Phil Rose has quickly become a rising star in the world of custom-made knives. In just 5 years his knives have become so sought after that waiting periods for one can be as long as 8 months. Unlike most custom knives, the demand is not for their flash.
I interviewed Mr. Rose in particular because of his PSK series of knives. Several months ago they came to my attention; simple, elegant, and built to last, his knives represent what may well be the perfect custom survival knife.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Rose, and discussing him and his knives.
Aaron: Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the outdoors?
Phil: Well, I grew up in Manteca California about ten miles from Ripon, where I now live. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors. I don’t know what really got me started on that, probably because I just don’t like the city.
Growing up, my mom used to drop me off by the river here in Ripon. I’d go down there with a Cold Steel SRK and – I believe it was Larry Dean Olsen’s Outdoor Survival – anyway I’d take some Para-cord with me and a bottle of water, and I would spend most days of my summer down there practicing, learning and having one hell of a time. That’s pretty much what got me started in the outdoors and survival.
I’ve been studying outdoor survival on and off since I was about 8 or 10. Obviously knives are a natural part of outdoor survival. That’s kind of what led me to doing PSKs. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for out there.
Actually, before I started making knives I made sheaths. The knives that I was using, I had several custom sheaths made and I would just destroy them. I wasn’t overly hard on things, but I just knew there had to be a better way. Been making sheaths since I was 16 and I’m 30 now, so from there it’s history.
Aaron: I read that you couldn’t find what you wanted. Is that what directly led you into making your own knives?
Phil: Yes and No. What really got me started making my own knives was when I left the military I didn’t want to work for anyone else. I just wanted to work for myself. I’ve always loved knives. I’ve always loved guns. When I first left the service I was planning on being a knife maker slash gunsmith. I still do a good bit of gunsmithing for myself, but I just decided that knives are where I belong. There’s a lot less paperwork and hassle
Before I went into the service, when I was in high school, I worked in a knife store in Modesto. I did get one grinding lesson while I was working there. The owner of the store was a knife maker. He let me come over and spend the day grinding out a knife. I never did finish that knife, but it did give me a good bit of insight into what needed to be done. That was actually the only instruction I ever received.
Aaron: I was going to ask, where did you learn to make knives?
While I was in Germany I forged out a few blades over there. Actually, I turned the company BBQ into a forge. I found some tent stakes that I could actually harden and forged out a few knives, and ended up melting the BBQ [laughter]. It was a good time though.
Used to piss people off that I was out there 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Out there with an Anvil that the motor pool got rid of. I was out there, “Ding ding ding”, right in front of the barracks.
Aaron: [laughter] I am sure they did not appreciate that much.
Phil: No, no no. I was called just about everything you could possibly think of. And then people would sober up, come down and ask me to sharpen their knives. [laughter] Eh, kind of amusing. Good times though. Definitely good times.
While I was in the service I saved up a bunch of money. Unlike most people who just basically drank their paychecks. Most would go down to the Irish pub or something like that and dump a hundred Euros, 150 Euros in a night. I put my money away. When I was at Walter Reed getting my leg fixed I was ordering machinery.
Aaron: What did you do to your leg, if you don’t mind my asking?
Phil: No worries. Airborne school. I went to Airborne school with three fractures in my leg and I was too dumb to go to the doctor.
I have had 18 pieces of metal so far. I’ve only got four in there now, after eleven surgeries. When I got to Walter Reed they said – my Orthopedic Surgeon, who’s a great guy – told me that I had a 10 to 15% chance of keeping my leg. All from a broken bone, and it wasn’t even an open fracture – just a closed fracture. But, you know, that’s all history. We’re all dealt a different hand of cards. You gotta suck it up and drive on and make the best of life.
Aaron: What does the motto, “No Safe Queens” mean?
Phil: The term No Safe Queens comes from, basically people that use their stuff making fun of those that don’t. There’s nothing wrong with collecting knives. What I have an issue with is when people say they use their things when they don’t actually use them. I want my stuff to get used. Don’t buy it and stick it in a safe. You know. If you are going to buy a survival knife, get out in the field and better yourself – learn how to use it. You know, no one knows when a catastrophe is going to strike next. So, if you’re going to invest in good tools, gain the knowledge to use them properly. Whether it’s a knife, whether it’s a firearm, or whether it’s a sports car. If you have to go out and get instruction to learn how to do it, then know how to do it. If you’re gonna buy something whether it’s a watch, whether it’s a knife, whether it’s a gun, whether it’s a sports car and all you’re going to do is put that car in your garage or put that gun, or knife, or watch in your safe – what’s the point in having it? I gain a lot of pleasure from actually seeing my knives in use.
I build these knives to withstand just about anything you can put in front of them. About the only way you are going to damage one of my knives is if you are out there trying to chop on a rock, or pry a safe open, or just something that’s beyond the scope of what a knife should be used for. I’ve done demos for guys where I’ve taken them out to the river and, you know I use a 4 ½” knife – one of my PSK 6s, and I cut down a 10 – 12″ tree – just by batoning it – in just under 2 minutes and 15 seconds. That sounds like that is something that’s absolutely ridiculous and something that is impossible, but if you learn how to baton a knife properly, you can do some pretty crazy stuff with it without damaging the tool.
I don’t want them to be Safe Queens. I don’t want them stuck in a safe. Get them out there use them! That’s what they’re there for.
Aaron: It looks like, based on your waiting list and the fact that you’re playing catch-up right now, like business is kind of going crazy.
Phil: Yeah, business is a-boomin’. I certainly can’t complain; it’s actually because of the demand for practical knives, we actually have a new milling machine that should be here within a week. We’re going to launch a production line of the PSKs. Basically, what that’s going to do is allow people that can’t afford one to get one, and allow those that don’t want to wait, to allow them to get one. The handles are going to be machined. The blades are going to be machine ground, but I will still do all the final fit and finish. And, they will be getting the same sheaths that the custom versions get, but at a price point that a lot more people will be able to afford. Basically, they will be high-end production knives- while still being custom quality.
We are going to automate the steps that can be automated, and then reduce the price accordingly for the production knives. There is still going to be a lot of handwork on there and quite frankly what we are going to call production, most knife makers would call custom. But since they’re not 100% hand-made, morally I can’t call them custom. If it’s not hand-made, how can it really be a custom knife?
Also, we are hoping – when I say we, it’s my dad (Henry Rose) and I – to be able to start getting more of them into the hands of the military; whether it’s by individual purchase, or unit purchases, or military contract. The reason we want to do that is if you go through the GSA system, there are no viable survival knives. When I was in the service, I was never issued a knife and I was in Echo Company 51st infantry long-range surveillance unit. You would think we would have been issued a knife. There’s just nothing good out there for our troops, so I want to fix that. With the new machine that we have coming in – once we have all the bugs worked out – we’ll be able to produce enough of them to fulfill the demand of both the civilian market and the military market. This will be the first of several of these machines. We are planning on having somewhere around up to four of them.
Aaron: Has it been hard working with your dad and dealing with the role reversal of him working for you?
Phil: Actually, not at all. Quite frankly my dad is my best friend. Always has been and I am sure always will be. I like to do things one way. He likes to do things sometimes another way. So, sometimes we have to compromise. But, we both have the attitude where if it’s done right – that’s what matters.
Yeah, I can’t wait till my dad can work here fulltime with me. You know, there’s not a lot of people in this world that I truly trust, so having someone in here working on products that have my name on them that I trust, is paramount. And, he’s got the best work ethic that I have ever seen. So, I think it is really going to be an ideal match. Yeah, I can’t wait until he can work here full time and that time is definitely comin’.
Aaron: Let’s dive into your PSK knives. You talked about that there wasn’t anything on the market that really fit what you wanted out of a knife. Tell me more about the mindset behind your PSK series.
Well, first and foremost, I call them PSK for Practical Survival Knife. If you look at the market, the vast majority of quote unquote survival knives, quite frankly they’re just goofy!
Aaron: Yeah, they’re tacticool knives.
Phil: Exactly! They’re not practical. In a real survival situation or in just everyday life in the bush, you need a practical working knife that preferably is flat ground probably somewhere in the range of 3 ½ – maybe 5 inches, made with an ergonomic handle that’s not slippery, and it needs to be able to help you make fire. If you can have fire and shelter – I won’t say the rest of things come easily, but they do come much easier. These knives a designed to be able to help you build a shelter, be able to help you make fire. They are designed to be able to skin game, carve traps and triggers for traps, and just general outdoor survival things; essentially outdoor utility tasks.
I was also going to say that if you look at the knives that I make, you won’t see any gimmicks on them. There are no swedges (false edge) on the spine. There are no saw teeth on the spine [laughter]. There’s nothing that doesn’t work.
Survival knives themselves are not complicated. The problem is that most people that design survival knives don’t practice outdoor survival skills. You wouldn’t have somebody design part of a vehicle that didn’t tend to vehicles or didn’t have that background. But when it comes to knives – and firearm parts as well – you have people that don’t have any clue about that market or that industry designing them. What you end up with is just a poor product.
The knives themselves, they’re real simple. A lot of my customers when I am taking their orders, or after they get their knives and they are playing with them for a while, will get ahold of me again and quite frankly thank me for making a simple knife. They’re not overly complicated. Building them right is kind of complicated, but the designs themselves are not and that’s what makes them really excel out there.
For a traditional survival knife they are pretty small. But, realistically that’s all you need. You don’t need to lug around some giant 10″ chopper out in the bush. If you have to cut some logs to build a shelter or you have to cut some poles or whatever, baton the knife through the poles. The amount of energy you will save carrying the knife vs. the amount of energy you’ll expend batoning a couple of poles for your shelter – it doesn’t even compare. Not to mention the fact that most people that buy large knives – they stop taking them into the wilderness because they’re cumbersome. I know I was guilty of that. That’s why I don’t make big knives.
Aaron: I was going to ask if you were going to make a chopper or not.
Phil: I am going to make a chopper, but it’s really not a priority for me just because I don’t see a need for it. But, I am going to be doing it.
I am going to be making some larger knives within the next year to year and a half just because we’re getting so many requests for them.
Aaron: You work in two different thicknesses, 5/32″ and â…›”. What’s the difference in your eyes?
Phil: So the thickness of the stock is proportional to the blade size. Essentially the wider a knife is, the thicker you can go when you are flat grinding. All of my blades, with the exception of that one little recurve neck knife, are flat ground. Flat grinding produces a more consistent cutting tool. If you were to break a blade in half and then look at the broken surface you’re essentially going to look at a triangle. So, the wider the blade the thicker the spine can be while still maintaining a fairly thin profile so it will cut well. If I was to take these knives, any of the size knives, and increase the thickness up to ¼” like a lot of guys do, A) the knife is going to be heavier and B) it’s not going to cut well cause it’s just so damn thick. The thinner it is the better it’s going to cut. That’s why razor blades cut so well; it’s because they are thin. Even when you dull a razor blade it’ll still cut. That’s because it’s so thin.
I’ve found that â…›” and 5/32″ are – for the models that I use either thickness in – they’re just about optimal. They’re a very happy balance of being thick enough to provide the strength they need while being thin enough to provide really good cutting performance. I’ve made one knife a little bit thick, it was 3/16″, and that was actually a chopper. The only chopper I’ve made. Last summer and the summer before, it saw service with a guy that works for the DEA. He’s attached to C.A.M.P., which is Campaign Against Marijuana Planting. It cut down hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of Marijuana plants in season. But, I only made it that thick because of what it was going up against. It was a rather substantial knife.
Aaron: Do you place balance as an important aspect of your knives?
Phil: Yes and No. Let’s put it this way. Your body becomes accustomed to whatever tool you put in your hand. Balance is going to be a lot more important in anything that you are swinging or if you are throwing it. If you are sitting there holding it in your hand, balance is not overly critical. Personally, it’s my opinion that somewhere right around the plunge line to back all the way to the handle is going to be about ideal. If the knife is overly blade heavy, as you’re using it and manipulating it over a long period of time, you want the weight to be back in your hand somewhat and not blade heavy because it’s just going to be more awkward. Most of the knives that I make, the balance point is really about where the plunge line is or about a quarter of the way back in the handle.
Personally I think the balance point is something that is really overstated. A lot of people differ on that, but that’s just my own opinion.
Aaron: You use hollow pins in your PSKs. What’s the reasoning behind that?
Phil: The reason I do that is because when I assemble the knives, if I was to leave the epoxy out of the setup, the handles would be virtually just as strong. What I do is cut the pin stock about 50 thousandths over the necessary length on a lathe. When I assemble it, I glue up the handles, then put the pins in place, and then I put it down on a piece of railroad track and I beat the living piss out of the pins. That’s the technical way to put it [laughing]. What that does is cause the pins to expand in the holes. There is no way to remove the handles other than grinding them off. It’s a very, very secure way to attach it. Essentially, the epoxy only becomes a water seal.
That’s why I use tubes. It’s not because they look cool. It’s because when I beat on them they expand and lock in place better. I do think they look better than the bolts. Also, I can counter-bore them down into the handle slightly and then radius the hole. Then abrasive blast the entire handle and it becomes very grippy. If I was to use Corby bolts or solid pins, when I abrasive blast the handle it would erode the handle slightly around the pins and that would cause the pin to stand up. Since the way the handles are ground, it would cause the edges of those pins to be rather sharp. It would not be comfortable to use.
If you look at pictures of the knives, you can see how the tubes are slightly inset into the handle. That allows me to abrasive blast the handle and give it a really good grippy surface.
The tubes are not there to lash it to a stick. That’s something that I get asked quite a bit. Why risk damaging your knife when you can sharpen the stick?
Aaron: Most knife makers don’t mill out a choil. However, you do.
Phil: The main reason why I do that is because a sharpening stone is generally the most convenient, as well as the most popular sharpener people take into the field. If you don’t have a choil on there, the more you sharpen it the more the blade is ground back in there. Basically it’s much more difficult to sharpen a knife on a stone without having a properly cut choil than it is to have one with it.
Every knife out there will sooner or later go dull. When you are out in the field you need it to be as easy to sharpen as possible. A choil makes a whole big difference.
Aaron: Looking at a lot of bushcraft knives and survival knives, a lot of them use a drop point, but you predominantly use a modified spear point. What benefits do you see the spear point having over the drop point?
Phil: It really depends. Really either one of them will work. I use the drop point design as well as the spear point. My new PSK 7, which isn’t even on the website yet, is more of a drop point. Whereas the PSK 2, 3, 5 are all modified spear points.
A true spear point, if the centerline of the point goes straight into the middle of the handle, that’s really going to be beneficial if you are using the knife to drill holes. Other than that, if you are ever going to be using the knife to skin game, you’re going to want the point to be up a little higher. You’re going to want more belly there. That’s probably why my PSK 6 and my new PSK 7, they’re designed more for the civilian outdoorsman. Whereas the PSK 2 is more designed for the military.
It really all comes down to personal preference. Some guys just like one or the other. I can’t say that one is really going to excel more than the other. They both have their advantages and they both have their trade-offs.
Aaron: One of the most unique things about your knives is the dedicated ground out for a firesteel. What advantage does that give as opposed to somebody just using the plain spine of their blade?
Phil: Well, my spine sparker throws a lot larger sparks than if you were to just square off the spine. That’s partially because of the radius on there. It’s got a radius cut that doesn’t necessarily match the radius on the rod, but it’s going to grab more of the rod. The reason I put that on the spine, having a means of starting a fire is very important. A lot of guys will actually scrape their cutting edge against the Ferro Rod. Obviously that is horrible for the knife [laughter]. It’s really bad.
Having a small dedicated spot, instead of a square spine, allows you to put your fingers up there on the spine without fear of cutting them, it allows you to baton more efficiently because all the edges are broken on it so you are not chopping up your baton. If you just square the spine up on there and go out there and try to baton a branch, or something like that, you’re going to be chopping the baton just like you’re chopping the tree. No matter how smooth the edges you’re still going to damage the baton, even with these here, but not nearly as bad. Probably the greatest advantage to having a dedicated spot like that is both saving the baton, saving your fingers, and also it doesn’t slip off the Ferro rod and go down the length of the spine. You end up having more control over it.
I was going to tell you, there are other guys doing that now. Unfortunately, there have been quite a number of people that have ripped me off on that. I just found out yesterday that there’s another knife manufacturer that’s now making the little attachments similar to how I make the Kydex for my Ferro rods and selling them separately.
Aaron: When you do something right, people will rip you off quick.
Phil: Oh yeah. I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve got so many ideas – I will just stay one step ahead of them. They can duplicate. I’ll innovate!
Aaron: Did you start off with the PSK series or did you start off doing your more tactical neck knives? Where did you start with knives?
Phil: I actually started out doing more tactical stuff. At first when I got into knives, I started making things that I thought people wanted to buy, instead of making things that I just wanted to make. Until I stopped doing that and just started making what I wanted to make, I was struggling. I’m not going to be shy about telling you that [laughter]. Once I said, “Screw it!” and started making what I wanted to make and people are going to take it or leave it, then I started doing pretty good. But, yeah, I started out with quote-unquote tacticals. I know that’s not a very descriptive way to put it, but…
Aaron: I think it does fit a certain genera of knives that everybody can identify with.
Phil: The only reason I say it’s not very descriptive is because nowadays every thing’s tactical.
Aaron: I think that’s just more of a reflection of all the “tacticool” flying around these days in the product market. Everybody wants everything black and extra mean looking as opposed to functional.
Phil: That’s definitely true!
That reminded me. I have a lot of newer knife makers that come to me and, I mean I am still pretty new – I’ve only be making knives for about 4 – 5 years, but a lot of newer guys will come to me and they want advice on what should they make and how should they make it and all this stuff. I always tell them, all you gotta do is make practical things. People are kinda getting tired of all the gadgets. You can only have so many gadgets before you want something you can actually use. Gadgets get old, but everybody still needs to have something that’s usable. In order to be usable it really does need to be simple. Follow the K.I.S.S. principle and you can’t go wrong.
Aaron: The big question is; which PSK do you carry out into the woods?
Phil: Lately I’ve been carrying my new PSK 7. I should have that up on the website in the next couple weeks. I’ve got two of them in the batch that I am working on now that I’m gonna take a bunch of pretty pictures of out in the field. I really like the PSK 7. I really like the PSK 2 as well. I use the PSK 2, the 3, the 6, the 5, the 7.
The PSK 5 is the one that saved my tail the summer before last up in Yosemite. It’s actually kind of a funny story; I’ll make it quick. I was on a fishing trip. I am really into lightweight backpacking; I don’t like carrying heavy packs anymore. There’s no fun in that. So I went up there with a poncho liner to sleep in, a hammock, and a tarp to put up over it. I set up camp and didn’t put the tarp up yet and went up creek about a mile or so. I was fishing away and sure enough it starts raining on me. I hauled ass back to camp wearing sandals of all things, stubbed my toe and I am limping back to camp and every thing’s just soaking wet. I could not get a fire going to save my life. That was the first time I was having trouble getting a fire going. Down in my, what I call my shit kit, survival kit. Basically that’s the kit you pull out when you go “oh shit, bad things are about to happen.” Pulled it out and I had some Trioxane Fuel Bars in there. For some reason my lifeboat matches wouldn’t work. I gathered up some damp branches and put a Trioxane Bar under that and gave it a couple smacks with my PSK 5 on the Ferro Rod and got a fire going. I huddled next to the fire under my tarp all night.
I’ve made a few PSK 5s and a whole bunch of PSK 2s, but that was the first time I really put one to a test. To tell you that I truly believe in them would be an understatement. Worked well and I can’t complain. Let’s put it this way, the situation wasn’t bad enough that I probably would’ve died, but I would have been very very uncomfortable that night. Having another way to start a fire was a really good thing.
After that trip, I truly believed in the product I was selling. Before that, I knew it was working; I had taken it out in the bush and played with it and tested it out. But, after that trip and my experience with it, I truly believed in it. That’s why when guys call me up and say, hey this is where I’m going and this is what I’m doing and I need a knife I can bet my ass on, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that mine will suffice. I have no doubt in the world. I wouldn’t give you anything I wouldn’t bet my own ass on.
Aaron: That’s quite an endorsement.
Phil: That’s just a simple fact. How could I give somebody a tool that they may end up depending their life on, not fully knowing that it will handle it? Quite frankly that would be like sending a soldier into battle with a cracked SAPI Plate. That’s just bad news. It’s just the way I do things. If it’s not right, it’s wrong and it don’t get out the door.
I have thrown away – I don’t even know how many knives, because there was something wrong with them. I would rather grind it down to a nub and toss it in a trash can then let it go out the door. I’ve had guys wanting to buy seconds numerous times. There are no seconds. If they’re not first, they’re destroyed. It’s costing a good bit of money in rejects, but it’s nothing I’ll ever change. I’ve gotten batches back from heat-treaters where they were off and either had to redo the heat-treating myself or destroy the whole batch. It gets expensive, but it only takes one knife. It only takes one knife out there to break and your reputation is ruined.
Aaron: I looked for bad reviews all over the Internet. I could not find a single bad thing said about your knives anywhere.
Phil: Thank you and if you ever do, please let me know. If somebody has a bad experience I want to make it right.
That reminds me. When it comes to my warranty I have a very simple and clear warranty and that’s I do not cover loss, theft, or user stupidity. Basically if you lose it, or somebody breaks into your truck or whatever, I’m sorry, but I am going to have to charge you for a new one. If you go out there and try to chop a rock or rip off a security door on an entry, that’s not what a knife is for. But, if you are out there, life happens. If something ever happens and you have one of my knives and it fails, you can rest assured that that’s going to be my top priority, to square that away. I haven’t had it happen yet. I want to keep it that way. If indeed it ever does happen, I will definitely get it taken care of immediately.
Another thing I’ll tell you is, for the amount of knives that I make and sell, you won’t see a lot of people on the Internet talking about them. There aren’t a lot of people out there on the forums that bring up my knives, show pictures of them, and brag about them. There’s some, but there’s not a lot. The reason why, is because most of them are field knives. You take them out into the woods and beat them up, get scratches on them; they’re not as cool to show on the Internet. That’s another thing people ask me, “Well how come people don’t show off your knives?” It’s because people use my knives. They don’t sit on the Internet all day playing on the forums. They get out and use them. I won’t say it’s a different clientele because it’s not. It’s just; they are looked upon a different way. They’re not fad knives. They’re not gadget knives. They’re Practical Survival Knives.
You can see the full line of Phil Rose knives by visiting his website: www.proseknives.com