Rockstead Higo JH ZDP-189

The Higo is a knife from Rockstead.  It fits the role of a high end, luxury EDC (“Every Day Carry”) or more commonly a collectible.  It has an over-all length of 8.5″ and weight of 4.6 oz.  It has a smaller iteration, the Hizen making the two models comparable to Chris Reeve Knive’s Sebenza in both weight and size.  Rocksteads have been discussed back and forth in the ‘is it worth it’ debate.  At around $750 USD for the Hizen or $1000 dollars for the Higo JH ZDP-189 as seen in this review, it isn’t surprising. Their highest end folders top off at around $2200 while their fixed blades can go for near to $4000.

Rockstead Higo JH ZDP-189

To consider this question, the knife has to be looked at in a couple of ways. Not only as a functional tool but also as an object of art, design and manufacturing. The concepts behind the work, materials and its design history should also be reflected on.

That being said, pragmatic thinkers likely won’t see great value in these knives. They would argue good design and value should also include accessibility, which blankets cost (affordability), convenience and availability. If accounted for, these points make the Higo incomplete since Rockstead hasn’t included them in their equation.  The company has instead turned its eyes toward performance and finish.  Because of this, the price and availability, along with some steel specific attributes can make a Rockstead too expensive to buy and impractical to independently maintain for most people.

Rockstead Higo JH ZDP-189

From a manufacturing standpoint the Higo is a pristine marriage of fit, finish and materials. The steel used is Hitachi metals ZPD-189, a powder metallurgy super steel. In some ways it’s similar to Yasugi Specialty Steel’s (a subsidiary of Hitachi metals) White No.1. This is another top shelf product, but targeted toward traditional hand forging. I draw the comparison because they both focus on a minimal, pure approach to the alloy and were exclusively designed for cutlery.

Hitachi White is alloyed with 1.255% to 1.35% carbon and has extremely low amounts of impurities, specifically sulfur which degrades the grain structure. ZDP 189 is alloyed with an impressive 3% carbon and 20% chromium through a powder metallurgy process.

Mirror Polished ZDP-189 Blade
A detail of the fine zero grind

Yasugi Specialty Steel designates White no.1 a modern Tamahagane (Jewel Steel), nodding to the conventions of the Japanese smiths of the past. Tamahagane was typically saved for the finest Samurai weaponry. I could speculate that ZDP-189 was designed with this notion in mind as well, but profits from the latest, greatest metallurgical techniques. A Tamahagane for the future so to speak, the next logical step forward in Hitachi’s cutlery steel product line. While White steel has been designed for hand work, I believe ZDP’s extreme properties are best leveraged by precision machinery.

After handling several Rockstead knives the mastery of their manufacturing process becomes apparent. Each knife is ground with the same, high precision techniques that yield a perfect mirror finish. The surface looks more like something you would see on a hard-drive platter or other high tech component. A Rockstead representative at Blade Show let me know that the last mirroring stage is achieved by vibration lapping. Vibra-lapping couples abrasive powders in a fluid suspension. This differs from the typical approach of having an abrasive impregnated or charged on a rotating wheel or belt. It’s typically seen in lapidary or precision glass manufacturing.

The entire process isn’t disclosed on the company website. They only state that they have developed specialty equipment for the manufacturing of their knives. I would assume that the majority of the shaping is produced via CNC. The bulk of their proprietary steps are likely in the finishing phase.

Rockstead Mirror Blade
A detail showing the difference in between the mirror finish and flats

Rockstead has embelished the grinds by contrasting the mirror finish with lightly bead blasted flats. They also do this on their YXR-7 models with an added tint difference created by a PVD (Physical Vapour Deposit). The coating also improves corrosion resistance since YXR-7 isn’t a stainless.

The Blade Pattern is sited as “Hon-Zukuri” (Base Style), a term that is usually swapped with Shinogi-Zukuri (Blade with Shinogi). Since Shinogi-Zukuri is usually referred to as the most common, base style there could be some confusion or debate regarding the naming convention. If you consider the two as the same, then both should have a Yokote. This is the line that signifies a change in grind angle between the main edge (Hasaki) and tip (Kissaki).

In this case the Higo’s blade could be argued to be Shobu-Zukuri. There are variations that are similar in grind and tip geometry but without the Yokote.

Blade Types
Shinogi/Hon-Zukuri with applicable terminology (top) Shobu-Zukuri (bottom)

In the Rockstead line, they differentiate Shinogi-Zukuri with the inclusion of a Yokote. The Shinogi however, does not refer to, nor is dependent on the Yokote. It is rather the line created where the grind and flats meet.

Stepping outside of its traditional inspirations the knife has a stylized fuller with a hole in one end. This gives it a somewhat animated appearance. It’s rumored that the feature is used to fasten the blade onto a fixture during manufacture. If that’s the case, it’s great that it has been tastefully integrated into the design.

Fuller
A detail of the stylized fuller

The cutting edge is nothing short of extraordinary. There really isn’t anything like it. That’s not to say that there aren’t knives as sharp, but it’s the combination of all the qualities that make it truly outstanding. While cutting there isn’t any tooth or drag. This is the result of the fine mirror traveling right up to the edge which is made possible by ZDP’s refined fine grain, the high hardness of 66.9 HRc and the grinding process.

The same reasons that make the blade exceptional also make it nearly impossible to maintain in its shipped state. There isn’t a hand skilled enough or a sharpener available that could seamlessly restore the knife’s mirrored edge. Well, not entirely true. There is one at the Rockstead factory and for 65$ they’ll sharpen it for you. Again this goes back to the design consideration of convenience. That’s not to say you can’t sharpen the Higo with success. I will when the time comes, but it’ll never look quite the same.

Handle Scale Pattern

The handle on this knife is, in my opinion the most understated of the Rockstead folders. The surface doesn’t have any Stingray (Same) inlays as with several of the company’s other offerings. Instead it has an wave like sculptin that reminds me of tidal sand patterns or a raked Japanese stone garden. A fine texture covers the entire surface providing a matted base for the black, hard anodized finish. I’ve seen these knives after use and the peaks take on an attractive glossy worn look. As a nice detail the inside surfaces of the handle are also cleanly executed showing off a holistic attention to detail.

Rockstead Higo

The construction is an open build that facilitates easy cleaning. The components are minimal, with only four fasteners. One is for the pivot, another two for the stand-off and steel lock bar insert, the last holding on the clip.  All of them have a black nickel plating, tying them into the tonality of the grip.

The primary material used is A2024 aluminum, branded Duraluminum. The alloy has copper added, increasing the strength to weight ratio and fatigue resistance. The fatigue resistance is important in particular, since the knife uses the Reeve integral lock which depends on the handle slab material for spring integrity. The spring is further fortified with a hidden over-travel stop that will prevent hyper-extending the lock arm which can potentially weaken its force. A hardened SDK 11 tool steel insert has also been added to the end of the lock creating a much harder interfacing surface (61 HRc) than the Duraluminum can provide. The combination of features along with proper geometry adds up to a perfect lockup that is still easy to disengage.

Duraluminum Frame Lock
The Duraluminum frame-lock and steel insert.

Deployment, like the lock is a smooth operation. The dual thumb studs are set high from the scales and there is a cut-out for right handed users to get a better purchase. The pivot has a bushing and uses phosphor bronze washers. The combination negates any lateral play in the mechanism making it feel secure throughout its motion.

Thumb Lugs
A detail of the thumb studs and jimping

The ergonomics of the knife are simple but effective for everyday cutting tasks. Adding to the traction there is jimping on the edge of the blade’s tang just after the thumb studs. This is carried onto the handle edges where its interval is less frequent and texture softer. The feature, which is more similar to file-work can be found just before the pommel on the inner and outer edges serving to help in a reverse grip. The angled pommel acts as a thumb rest when holding the knife this way. After the choil there is a run of jimping that will help when choking up on the blade for finer control.

Jimping

For carry the knife has a right handed, tip up pocket clip. A strong detent will keep the blade safely closed in this configuration. There is also a lanyard hole.

Rockstead Higo Lock and Clip Side

When everything is taken into account, I personally believe Rockstead knives, while expensive and not conceptually perfect, are fairly priced. In my mind they are a logical step forward in Japan’s rich cutlery history. By keeping ties to the past yet fully leveraging modern technologies, the company is probably creating the most interesting, new and distinctly Japanese knives available. Of course all of the fit, finish and function is there as well. The handle is perfectly machined, comfortable and tastefully designed. The pivot mechanism and lock are effortless and secure. The real star though is the blade, its mirror finish is unmatched by any knife I’ve seen or heard of. This precision also results in an incredible cutting edge and although not completely practical, it is very enjoyable to use. The sharpness has to be experienced to be appreciated. Even better so if the user has had a chance to comparatively test out a wide variety of knives. No matter what side of the fence you sit on, you can’t deny that Rocksteads have a unique and instantly recognizable design. This distinction in itself has an incredible value in the progressively, ever saturated folder market.

If you are looking to purchase a Rockstead Higo JH ZDP-189, please consider our friends at www.lamnia.fi who generously supplied the knife at a discount making this review possible.

Rockstead's paper sleeved balsa wood box includes the paperwork and adjustment tool
Rockstead’s paper sleeved balsa wood box includes the paperwork and adjustment tool

Specs

Overall Length: 8.425″ (214 mm)
Total weight: 4.6 oz (104 g)

Blade

Length: 3.54 (90 mm)
Thickness: .125″ (3.2 mm)
Steel: Zdp-189 66.9
Hardness: 66.9 HRc

Handle

Length: 5″ (127 mm)
A2024(Duralumin) Hard-anodized treatment
Lock Insert Steel: SKD11, HRc61
Tip up, right handed pocket clip

Made In Japan

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The Edge Observer

The Edge Observer is a site dedicated to knife reviews, primarily focusing on folding knives.

15 thoughts on “Rockstead Higo JH ZDP-189

  1. The pivot’s heads have a different shape, the protruding spine end looks quite alienated and is barely rounded.
    Guess I’ll have to wait for mkII.
    And a lottery win.^^

    1. If you haven’t, it would be good to hold and try one in person. Like any knife I’m sure there are things you can find you don’t like, but these are certainly a step above most in regards to fit, finish and function. Also, there are very few knives that can withstand the scrutiny of a 100mm macro lens… Thanks for reading!

  2. Can you clarify what you mean when you say the Higo is not “conceptually perfect?” Just talking about the price accessibility aspect?

    1. I’m primarily speaking to the price, accessibility and maintenance aspect in that comment, when considering the Higo as not only a collectible but as a viable, every day user.

  3. Beautiful knife. Love the music that I assume you wrote special for the review. I have to admit, the allure of these knives has only grown stronger after handling them in person. Top notch all around!

    1. Definitely something best held and used before a decision is made on the quality of these knives. I did write the music for this one…. Thanks for checking out the review!

  4. Can you recommend any other higo no kami-style knives out there? All I ever see are the inexpensive (cheap?) ones on Amazon/Ebay. The Boker Kwaiken and CRKT Heiho are interesting but are maybe a *little* too different from the original reference material.

  5. I knew I had to have one after seeing the review months ago. The aesthetic of handles is what I find most unique in this design, and most appealing. I looked for months for a good used specimen to purchase around 700, and finally succeeded with a trade deal. The knife has the gravitas and uniqueness to both stand out and belong in a high end folding knife collection.

  6. Great review and made me have one Higo.Truly one of a kind knives.Compares to nothing out there.Sorry custom knife lovers but Higo stands alone on top.Cheers.

    1. It truly is an exceptional knife, as are all the Rocksteads I’ve handled. Thanks for checking out the review!

  7. What a great review, very detailed and grabbing my attention.
    it made me want one, but just a little bit smaller in size.
    So i came about to check out and order the Hizen model.
    what a great little folder, perfect in every way.
    As good as the video is, handling the knife in person is still something else.
    Fun fact for me, my Hizen bears the same serial number as the Higo model in your video.

    Ray,

    the Netherlands

      1. So is the knife in the video yours? Sure is sweet looking.
        i would love to have the Higo as well, but for every day carry it would be just a little to big and heavy.
        Like a regular Sebenza, it’s a fine knife, but carrying it around in my pocket it would be noticably there.
        When i bought a small Sebenza it made a better carry and i really like everything about that knife except for the S35VN steel, i’m just not that impressed with it.
        That’s what finally made me search for something similar but with a much harder steel blade.
        The edge on this thing is for lack of a better word just perfect.
        Makes me wonder about their YXR7 steel as well.

        Ray

        1. Hi Ray,

          Yea, this is my Higo. It’s amazing for light work but I find the edge to be delicate. I also have a TEI-S in YXR-7. It’s insanely well made as well but for me, I prefer a stainless. I’ve had a small Sebenza for a while. I’d agree that it’s a bit plain in both material and aesthetics these days. That said it’s a dependable classic that makes for a great user.

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