Jim Burke, a well-known custom maker with a high demand for his knives, has partnered with friend Lee Nottingham, a master machinist, to make CNC-machined “production” versions of one of his popular custom knives. At first, the idea seems so simple, so obvious, that you ask yourself, “Why aren’t all custom makers doing the same thing?” And then you talk to Jim and Lee, and you discover that it took a good year to get the production models right. Then you recall everything you learned about machining and manufacturing way back when, and you realize that the task is not as easy as it might seem. You have to have the drawings just right, and they have to be compatible with the CNC machines; you have to tweak the design so that it’s repeatable and manufacturable on the machines you’re using; you have to engineer the tolerances so that every knife comes out of high quality and works without individual hand fitting. This is hard stuff. You have to have done more than maybe rebuild a car engine once or twice to have this level of professional machining ability. That’s why everyone doesn’t do it!
Copying The Rockstar
The Jim Burke production Rockstar is an exact copy of an earlier, now retired, limited-production custom knife, and is the first production knife out of the gates from Jim and Lee, with more planned. Designed as a tactical/utility knife, it meets that mission spot on. Its 3-1/8-inch blade is wide at 1-3/16 inch, with a flat primary grind (on the base model) that goes halfway up the knife (a hollow grind is also an option). The 154CPM blade has a swedge grind that creates the optical illusion of a clip-point while, in fact, the top tip line is straight. (Chad Nichols’ stainless Damascus is a blade option, too.) This illusion though, coupled with the wide blade, gives the Rockstar a distinctive “pocket Bowie” kind of look. The simple shape of the titanium frame-locking handle keeps your focus on the blade profile, with the overall effect that your eyes are drawn to the blade and its distinctive Bowie-like appearance.
The open-back frame consists of two hefty 1/8-inch titanium slabs, with either G10 or titanium backspacer. Two Torx screws plus the pivot pin hold the unit together (the 440C pivot pin is made by Lee, and not purchased). The pivot construction is Teflon-washer based, while blade lock-up is accomplished using the Bob Terzuola designed “safety lock,” which makes a radius cut on the blade tang so that the tang and the locking arm always make tight contact, despite wear and tear on the knife. The frame is available in different colors and texture patterns, and the primary grind section of the blade can be had smooth or with vertical tooling marks.
Hand Sharpened By Burke
Jim makes only custom knives, while Lee makes the production models. Nonetheless, Jim sharpens and inspects every Burke production knife, so his hands are still involved in working every knife with his name on it. Finishing out the Rockstar is a futuristic-looking pocket clip with the word “Rockstar” etched into it.
When you hold the Rockstar, the first thing you notice about it is that it’s very comfortable in the hand; it just “sets” right there. The Rockstar’s balance is lively, the handle conforms to the hand with no uncomfortable areas, the orientation is ideal for using, and the blade is just the right working length. If you have any affinity for knives, you’ll find that the opened Rockstar in your hand makes you want to go do something with it.
The blade comes quite sharp, easily cutting slivers of free-hanging paper and shaving hair. It will sever a piece of hay with just a little wrist snap. The factory edge cut cardboard as effortlessly as it’s possible to do with a thickish 1/8-inch blade and cut nice-sized slivers of hard red oak. It cut soft wood with almost no effort, but as expected, the smooth factory edge slid over manila rope. After giving the Rockstar’s edge a re-hone on the gray rods of a Spyderco TriAngle sharpener, it then bit into the 5/8-inch manila rope and severed it in three passes (which is quite good, since the blade length is usually the limiting factor in this test). Stabbing the Rockstar into a tight cardboard stack, it surprised me by penetrating up to the frame with a decent, but hardly full power, thrust on my part.
Rock Solid Lock-Up
Lock-up was definitely good, as whacking the spine of the opened blade on a workbench didn’t defeat it. The opening stud is properly positioned for an average-size hand like mine to follow the stud all the way through the opening arc. Some knives have clips that can either get in the way as you work with the knife or feel painful as you do so, or both, but the Rockstar’s unique clip is hardly noticeable as you grasp, manipulate and work with the knife.
I carried this knife for a month before writing this, and most of the work I found for it involved cutting wood: dimension lumber, green branches, and dead wood. The Rockstar’s edge held without re-honing on these non-abrasive mediums, and the edge bit well and cut well. Perhaps even more important, the knife worked well in my hand. The flat handle gave me good leverage and a firm grip on the edge with both push cuts and draw cuts (and remember, these handles are metal). The wide blade kept the knife tracking a straight line, one reason I like wide blades on working folders. In regards to the defensive use of this knife and without getting graphic, the balance is good and the blade length meets the minimum that’s easy to work with. Also, recall that the blade easily and deeply penetrates substances much more difficult than any defensive use of the knife would entail. I had no hesitation in loaning it to an undercover officer one night when he was heading out “in role” and he’d forgotten to bring a knife of his own to work (although I did worry about getting it back!).
The Rockstar confirms for me that Jim Burke is one of those guys that really knows knives—it’s in the way it feels, the way it moves, the tactile feedback you get while using it and, of course, the way it cuts material. Anyone (God forbid, even me!) can blank out a blade, sharpen it and affix it to a handle. That is to say, the recipe for making a folder is well known and the parts for it are widely available. Likewise, anyone can buy the ingredients for a gourmet meal and can find a recipe for one in a book, but not everyone can take those ingredients and make a great meal. In the same vein, it takes a certain something, usually called “talent,” to make a great knife. Jim’s got it, and his production Rockstar is a great little working bulldog, in my book.
The price for the Rockstar is $300 for the base model, with the various options costing a bit more.