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Manufacturer profile: Steel Flame
8/20/12 - Steel Flame is a manufacturer of custom jewelry, designed and made by owner Derrick Obatake. While he doesn't make knives (yet), his handiwork can be seen on collaborations with knife designers such as Emerson and Hinderer. Here's a look at Steel Flame.
Derrick Obatake - Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Derrick Obatake has been designing and making jewelry for over 35 years. His father was a machinist, and taught him machining skills at an early age. In high school, he discovered what he was bad at (math etc) and good at (designing and making stuff), which led him down the path that defined his career. As a junior in high school, he started making jewelry, then moved on to formal training in traditional jewelry arts like diamond setting, model making, casting, finishing and fabrication. A Graduate Gemologist from GIA (Gemological Institute of America), he also has extended experience in Die striking and 3D CAD design. At Steel Flame, he blends 'old school crafstmanship with new age technology' to create some very unique works of art.
Outside of work, Derrick has been playing competition paintball for over 25 years, and still does so every weekend. Speaking to other people who know him, he's a legend in the pump gun painball community, as evidenced by the paintball tournament on trophies on his office shelf. He has a patent on a paintball harness and is currently on the LA Hitmen team. He's also an avid pistol and carbine shooter.
Steel Flame - Derrick's creations include rings, bracelets, pendants, to knife-related accessories; some of which can be seen in the Steel Flame Custom Series and Signature Series. These range from the somewhat subtle to in-your-face. A small sampling of his work is seen in the photos below, which is only the tip of the iceberg. While common themes (such as his 'Darkness' skulls) can be found across some of Derrick's pieces, his designs are actually quite varied, and include Japanese themes, crosses, Crusader crosses, Maltese crosses, wings, daggers, hearts etc. Sometimes multiple elements are combined to form new variations. The Steel Flame website only shows a fraction of what they make, but a better sampling of his work can be seen and purchased at EDC knives. Derrick collaborated with Ernest Emerson, creating the Bad Intent Regalia skulls and custom knife clips for Emerson Knives.
Some folks might have sticker shock when looking at the prices of Steel Flames products, but it's no different from custom work on a 1911 from a top-tier gunsmith, or a custom knife maker. These are works of art you pass down to your children. Each item in the Steel Frame Custom or Signature Series goes through an involved design and fabrication process; everything is hand-finished and assembled in house. An Axe-Link bracelet, for example, is made up of over 140 seperate components. The Steel Flame shop floor is packed with machines and equipment; drill presses, hydraulic presses, racks of stamps and raw material, welders, etc. A room off to the side houses different grinders.
The 'elements' in many of the products, like the skulls, pendants, crosses, chunky chain links, are either designed in CAD or sculpted in wax, then 3D scanned. By scanning a wax model, the model can be scaled up or down as needed. Each part is cast using the lost wax process, out of sterling silver, bronze, or whatever the material of choice may be. Some newly cast elements are shown in the row of photos below.
Derrick developed his own proprietary finishes (Vintage Gunmetal and Dark Gunmetal) which are part of Steel Flame's distinctive look. with Vintage Gunmetal, oxidation is worked into the surface of the metal, then 'massaged' to bring out the highlights, which gives it an almost iridescent glow. The hues vary from silver to brown, to blue/black, and is reminiscent of case hardened finishes on early firearms. The surface finish wears over time, and the silver develops it's own unique patina. Dark Gunmetal also utilized oxidation to produce a very dark blue/black sheen; similar to gun bluing. Like bluing, the finish will wear over time and also develop its own patina.
Derrick works mainly with sterling silver, but also uses Royal Bronze, which is a specially formulated alloy. Combined with the Vintage Gunmetal finish, it makes for a very unique piece. Gemstones are also used in some items, set using traditional methods, rather than by gluing.
Stamping - This is something that isn't on the Steel Flame website. Steel Flame also has the ability to do custom stamping. In the photos above of the samples in the case, you'll see dog tags and money clips besides the sculpted pieces. Steel Flame has a huge collection of custom stamps from past projects. Quite a bit of it comes from the Law Enforcement sector (see the LAPD stamps below). Derrick is a big supporter of Law Enforcement and the Military, and has created and presented custom pieces for families of LE/military/firefighters who have lost loved ones in the line of duty or service - all on his own dime and volition.
KillboX - The KillBoX is a Steel Flame Signature Series exclusive, dreamed up 20 years ago by Derrick. He combined his two passions - shooting and jewelry design - into a very unique piece of jewelry. A 2" x 2" (or larger, depending on the item) sterling silver plate is formed by shooting it; creating a bullet hole. The plate is then trimmed and finished, then mounted into wearable art.
There are currently two types of KillBoxes - framed and frameless. With the framed version, the silver plate is trimmed and fitted by hand into a silver frame, then secured with socket head cap screws. On the frameless version, the silver plate is backed by another one behind it, sometimes with a sculpted element mounted to it. Usually, the KillBoX is shot with a .45 ACP or 9mm, and sometimes a .22 LR.
A very cool variation of the KillBoX is the Cancer KillBoX that Derrick made for his friend, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Derrick hand stamped the word 'CANCER' one letter at a time all over a 3" silver plate, then sent it to his friend to shoot it himself. Derrick then mounted it in a frame for his friend to wear as a reminder that he had the power to overcome his illness.
I have the honour of having the first KillBoX created by shooting the silver plate with a 5.56mm round, as seen below. It's a frameless KillBox with a Darkness skull mounted behing the hole, and measures 0.75" x 0.75" square. If you look at the link I provided above to an example of the frameless version KillBox 9mm w/Darkness, you'll see that the Darkness Skull is centered in the bullet hole. When Derrick made mine, he offset the skull instead of centering it. When I asked him about it, he said that he had see a picture of a wolf that was stalking its prey, and had only half of its face showing from behind a tree. He wanted to achieve that same effect, kind of like something evil stalking you behind the bullet hole. On the back, he signed 'ONE', which he usually does on the first piece or variation that he makes.
As you can see in the side view below, the Darkness Skull is silver soldered to the rear plate. Steel Flame offers different chain/necklace options; all made of sterling silver with their Vintage Gunmetal finish. For those who want a lighter weight option of wearing the KillBoX (or other SF pendant), they also have a rubber necklace with a sterling silver 'lobster clasp'. The lobster clasp actually screws into the rubber cord. This way, the cord length can be adjusted by simply cutting it, and screwing the clasp or eyelet into the hollow cord. The clasp is very secure in the cord, and the cord will break before the clasp pulls out.
Lucy Ann - While some of Steel Flame's sculpted pieces may be out of the price range for some consumers, they also have a product line that will fit just about anyone's pocketbook. When Derrick started his original company (Elements), he wanted to make something for his wife, Lisa Marie, to commerate their son's first birthday (Derrick has two grown sons, Andrew and Wes). Derrick's sister-in-law, Lucy Ann, had drawn a character of a little boy for the birthday invitation. Derrick put the character on a small silver plate, stamped 'Andrew' on it, and gave it to his wife. The idea grew into the company called Lucy Ann, named after his sister-in-law. Lucy Ann was the first company to offer custom hand stamped jewelry. Each piece is a custom order, and fulfilled by Lucy Ann/Steel Flame.
The Lucy Ann product line includes silver and gold charms and keepsakes, which are cut out in various shapes like an apple, bar, bone, circle, cross, dogtag etc. When ordering, the customer picks from a selection of characters, and both front and back personalization. Lucy Ann also offers other specialty items like baby spoons, money clips, ID bracelets, cuff bracelets, pendants, and latch charms, to name a few. Most of them are made from sterling silver, or from14K gold.
Derrick also created some charms that would be of interest to service members or their loved ones - small servicemen and servicewomen dogtags (under their 'special edition' pieces page). Besides the flat stamped charms, they also have 3D characters to match just about any occasion. So guys, if some of Steel Flame's more robust designs don't suit your taste, I'm pretty sure you can find something from Lucy Ann for your better half or child. These make great unique gifts.
Derrick made a necklace with a couple of charms for my 4-1/2 year old son. He stamped a little piglet on one (since my son was born in the year of the pig), and silver soldered one of his rampant lion sculpts onto the other charm (to remind my little boy that he has courage like a lion). On the back of both, he stamped our home phone number. My son wears these two charms on one of Steel Flame's rubber necklaces. As you can see below, each silver charm piece is hand stamped, one letter at a time, and goes through a two-stage tumbling process to produce a 'stone wash' finish. It's also hand polished and cleaned twice before leaving production.
Notes - While Steel Flame has a website, they haven't put up a web store yet, so any inquiries can be directed to Derrick directly at email@example.com. Or, check out the the Steel Flame page on EDC Knives for some of his offerings. Derrick does a lot of custom projects; a great example of his beautiful craftsmanship is the custom belt and buckle he made for actor Mickey Rourke.
Anyone who has met Derrick in person will tell you that he is a genuine,
humble, down to earth, extremely thoughtful and generous (to a fault)
person, who takes joy in making people happy. And he's a great artist
and craftsman to boot. His behind-the-scenes support of LE and military
is something I wanted to mention here, as he doesn't mention those things
anywhere on his websites. He's active on the USN
(Usual Suspect Network) forum and has his own section there (you must
be a forum member to enter the site). Derrick also attends knife shows,
so if you run into him at one, tell him MM said 'Hi'.
Off The Grid Concepts Sheaths
11/6/13 - In addition to the standard items offered on their webstore, kydex manufacturer Off The Grip Concepts (OTG) also does custom work. Here are a couple of examples of knife sheaths that I asked them to make.
Back in March of 2012, after meeting Rob of OTG at a shoot, I sent him some items to make custom sheaths for, to showcase OTG's custom sheath designs/capabilities. I sent a Multitasker, a Leatherman Crunch, a ZT folding knife, and older Cold Steel Mini Tanto, and a Graham Clip Point knife. I included my preferences and intended usage for the type of sheath needed for each item, and after a few email exchanges, agreed on the configuration for each sheath. OTG has some unique-looking cosmetic touches to their pouches, like using different colours of kydex and their 'hexagon cuts', but I wanted plain and simple for these ones, in their grey kydex.
Cold Steel Mini Tanto - The Cold Steel Mini Tanto is a knife I've had for years, but never liked the leather sheath that it came with, so it was a good candidate for a custom sheath. I wanted a kydex sheath that wasn't much larger than the original leather sheath, and thinner. About six months after I had sent out the knife to OTG, I received the Mini Tanto sheath back. I had specified the following: inside the pants concealed carry. left hand draw, angled towards the back (point towards crotch). Carried in front, just to the left of the center. Fold-over style (not pancake style), for compactness. I’d like this to have very minimal retention for an easy draw. The sheath that I received below was well made, but not what I specified. Instead of the fold-over style, I got back a pancake style sheath, which was more bulky than I had envisioned, and not comfortable when worn inside the pants. The reason Rob gave was that the pancake style could be worn on either the left or right side, and also provided more mounting options. That's all true, but not what I had requested, so I sent it back with the Tanto, with a photoshop sketch of what I wanted.
About 8 months later, I received a revised sheath, in the configuration I had asked for. I had wanted a wrap-around style with the rivets on the top edge/spine of the blade, for the lowest profile possible, to minimize the sheath digging into the groin area when seated. The sheath is very well made and the fit is exactly what I wanted - just enough retention to enable a quick draw. The sheath came with a belt loop with snap that could be attached using different rivet holes for ride height adjustment.
Graham Knives Drop Point - The Drop Point is a beautiful little knife that I ordered from Jon Graham of Graham Knives. The Kydex pocket sheath that it came with was pretty functional, but again, I wanted something as compact as possible for inside-the-waistband carry. Instead of the belt loop it came with, I installed a metal spring clip with underhook, which allows me to use the sheath with or without a belt (like when I'm wearing shorts). The clip has an underhook which prevents the sheath from being pulled up with the knife. I also installed the same kind of clip on the Mini Tanto sheath later.
Multitasker Sheath - The OTG Multitasker pouch is a two-piece deal; one pouch for the Multitasker tool and the other for the bit holder and bit set. The pouch is a pancake style, with rows of eyelets on each side. The tool bit holder pouch piggy-backs onto the main tool pouch with elastic shock cord. I had a couple of issues with the tool bit pouch. The first issue was that it was too tight. It was explained to me that some users wanted it very secure so that there was no danger of it falling out accidentally. However, it was made so tight that there was no danger of it coming out intentionally - I could not extract the holder when the pouch was worn on a belt. If you look at the plastic bit holder, you'll see that it has multiple ridges that the kydex has been molded to. As a result, the holder 'ratchets' in and out in steps. For my use, I wanted the bit holder to be retained such that it wouldn't fall out, but was still easy to extract when I wanted it. I used a heat gun to warm up the kydex such that it smoothed out all but the bottom ridge retention. That way, the holder was retained by the bottom ridge, and once free of that, it came out more easily.
The second issue I had was with the elastic shock cord attachment. It would cause the piggy backed pouch to move when I pulled the holder out, then move again when I stuffed it back in. I swapped out the shock cord with 550 cord and it was an improvement, but still wasn't solid enough for me. I ended up attaching it with plastic tie straps, which worked much better for me. No complaints with the Multitasker tool pouch itself - tension/retension was just right and the Multitasker was easy to extract and replace.
I had asked OTG to look into reducing the footprint of the pouches, but it's not that easy with kydex because you have to provide a mouting scheme and also close one side with rivets/eyelets even if it's a fold-over pouch. While I really like the ease of access with kydex pouches, I still wanted something a bit more compact, so I had EMDOM USA make a prototype Multitasker pouch, as seen below. While a standard nylon pouch doesn't share some of the attributes of a kydex pouch, the footprint really is no larger than the item contained inside. As seen below, overall bulk and space on the belt is reduced when using a nylon pouch.
Observations and notes - Custom kydex takes a while, and every kydex holster/sheath maker I've seen has their ups and downs dealing with increased business. With OTG, my stuff took longer than I expected, as estimated production time for custom work is 3-5 weeks, but my items took about a year to get back. Also, the Leatherman Crunch and ZT knife didn't get sheaths made for them, so I asked for them to be returned anyways as I was tired of not having them around for a year to use. I'm not a paying customer though, and these items were provided for the purposes of a writeup, but I would hope that paying customers get their stuff on time. Custom orders on knife sheaths require that the knife be sent to OTG.
Like their holsters, the kydex workmanship and attention to detail is very good. All edges are rounded out and the molding is crisp. I'd like to see them work on more compact alternatives to reduce the kydex footprint of pouches on belts.
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