Why Portland, Oregon, is the Knife-making Capital of the U.S.

It's home to more knife companies than any other U.S. city. These blades explain why.

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Devon Jarvis

Picture a chaotic Venn diagram with hundreds of circles representing the world’s byzantine knife laws. California’s limits on button-release switchblades. U.K. laws restricting lock knives. Japan’s ban on blades exceeding six centimeters.

Now imagine the middle of that diagram as the only sweet spot for legal knives. Inside it you’ll find the compact , a new everyday-carry (EDC) knife designed to keep international travelers in compliance with local regulations virtually everywhere they land. The 1.8-ounce friction folder with a stubby, 1.6-inch, S30V-steel blade is basically a mini-multi-tool, with a screwdriver, pry tip, micro bit slot, pocket/money clip, bottle opener and key-ring hole.

“Trends in knife design are driven by weight and size,” says Benchmade product manager Hans Albing. “The Aller is essentially a lightweight money clip with a multi-tool.”

Aller 380
Benchmade
$136.00

The Aller is the latest product from Benchmade Knife Company, one of the leading knife makers in Portland, Oregon. If that doesn’t sound like a fully formed endorsement it’s likely because you don’t know that, goat yoga and hemp beer aside, Portland is known in blade circles as the knife capital of the country. Seki City, Japan, and Solingen, Germany, are cutlery contenders, but especially for pocketknives, sporting and utility blades, Portland is the world leader.

Coast Cutlery and Gerber staked claims in Oregon in the first half of the 20th century. Kershaw, Leatherman, and Columbia River Knife & Tool followed their trail. Today, some of the United States’ most blade-friendly laws and a regional light-industrial-manufacturing and aerospace-industry supply chains (providing easy access to high-grade materials) have helped create the highest concentration of knife and hand-tool companies in the country—19 in the Portland metro area. By one estimate, 80 percent of the multi-use tools sold nationwide originate around everybody’s favorite hipster whipping post.

“Oregon has the highest concentration of cutlery jobs in the nation,” says Amy Vander Vliet, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department. “Cutlery employment is about five times more concentrated here than the nation as a whole.”

Demand for skilled workers is constant. Vander Vliet says the industry’s average annual wage of $63,900 in Oregon is higher than the national wage in the knife industry and higher than wages across all of manufacturing ($59,900).

The Portland area is also home to small shops and renowned custom designers, such as Shane Sibert whose is based in nearby Gladstone, Oregon. Making knives since 1994, Sibert specializes in hand-made fixed-blades with Micarta handles. His combat-dive knife, bush Bowie and combat dagger are some of the most eye-catching yet functional knives in the field.

Benchmade founder Les de Asis got his start in the business in California in 1979. Using his high school shop skills, his original idea was simply to build a better version of the “butterfly” knives he’d played with as a kid. Founded in 1987, Benchmade launched its brand around balisong (“butterfly”) knives—two handles that rotate around a tang pivot concealing a blade in the closed position. He moved his company to Oregon in 1990 to take advantage of looser regulations.

“Oregon has the highest concentration of cutlery jobs in the nation,” says a regional economist.

“Les struggled in California with being able to make the kind of knives he wanted,” says Jon de Asis, Les’s son and now company president. “Oregon is a legally awesome place for what you are allowed to produce, carry, sell.”

Benchmade earned worldwide recognition with the 2000 introduction of its touchstone 940 series. Recognized among a handful of quintessential EDC knives, every 940 knife is hand-built in Benchmade’s 144,000-square-foot facility, which employs more than 400 workers in the Portland suburb of Oregon City.

Designed by legendary knife maker Warren Osborne—an Aussie rancher who relocated to Texas—the slim, 2.65-ounce folding 940 knife is incredibly durable. Its defining feature is the 3.4-inch spey blade’s “reverse tanto” design—a concave swoosh on the top of the blade that adds toughness to the tip and is useful for opening letters or scraping out the hooves of livestock.

940
Benchmade
$159.90

Standard S30V—a super-steel produced at Crucible Industries in Syracuse, New York—makes the 940 handy for everyday chores like cutting through boot leather, cleanly slicing a mushy tomato or, by at least one account, field dressing a deer. The knife is also available with S90V steel—a higher grade steel with better edge retention and longevity, it costs about $100 more than the S30V. Whether in a backpack, first-aid kit or clipped to a truck visor, the 940 is a knife every guy should find a place for.

The 940 is pricier than most EDCs. That’s partly because from its screws to its Axis lock (which allows for one-handed open and close), every component is chosen for durability. The knife can be ordered with one of three handle materials—aluminum, carbon fiber or G10. Layered fiberglass and resin, G10 has emerged as a favorite. It’s lightweight, waterproof, temperature proof, resistant to cracking and chipping and feels natural in the hand.

In the factory the 940 passes through a dozen or more different pairs of hands—laser cutting, grinding, coating, assembly, finishing, sharpening, final inspection. Benchmade’s sharpeners typically train for eight months before they’re allowed to work on a blade that leaves the factory. That time is spent learning to use lasers to check blade angles on an extensive variety of blade lengths, styles and steel types. Sharpness is tested within a plus or minus of 1/1000th of an inch.

Like all Benchmade knives, the 940 comes with a Lifesharp warranty that includes free cleaning, oiling and laser-fine sharpening.

“Once people find out about Lifesharp they really use it,” says Albing. “People on the hunting side love sending in their knives for the spa treatment. We take everything apart and inspect it and sharpen the blade and send it back to them.”

In Portland, finding any Benchmade knife is easy. The small shop at the Oregon City headquarters is open to the public and carries every blade in the company’s catalog. A selection of knives from a variety of Portland brands—including Kershaw, CRKT, Gerber and Benchmade—is always on display in the knife case at legendary Portland outdoor and military surplus store Andy and Bax.

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