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Zeroed in: Sal Glesser

Spyderco Knives Founder Sal Glesser Discusses How He Took a Fledgling Company From the Back of a Truck to One of the Most Respected Names in the Business

Photos courtesy Spyderco

Sal Glesser is president and founder of Spyderco Knives. He’s a modern success story and a portrait of the American Dream. Coming from humble beginnings, he and his wife, Gail, built their company from the ground up with little more than determination and a love for knives. What started out in a bread truck became a multimillion-dollar manufacturer and a leader in the blade industry.

Spyderco could be said to be the granddaddy of the modern EDC or tactical knife. The features we have come to associate with a tactical folder, the pocket clip, serrations, and thumb openers, were first introduced by Spyderco Knives. Often criticized for their looks, but respected for their simplicity, reliability, and ergonomics, Spyderco has a long-standing reputation of function over beauty.

RECOIL: Can you tell us a little bit about how Spyderco got started?
Sal Glesser: My wife and I were living in Northern California when we decided to go into business together. Technically, we were homeless. We were living in a converted bread delivery truck that was about 12 feet long, and we had all our equipment in a Volkswagen that we towed behind the truck. My wife Gail and I, and our 2-year-old daughter, left California with about $250 to build products and sell them at shows and fairs. Our first show was in Boston, so we had a long way to go. Then, we just plodded along for the next four years.

We had to settle down somewhere when our daughter started school in 1978, so we settled in Golden, Colorado, for a variety of reasons. We opened up a little shop, which later became a bigger shop. Eventually we started a factory, and now we’re a full-blown knife manufacturing company. We make knives in Golden where we have a pretty sophisticated facility, and we also work with a couple of knife-making companies in Japan, a couple in Italy, a couple in Taiwan, and a few in China. We have knives coming in from all over the place. We also ship to 65 countries, so we have knives going out as well. So, I guess that would be the overall picture of our company.

Spyderco’s first company “headquarters” was a converted bread truck and a Volkswagen Bug.

Where did the name Spyderco come from?
SG: It was kind of a two-tiered thing. I was always a sports car junkie when I was a kid. My wife and I decided we were going to focus on high-performance products, and high-performance racing cars were often referred to as “Spyders.” Porsche, Fiat, and Ferrari were just a few companies that made “Spyders.” Some of them even spelled it “S-P-Y,” which we decided to do. Also, one of the first products that we manufactured was a product called the Portable Hand. It was a fixturing device used in electronics. We build it on the road, usually in campgrounds, by welding parts together. It looked kind of like a stainless steel spider. Those two things inspired us to pick the name. Spyder was originally Spyder Company, then it became Spyderco. It raises an eyebrow, but the most important thing about a company name is that people remember it. There were a few times when we thought about changing the name, but we decided to stick with it.

One of your first products was a knife sharpener called the Sharpmaker, is that correct?
SG: We played around with a few other products before that, but the Sharpmaker was one of our first products in the knife industry. We invented and patented the Sharpmaker and set up manufacturing of parts in various places in the country. Those parts were shipped to us wherever we happened to be traveling and working, and we would produce them on the road. Once we settled in Colorado, my wife would produce the sharpeners in our trailer, then ship them to me as I was traveling from show to show.

The earliest prototype of Spyderco’s revolutionary Trademark Round Hole, which pioneered one-hand manual-opening folders.

What led you into the knife industry?
SG: Well, from the time I was a kid, I’d always been a knife junkie. I was always into art, and I was always into sculpture. When Gail and I were playing around with a variety of different products, we decided that the knife industry would probably be a good fit for us, because performance did make a difference and I knew quite a bit about it. We started out with sharpeners, making things sharp, and teaching other people how to make things sharp. Then in 1981, we started making knives with the help of Al Mar and our Japanese manufacturer.

Going from there, we would come up with ideas, and then market and patent them. We were the first company to put a hole opener in a blade. In 1981, we introduced a knife that was a hole opener, and it had a clip on the bolster, which had never been done in a production knife. Then in 1982, we introduced serrated edges because our sharpener could sharpen them, and they performed significantly better than the knives that were available at the time.

In May 2015, company founders Sal and Gail Glesser unveiled Spyderco’s new U.S. factory, which significantly enhanced its manufacturing capacity. In classic style, Sal cut the ribbon with an iconic Spyderco Military model.

Spyderco is widely recognized as the pioneer of the tactical folder. As you already mentioned, you were the first to put a hole opener and pocket clip on a production knife. What inspired you to put those features on a knife?
SG: Once we decided that we were in the knife business, we were working long hours making sharpeners. I was usually in the office in the evenings while Gail was with the kids. As a young man, I learned how to open a knife with one hand. It’s a skill that one can learn, but there is a bit of a learning curve. My thought was to do something to the knife itself that would allow anyone to open the knife with one hand. I would spend some of those late nights working on solutions.

I started out by adding things to the blade, studs, and discs, and things like that that could be used to gain purchase, but they usually got in the way of sharpening or putting it in and out of the pocket. Then, I tried roughing up the blade to get traction that way. The next thing was to create a dent in the blade, so the fleshy part of the thumb could be used to push up alongside the edge of the dent. A dent on both sides of a thin blade becomes a hole, and that’s how we ended up with a hole.

I had a keychain that an artist had made some years before. It was a little frog that sat at the top of the pocket, and the keys attached to a chain and a ring that were connected to the frog. I found it convenient to be able to access my keys by pulling on that frog, and I thought that would be a better solution for a pocket knife than a sheath on a belt or the knife itself in the bottom of a pocket.

We worked on those two concepts for a while. Eventually, we came up with a design and patented those features. We started producing them in Japan in 1981. We tried to use Al Mar standards, which were the highest standard of knives on the market at that time. We worked with Al Mar’s maker and used Al Mar’s locking system. It was kind of a group effort.

The early knives didn’t sell well. They were too strange. The dealers didn’t want to carry them. We mostly sold our knives consumer-direct at shows and fairs with a few agents that we called “Road Warriors.” We did that for probably five or six years into the late ’80s until dealers started buying our knives because customers were asking for them.

Sal showing off the ribbon-cutting knife to the future of the company, his grandson.

It’s interesting that you mentioned that people thought your knives were strange looking. Do you commonly hear that Spyderco knives are ugly?
SG: Well, I was told the word that was coined to describe our knives was fugly. I guess that stood for f-ing ugly. That was OK by us because our knives were all about function. They were good materials, they were very sharp, they would open with one hand, and they would clip to the top of your pocket. Plus, the early knives were all stainless, so there was very little maintenance. It was all about having a knife that you could pull out of your pocket, open it, cut what you needed to cut, close it up, put it away with one hand, and get on with your business.

I guess at the time, most knife sales were based on appearance, but that was not a concern of ours, because we were trying to push function. We do make some pretty knives, because we have collectors out there and they like for us to create the pretty knives. We use collaborators so we can get variety and eye appeal. But in the end, most of my knives are about function.

How does the Spyder Hole Opener stack up against the other thumb openers that have come about since its inception?
SG: I think it’s one of the more practical designs. In the beginning, people thought of it as a “manual switchblade” and bought our knives for that reason, but that wasn’t why we created it. I guess the next trend for one-handed opening was assisted openers. They were a little closer to a switchblade. Now flippers are the current trend. A lot of people like that instant blade that just kind of appears.

Can you tell us about your design process?
SG: When it comes to the actual knife materials and the creating of knives, I mostly look at its function. What is this knife going to do, and what does it have to do well? I’ll design with those things in mind. If it has a size limitation, then I have that restriction. If it has a price limitation, then I have that parameter to work around. When we start with a design, usually it’s my son and I, we’ll create a design on paper with a goal in mind of what it’s supposed to do, then we’ll make a variety of prototypes out of softer materials. Once we’ve decided that we have the ergonomics we like and the opening and closing functions are working, then we’ll start selecting materials or locks to be able to make working prototypes. Sometimes make a lot of them until the knife is right. We don’t start tooling up until everything is right.

We have a wide variety of knives that are created to provide solutions to a wide variety of problems, whether you’re cutting open boxes in a warehouse or cutting rope 90 feet underwater. We’ve gone into saltwater knives, we’ve gone into defensive knives, we’ve created knives for special organizations, we make automatic knives for military and law enforcement, and we make small pocket knives that are kind of “politically correct.” Most of our designs are meant to meet specific markets.

Collaboration designs, on the other hand, are a lot different. They’re custom knifemakers and they have their own ideas about what works well, so it gives us a lot of variety.

Spyderco’s early models were unconventional, but supremely functional. They ultimately defined the form of the modern tactical folding knife.

Speaking of collaborations, Spyderco has done a lot of collaborations with different knifemakers and edged weapons specialists. Can you tell us about some of the more notable ones and maybe some of your personal favorites?
SG: I don’t really have favorites. I always look at them like steel, you know, it’s all good, just different. The first collaboration was with Bob Terzuola. I was a member of the Knifemaker’s Guild, and I used to see Bob at the Guild shows and several other shows that we worked together. He used to talk about how my knives were really ugly and how he could do a much better job designing one. I told him if he could, I would make it. Well, he did, and I made it.

The second collaboration was with Wayne Goddard. After a while we ended up with quite a few of the custom makers. I needed some of the big names to work with, because that gave us a little more horsepower. I knew a lot about knifemakers and knifemaking, and I also knew a lot about steel. Back then, steel was still a mystery. People used 440C or carbon steel for their custom knives, but by working with guys in the Guild, I started to learn more about the sophisticated steels. Then as I got more involved in steels, I learned how to forge, I learned how to shave with a straight razor, just a lot of skills that I thought would help me understand the cut.

Some of our collaborations were very strange. Some of them did very well, some of them not so well. We have a few people who we work with very regularly.

Ed Schempp is the guy I go to when I want to create an ethnic series knife. With an ethnic series knife, we take the concept of a geographic location somewhere in time and find out the advantages of their blade design, and then create an everyday-carry folding knife that is based on the spirit of that design. Ed Schemp is very good at that. He’ll study the blade, he’ll study the design and its purpose, and he’ll continue until he comes up with an ethnic series knife that meets the criteria. I’ve designed a few myself, but most of them come from Ed.

My son, Eric, handles most of the collaborations now. He frequents the knife shows, and we get people that send us designs probably twice a week, so they’re always coming from somewhere. Some of our collaborations were specifically designed for martial blade-craft. We have some that were made for cutting ropes off whales. It just depends on where the need is and whether we can serve that function.

Spyderco was the first production knife company to do design collaborations with custom knifemakers. Here, Sal discusses one such collaboration with noted knifemaker Jot Singh Khalsa.

How many models do you currently have in production?
SG: Probably 50 or 60 models, but with variations that number increases significantly. We might make one model in three different steels, or handle colors, or handle materials. Plus, we have plain edges and serrated edges. Our catalog is over 100 pages. You can go onto spyderco.com and download our catalog. That will give you an idea of the kind of variety and quantity of designs we offer.

Do you have any new models in the works?
SG: [Laughs] We introduce about 20 to 30 knives a year. Just in the last few weeks we’ve introduced a few. We have a new program we’re starting in January where we’re not going to talk about the new models until they’re ready. We might give some hints, but in the past, we’ve always talked about them and shared pictures, and had private showings. The problem with that is the dealers start taking pre-orders, and if we run into a glitch and it takes six months longer to get to the market than expected, then a lot of people get upset. Our new reveal process is to wait until we have knives on the shelf, ready to ship, before we tell people they exist. We probably have another 30 designs that we’re going to release in 2019.

One good place to find out a lot about Spyderco is on our forum. We’ve been doing forums for over 20 years. We have people that are interested in our company and our products, so the discussions are pretty deep. Some of those guys have been around on there for 20 years. We have metallurgists and knifemakers that hang out, some are just collectors, and some are just interested people who can’t even afford to buy our knives.

Speaking of affordability, you also have the Byrd brand that some people might find more in line with their budgets.
SG: Yes, the Byrd brand is a lower cost, more affordable brand of knives. We also make a few Spyderco knives in China, which are more expensive than the Byrd and a little better quality, but still affordable. Most of our more affordable knives have to be made in China. The dollar value to the yuan is great, so people can get a knife that costs a lot less than it would if it were made anywhere else.

How do you oversee quality control with your products that are made overseas?
SG: Well, everything comes to Golden. We have our own quality control. Wherever it’s built, it still comes to our facility in Golden. We have a very well-trained QC staff. Whether they’re coming in from Japan, Italy, Taiwan, or China, they’re all checked by our team in Golden. Quality is a big issue. Our foreign manufacturers don’t always get everything right, either. We’ve thrown away whole shipments.

Can you tell us about some of the patents that you hold and maybe some of the awards that Spyderco has received over the years?
SG: We’ve been given awards for product. We’ve won awards at Blade Show. We’ve been given awards by various military and law enforcement agencies. We’ve even been given awards for being a good company to work for. There are contests all year from organizations that try to find the best companies to work for, and we’ve won that several times. We take really good care of our people.

We have a lot of patents and trademarks. Some of them are mine, some are Eric’s, some are collaborations. We also have several in foreign countries. We’re talking about 100 trademarks and patents probably, and we’re always getting new ones. We just got two new trademarks a couple of weeks ago. It’s an ongoing process.

We compete heavily, and we realize it’s a competitive industry. There are a lot of good players out there — Kershaw, Benchmade, Columbia River, Chris Reeves, Cold Steel — these guys have been around a long time, they know what they’re doing, they know the market, and it’s like we’re all cars on a racetrack. You don’t want to be the only car on the track. That’s no fun. We enjoy the competition, and we have a healthy respect for each other. We’re always trying to create something new or better.

We’ll check with each other to see if something we’re doing could possibly be a problem, and we sort it out. Emerson created his opener; we make half-a-dozen versions using Emerson openers, and we pay Ernie a royalty on that. You know, it’s an honor game.

The knife community seems kinda like a brotherhood. There’s a healthy competition, but at the same time, knifemakers are willing to work together and exchange information.
SG: It’s a pretty mystical community. Up until the Internet came along, that was the only way you could get information. It’s closely held information, and there are very few hard and fast rules. When we discuss steel on the forum, the answer is always, “All good, just different.” Every steel was created to be better at something. There’s always a tradeoff. The one that has good edge retention might have poor corrosion resistance or lack in toughness. All these different things in the knife industry are broad, because knives have been around for a long time. Not only do you have history, geography, and different styles and functions, but you also have different materials. There are probably 50 different blade steels that are in use, and probably 50 different materials that are used for handles and sheaths.

The doorway into the knife community is a relatively small door, but it opens into a huge arena. You can never really learn it all, there’s just too much. There’s edge geometry, grinding, finishing, fit, and finish, etc. Maybe you can become an expert in one of those areas, but you can never be an expert at everything.

We’ve talked a lot about Spyderco knives, but what was the first knife you ever owned?
SG: My first knife? Well, I used to sharpen nails on the sidewalk, but my first real knife was a little brass army knife that my dad gave to me when he came back from Europe during WWII. It was a little two-bladed pin knife, and I cherished it. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way I lost it. That was where my interest was, though. Little kids and knives are a difficult thing. As I got older, I was able to get more knives. I’ve been around a long time. I’m 77 years old. I was still buying switchblades at the local drug stores when they were legal. I’ve always been a collector, and my interest in knives has led me to want to learn as much as I can about them. It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion.

What does Spyderco’s future look like?
SG: My son has been running the company now for a few years. We’ve had a seamless transition into our second generation. Our culture is special, and our place in the knife industry is special. We’ll just continue to try to develop that.

Sal Glesser's EDC

Glasses, for close-up work
> Challenge coins, which he gives out everywhere he goes to show appreciation to law enforcement officers and military personnel
> Streamlight ProTac 2L flashlight
> Spyderco Police 4 Lightweight prototype (large knife)
> Keys, ground down to reduce weight and fit the pocket better
> Loupe magnifier, for examining knife edges and other small details
> Byrd Starling (small knife)

Sal Glesser with steel from the World Trade Center, on permanent display in the company store. Spyderco donated many knives to Sept. 11 first responders and actively supports many military, law enforcement, and other charities.

Sal Glesser

Age: 77
Hometown: Evergreen
Wife: Gail
Children: Two
Favorite quote: Persistence is king. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. There is no substitute for performance.
Favorite book: I have many.
Favorite movie: I have many.
Favorite knife: I don’t have a favorite. They’re all good, just different.
Dream car: Most high performance.
URL: spyderco.com


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