Life on the Edge: An Interview with James Brand Founder Ryan Coulter

Words by Chris Zimmerman

Unless you spend a lot of time in the outdoors, a pocketknife might be something you don’t consider part of your everyday carry kit. But at one time, a trusty knife was just as important as a wallet, phone or keys. For James Brand founder Ryan Coulter, a lifelong believer in knife-carrying, knives were more than just a convenient cutting tool, they were a representation of always being prepared. As he grew older, he looked for a more refined knife, less hunting/fishing/tactical, but without much luck. Taking this realization to heart, eventually The James Brand was founded in Portland, OR, utilizing premium materials and creating everyday carry knives based off a minimalist design with an astute attention to detail. We had a chance to catch up with Ryan and learn about how the brand got started, why anyone can be an everyday-carrier and some tips for getting through TSA.


Can you introduce yourself and tell us the story of how The James Brand got started?

My name’s Ryan Coulter. I’m an industrial designer and a creative director. I grew up in the Midwest (Indiana) and been carrying knives my entire life. I couldn’t find the exact knife I wished I was carrying every day—everything out there was either hunting/fishing or tactical. I wanted something more refined. At the same time, I was realizing I wasn’t really connected to the knife brands that were out there, so it seemed like a good opportunity to kill two birds with two stones: design and produce the knife I really wanted to carry, and create a brand that would represent that idea for other people out there like me. This was all back in 2011 and that’s how The James Brand came about.


What would you say separates knives from The James Brand from others?

I think our focus on modern, minimal everyday carry is really the thing that sets us apart. We don’t do machetes. We don’t do hunting and skinning knives. We are very focused on knives and tools that people would actually carry with them every day. We want to be in your pocket, with you all the time.

Knives are some of the oldest tools on earth, what did you think was missing in the market that The James Brand could improve upon?

A knife is such a useful thing to have around, as it has been throughout time. But the most important aspect of any knife is having it with you when you need it. We really wanted to create products and a brand that people really connected to, so that the TJB knife stays on top of the dresser and not in the dresser drawer. We set ourselves apart by paying attention to the details, by focusing on design, and by staying committed to modern, minimal everyday carry.


It’s not until you don’t have a knife on you that you realize all the times it can be used, can you talk about one of these experiences and why it made you remember to never leave home without a good knife?

My family and I recently went to see some friends up in Nelson, British Columbia. They have a dock on Kootenay Lake and we spent a couple of days playing on the water. I got a fairly massive splinter in my foot from the dock, but was in my boardshorts at the time, so my knife was back up at the house. I was seriously wishing I had my knife with me, as it would have saved me from having to limp back to the house to pry the splinter back out.  


What would you say to someone who believes a good knife is only for camping and including it as a part of your everyday carry is unnecessary?

I would challenge this person to carry a knife for two or three weeks and then see how useful it is. I probably use my knife between 10 and 20 times a day, but I often use it for some pretty mundane activities: cleaning out dirt underneath my fingernails (gross), slicing up an apple, opening the mail, opening up boxes, digging up a weed in the yard, etc. Once you get used to having a knife around and using it all the time it’s very hard to go without one. Any time you leave the house without your blade you feel naked.  


One downside of making a knife part of your everyday carry is going through security at the airport. Have you ever had a knife confiscated, or almost confiscated, by the TSA and do you have any advice to prevent this?

We are working actively with organizations like AKTI (the American Knife and Tool Institute) to help get common sense laws in place that would allow passengers to bring small, everyday-carry knives onto aircraft. That’s a long-term project, but something we are working on. In the meantime, the best thing you can do is be prepared. I keep a self-addressed, stamped Tyvek envelope in my travel backpack so that if I forget a knife somewhere and get popped at security I can drop my knife in there and mail it back to myself. Other things I would recommend would include not traveling with your heirloom knives, and keeping a knife at your destination if it’s a place you go often.


Being based out of Portland, you have the opportunity for a lot of outdoor adventures, what is one of your favorite places to sneak away to and why?

I love the Columbia River Gorge. It’s so close to Portland but it couldn’t be more different. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. There are vistas in the Gorge that will take your breath away. The other thing about the Gorge is how quiet it can be. You forget how much ambient noise and energy is in the city. It’s nice to escape into the Gorge and just listen to the silence for a bit.

Many times, design-first products fail when it comes to functionality, but James Brand knives are able to walk the line between looks and function, why was this an important consideration when it came to product design?

As I was mentioning earlier, the most important thing to us is that you love your TJB knife enough to actually carry it with you everyday. This means we design for the eye, the heart, the pocket, as well as the hand. Your knife will either spend 99% of it’s life in your pocket or it will get buried in a box or a drawer somewhere. We want it to be in your pocket. We want it to be with you. When you use it, it should function flawlessly. We make sure our products perform at the highest levels, but we really want to focus on your entire experience with your knife, not just the times when you are cutting with it, as this is actually the minority of the time.


One of the things we like from your brand mission is how you believe “the knife you carry says something about you.” What knife do you have on you right now and what do you think it would say about you?

I just pulled the Folsom, in black, out of my pocket. I’ve been using it for the last hour to open boxes from IKEA. It’s a knife I carry a lot on weekends as it gets a lot of hard use around the house. I hope it says I work hard, pay attention to details, and that I’m always ready for whatever is going to happen next.  


For as functional, and even fashionable, as everyday carry knives are right now, they are still pretty sharp and can do some damage to those who are unfamiliar, what’s the number one safety tip you can pass along?

The basic rule is to always cut away from yourself, and never put body parts or other things that you care about in the arc of the cut that you are making. That’s Knife 101 stuff. The next most important thing you can do to make your knife safe is keep it razor sharp. A sharp knife is a knife you don’t have to fight against. If you have to use excessive force, or a lot of sawing, your knife isn’t sharp enough or not the right tool for the task. You should always let the knife do the work. That means keeping it razor sharp. This also teaches you to respect your blade. Proper respect will keep your safe in many aspects of your life.  

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