Knife design may not be rocket science, but for Darriel Caston of D Rocket Design, it comes pretty close. With a storied career in engineering, Darriel got his start as a test engineer at California’s Edwards Air Force Base. He went on to work for the rocket company Aerojet and later the Department of Energy.
Now an electrical engineer, he’s responsible for ensuring the safety of large and one-off projects, ranging from the massive electrical switches used by cities to a million-dollar chandelier in a celebrity’s home.
Oh, and he’s also a prolific knife designer, with two new knives from CRKT launching now: the MinimalX™ and Mbombo™. These knives are closely related to a custom he was contracted to make for SpaceX—the connections to rockets just keep coming.
We sat down with Darriel to learn about his life, inspirations, and how his engineering career has given him an edge in knife design.
"I think the engineering side of me, that exactness—knowing tolerances, knowing metals, knowing the machines they’re using and how to program them—gives me an extreme advantage to be artistic and innovative. It takes a long time to do everything in steel, but I can do it all digitally and iterate much faster."
Where do you draw your inspiration?
I’m an Air Force brat and that took me around the world. While living in Europe, I was able to see all kinds of swords and knives. I’ve always been fascinated by them—not as weapons, per se, but more as art. I love history and old-time things, but I also have a strong technology background and enjoy sci-fi. You see a mixture of both in my knives.
When did your fascination with knives begin and what made you want to design your own?
When we were living in Germany, my mom took me to an exhibit of Japanese swords and armor in Munich. I was probably six or seven years old and it was the first time I’d ever seen a Japanese sword. There was something about it that caught my attention. It looked simple, but there was a harmony to it, a balance and beauty. And I could see that at a very early age.
Later on in life I was able to actually hold a sword made by one of the Japanese masters. You can see the workmanship and love put into that very simple design, and it just fascinated me.
My grandfather was also in World War II and he had some Sheffield knives. What I find fascinating about them is that we think we know everything, that we’re at the pinnacle of technology, but there’s a lot we’ve forgotten. The Sheffield makers crafted knives that barely rust to this day. I have a 150-year-old Sheffield knife that looks brand new. They used a technique involving walrus skin and some kind of oxide that nobody knows the mixture of. The fat, oil, and oxide at high speeds did something to these knives when they polished them, something people are still trying to figure out now.
All that knowledge was lost when Sheffield’s regiment was destroyed in battle in World War I.
What made you decide to start designing your own knives?
I always had a love for knives, their design and history. But I couldn’t afford to buy someone else’s knife! I also had my own vision of what a knife should be and what I wanted to carry. But the biggest thing is I couldn’t afford the knives I wanted, so I started making my own in my garage.
At that point, every knife I made was like a baby. I had a hard time parting with them.
Later on, as my eyesight got worse from Graves’ disease, I started designing more on CAD and sending my designs to shops to be produced. I found more and more people wanted my work and it sort of blew up. It got way bigger than I thought it ever would.
Your designs always stand out as unique. How do you come up with your ideas?
Sometimes I’ll see something in the world that inspires me. For one of my crescent knives, I was looking at a watch with an open back. You could see the rotary dial move, all the mechanical pieces, and that gave me a jumping off point. The next step is to apply that concept to a knife and figure out the problem. How do I make it work? Can it be functional?
Nature is organic, round shapes tend to be there. So there was an organic thought process to our ancestors. A lot of my ideas are based in history and our own background as a species.
But other times, I’m watching Star Wars or Dune and I see a knife there that looks interesting and I’ll take inspiration from that. I’ll try to make something similar, but that’s uniquely mine. I can’t make a lightsaber, but I can make a manual OTF with a blade that comes out the front.
How has your engineering background influenced your design style?
First off, I have a lot of CAD experience. I’ve been using it all throughout my engineering career. I find using the computer allows me to play with stuff and figure things out before taking it to the real world.
This is how I can be so prolific. I can design all these knives and get a feel for them before actually producing them. When a shop comes to me, I can send them a file that’s spot-on. We’re not spending a year trying to figure it out.
I think the engineering side of me, that exactness—knowing tolerances, knowing metals, knowing the machines they’re using and how to program them—gives me an extreme advantage to be artistic and innovative. It takes a long time to do everything in steel, but I can do it all digitally and iterate much faster.
Is that becoming more common, that designers are working purely digitally?
I don’t think so. There are designers out there who do that. The internet can be nasty, some people hate it that you can do everything digitally. They think you haven’t paid your dues. And I have paid my dues, but I took a disability and made it into something else. I can’t sit there and see things like I used to, wearing those big-old glasses—so I pivoted to something that works for me.
I get a lot of designers and shops asking for my help digitizing their designs. More knifemakers are going to bigger shops trying to get a production model of their stuff out there. It’s very hard to survive without that. There are some people who can make knives and sell them for thousands of dollars a piece, but most of the guys are scraping by, even some of the big names. You think they’re making a lot of money, but they’re really not. You need to go to production to make it lucrative.
"The Mbombo and MinimalX are very sleek. They slide into your pocket, open well, work well—and then there’s the similarity to Japanese swords. The blade has an inner groove in it and a five-grind design, so it’s more complex than it seems. If you’re a knife person, you can see the love that’s been put into it."
What was the inspiration for your brand, D Rocket Design?
I started out in aerospace. My dad was in the Air Force and my first engineering job was at Edwards Air Force base, working on the fuel testing pad. I worked for a scientist whose job was to make solid rocket fuel. I would help him set up the test cage. He’d give me the fuel, I’d set up all the components, start the video, and then we’d burn it! It was literally playing with fire.
Then one of my friends started calling me “D Rocket” because I worked at the rocket lab. Putting it on the brand was an homage to that job, but also to my love of science fiction and technology.
Tell us about the knife you made for SpaceX. How did you land that project?
They reached out to me out of the blue. I thought it was fake at first.
They had their first rocket about to go up and wanted to give the project employees a gift. I thought about the SpaceX brand, how it’s sleek and modern, and I wanted to make something that reflected that and still contained some of the traditional Japanese elements of knifemaking I appreciate. It turned out very sleek and minimal—like a rocket.
I made four special knives for all the top guys. I wanted to make them out of a piece of the rocket skin, but there were too many laws against that. But the launch pad was fair game, so they sent me some pieces of it and I was able to make four knives out of that metal.
What’s your favorite thing about these knives?
They’re very sleek. They slide into your pocket, open well, work well—and then there’s the similarity to Japanese swords. The blade has an inner groove in it and a five-grind design, so it’s more complex than it seems. If you’re a knife person, you can see the love that’s been put into it.
Ever thought about making a sword?
I want to get into camping knives, not necessarily swords, but something that may have aspects of a sword to a certain degree. I don’t know if I’d ever make swords. Everything I make I want to carry, and I don’t really consider my knives weapons. “Art that cuts” is what somebody told me. I think that’s where I like to sit.
I have a friend who sells swords. Four or five years ago he came to me with this really interesting one he said was worth 10 grand. I couldn’t do that much, but we ended up working out a trade for some of my knives.
Later on we discovered the sword was really unique and a museum in Japan wanted it. They offered $50,000. I still have it, and it’s the only sword I have. I’ll pass it on to my son one day.
What’s next for you and D Rocket Design?
We’re going to grow as a brand. We still want to partner with companies like CRKT, but when my mother died, my brother and I decided that we wanted to do something together. So my brother came on as the COO, my daughter does my social media, I have a nephew who’s into video, and a niece who’s in the business of retail and sales. If I can keep my family comfortable, I don’t have to be rich.
But maybe one day, 600 years from now, somebody goes to a Munich museum to see knives, and there’s a SpaceX knife sitting there for somebody to look at and dream about. That’s where we want to go.