Review: Lava PE

When a good friend gets a design produced by Spyderco, you have to get at least one. Such was the case with the Lava for me. Mind you, not that I needed much convincing to get one. From the minute I saw and handled the prototype I knew I liked it. At this moment in time, I think the Lava is the best micro-folder Spyderco offers. In the 2 – 2,5 inch blade size, no other model is more ergonomic in the hand with also a nice flat ground leaf shaped blade that’s suitable for a wide range of tasks. If that wasn’t good enough, the Lava features tip-up carry for both righties and lefties. That sure gets my attention.

What was the Lava supposed to accomplish in the Spyderco line-up? Many people will have their own opinion about that; whether it is an attempt to see how well an ‘afi’ design by a forumite-afi would do in the market, or to add a micro fighter to the line-up, it doesn’t matter. To me the Lava is a highly successful attempt to take the Li’l Temp concept (as I interpret it), of a high-performance do-all folder design, and make it as small as possible.

The reason why I wanted to really try it out, is that the Lava is a striking translation of my preferred regular EDC –currently the Mini Manix and before that the Li’l Temp- into a small package. Small as in: easier to carry, easier to carry more than one of, and easier on the eyes of NKP’s. The most important aspect in knife selection for me is ergonomics. It’s a tic of sorts I’ll admit, but it’s just what I tend to focus on. Despite its small size, the Lava does not compromise in ergos, quite the opposite.

The Lava is an all-steel design. Although it’s biggest handicap is a smooth and slippery surface, steel also makes the handle thinner (in the case of most spydies) and easy to retrieve from a pocket or waistband. It works both ways. Thankfully, the pattern of the handle removed all my concerns of not being able to hold onto the knife with wet hands. The handle really locks around my middle and index fingers. Even in wet and soapy hands the Lava stayed where I wanted it to be, while I ‘attacked’ veggies, fruits and meats for dinner.

The dropped and angled blade may look a bit weird to most people. I’d say just try it out and discover the joy of an edge in-line with your fingers’ knuckles when they are closed around the handle. Not only does this feature allow the tiny blade to work on a cutting board, it just ‘feels’ more natural in use compared to a straight folder design.

As mentioned before, the blade has a flat ground leaf shape and it’s quite small. The Lava’s blade seems a tiny bit shorter than I remembered from the prototype. The opening hole is nice and large; easy to find and easy to flick open. What I also noticed right away, was the thickness of the blade or rather how thin it gets near the edge and point. It’s a very sharp slicer.

One thing I’d suggest to refine in future versions is the tip itself. The tip of the Lava is rather rounded, reminiscent of the Salsa. While that adds to the friendly looks of the Lava to NKP’s, I just prefer a more acute tip. Mind you, the Lava’s tip is not ‘dull’, thanks to the tapered spine.

The edge is short on the Lava. A little too short for most of my cutting tasks which is why I prefer the Mini Manix with its three inch (and a bit) blade or the Caly III with similar blade length. However, this small edge is just right for the office where most of its work includes opening mail and dissecting the odd piece of fruit. Again, the shorter edge (and round tip) is easier on the eyes of NKP’s which is a welcome feature around the office.

The edge gets really thin, which I like a lot on this design. The out of the box sharpness was (subjectively) better than a regular Calypso jr. and it reminded me much more of an out of the box ZDP model. The tip is also thinner than I first expected. Even though the profile of the blade makes you think the tip is blunt and rounded, the tapered spine makes sure that the tip is plenty sharp.

I used the Lava on all sorts of cutting tasks and evaluated it as both a utility folder and an MBC design. Utility-wise, the Lava fared really well. As an ‘opener’ it worked like a charm on mail, bags and packages. The thin and short blade is easy to slip under tape or envelope and slice it open. Even though I consider the blade too small for food prep I tried it out anyway. The blade was too short for the kitchen, but the dropped edge and thin edge really didn’t make it as difficult as I expected. Make the Lava with a 3 inch or longer blade and enlarge everything else accordingly and I suspect you’d have one heck of a kitchen/camp/pick nick folder.

The tip was kind of hard to find for cutting out articles or pictures and such. I think this was due to the rounded blade. Even with the extreme curve or blade-to-handle-angle, I found it relatively difficult to find the point to initiate the cut for this task. Alternatively, I discovered that the belly of the Lava is sharp enough to initiate this type of cut, but it’s much less accurate. Ah well, at least this leaves me with an excuse to carry a second folder like a Kopa for these type of tasks.

The thin, flat and all-steel Lava is a joy to carry, especially in my preferred appendix-carry method. My main office EDC has been the Polliwog, but when closed it has a little exposed tang that can get uncomfortable after a long day. Not so with the Lava, which is one of the reasons I switched to the Lava for office carry. The closed Lava is perfectly rounded and finished; no gaps, no tangs or anything else that can make daily carry uncomfortable, even after several months.

Quick on the draw
To accommodate the dropped blade, the front end of the handle is also curved downward. While it may look a bit weird when you see the closed knife the first time, it helps with drawing the Lava from a pocket or waistband.

Just point your index finger toward the pivot of the clipped Lava, hook your index finger around the hump and you can draw the knife. Then something almost magical happens, when you find the opening hole with your thumb and your fingertips have seated on the clip. The Lava doesn’t just open, it pops into place ready for action!

Have you ever noticed how you have to twist or rotate a folder a bit in the hand after the opening of the blade, to seat it properly for cutting? The smoother the freshly opened knife transitions into its final grip, the faster the knife is. The Li’l Temp was a really smooth opener, but the Lava takes that one step further. Just fiddle around a bit and you’ll see that the Lava almost automatically pops into place once the blade is opened. The trick is that you can use your pinky on the butt-end of the handle to slightly rotate and seat the Lava properly in your hand. The other and stronger fingers just have to close for the final grip. It makes the opening action really fast. A very cool design feature.

As mentioned earlier, the grip is superb for such a small design, the best I’ve seen to date. It even exceeds my Nav II, and after a bit of hesitation also replaced my Polliwog for office carry. The Lava also points really natural. As one of my NKP friends observed: “The Lava isn’t controlled by your fingers or hand, but rather by the wrist.” What he meant was how well the knife really becomes an extension of the hand. All thanks to that rather extreme blade to handle angle.

The jimping is nice and grippy, even in the choil. I worried a bit about the jimping in the choil being a little too aggressive. After all, the skin on the side of an index finger is much thinner than on the thumb-pad. As with almost any feature on the Lava, this jimping works just right. No problems there, just good gripping.

The overall grip on the Lava is really secure but not as versatile as a straight design like a Kopa or Caly III. The Lava favors a forward saber grip, or forward grip with the index finger on the spine. Reverse grip edge-out is also doable, but edge-in grips not so much.

With Chad being an avid martial artist, like myself, I had to evaluate the Lava from an (=my) MBC perspective. The Lava is certainly not a ‘dueling knife’ (hey it folds) and certainly not a typical ‘fighting folder’. It does have, in my opinion, three very important features to make martial artists happy; the secure grip, angled blade and superb opening action.

Starting with the Lava clipped to the waistband, it’s wonderfully easy to carry, even two for mirror-left and right carry. After a week or so of practice, the draw became very consistent and smooth. The SS is a bit too smooth a surface for an MBC folder, even with the grippy pattern or outline of the knife. Perhaps G10 would be too rough for a smooth draw on such a small folder, but a volcano FRN pattern could be just right to give your fingers more grip on the draw for MBC applications. As it is, the Lava is best used in an MBC role when already in the hand, think; on a set of car keys, or already palmed in some way or another.

Sleight of hand
I always recommend fellow martial artist to take a serious look at magic books, and it came back to me with the Lava. James Keating was the one who inspired me to take a look at sleight of hand techniques from stage magicians. The principle of ‘playing’ with your opponent’s perception is surprisingly useful in a sparring match.

For example, hold up your arms like they do in the old cowboy movies; hands symmetrically raised to head level on the side of your body. You have now made a frame of sorts. Ask your helpful training partner to punch you straight in the face. When the punch is initiated, move your frame sideways. Maintain the size of the frame but move it to the right. You’ll see that with the right timing your partner’s punch will move with it. Now this is not a technique for the streets but rather a principle to practice with and find your own application for. We have found the principle of sleight of hand very useful. With a little pose and misdirection you will discover how you can ‘magically’ present weapons and techniques from very unexpected places. Even during surprise attacks we found the attacker can get surprised enough to freeze for a millisecond.

The point of this diversion is that, again with a bit of practice, the Lava can come out of nowhere. The small size of the Lava makes sleight of hand so much easier. And that’s just the type of MBC where the Lava shines in my opinion.

In hand
Once in the hand, I feel the MBC-role of the Lava is similar to how I perceive the La Griffe; an extremely effective “let go device”. The Lava’s short blade -and the ergos behind it- allow you to quickly find your target and to convince an attacker to let go of e.g. your throat or to get out of a nasty grappling situation.

We made a wooden mock-up that didn’t quite survive our practice on the mat. Steel trainer meets wood à wood loses. We practiced some dueling-type attacks/defenses (whereby one is attacked by a visible weapon like a stick, chair or knife). We found that when using such a short blade, we were better off using unarmed techniques/defenses for the initial meet or pass of the incoming arm or leg (in the case of kicks) and then use the Lava for follow up techniques. The lava mock-up stayed in the hand quite well when that hand or arm was used for a deflection or block. Following up with a check from the off-hand, allows fast cuts with the other or Lava-bearing hand. The ergos of the knife help tremendously with targeting.

We got the best results when using unarmed techniques with the off-hand to meet or deflect an attack and then working our way around to a disarm with the Lava. For disarms we think the Lava works great. Even when tired and sweaty, it was easy for our wooden mock-up to find the inside forearm, hand and fingers. Mind you, this is probably not a good tactic on the street. If you were capable of blocking/deflecting an attacker ‘unarmed’, the ill-informed legal system will probably frown on the use of a knife to disarm a guy you managed to deflect at first. Most legal systems in the world expect you to use any possibility to avoid and run away.

Suggestions for improvement
The suggestions are very few. High on my wishlist is a more acute tip. To make that sharper tip, I’d be perfectly fine with adding a few mm blade length. This would make the Lava just a bit more practical for my daily cutting tasks like cutting out articles and fine point work in general. To maximize the MBC potential of the Lava, I would suggest a FRN as a handle material with nested liners to maintain lock strength and left/right clip carry.

Why should one get a Lava (and you really should get one!)? It just works great in almost any task you could find for a knife. Be it daily utility work or as a small but capable emergency knife. Don’t be fooled by the weird looks or small blade size. The Lava is extremely secure and ergonomic in the hand. The knife is also very quick on the draw and it carries like the proverbial pocket lint; very comfy. On top of that, it’s the most NKP friendly knife in its size range. The ergos, comfort of carry and looks are what prompted me to retire my Polliwog and start carrying the Lava. I’ll also get two more Lavas. One for left-hand use and one for clipless pocket carry. And that’s not just because it was designed by Chad …. who knows where I live 😉

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