Communicating through Design: Get to Know Joe Caswell
Spend five minutes with CRKT knife designer Joe Caswell and you’ll learn to see the world differently. “What’s more impressive?” he asks rhetorically. “A chess master, or someone who can beat anyone at tic-tac-toe?”
Joe finds opportunities for improvement everywhere he looks and approaches his work as if he never heard the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You see this philosophy expressed in his groundbreaking designs that combine complex functionality with utterly simple ease of use, such as the Provoke®, a radical reenvisioning of the folding karambit that improved both deployment speed and safety.
“I don’t have any interest in making something that’s already been done.”
You also see it in how he adapted his garage to fit a CNC mill, requiring a section of the ceiling to be lifted almost to the point of protruding through the floor above. You see it in his home, which he had remodeled from the studs, or in his Harley Davidson, which he heavily modified to corner more like a racing bike.
In whatever he does, Joe is always striving for perfection. And in knives, he’s made a name for himself solving problems that others don’t see. He studies the function of a product closely to understand how it works and where it falls short, listens intently to the people who use it, and then pours years of his life into improving it. The results are wildly inventive.
As he puts it, “I don’t have any interest in making something that’s already been done.”
In an industry as mature as this one, that can be a challenge in its own right. Folding knives, not unlike tic-tac-toe, are inherently simple. The rails guiding innovation are firm. And yet, Joe continues to devise out-of-the-box strategies that win every time.
As a child, Joe already showed little interest in walking the well-tread path.In an eighth grade shop class, he got permission to build a crossbow, drawing inspiration for the design from a book of medieval weaponry he found in the school library. His teacher didn’t expect it to actually work, but the entire school would soon learn that it worked a little too well when Joe took his freshly assembled crossbow to a PE archery segment.
“The arrow went right through the target and flew out into the field behind it,” Joe recalls. He would not be allowed a second shot.
Unknown to him, the reputation he earned from this incident followed him into high school, where his next shop teacher told him flatly on day one, “You’re not making a crossbow.”
But if this story paints a picture of a devil-may-care rebel, you’d be mistaken. The young Joe was always careful to get permission for his projects and explain to teachers exactly what he planned to do. He wanted to find the limits, but never exceed them. He was—and is—carefully calculated in his approach to design and engineering.
This is exactly why his concepts today take years to develop—and why they always smash right through the target when he delivers.
“The Provoke sat on my desk in popsicle stick form for a long time,” he remembers. It would be two years before it was ready for its public debut. When he finally launched the initial version on Kickstarter, it earned over $350,000 in pledges. Since coming on board with CRKT, Joe has turned out several versions of the Provoke, including the highly requested Trainer and a new EDC version which trades the curved karambit blade for a more approachable drop point.
“There’s no mental state at all, I’ve been doing it too long. It’s visceral, intuitive, and too fast to think.”
Joe made many stops along the way from crossbows to knives, but he was always creating. After high school, he landed a full-time job as a journalist at a motorcycle magazine (he still rides, but says these days he prefers Disneyland trips in a car with his family to carving through a canyon on two wheels). When he later went freelance, he picked up some hobbies in his spare time. First, it was reverse-engineering renaissance-era wheellock pistols. Next, forging pattern-welded Viking swords.
But the one that stuck was fencing. Joe fell in love with the sport immediately and, like all of his other projects, dove headfirst into it with an obsessive level of commitment. For years he competed regularly, and he still makes it to his local fencing gym once a week.
“There’s no mental state at all,” Joe says of fencing. “I’ve been doing it too long. It’s visceral, intuitive, and too fast to think.”
This is almost the opposite of what you’d expect to hear from someone known for being highly detail-oriented and a bit of a mad scientist. But if the Joe Caswell you get in his garage shop is the engineer, the one you find at the fencing academy, decked out head to toe in protective gear, is the artist. It is here that the rational brain must give way to the intuitive. Moves are anticipated based on nearly imperceptible cues. Split-second decisions need to be automatic.
The all-or-nothing nature of Joe’s personality that made him successful in fencing would eventually translate well to knife design. “There’s a technique Ken Onion taught me,” Joe says, referencing the legendary knifemaker. “When you have somewhere you want to go, something you admire, immerse yourself in the images, literature, and everything relating to that world.”
While Ken’s words may have formalized it, Joe had been doing exactly this since he picked up that medieval arms book in his school library so many years ago.
While the technical nature of Joe’s work is clear, there’s another aspect that doesn’t come through on paper. The products he makes are highly personal. People connect to them on an emotional level, beyond their basic need for a functional tool.
“I have an affinity for things people have on them every day, that tell the story of who they are.” It’s here that Joe pauses, realizing he’s uncovered a thread that winds through the timeline of all his various projects. “They’re all about communication.” Journalism, obviously, but even fencing is a conversation between two people, he says, communicating not with words but with movement. His wheellock pistols and pattern-welded swords communicate stories from history.
When the Provoke® launched, its story wowed people. It proved that innovation was still very much alive in the knife world. It was otherworldly in appearance, yet felt immediately familiar in the hand. Perhaps Joe was less mad scientist and more magician.
It also created a challenge. With the bar set so high, Joe’s current and future projects have much to live up to. But something tells us that, when he’s ready to share them, we’ll be wowed all over again.
Looking back, one can imagine that a small change at any number of moments in Joe’s life could have led him down a different path—where, we don’t doubt, he would have been equally successful. Clearly, his talent for mastery and problem solving is by no means limited to knives.
We’re lucky, then, that events conspired to bring him here.