcast we try to extract as much knowledge and ideas as possible from some of the hardest people and companies on the planet. Our aim for the podcast is to continually provide you with some great knowledge and information from a wide range of people and companies who are actually out there doing the business.
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The Show Notes
In this episode, I (Ben Roberts) talk to talk to Liong Mah. This guy is awesome. He is a world renowned knife designer and tool designer, but not a knife maker.
In this episode you will learn a lot of cool stuff like how he got started in designing tools and why knives in particular captured his imagination. You’ll also learn about how he designs, who he designs for, where he gets his inspiration. The final really cool thing we talk about is how various knife laws effect how he designs each and every knife.
Click the link at the top of the page to listen or download. The full transcript as always is below . . .
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Liong Mah. I basically started drawing knives in my notebook as a kid. I have always been quite artistic. I then became a chef where I was using knives for something like 8 hours a day. All through school whenever I was bored I would just doodle and draw knives in my notebooks. No one ever really paid attention though. This all started from when I first got my own pocket knives. I didn’t really like them to be honest. I thought they were a bit unsafe for the user. So, I wanted to put a guard at the front to protect the hand. This is where the flipper concept came from. This was before most people made flippers. I didn’t come up with the flipper, but I definitely helped it’s design. From there then I read a lot of knife magazines, and attended shows. It was there that I saw no one was really making knives that I liked. I would talk to makers, and see what their thoughts were on doing a custom knife, a proper custom knife. A lot of makers made these ‘handmade’ knives but they weren’t custom to the individual. Sure they were individual in terms of materials, but not in terms of the users style or preferences.
So, when I went to them talking about the flipper, they just couldn’t imagine it, and couldn’t see how it would work. That is where I started taking my drawings, putting them out and putting them into plastic. I put like a screw in as a pivot to see how it would work, and to be honest, not many really worked. But, that was because I didn’t really understand what a folder was. I then did more research and read knife making books. This helped me understand more about the internals of a folding knife, and what it needed to have.
From there I was able to start designing knives with the flipper. I then took these cut outs to the makers, they then realised it could actually work with a bit of engineering. I don’t have an engineering background, so I just wanted to see if other people could make this happen.
This led me to doing a few collaborations, which was a really fun thing to do. When I used to come home from work I found this was a really relaxing thing to do. It took a long time for people to actually like my designs. I think that’s because my early work was very curvy, and all about the dramatic curves. It took me a while to be able to fine-tune them so people would actually want to use them as an everyday carry pocket knife. Then people started liking the knives, and more people were able to use them.
It took me quite a while to branch away from the radical designs, the really funky stuff. I think as well it had a lot to do with location. I used to live in New York City. Growing up there I carried a pocket knife everyday, but knife laws also changed and became more strict. They started becoming something that you shouldn’t have in your pocket everyday, so I started carrying it in my waistband to hide the clip. This helped influence me. Also in my work as a chef I realised what would and wouldn’t be comfortable in hand. With that in mind I was able to create handles that were really comfortable in hand, for most people. That’s when I really started making more EDC knives.
Would you say then that the law has really effected how your designs have changed?
Yeah. Living in New York and having a number of friends who were police officers was helpful. They were able to tell me if a design was questionable. Things like the Ken Onion ‘Speed Safe’ mechanism. They didn’t know what it really was, but because of how it opened most officers assumed it was an automatic. That’s why I stopped carrying knives like that. People seemed to assume because you could open it was with one hand it must be an automatic, but obviously they weren’t.
It is not just knives you design though is it? Things like the Mah-chete, and the Eat N’ Tool.
The Eat N’ Tool is actually the first design that CRKT actually picked up. I had approached them for about 8 years showing them my knife designs. They were really nice to speak to me and let me show them my stuff. But, they couldn’t find a niche for me to fit into in their catalogue. Most of their designers are also makers, so they didn’t know how I would fit into their portfolio, and how they could separate the design from the making.
When I came up with the Eat N’ Tool it was a way for me to think out of the box, and a way to reach other markets. Really it was a spork that you could put on your keychain, with screwdrivers and other retention tools. It was so out there, that everyone who saw it was like wow, and wanted to hold onto it. When it showed this to CRKT they were like yeah this is really out there, but they were also asking would people really buy it?
It took a long time and a lot of meetings for them to go for it. It was only really the president of the company that fully supported it. In CRKT they have something called roundtable where they vote on future projects. A lot of the guys on the table voted it down, because it was too out there. The president supported it though and he has the final say on all projects. Funnily though since they have made it though, it has been their top seller. I am just flattered and so grateful that they took a chance on me.
Most people both design and make knives, but you are just a designer, am I right in saying that? If so why?
Yeah that’s absolutely true. I have dabbled in making myself. The Viva tools from CRKT I actually made myself. As I first said earlier, I used to be a chef so I didn’t have any of the machinery to make knives. Many knife makers have come from machining backgrounds. This takes them years to perfect. I have come from a very visual background. Being a pastry chef, I know that things had to look nice. Makers have come up to me and said they couldn’t design like that, as in for it to look so nice both opened and closed as well as being functional.
That’s why for me the collaborations were so important. I come from a very artistic background but at the same time used and use knives almost 8 hours a day, whereas most people use they occasionally to cut string and boxes. Probably the people who use knives second most would be hunters and gatherers. I needed the knives to look and feel a certain way or I wouldn’t make them. That is why the collaborations help put my strengths in design with someone’s ability to make them. I’m very grateful to have been able to work with some of the best knife makers around.
What new stuff have you got in the pipeline at the moment then?
I’ve started making my own production knives in china. These are high end production knives. I’m also working with a company called Reate Knives, it’s owned by a gentleman called David Deng. Even though I’ve been able to collaborate with some great companies, that can have a huge amount of other designers doing stuff for them. This means they can’t accept every design. I also always wanted to do small production runs and offer those to my fans and customers at very reasonable rates. High quality materials in runs of just 100-200 knives. High quality production for just $300-$400. We’ve got a small range for now, but loads more to come!
David and Reate have done a phenomenal job at producing my vision. We spent hours talking on Facebook about ideas and how we wanted everything to look. I’ve been able to facilitate certain things from the USA. Like before he was having to buy off bigger companies, but now he can buy direct from the manufacturer in the US and get them shipped over.
What’s great is that bigger companies want to make knives in the thousands, and because of that the niche market is great. Some of my knives now have been so unique and exclusive they are beyond the reach of some people. So for me to be able to produce and sell these high quality knives for $300-$400 I feel is a way to give something back to my fans out there.
When I get these knives sent to me by David they are perfect. I’ve had custom knife makers and designers in industry, people who make parts for medical and automotive industries. They take apart one of the Reate knives, and they are shocked by how good it is. They can’t believe how good the price is for the quality. These aren’t people I’ve approached, these are people that have approached me. So I’m really proud to be able to bring these to people.
It’s taken me a long time to get to this point. I’m still being asked to produce in America, but there is no way I could produce this quality knife and still sell it for this price point in the US. It’s taken an awful long time, but I really hope it’s worth it!!
What advice would you give to someone looking for a new knife?
Look at what you want. Then ask can you afford it. Then look at local knife laws. Then choose the best one for you. Sometime we are very fascinated by stuff that’s out of our reach. But, I started buying cheap knives in the flea market, then that kept pushing me to higher and higher end knives. Start with something that is interesting and useful then work your way up.
I now probably have more knives than I could ever use. But, I didn’t start as a collector, I started as a user. Most of the time I brought what I could use, but after time I was able to save money to buy stuff I actually dreamed of, like a new suit knife or knife for church. These are obviously not knife you want for scraping stuff off walls or cutting your lunch up.
How can people find out more about you?