- Buyer's Guide
A Beginner’s Guide to Custom Made Swiss Army Knives (SAKs)
I used to spend my summers as a youth in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My aunt and uncle would fly me out to Minneapolis, then we’d take a little plane to Green Bay, then take a two-hour drive across the Michigan border. My uncle’s family would take me out fishing and on boat rides on the Great Lakes. When I wasn’t out doing fun things like that, I was taking advantage of their cable TV in the basement, watching MacGyver and wishing I was part of the Phoenix Foundation. One summer, I asked my uncle to buy me a Swiss Army knife from the small town’s outdoors store. He bought me a Wenger Backpacker II and I cherished that thing so much I kept the original box and instruction sheet for the next 15 years.
I recently was organizing my EDC and found the Wenger again. It’s still in perfect condition with not a hint of rust or wear. Truth be told, I only used it around my uncle’s basement to cut sheets of paper and saw through empty soda cans and chopsticks. I have a number of multi-tools now including many Leathermans, a Victorinox SwissTool, a Gerber, and a SOG PowerLock model, but the long tradition and classiness of a Swiss Army knife has always appealed to me. I started looking into what the world of SAKs was like and I had the same question that almost all fans have – how come there isn’t a perfect SAK. Or, how come I can’t have a Swiss Army knife exactly the way I want?
Oftentimes, users aren’t asking for much. Usually, they’ve found a SAK that is most of the way there but they’d just like one tool swapped out. For example a person might find the Victorinox Compact perfect, but since they don’t drink wine, they’d like the corkscrew replaced with a Philips screwdriver. Well, too bad! Victorinox does not make a model exactly like that. Luckily, there is a small group of craftspeople out there that are serving this niche community of Swiss Army knife enthusiasts. These mostly self-taught engineers have figured out how to leverage everything from handfiles and homemade forges to even CNC machines to produce custom scales on up to completely custom SAKs.
Before I introduce you to them, a few things need explaining. First, a brand new Swiss Army knife can be had for $20-40. The prices of these mods can be ten times that amount. The reasons are simple – it’s a combination of time, material, talent, and a dedicated audience that is able and willing to pay these prices. There’s also very little competition, or at least a much larger market demand than modders can supply.
So, what can be replaced or modified on a standard Swiss Army knife? Practically anything, really. The history of modding SAKs doesn’t go that far back and if you were keen, you could probably still find the genesis on places like the Multitool.org forums. Early mods were really simple and consisted of drilling out the rivets, swapping out tools for a configuration that was more appealing, then peening the ends of the brass pins to secure it. A lot has changed since those early days and now nearly every part can be swapped or modified.
The simplest way of adding some flair or customization to your SAK is by swapping out the scales. All stock SAKs come with cellidor (plastic) scales. They attach by snapping onto three washers on each side and are friction fit. They can be loosened but each time they are removed, it becomes harder to reinstall them. The simplest scale upgrade would be to simply buy a new set of scales from the manufacturer, perhaps in a different color, and snap them on.
The next level would be to buy aftermarket scales. These come in brass, copper, G10, carbon fiber and wood. Usually they have three slots on each side to accommodate the washers. Most of them are not friction fit because makers don’t seem to want to dedicate the time needed for precision milling. Instead, they oversize the holes so you’ll have to use some two-part epoxy to secure them. One thing to keep in mind is almost any change in scales you make will result in greater weight, especially if you are replacing them with brass or copper; they are significantly heavier than plastic or titanium.
Finally, the ulimate scale upgrade would be replacing not just the scales but also the external structure of the SAK itself. This can be seen in the Victorinox Alox series where the scales make out the outside frame of the multitool while the regular versions have the plastic scales sitting on aluminum frames.
Most fully custom makers will replace the brass pins with screws that are countersunk into titanium scales. This makes the tool serviceable and often results in a less thick tool.
Liners are the plates that go between each layer of the tool. These are often replaced with brass equivalents, but sometimes customers go for a titanium option. Lately, I’ve been seeing colored G10 liners which look great when the tools are deployed and you look into the side of the SAK.
Of all the modders I profile below, I only know of two that are making their own tools. There are some hybrid situations, for example, where a modder will take a tool from another Swiss Army knife, or other knife altogether, and integrate it into a SAK mod. However, for masters like Robert and Zhang, you start to see true craftsmanship with fabricating a hidden drawer for scale tools, to hand-shaping a custom large blade.
A quick and easy way to freshen up your SAK is to replace the scales. The stock Victorinox or Wenger scales are made of a really cheap resin plastic called cellidor. Even brand new SAKs, out of the package, can have fine scratches all over them. They look great when they are new and polished but they pick up scratches even without any pocket carry. There are many modders who create replacement scales that you can install in under ten minutes. The actual hardware of a SAK is made of pretty wear-resistant and weather-resistant metal so the scales are where they look the dingiest and where a new set will be like a new coat of paint on your car. Scales range from 3D printed versions up to custom milled, engraved, and anodized from titanium.
Brandon Bankston started out three years ago making his own scales by creating a mold of the stock ones, and filling it with resin epoxy. This created a mess but it showed him that using the OEM scales as a model, it was possible to create your own custom versions. About 18 months ago, he created a 3D model of the scales and made modifications to make them easier to print. He now produces them using high-end SLS nylon printers and finishes them using his secret recipe. At the moment, this is just a hobby but luckily for us, it’s self-sustaining, so that gives Brandon the flexibility to offer new patterns and sizes. Remade Knives currently offers 84mm and 91mm scales on Etsy. I really dig the colors offered and the finish looks top-notch. I am curious to see what designs Remade Knives comes up with next.
If you want to get a sense of what 3D printed scales would look like on your SAK, Brandon has generously provided the STL file for download, but note that this is an early revision only similar to the current offerings in appearance.
Roger “Swiss” Bianco was born in Switzerland and served as an MP in the Swiss military for six years in the early nineties. He started Swiss Bianco to produce his vision of a new type of knife, that he formed while learning metalworking. Since then, he has formed a unique relationship with Victorinox, which has granted him unprecedented special editions and even runs of retired models, for the Swiss Bianco brand. In addition to the aforementioned versions, Swiss Bianco offers a full range of replacement scales. You can buy OEM Victorinox standard and plus scales from Roger, but the real magic is in the custom scales he designed and had produced. Currently, these include G10 scales, G10 with glow dots, carbon fiber, and finally titanium scales sitting at the deluxe end of the spectrum.
I have a pair of his titanium scales in a matte finish and they are amazing. They are a perfect fit and finish and they were about $35, which is quite a bit cheaper than some other scale manufacturers. The best part, to me, is they are actually “plus” scales which means they support the ballpoint pen and a safety needle. Many scale designers completely leave out all the scale tools which might make for a cleaner look, but also eliminates two to four potentially useful tools. Roger moved to Georgia in 2007 so items ship quickly, arriving in most parts of the US in two days. I also have the G10 scales with the glow dot and while I think they are pretty nice, the titanium ones are where the true talent is.
Daily Customs hails from Hamburg, Germany and is apparently a self-contained design and manufacturing team, under one roof. I say apparently because they are sort of an enigma and it’s really difficult to get a sense of the person or persons behind the brand. Their social media presence consists of roughly the same products and shots (mostly reposts), posted over and over again, in various dark moody scenes. There’s someone who is closely aligned with Daily Customs but he, too, uses a pseudonym and online persona, so it’s difficult to figure out the connection. They make some amazing scales and I suppose this secrecy makes them even more desirable!
Daily Customs offers scales in aluminum, brass, and titanium ranging from $76 to $115, before shipping. The prices are actually lower than what’s listed on the website because non-EU residents don’t need to pay the 19% VAT. What sets Daily Customs apart is their scales have a cut-out cross plus an inlay that lies behind it. This allows for cool customization options. For example, I have an aluminum filler tab behind my brass scales. Daily Customs also offers some unique patterns in addition to their standard scales. I am really fond of the 45-degree version; pair that with a contrasting insert and you have a head-turner. Another cool thing about DC is they have pocket clips. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, and it’s not if you are talking about flashlights and pocket knives, but SAKs are almost always carried on keychains or lanyards attached to keychain loops. The only way to get a working pocket clip is to have a custom SAK made, where the clip is mounted to the custom scales.
Daily Customs allows for an optional clip and their implementation is super clean and clever. They have an indentation in the back scale that accepts a titanium clip, secured with a single screw. If you decide you want a clean look and want to go clipless, you can fill in that notch with a little slab cover. Genius! The only niggle I have about this setup is the clip is mounted about 12mm from the edge so it leaves a third of the SAK peeking out of your pocket. I much prefer a deep carry clip, like what SAKModder has on his customs.
A few things to note about Daily Customs. First, their scales forgo scale tools so you get very clean lines but get used to not having those tweezers and toothpick. Next, I found shipping tests your patience. It took 22 days for them to reach me in California. Once you get the scales, installation is a breeze. Every producer of metal scales always instructs you to press fit them but this is never possible, the way it is with plastic scales. I’ve always had to sand down rivet lips to get metal scales to fit. Daily Customs does not bother with this. They over-size their holes slightly so they fit over the rivets, then they instruct you to use two-part epoxy.
Better known as woro_knives, Andrzej is a full-time engineer and knife-making hobbyist out of Poland. I listed him last because his custom scale work is out of this world. As a child, Andrzej was fascinated with Ray Mears’ book The Survival Handbook and was obsessed with making his own survival knife. Soon after, he gave up on the survival aspect of things and just focused on blades. He made his first set of scales ten years ago out of G10, wood, and micarta. Since then, he has teamed up with his brother, Kamil, and they have been working out of the basement of an old industrial building in the old part of Gdansk, the city where Andrzej resides. I was surprised to learn that Kamil, a very talented engineer, designs and builds custom the CNC machines which do the work for cutting out blanks and engraving duties. In describing Kamil, Andrzej says, “My brother is an essential part of this story. I am a hobbyist knifemaker for more than a dozen years already, but it is thanks to my brother and his CNC machines that I am able to make enough work so the knife and EDC community can notice me. My brother was also a knifemaker many times ago but decided that he prefers building machines.” Everything is still hand-finished by Andrzej using files and grinding tools.
What’s interesting about Andrzej and his brother is they don’t take any orders. They make whatever they feel like and put it up for sale. The last time I saw a custom piece was a topography design Andrzej did for avid outdoorsman Piotr Ma. This freedom allows Andrzej to concentrate on bringing some amazing designs to life. I am fond of his video game series where he pays tribute to Fallout, Team Fortress 2, and Portal. Stormtroopers also make an appearance, as well as various textures and patterns. He confirmed he likes to incorporate pop-culture into his work. I cannot name another modder that keeps things as relevant. Andrzej called himself a “simple engineer” when asked about his design background. I guess some people really are just naturally talented.
A set of woro_knives scales run about 60 Euros but good luck getting your hands on a pair! Andrzej is so busy he only devotes a fraction of his time reading and responding to emails. But luckily a solution is around the corner. Beginning August 2018, he’s partnering with Polish Custom Knives who’ll handle the shopping cart and order fulfillment side of things, leaving Andrzej to focus on what he loves most – producing scales. In the meantime, make sure to check out his Instagram and website where he occasionally posts new projects.
Sean Dooley has been customizing Swiss Army knives, particularly the 58mm MiniChamp, for four years now. He’s an Electrician Technician by trade, working on nuclear subs for the U.S. Navy, so it’s not a stretch to imagine he’s really handy with hands-on projects. It all started when he was browsing online forums and came across a tutorial by Robert Lessard, where he laid out all the steps to customize a SAK. Sean gave it a try and soon had his first custom SAK. He showed the guys at work and soon orders started trickling in.
Sean works out of his garage and mostly uses his Mini-Mill which allows him to shape his scales and liners, engrave the cross, and drill holes for the screws. He also uses a simple bench grinder and a Ken Onion Workshop to get a nice bevel and edge on his knives. Unlike most makers who focus on the 91mm size (which is the most popular), Sean likes the 58mm SAK because he wants to push the limits and see how perfect a SAK this size can get, plus he loves the patience and detail required to work on such small tools. What I like about the 58mm size is because everything is so small about it, even the largest model, the MiniChamp, can still fit comfortably on a keychain. As a comparison, the 5-layer MiniChamp is a little over 14mm thick while a 3-layer Super Tinker (91mm length) is 17mm thick.
The thing I like about Sean’s creations is he goes a step further to customize the actual tools that go into his SAKs. Spydernoxes (what he lovingly calls them) take a MiniChamp and add a small Spyderco Honeybee blade. This is such an original idea and sits squarely between modders like Lessard who make small tweaks to existing Victorinox tools and rain_z who fabricates full blades from scratch. It’s the first instance I’ve seen of a maker taking tools from a different company and putting them in a Swiss Army knife. He also heat treats his blades and puts custom finishes on the tools, such as stonewashing, which makes for a very cool Mad Max vibe. He recently picked up a Mini-Lathe which will finally allow him to make threaded standoffs, setting him apart from other makers. He has a lot in store for the future as well, including Damascus work, applying his Spydernox Midas touch to the 74mm Executive, and a few others he still has under wraps.
Sean’s creations run around $180US and take anywhere from two days to two weeks to complete. If you are keen on grabbing one of these gems, you can check out his Facebook page. Right now, his books are closed for the summer so most work posted is SAKs that have previously been commissioned. Hopefully once the weather cools down, we’ll be able to place our orders. In the meantime, enjoy his Instagram gallery to tide you over.
I was surprised to learn about Christoph’s work at the 11th hour of this article’s publication. He is a modder out of Germany and you’d be best served to actually navigate his site in ascending chronological order because I truly believe some of his most amazing pieces were made prior to the legal complications with Victorinox. Currently, he specializes in mods of all sizes and models of SAKs (except Alox) and always finishes them off with a pair of beautiful wooden scales.
Growing up, Chris was a fan of folding knives but only when he got older did he think about customizing his SAKs by embellishing the scales. After some trial and error, he received positive feedback from family and friends, and thus Chris Custom Works was born!
Like other modders, Christoph is a one-man show, with a small workshop in his German home. All his mods are handmade, without employing advanced tools like CNC and waterjets. Currently, the books are open and a 91mm mod starts at 50 Euros plus the cost of the wood and the SAK tool itself. The sky’s the limit, so it’s best to contact him directly to get a quote on your dream SAK. Just use the contact form on his website and be sure to check out Facebook for additional information. Expect 4-6 weeks for a custom order to be completed.
Okay listen up because things might get confusing. John Smith’s Instagram personal is 875fps while his website and business operations is Brasswerx. Whatever you call him, John is making some of the cleanest customs I’ve come across. He has a signature style that is immediately recognizable and is great at exercising restraint. We are mostly looking at titanium and brass here, brass liners, and a signature Swiss cross cut-out. If you flip the SAK around, you’ll also see a hex cut-out to support 1/4″ bits and it perfectly lines up with the cross in front, which allows you to take awesome “see-thru” shots.
Unlike others, John is relatively new to modding, having sold his first mod just May 2017. The origin story is not unlike we’ve heard before: he started out making knife thumb-studs and lockbar stabilizers out of old shell casings. Later he made his own bottle openers when those became popular. Eventually, he got his hands on a custom SAK by ALM out of Poland and in his quest to buy one, saw how much demand there was for titanium SAKs. The rest is history and he’s sold over 100 tools to date.
John focuses on the larger 93mm model, which I think is an underserved category, so I am glad he’s giving it some attention. As you know, the 93mm is the larger SAK size and includes popular models like the Pioneer, Electrician, and Harvester. He has his pieces cut and tumbled by Spectrum Energetics. I thought it was refreshing that he not only named one of his suppliers, but went out of his way to give a shout-out to the company. This made me view him in a different light.
Currently, all of his prices are custom. Unlike many modders for whom pricing can be so subjective or secretive, all the prices are clearly stated on the Brasswerx website. Things start at $150 for titanium scales and factory polished tools. This is as simple as you can get! Stonewashed tools add $30 to the price and throw in another $10 for a pocket clip. Let me step back for a bit – even at the simplest level of replacing the scale, there’s a lot of work involved! The knife needs to be broken down and reassembled with custom stainless pivots and screws. Right now, the lead time is 8 weeks and the best way to get on the list is to email him using the Contact Form on the site.
Once in a while John will offer up a set of tools that he’s whipped up. These are usually announced on his Instagram so it’s best to follow it for the latest news.
Denis hails from Moscow, Russia and is one of the more professional and perhaps experienced modders of multitools I’ve come across. He has a very specific aesthetic and is multifaceted, choosing to present a complete solution (just take a look at his packaging). Like many other craftsmen, he started out making wooden scales for his personal multitool. Once he perfected this freshman effort, he moved on to other material handles – micarta, G10, kirinite, mammoth ivory. Ever since he saw scales made in titanium, he got hooked and has focused on that recently, while perfecting his skills. He works in two workshops – one in his house for “clean” operations and then the garage for work that might kick up some debris.
Unlike other modders, Denis is happy to work with all sizes (58, 91, 93, 111mm)! Surprisingly, he does all this work by hand so no CNC’s, though he does cut the initial blanks out with a waterjet. Currently, his books are closed and turnaround times for custom multitools are impossible to state due to the personal nature of each piece. Luckily for us, he has been turning out other awesome EDC tools such as titanium prybars, which you can find on his Etsy shop. While you’re at it, you can keep up with Denis and his amazing work on Instagram and Facebook.
As far as I know, Zhang is the only custom modder from China. This is not surprising considering the cumbersome laws and regulations that quite simply make modding blades a real headache; not to mention, the restrictions on communication that makes regularly keeping up with customers a real hurdle. Despite all this, Zhang is producing some of the most advanced SAK mods in the world. I have handled the work of a few makers and there are noticeable skill gaps between them. I would not hesitate to say that rain.z_knives is among the top two custom SAK modders. Let’s learn more about him.
In contrast to some other makers, Zhang owns a few successful manufacturing companies in China and they are pretty self-sufficient so he is able to devote more time to his new hobby. I say new because he’s only been modding SAKs for two years, while starting to take orders just a year ago. He doesn’t discriminate on size so 58, 85, 91, 93, 108, 111mm have all passed through his shop. I think most of his fans admire him for his SAK work but lately it’s his slipjoint work that has been more popular, at least in terms of sales. Luckily, he still works on a good number of custom SAKs.
Like any good brand, rain.z has some unique and consistent “trademarks”. First, he is the only modder I have seen that offers certain types of textured scales. He also often annodizes the scales in multiple tones (perhaps blue for the scales and bronze or copper for the cross). He also offers a RWL34 (or Swedish damasteel) knife blade for all models besides 58mm. This mod immediately jumps out at you because of the unique blade shape. And while the blades are all hand-shaped and finished, you would swear they came from a factory.
Everything is 100% custom designed and fabricated in-house. He has a shop that any maker would be jealous of, including a CNC! His books are currently open but because of the aforementioned communication issues, don’t expect a quick order process. Most of his mods are in titanium but he supports copper, brass, carbon fiber, and even G10 if customers demand it. Liners are done in either titanium or brass and are up to the customer. For simple mods (i.e. swapping scales), the turnaround time can be just 3-5 days but more complicated mods, like replacing the blade, can take 3 weeks. Prices range from $150 to over $400. Starting in early August, rain.z started getting some distribution with Urban EDC Supply. So far, we’ve seen his titanium hex tool plus a completely custom 85mm SAK with cigar cutter. Here’s hoping for more drops in the future!
I’ve saved the best for last. The undisputed king of Swiss Army knife modifications, Robert Lessard hails from Canada and may be the only person working full-time on this craft. A few of the modders above have credited him for (indirectly) teaching them the craft and it’s probably safe to say that without his willingness to share early how-to’s on the Internet, many modders wouldn’t be in the business today. From what I can tell, Robert works out of a small shop in his laundry room, where you’ll find a Tormach CNC, the crown jewel of his modding tools. The CNC has really set Robert’s work above and beyond the competition, since it has unlocked so many possibilities and solutions that would otherwise be impossible.
For example, Robert makes all his scales himself and he is able to produce complex designs such as skeletonized scales and even an Alox-inspired diamond cut pattern. Creating his own scales and not relying on Alox scales may have avoided Robert scrutiny by Victorinox, since they seem very protective of their name and logo. He is also able to create full back scales, so you can skip the notch reserved for corkscrews or the screwdriver that is so iconic in Swiss Army knives. Robert is able to precisely engrave text or logos into his creations. He is also know for creating custom tools such as the titanium hidden drawer with built-in spring latch, brass magnifying glass, Marlin spike, and even custom tweezers complete with a brass nub.
Robert’s books are currently open and the best way to reach him is via a direct message on Instagram. He is swamped with work but if you are polite and persistent, he will get back to you. I’ve found he is incredibly patient and is willing to answer as many questions as you’d like. Once he starts the job, it could be a matter of days before completion, depending on parts and tools on hand. Prices range from $275 to $450 and beyond, depending on the level of customization.
Robert’s work is top-notch and it’s impossible to find any indication that things are handmade rather than factory produced. There is a level of fit and finish that is beyond what you’d find from other, even skilled modders. In my opinion, his pieces are worthy of grail status.