Designing from the Driver’s Seat: Get to Know Knifemaker Princeton Wong

Driven to Be Different

There’s something special going on inside an old auto shop in Houston, Texas. Step inside the front office of Prince Customs and you find a melange of desktop hardware, including a tool presetter and two 3D printers with their associated curing and cleaning chambers. An inline-six cylinder head sits on a shelf in the corner. Framed prints of comic-book-style street race scenes and Blade Magazine covers adorn the walls. It’s an eclectic mix, but there’s a palpable sense of purpose to everything.

Open the door to the main shop floor and you enter an expansive maze of much larger machines. It’s a fabricator’s playground, complete with a five-axis waterjet the size of a Manhattan apartment and something called a DMP 70 CNC mill that looks like it was pulled straight from the set of a science fiction movie. And there in the back, perched high above the floor on a lift, you spot another type of machine, one designed not to cut but to carve: a heavily-modified blue 1996 Porsche 993, the last of the air-cooled 911s.

Unfortunately, the turbocharged Porsche isn’t running at the moment. No matter—the 1970 Nissan Skyline underneath it is. The garage door lurches open and, as sunlight spills onto the cement floor, the Hakosuka roars to life. At the wheel is custom knifemaker and fabricator Princeton Wong, who brought the cherished right-hand-drive import home after a two-year stint in Japan. Quite the souvenir.

Princeton, who was working as a graphic designer at the time, had followed his wife, Mimi, overseas when she received a job offer after finishing her degree in neuroscience. “I wanted to support her. I said I’d work remotely if I had to,” Princeton recalls. But he did have one stipulation: “I was going to pick up a vintage car.”

There's a real mechanical elegance with folders; the action of deploying the blade, the sounds that you get. Like in older cars, you feel all the analog movements, you hear the clicks and clacks.

Engineering an Experience

The Skyline represents a type of pure mechanical bliss you don’t get in a modern vehicle. There’s no computer to smooth out the throttle input, no electronic traction control, no power steering or anti-lock brakes. It requires focus, precision, and mindfulness to drive. On the streets of Houston, it turns heads for two reasons: it piques the curiosity of people who don’t know what it is, and it elicits an almost childlike level of excitement from those who do.

That’s not unlike Princeton’s custom knives; their beautiful designs and mechanical precision are captivating to enthusiasts and novices alike. “There's a real mechanical elegance with folders; the action of deploying the blade, the sounds that you get. Like in older cars, you feel all the analog movements, you hear the clicks and clacks,” he says.

His knives stand out in part thanks to his refusal to follow trends or allow himself to be too heavily influenced by any one knifemaker or style. As in graphic design, he prefers to start with a blank page. “Beginning with less allows me to create an unrestrained expression of beauty or mechanical purity,” he says. “And I perceive it as much more validating when something like that is accepted.”

And fortunately, his knives have indeed been accepted. A relative newcomer to the knife world, Princeton showed his first custom at Blade Show in 2018. But when he registered for the show, he had never actually made a knife.

When I put pressure on myself, I find that’s when I tend to do my best work,

Performing under Pressure

What he did have was plenty of experience in metal fabrication, mostly in designing and manufacturing performance auto parts, and a fascination with knives that had been instilled in him from an early age thanks to his exposure to martial arts. When building up his shop, he had consciously selected equipment that could scale to applications outside the automotive world.

So, two months before the show, Princeton finally set out to make his knife. He arrived at Blade Show with 12 examples of the Daruma, an elegant, meticulously detailed folder with an organic, wing-like shape. It was well received not just because of its looks, but its exacting machining and mechanical perfection. It earned a write-up in Blade Magazine and went on to win Best Tactical Folder from Knifemakers Guild in 2022. By then, Princeton had already won Most Innovative Design at ICCE Show and Best New Maker at Blade Show with a second design, the Fion.

You wouldn't be alone in feeling dumbfounded by someone coming out of nowhere and winning so much acclaim so early in their career. But far from a fluke, the Daruma was something Princeton had been building toward for years. Knifemaking brought together all of his skills: mechanical engineering, fabrication, and design. Apparently, the only other thing he needed was a deadline. “When I put pressure on myself, I find that’s when I tend to do my best work,” he says.

That doesn’t just go for knives. “I signed up for a triathlon when I was in my twenties because I didn't know how to swim.” He found himself diving into the competition just months later.

Focused on the Road Ahead

In speaking with those who know him, you come to realize there’s an indescribable quality that gives Princeton that ability to exceed expectations on the first try. “You can always tell his brain's working nonstop,” says friend Jason Herrera. Years ago, Jason was the one who introduced Princeton to professional fabrication, teaching him how to weld in his auto shop. (He’s the other half of the equation behind Princeton’s modified 911, which they built together.) He says Princeton picked it up immediately and just ran with it. “Something that would take the average human being weeks to come up with, he’ll need it this morning and he just makes it,” Jason says. “And he’s humble about it. I’d be beating my chest if I could do this kind of stuff.”

That initial challenge of creating something new that I haven’t done before is extremely exciting. I’ll spend months not sleeping because of that.

He may be humble, but Princeton is always on the move, always ready to race around the next hairpin. “That initial challenge of creating something new that I haven’t done before is extremely exciting,” he says. “I’ll spend months not sleeping because of that.” He takes on all manner of one-off projects in his shop for a variety of clients, one of the more interesting ones being custom concrete tile molds and a huge waterjet-cut metal plate for The Rice Box, a Houston-area Chinese food chain with a heavy Blade Runner influence. The wall tiles feature the restaurant’s logo, the metal plate incorporates ornate cutouts of mythical creatures, backlit by red neon.

Forging a Partnership

Princeton’s first releases with CRKT are the Fial™ and the Nucleus – both based on his award-winning customs. The Fial™ is a folding knife and wine opener in one, where the corkscrew is completely hidden when closed rather than protruding past the rear of the handle, as is common in other similar tools. Designing a folding knife is already challenging, “but if you're trying to fit other things in there, and keep it beautiful, you have much less room to work with,” he says. “I was trying to cram a corkscrew into the profile of a pocket knife while maintaining a blade ratio that actually looked correct. That was pretty tough to package it all in a way that was aesthetically pleasing.

The Nucleus is heavily inspired by Princeton’s love of Japanese anime, specifically the TV show Mobile Suit Gundam. Unlike any of his other custom folding knives, the Nucleus has aggressive angles that carve the profile of a stealth fighter, reminiscent of Gundam robots. Princeton designed the bolsters to be identical on both sides of the knife, cleverly hiding the frame lock bar and adding to the sharp, futuristic aesthetic.

Now with two children, ages 6 and 3, perhaps the most impressive feat of all is that Princeton finds a way to balance his pressure-cooker work ethic with a satisfying family life. Mimi says that fatherhood has provided him the escape from work that he needs, a scheduled time to decompress and collect himself. He’s home every evening and there for the weekend routines, even “if he may go work on more designs after the kids are in bed,” she says. Mimi also recently convinced him to join her for Yoga every Sunday. “We go and just de-stress with a downward dog and we have a good time,” she laughs.

So after cars, knives, and all manner of fabrication projects, what could possibly be next? “Watches,” says Princeton. “I love mechanical watches, for the same reasons I love all these other mechanical things. I’m fascinated by all the movements and little gears.”

He doesn’t have the machinery (yet) to manufacture the miniature components of a watch, but it’s only a matter of time. The gears are already turning.

WatchPrinceton's Story

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