When Bob Kramer decided it was time to make his own knives, he had no idea that his career turn would take him deep into the secret lives of knives. Now he’s established a reputation as one of the most revered bladesmiths in the world–playing David to the Goliath cutlery manufacturers of Germany and Japan.
BY TODD OPPENHEIMER
Photos by Michael Matisse and Marty Nakayama
The original version of this story was published in The New Yorker in November, 2008, under the title, “Sharper: Bob Kramer and the secret lives of knives.” This longer adaptation takes the reader deeper into Kramer’s background, his visits with fellow masters in Japan and Germany, and his idiosyncratic pursuit of perfection. It also includes a variety of photographs and videos.
One recent fall evening, I headed down to my basement to sharpen a collection of kitchen knives, in preparation for a dawn outing to dive for abalone on the Northern California coast. I assigned myself this endeavor because the meat of an abalone, a kind of giant sea snail found in only a few areas of the world, is slimy and dense, like a flexed muscle, so it must be sliced thin and hammered mercilessly before being served. Without a sharp knife, the task of cleaning and trimming abalone becomes an act of crude carpentry, and a potentially bloody one at that.
Kramer heats his forge with natural gas, which allows it to reach temperatures up to 2,400 degrees. At that level of heat, a bladesmith must be able to distinguish between the faintest shades of red, orange and white hot; being off just a few degrees makes the difference between a blade that is resilient, strong and capable of taking a keen edge versus one that is brittle and constantly needs sharpening.
Down in my basement workshop, thirty-five minutes after I had first put steel to stone, four of my five knives were shaving the hair off my arm. But the fifth, a small, custom made boning knife, couldn’t slice a sheet of newspaper. Frustrated and eager for sleep, I re-soaked my series of wet-stones and tried the boning knife again, with firmer pressure. Finally, the blade’s edge shone like a wedding ring—but it still wouldn’t cut. Discouraged and mystified, I packed up the four good knives and headed for bed. The next evening, after returning from the dive, I called Bob Kramer, a culinary knifemaker from Olympia, Washington I had once met at a knife show, and asked what was going on with the boning knife. “It depends on how the blade was tempered,” Kramer said. “If the steel was heated too much, it won’t take an edge.”
Kramer used to be a professional knife-sharpener, and the boning knife’s challenges captured his curiosity. So he asked me to put it in the mail. A week later I got a phone call: “It’s old, high-speed steel,” he said. “That stuff was made for drills during World War One to be extremely wear-resistant. It’s hard as a rock. That’s why they don’t use it much anymore.” Yet Kramer had managed to sharpen the knife—in fact, he gave it a razor edge. He now spent a good five minutes explaining his steps so that I could duplicate the process myself. But I wanted to know, since the blade carried no tell-tale markings, how he had determined it was made from a drill bit. “Because of the way it sparked,” he said. “When you put high-carbon steel on the grinder, it really crackles, like a sparkler, almost in a three-sixty. This blade just sent out a dull spark, kind of orange, and in just a couple of directions. High-speed steel does that.”
Like a mad alchemist, Kramer cannot stop tinkering with steel recipes, forging together different metal blocks and powders to ennoble iron with just the right blend of nickel, vanadium or some other selection of chemistry’s basic elements.
Kramer is one of 113 people in the world, and the only former chef, to be certified as a Master Bladesmith. To earn this title (which is conferred by the American Bladesmith Society, of Texarkana, Texas), Kramer underwent five years of practice and study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives. Five had to be of gallery-quality designs; the fifth was a roughly finished, fifteen-inch Bowie knife, which Kramer had to employ to accomplish four tasks, in this order: Cut through a one-inch thick piece of manila rope in a single swipe; chop through a two-by-four, twice; place the blade on one’s forearm and, with the belly of the blade that has done all this chopping, shave; and finally, lock the knife in a vice and bend it ninety degrees without having it crack. The combination of these challenges tests steel’s central but conflicting capabilities: its flexibility and its hardness. If tested thusly, my boning knife, despite being hand-made, would have snapped like a toothpick.
Despite attaining a Master’s status, Kramer remains in awe of steel’s unsolved mysteries. Like a mad alchemist, he cannot stop tinkering with steel recipes, forging together different metal blocks and powders to ennoble iron with just the right blend of nickel, vanadium, or some other selection of chemistry’s basic elements. The amalgams continue to respond in ways that baffle the nation’s most senior metallurgists, and Kramer too. He feels like a Zen student, humbled at the foot of his master, glistening steel. Even so, he’s not done badly. One morning in 2007, the no-nonsense, elite cooking magazine, Cook’s Illustrated, called asking for one of his knives to include in an equipment-rating article. Kramer worked into the night for three days, and then shipped off one of his eight-inch chef’s knives. When the magazine’s story ran, it was accompanied by a small sidebar asking whether such a seemingly straight-forward knife could be worth its exorbitant cost (four hundred seventy-five dollars, at that time; they are worth thousands of dollars today.) The editors’ answer: “Yes. The Kramer knife outperformed every knife we’ve ever rated.” Kramer’s backlog of orders, already long, immediately jumped to two years. A few months later, the kitchen-supply chain, Sur La Table, asked Kramer to design a less expensive version of his knives for mass-production, which it would carry exclusively as the store’s top-of-the-line cutlery.
There are still occasions when a modern bladesmith has to pound a blade on an anvil with a hammer. But they avoid weeks of effort (and worn out elbows) by using motorized power hammers, such as this vintage hammer made in the 1960s by Little Giant. Long since out of business, the company made this particular hammer for Union Pacific Rail Road, which used it to produce replacement parts for locomotives. This is one of Little Giant’s larger models, and the company only made six of them. It can hit a billet of steel with up to 500 pounds of pressure at each blow.
As he prepared for his mass-market debut, Kramer made a series of trips, including a few to Japan, the High Church of steelmaking, where his commercial knives are being manufactured. And I was lucky enough to trail behind him. Kramer’s itineraries matched the way he lives: a restless, almost insatiable search for essences; for the soul of craftsmanship; for perfection in a household tool.
Most bladesmiths come out of the ranchlands and hunting hollows of rural America, and they look, speak, and dress like throwbacks to the days of the covered wagon. By contrast, Kramer—who has been not only a chef but also a waiter, a folk art importer, an improvisational theater performer, and, for a year during his twenties, a Ringling Brothers clown—arrives at knife shows looking like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: button-down silk shirts; neatly pressed slacks; sometimes a thin goatee on a sharp face. Now in his mid-fifties and a trim, five feet ten, Kramer is upbeat and alert, and he moves fast. Talking to him can be like playing with a dog; his face seems to be constantly on the look-out for fun. The slightest topic, in fact, can launch him into a tale. During a discussion of Thai folk art he remembers the night in Bangkok when he eluded a bar-room brawl with an oversized bouncer by suddenly flying into a rage in a fake local dialect. A morning dog-walk reminded him of the time his dog ate a cockatoo that he was baby-sitting for a friend. (Before the friend returned Kramer replaced the cockatoo, and even started calling the bird by his predecessor’s name.
Damascus steel, or at least its modern version, carries a highly decorative, swirly pattern, similar to the way dust pools and turns on the surface of a river. The pattern is achieved by welding together different varieties of steel, such as these bars of tool and bearing steel on Kramer’s work bench. The smith then repeatedly melts and flattens them until the desired pattern emerges.
Sadly, this did not fool the bird, nor the owner.) Inside his shop, Kramer turns serious but still resembles the chef he used to be: a man juggling three dishes in the oven, and four more on the stove. Bladesmithing is actually very much like cooking, a coincidence not lost on Kramer. When recently shipping off one of his twelve-hundred-dollar chef knives, he included a note telling the customer, if the knife didn’t satisfy, just say so. “I’ll bake another for you.” And he did, without pause. It has become Kramer’s life habit to avoid fights with obstacles. His favorite phrase is an old saying, “Proceed as the way opens,” a maxim that led him to, and through, each of his disparate careers. That route did not sit well with his parents (his father was a dental technician in suburban Detroit; his mother managed the children, six of them, the last of whom was this clown). “I think they were disappointed in every choice I made,” he told me. Kramer remembers being timid as a boy, a trait he attributes to his birth order. “I was already walking on thin ice. I sort of felt like, ‘I just made it into this world. Don’t screw it up.’” Despite this vow, he struggled in school, largely because of undiscovered dyslexia. The result: “I was kind of a goofball. It was kind of like in prison. If you’re not big and strong, you damn well better be funny.”
Kramer’s talent for fun, or at least the relentless practice he has devoted to it (once, he nearly lost his clowning job by organizing a stunt that was hilarious but off script) has branded Kramer with a penchant for the spontaneous. Many people talk about the value of living in the present; Kramer seems to actually do it. He is almost allergic to the act of planning. One morning in 1997, when Kramer was refining the design for a chef’s knife, a passerby, stunned by the sight of a blacksmith’s shop in downtown Seattle, popped in and started badgering Kramer with ideas. Rather than drive the visitor away, Kramer listened to him. It turned out the man was a sailor, and he was adamant that the shape of Kramer’s blade should match the lines on a Six-Metre sloop—a curve, he argued, that holds universal value. Those lines remain one of the hallmarks of a Kramer knife.
Damascus steel: the preparatory weld
When Kramer and I first drove up to his shop, I thought we had stopped at a self-storage unit. The building is a quintessential, prefab industrial cavern tucked into the wooded flats of a town long known for beer. (“It’s the Water,” the ads for Olympia Beer famously boasted from 1903 until the brewery folded exactly one century later.) Outside, there was no professional sign of any sort; apparently, the incessant phone calls that come in for Kramer’s knives, and the occasional pile of cutlery that friends still drop off for sharpening, are quite enough to keep him busy. Inside, Kramer’s operation resembles the high-school shop classes of days gone by. Tools, thick leather aprons and gloves, dusty old swords, and strips of steel in various stages of knifeness are strewn everywhere. Stacked along one wall are approximately one hundred plates (six feet long, two feet wide, a quarter inch thick) of Kramer’s favorite grade of steel. The pile will last three to four years, since Kramer makes an average of only five knives a week. (Most knife factories, even small ones, make that many an hour.) Surrounding the steel was a cornucopia of metal in various forms: bars and rods of assorted lengths, thicknesses, and grades; bags and buckets full of specialized powders or blocks of exotic imports; and a scattering of power tools that hammer, cut, or squeeze. For even the simplest custom knife, at least one of these metal pieces must be run through the mill because wholesale steel is sold raw—that is, relatively soft. To my naïve fingers, this made no sense. The rods and bars in Kramer’s bins looked and felt like finished steel, as hard as the metal grate on any street corner. To a blacksmith, however, these bars are the equivalent of bread dough. Each variety must be baked a little differently.
The slightly oval shape of the handle on Kramer’s European line of cutlery is key to his design signature. Once the handle is ground to a size and curve that allows for a comfortable but firm grip, Kramer buffs the wood on a polishing wheel. Kramer inherited this buffing lathe from his father, a Detroit dental technician, who used the machine to polish bridges, crowns and inlays for 45 years.
CHASING A LEGEND
During my visit, Kramer was absorbed in one of his incessant studies—this time, an attempt to replicate the legendary achievements of Frank J. Richtig. In 1936, Richtig, a Nebraska blacksmith, made the pages of Ripley’s Believe It or Not for what he did with his custom-made knives, an act that drew crowds for decades to state and county fairs. According to Ripley’s, this was a man who “cuts cold steel… auto parts, railroad spikes, buggy axles, etc. with a butcher knife, and then cuts paper with the same knife!” (This last step may not sound like much, but it’s a surprisingly demanding test of blade sharpness that is still in use, even in modern factories.). Richtig’s supposed bladesmithing secret was a special system for heat-treating his blades, which he never revealed. (The only record he left was an obscure pattern of markings on his sales ledgers, suggesting that another of his feats was the invention of some kind of blacksmithing hieroglyphics.) To this day, scholarly papers occasionally pop up in the annals of metallurgy that attempt to uncover Richtig’s methods. “I would love to crack this,” Kramer told me. “If I could do that, game over. I win!”
Kramer began his Richtig experiment the way he makes his standard custom knives: he ran a plate of steel through a band-saw, cutting out several knife-shaped chunks, and then, with a pair of tongs, laid one on a brick in his forge—a two-foot-square, gas-fired kiln. Kramer normally uses a pyrometer to tell him when a blade has reached its critical temperature. But on this particular day the gauge was on the blink, so he had to work the way Richtig and centuries of samurai swordsmen before him did: by eye. Visual acuity is paramount in bladesmithing, because the slightest temperature variance can mean the difference between a blade that’s tough and another that’s brittle.
The final tempering bath–a luxurious, two hour soak in molten salt that matches the temperatures of a household oven–lets the steel relax
Within two minutes the blade was a glowing orange, just shy of fifteen hundred degrees. Kramer picked up the tongs, removed the blade, and dropped it on the floor to cool. (The standard blacksmithing image has the smith beating the red metal with a hammer at this point; while many still do this, to eliminate bubbles and other irregularities, it’s seldom necessary with today’s industrially rolled steel.) After ten minutes, when the blade was cool enough to handle, Kramer gave it a quick, blunt edge on a grinding wheel. Then he wrapped a wire around its handle end and dangled it in a series of containers full of molten salt. The first of these baths, which sets the steel up for hardening, simmers near forging temperatures. The last—a luxurious two-hour soak that matches the baking levels of a household oven, let’s the steel relax; as the atoms inside the steel gradually migrate away from one another, they settle into roomy corners free of pressure from their neighbors. This is the “tempering” stage, and its what keeps any steel tool from being fragile. (Sometimes—depending on the grade of steel, and the hardness levels that Kramer is after—a knife will, before tempering, take a dip in a warm bucket of oil, or another full of dry ice and acetone.)
After lunch, Kramer pulled the blade from its final salt bath and hung it on a wire rack to finish cooling. Ten minutes later, he was standing in his sharpening room, slowly rocking the knife against a series of sandpaper belt grinders, coarse- and fine-grit wheels, and, finally, a soft cotton wheel coated with a waxy green polishing compound. Kramer now asked me to lay a long bolt across his anvil. He picked up the newly forged knife, held it on top of the bolt, reached for a heavy forging hammer, and started banging away. The bolt gave, but so did the knife. Damage to bolt: a quarter-inch cut. Damage to knife: a sixteenth-inch chip.
A belt grinder is one of a modern bladesmith’s best friends. Here, Kramer uses the grinder to round a knife’s back edge, know as the spine, adding comfort that is critical for restaurant cooks who spend hours chopping food. The rounding process takes only a few minutes for a practiced bladesmith. But that bit of personal attention has proven to be too much for Kramer’s industrial contractors, Kai of Japan and Zwillings of Germany. Despite their sophisticated modern machinery, neither company has been able to round the spines of their commercial lines of Kramer knives quite as smoothly as Kramer can by hand.
Kramer studied the pile of broken metal in his hand and looked up, amused. “Well, we know that’s not it.” He then repeated the process with a second blade, heating and cooling it at a different series of temperatures. This time, he tried an old trick: When sharpening the blade, he gave it a “beefy” edge, grinding it to a “V” that is wide rather than narrow. Kramer took this route reluctantly, knowing it would draw scorn from some bladesmiths. Sharpness, it turns out, is a surprisingly complex and contentious term. Any decent knife can be made sharp at its cutting edge; a key question, however, is the shape of the steel behind it—an issue that cutlery experts call “edge geometry.” A blade ground, for instance, with a wide, heavily angled geometry won’t move through fish or a tomato as smoothly as a narrow, tapered edge can. Nor will it leave as clean a cut, a demerit that can be vital to a gourmet chef. That’s because a clean cut leaves the food’s cellular structure more intact than a ragged cut will; and this better retains a food’s juices, where much of its flavor lies. (To test this yourself, try cutting an onion with a sharp knife and a dull one, and see which one makes you cry first.) But a hefty, wide edge has its merits. It will murder chicken bones; and so, Kramer figured, it ought to do a job on a bolt. Once again, Kramer, the bolt and I gathered at his anvil. Again the bolt split, this time leaving only a slight mark on the blade’s edge. Kramer’s eyes widened. “I think I just did it! Let’s do that again—that was fun!” Another whack, more success; but when it came to the final test—cutting newspaper—the knife failed. Kramer again examined his blade. “I’m still in the dark,” he said.
THE MEANING OF THE WORD SHARP
All of Kramer’s knives start out looking like this blank—in a form called a “full tang.” This means the knife contains one continuous piece of steel, from tip to end. (This is usually made visible with a line of steel running through the handle.) The alternative—a knife with a hidden or “rat-tail” tang”—is made with only a little post of steel above the blade portion. Since that post is small, and was usually affixed with a weld, it often has resulted in weakness; or, over time, a loose handle. The problem is rare these days thanks to modern bonding materials. But a knife with a full tang is still a mark of quality. Kramer adds a premium to his full tangs by tapering his blades in two directions: toward the tip at one end of the knife and toward the butt of the handle at the other. This leaves the knife thickest at its waist, the area just in front of this brass collar. The result is a knife that feels hefty, strong and stable near the handle, where chefs do their most forceful cutting, but still light and well balanced.
At dinner one night, while biting into a piece of tuna at a well-regarded sushi restaurant, Kramer suddenly stiffened. “Did you hear that?,” he asked, his mouth paralyzed mid-tuna. Kramer was sitting a good twenty feet from the kitchen, with his back to the chef; nonetheless, he had immediately recognized the faint sound of steel against steel, as the chef took a moment to work his knife over a sharpening rod. “That was really weird,” Kramer said. The incident startled Kramer for two reasons: First, professional chefs, especially sushi chefs, typically sharpen their knives at the beginning of the night’s work or at the end—almost never during mealtime. Second, and more important, anyone versed in Japanese cutlery knows that sharpening steels are meant for European cutlery, typically called “Western” knives, not Japanese cutlery. Either this chef, an elderly Japanese man, did not know how to use his own cutlery (unlikely) or he wasn’t using a real sushi knife (possible, but still strange). After our meal, Kramer approached the sushi counter, thanked the chef, and looked at his knife. It was a cheap Western chef’s knife, not even a sushi blade. Outside on the sidewalk, Kramer paused to absorb the incident. “You would never see that in Japan,” he said. The encounter explains a lot about the great war between Japanese and Western knives, and illuminates some of the cutlery world’s final frontiers. That story unfolds the moment these two types of knives hit a simple sharpening steel.
Since any decent knife can be made razor sharp, the ultimate question is what happens to it in the minutes, hours, and weeks after its first use, as cooks cut food. Part of the answer lies in the hardness of the steel, which is commonly measured by a family of devices called Rockwell scales. These punch steel with a pin, then calibrate its resistance from zero to near seventy. (Some of the world’s softest steels, with Rockwell ratings down in the teens, are found in our buildings and bridges, where elasticity is paramount; items such as train tracks and car axles fall somewhere in the middle, with Rockwells in the thirties and forties. At the top of the scale are tool steels, such as drill bits and ball bearings, and knives.) On the retail market, Western knives tend to be the softest, with Rockwell ratings in the middle to upper fifties. This makes a Western knife dull in a relatively forgiving fashion: the microscopic teeth at the knife’s edge bend over. A sharpening steel’s purpose, therefore, is to push back the blade’s teeth so they can stand up and cut again. (In this sense, a sharpening steel doesn’t actually sharpen; it just realigns, or “hones” the edge. But this is the key to maintaining a blade. On a Western knife, in fact, the tiny teeth are so soft that when honed, or even sharpened, they form a flimsy, invisible burr—best removed with a leather strop or wheel.) The Rockwell of a traditional Japanese knife, by contrast, runs in the middle sixties—at least near its edge, which is often harder than its more resilient back side. The blade’s profile also tends to be thinner, because Japanese cuisine revolves around comparatively soft foods (primarily fish and vegetables). If Japanese knives are restricted to such forgiving foods, and used carefully, they will remain sharp far longer than Western knives do; this is what cutlery dealers really mean when they say Japanese knives “are sharper.” When the edge of a Japanese knife dulls, however, its tiny teeth do not bend. They break off. Which is precisely what happens, quickly and disastrously, when a traditional Japanese knife is “steeled.” If damaged this way, Japanese knives can be fixed only with a proper set of sharpening stones or an expert re-grinding. This partly explains why they have been slow to catch on in Western kitchens. Americans simply eat more roughly than the Japanese do. We cook ribs and T-bone steaks. We split chickens. When halving an acorn squash or making a post-Thanksgiving sandwich, the average American reaches for any knife that’s handy—thick or thin—and treats a cutting board like a chopping block. As a result, any cutlery dealer can regale you with stories about customers who have come in, frustrated, with chipped Japanese knives. Kramer has been approached by dozens of professional chefs with this complaint, mostly during his six-year stint as a knife-sharpener—a business he once operated out of the back of an old bread truck.
Making a knife’s edge straight would seem to be the most basic step in a bladesmith’s process. But little curves can sneak into the edge, almost invisibly at first, at any point in a blade’s numerous stages of pounding, grinding and polishing. Such flaws can be impossible to eliminate, which is why Kramer repeatedly checks the alignment of an edge.
Kramer first became fascinated by sharpening when he was in his early twenties, hopping from restaurant to restaurant as a prep cook. In each kitchen, he found chefs who knew almost nothing about knives. (At many restaurants, in fact, the chefs got their knives sharpened by an old-timer who would drop by once a month to tune up knives in his van. For the next week, a lot of band-aids got used.) “These are our main tools,” Kramer recalls thinking. “Why don’t we know how to take care of them?” At this point, Kramer’s real ambition, the dream that drew him to Seattle, was to take to the sea, perhaps as an oceanographer. The idea came to him after reading Dove, the classic 1972 account of a young man’s solo sail around the world. Kramer, taken with the concept of self-sufficiency, saw himself doing something similar, “hanging out with Jacques Cousteau, riding the whales.” Once the realities of oceanography became clear, however, Kramer realized “I didn’t want to spend my life in a hold with a microscope.” Or, for that matter, in a hot kitchen. Independence beckoned again. He bought a business license, a few basic German knives, and sought out a cutler who would teach him how to sharpen.
Kramer took the course, returned to Seattle, built a forge in his garage, and almost burned his house down.
As might be expected from someone of his nature (his wife calls him obsessive-compulsive), Kramer approached the art of knife sharpening like an anthropological study. At first, all he found were the coarse, electric machines that would do little more than ruin a good knife. Then he heard about an unusual travel opportunity: for seven hundred dollars, Eastern Airlines was letting people design their own cross-country tours, with stops in six cities. Kramer chose New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Atlanta, San Francisco and, finally, his hometown of Seattle. At each stop, he recalled, “I went to every knife store I could find in the Yellow Pages, and asked to see their sharpening room,” Kramer told me. “Most of them turned me down.” Until he got to San Francisco, and small shop named Columbus Cutlery, a place still in operation in the city’s North Beach area that was then run by an elderly immigrant couple. The shop was packed, but when the husband, a cutler from Northern Italy, heard Kramer’s question he led him into his back room, which was outfitted with a variety of sharpening wheels, including a big water wheel, all slow turning on one big spindle. These gentle, varied tools were just what Kramer was looking for—his keys to producing a strong but refined edge. The cutler taught Kramer the nuances of the proper grind, how to lubricate a wheel with lard, and how to look for, and correct, irregularities in a blade. Kramer spent the next three years setting up his bread truck to look just like the Italian’s workshop.
Kramer financed the mobile sharpening business with his restaurant paychecks, entertaining himself along the way with stints at an improvisational theater. After six exhausting years of this routine, Kramer noticed an ad for a two-week course in Washington, Arkansas, where the American Bladesmith Society would teach people how to hand-forge knives. Kramer took the course, returned to Seattle, built a forge in his garage, and almost burned his house down. Four years later, in 1997, he was running a folk art import business and a hip little shop in a downtown warehouse that offered sharpening services and hand-made knives. Kramer now felt ready to seek a Master Smith’s certification, a coronation that the ABS holds once a year, in Atlanta, at the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair. He passed, on his first attempt, but he still vividly recalls his jitters the night before his evaluation. He woke up repeatedly, each time rushing to his suitcase of knives. He oiled them, he checked them over, sometimes he just cleaned them, one more time—anything that “would put some good ju-ju in ‘em.” Throughout his hotel, other bladesmiths were going through similar moments of panic.
When I visited the 2008 Blade Show, I got a chance to watch the collective anxiety unfold. On the show’s opening morning, twenty knifemakers arrived with hopes of being certified as either a Journeyman or a Master Smith. Most were already commercially successful—some sell their knives for thousands of dollars apiece. Still, the mineral oil and Q-tips were flying up to the very last moment. This was the aspiring bladesmiths’ final exam, their American Idol moment–an achievement so significant in the bladesmiths’ world that it has caught the interest of the craftsmen’s guilds of Europe.
“Sleep?” asked Larry Fast, a pipe fitter from Columbus, Ohio. He laughed. “My whole life is on the line, that’s all.”
The knifemakers had each brought five of their best knives, which they laid out on white tablecloths with their test knife—the fifteen-inch Bowie that each man (yes, they are all men), had used, under the watchful eye of a senior smith, to cut rope, lumber, and arm hair, and that was now bent ninety degrees. The judges, a collection of veteran Master Smiths, took every measure to convey the gravity of this moment, explaining that the slightest imperfection in a blade would fail the maker. The same goes for tardiness. In response, one smith, whose hotel was only ten minutes away, got up at three a.m. to make sure he wouldn’t be late. Another, an Australian named Shawn McIntyre, trumped Kramer’s routine, awakening “fifteen to twenty times” with a persistent dream that the wood on his dagger handle had shrunk by a quarter of an inch. (“I kept telling myself, ‘This can’t be happening. Go back to sleep!’”) None of them, when polled, reported having slept more than a few hours. (“Sleep?” asked Larry Fast, a pipe fitter from Columbus, Ohio. He laughed. “My whole life is on the line, that’s all.”) As a hazing ritual, the judges often tell smiths who are about to pass that they have “bad news”—a greeting that caused one applicant’s blood pressure to rise so high that he had to go to the hospital.
All of this may sound extreme, but so are the judges’ standards, which are neatly illustrated by the story of Bill Burke. In 2003, Burke made the pages of Blade magazine, which sponsors the Atlanta show, for making a knife that reportedly saved two truckers’ lives. According to a letter written by one of the survivors, the previous November, the truckers were driving through Georgia and Tennessee when a tornado at the border picked up their tractor-trailor and threw it, upside down, into a ditch. The truck’s cab was partially crushed, leaving the two men trapped inside as gasoline slowly leaked around them. The only tools available were two hand-made hunting knives, both made from the same grade of steel. The driver grabbed one and jabbed it into the cab wall, which was made of “double-thick-layered steel.” The knife snapped. So he tried again with the second knife, made by Burke. The knife pierced the steel, allowing him to cut a hole large enough for the men to crawl through. The blade survived as well, with only a small chip. When the news spread, orders for Burke’s knives poured in. Several years later, Burke applied for his master’s smithing stamp, and was turned down—for mistakes that apparently didn’t bother the show’s buyers. “Even though the judges failed me,” Burke told me, “all of the knives I brought were gone in about fifteen minutes.” One sold for forty-eight hundred dollars. This year, the judges finally passed him.
At this year’s show, Kramer’s role was to serve as a human display item at the booth for Kershaw, an old American knife company. Kershaw is now owned by Kai, the Japanese houseware and cutlery corporation that is manufacturing Kramer’s Sur La Table line, under its explosively successful brand, Shun. Kramer’s booth demands turned out to be light, however, so he spent most of his time racing around the exhibit hall, much to Kai’s amusement.
His frenzy was easy to understand. The place held eight hundred booths and tables offering items such as sheep horn and mammoth tusk for knife handles; myriad rods and sheets of metal; all manner of sharpening gear, wood, and precious stones; and, of course, thousands of knives. Curiously, while this is the world’s largest blade show, only a handful of the makers there produce kitchen knives. Most make sport and high-tech “tactical” knives, largely in pursuit of contracts from the military, which still regards a knife as the soldier’s ideal all-purpose tool, and the ultimate weapon of last resort. The result is an annual spread of staggering lethality: pocket knives of every design (and price) imaginable, sheath knives smaller than your little finger, medieval cleavers longer than your arm. At table after table, big men with thick fingers showed off hunting knives with steel patterns so intricate, one would think they were made by some diminutive Old World jeweler.
Much of this energy is relatively new. “When I first got into this business, in 1968, I had a hard time finding fifteen knifemakers from Alaska to Florida,” A.G. Russell, the ascot-wearing don of the modern knife market, told me. “I’ve got three thousand in my computer file now.” Nearly everyone credits much of this explosion to the Internet, which not only has made heretofore obscure items suddenly accessible, but also has spread knowledge about the craft behind these items to a younger generation. “The guys just starting out today, their knives are as good as the best makers’ fifteen to twenty years ago,” Steve Shackleford, Blade’s longtime editor, told me.
“One competitor was a man in his sixties who the judge said “cuts like he used to when he had hair.”
To see how these knives can perform, I watched a cutting contest one afternoon that the ABS staged in the parking lot outside the exhibit hall. The contestants, armed with massive knives made especially for these competitions, were being timed as they raced to cut through a stack of shingles, then another of unopened soda cans; several rolling golf and tennis balls; two two-by-fours; three pieces of tough, manila rope of assorted thicknesses up to two inches; a roll of bamboo six inches thick (this is an old samurai training trick that simulates cutting through a body); a large plastic bottle of water (straight down, starting with its cap); and a thick cardboard tube as many times as they could, as though preparing gourmet cucumber rounds. Most of them accomplished all of these feats in less than a minute. One was a man in his sixties who the judge said “cuts like he used to when he had hair.” When the contest finished, I inspected the competitors’ knives. Their razor edges were virtually intact.
To my surprise, most of these knives were not forged by master bladesmiths but ground out (although still by hand) from factory steel produced by Crucible Specialty Metals, of Syracuse, New York, one of the United States’ last remaining tool steel mills. The grade used in these knives was a high-tech alloy that holds an edge that is ferocious but difficult to sharpen. “It would probably eat up a water stone,” Kramer told me. Obstacles of this sort keep solo smiths like Kramer in business. A significant virtue of a Kramer knife is that it takes a keen edge, holds it well, yet it re-sharpens easily; one of Kramer’s fans, Charlie Palmer, the award-winning chef of the Aureole chain, told me he can revive the edge on his Kramer knife with “literally four or five motions” on a basic water stone. (Most sharpening stones are roughly the size of a cribbage board, and the best, a water stone, is a Japanese specialty. The finest of these are natural stones, composed of prehistoric sediment; but the more common type today is a ceramic composite.)
THE BIOLOGY OF A BLADE
Kramer’s knives achieve their level of performance partly because his steel has an unusually fine grain structure, but also because their Rockwell ratings hover around sixty—comfortably between Europe’s soft cutlery and the hard blades of Japan. Carbon steel does have the drawback that it rusts, which is what led, a century ago, to the invention of “stainless” steel. That term is actually something of a misnomer, since food acids and other liquids will eventually corrode any steel; for this reason, honest cutlers prefer the term “stain-resistant.” To be even stain-resistant, though, steel must contain chromium. But that creates an edge that is typically coarser, and more difficult to sharpen, than its carbon cousin.
To be fair, many ABS smiths make knives that perform as well as Kramer’s on a stone; a few even make kitchen knives. But cooks who have used a broad range of cutlery told me that Kramer’s knives have a balance, a physical comfort, a lightness and ease on the cutting board, and a sheer beauty that their competitors lack. Thomas Keller of California’s famed French Laundry restaurant calls his Kramer meat slicer his “show knife.” Another customer told Kramer that after he got one of his knives, he kept looking around his kitchen for more things to cut. Lisa McManus, a senior editor at Cook’s Illustrated, said that her testing team was surprised by how quickly and smoothly Kramer’s chef’s knife cut up a raw chicken. When her teammates attempted the same task with other knives, they were soon “sweating and cursing,” their blades slipping in their hands.
In the Blade Show exhibit hall, Kramer set out one morning in search of additional insights, specifically regarding Frank Richtig. This led him to Al Pendray, who was standing behind a table where some of the show’s most serious knife collectors were gathered. Al Pendray is a farrier (a horseshoer) in Williston, Florida; over the course of a fifty-year career he has shod, by his estimation, as many as two hundred and fifty thousand horses. Among those are five winners of the Kentucky Derby and several dozen others that have placed in a Triple Crown race. He is also a Master Bladesmith, and is famous for almost single-handedly recreating the ancient Persian method for making a highly distinctive form of steel called Damascus. The Damascus pattern originated sometime in the third or fourth century, A.D., but it has become commercially popular only recently, largely because of its evocative appearance: watery swirls on the blade’s surface. Today, the effect is typically achieved today by welding slabs of different metals together and then etching the surface to reveal their contrasts. The original Damascus, known as “wootz,” achieved its watery striations very differently: by growing those whorls, organically, within a single piece of steel. Wootz has long fascinated metalsmiths—first, because it was reputed to make unusually lethal weapons (legend has it that, during the Crusades, Muslim soldiers not only sliced up their European opponents but their swords as well); and, second, because in the early eighteen-hundreds, the technique for making wootz was pretty much lost. Ever since, European scientists, determined to rediscover the recipe for the steel that continually defeated them, have been experimenting and theorizing. Until one day in June, 1993, when a Florida horseshoer appeared at a Damascus conference in Hagen, Germany.
“Now I’m just a dummy backwoods blacksmith. You mean to tell me I got a micro chain-saw going here?” Well, Verhoeven said, that’s one way to look at it. “Oh man,” Pendray replied, “don’t come tell me this stuff!”
Pendray’s blades, which have an eerie, charcoal color, proved to be the first ever to match the old Persian patterns. Could they cut the same too? To find out, Pendray and one of his smithing partners, John Verhoeven, a professor emeritus of engineering at Iowa State University, subjected Pendray’s blades to an ancient Syrian test: cut a silk scarf as it floats to the ground. This may sound ridiculously easy for a good knife. But a scarf is so light that most knives, even when razor sharp, either grab the silk or leave a ragged cut. When the scarf was slashed by Pendray’s blade, Verhoeven told me, “it looked like it had been cut with a pair of scissors.” Verhoeven suspected something unusual involving carbides, which are compounds that result when carbon and other elements, such as iron or chromium, bond during forging. (Bladesmiths love carbides because they are hard and sharp, like tiny diamond rocks, and they they will do nearly anything to create more of them.) Pendray’s signal discovery was a way to control how the carbides aligned, which is what yielded wootz’s unique pattern. If luck strikes, Verhoeven explained, the carbides’ microscopic points can line up along a knife’s edge. Pendray’s response: “Now I’m just a dummy backwoods blacksmith. You mean to tell me I got a micro chain-saw going here?” Well, Verhoeven said, that’s one way to look at it. “Oh man,” Pendray replied, “don’t come tell me this stuff!”
Pendray may call himself a dummy blacksmith, but it’s more likely he is, as the old Southern saying goes, dumb like a fox. It took him and Verhoeven ten years to figure out the odd formula that would consistently produce wootz. (Pendray’s ingredients have included fresh-picked tree leaves, broken glass, oyster shells and, the crucial discovery—the tiniest pinch of vanadium, a basic element that steelmakers often call an “impurity.”) Pendray can now talk about the innards of steel with anyone, blacksmith or physics professor. That’s why Kramer stopped by his show table—to see what metallurgical frontiers Pendray could point him to that might make a knife cut a bolt.
Pendray promptly took Kramer on an hour’s conversational ride, through the ins and outs of how carbon and iron, the basic flour and water of steel, behave under various conditions. As ancient as these two ingredients are, their powers sometimes seem limitless. To Pendray, for instance, carbon is “one of the fastest moving little atoms. They’re very active. They boogie all around.” And they continually surprise–sometimes, Pendray said, “spheroidizing the whole cotton pickin’ thing!” (That’s when carbides in steel assume a spherical shape, which lessens a blade’s brittleness.)
Kramers Tools: A Photo Essay
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[See image gallery at craftsmanship.net]
Once Kramer had soaked up a sufficient supply of new possibilities, he walked me to the show’s garden-variety Damascus table. Here, with noticeable relief, he explained the basic differences between the average American smith’s treatment of this form (which he follows) and the variety generally found on industrial cutlery. In smith-made Damascus, carbon and other metals are forged into hundreds of layers, and often swirled throughout the knife the way vanilla and caramel are twisted into saltwater taffy. Commerical Damascus generally uses only a few dozen layers, which are then laminated onto regular knife steel creating something like a ham sandwich: the bread and condiments are the whorled Damascus; the ham in the middle is the blade’s core steel—the knife’s cutting edge. This technique of cladding had been devised by various Eastern cultures before high-grade steel was mass-produced, and it once had two practical purposes. First, it allowed smiths to save money, by surrounding a piece of good, hard steel with cheap, softer metal. Second, the softer jacket made the task of sharpening much easier. While this latter attribute still somewhat holds today, modern Damascus is usually made entirely of high-grade metals. The layered combination is attractive and, if the knife were ever used like an axe, the more resilient outer jacket might keep the knife from snapping in half. In a standard kitchen, though, today’s Damascus does nothing, despite cutlery dealers’ claims that variegated surfaces like this keep food from sticking to the blade. Nonetheless, plenty of respected cutlery is made this way, including some of the finest knives in Japan. Kramer’s Shun knives were being fabricated with this veneer, too, with some of today’s high-grade, stainless steels, in a design that he hoped would remain faithful to his core principles.
THE LAND OF THE SAMURAI
On his first morning in Japan, Kramer was treated to an unexpectedly tense meeting at Kai’s Shun factory, which is based in Seki City, a small industrial town in Japan’s geographic belly that was once a center for samurai sword-making, and is now known for its mass-produced cutlery. The factory is housed in a boxy, modern building and is surrounded by the tiny commercial vegetable gardens, many no bigger than half an acre, that are sprinkled throughout nearly every Japanese community outside downtown Tokyo. On the factory’s top floor, as Kramer, Sur La Table executives and other key players on Kramer’s industrial launch collected outside a conference room, eight women in matching checkered vests stood up in their cubicles and bowed in unison to greet us.
If Kramer plays like a dog, he is particularly interesting when he’s cornered. The meeting began with Kai insisting on a last-minute alteration that would shrink the size of Kramer’s name on his Shun blades–a change that revealed an embarrassing level of miscommunication between Kai executives. In a bizarre reversal of the Japanese’s reputation for doing whatever it takes to save face, Kai’s U.S. division chief, Jack Igarashi, let his team’s errors to spill out, piece by excruciating piece, almost in slow motion. After nearly thirty minutes of painfully tense discussions, Kai relented. Kramer’s name would remain prominently displayed on each blade. Then another revealing dispute transpired—this time, on an issue that matters to knife buyers, at least those who take cooking seriously. The dispute also offers a classic window into what gets lost—sometimes unnecessarily—when hand-made work by craftsmanship morphs into industrial mass-production.
The issue involved what seemed like a simple question—whether Kai could smooth out the blunt sides of Kramer’s knives. These sections of a blade—the “heel” at the back of a knife, and, more important, the “spine” along the top—are typically squared off, because that is how industrial machines stamp out a blade. But those harsh corners irritate the hand. As petty as this point may seem, it matters greatly to professional cooks. The Japanese, for instance, control their knives by pressing their forefingers on the spine. Western cooks often go further, and “choke up” on a blade when they chop food; I’ve talked to some who showed me deep, cracked callouses at the base of their forefingers—purely because most knife manufacturers don’t understand this simple dilemma. An extreme example is Hattori, one of Japan’s highest-end makers, which spent two years designing new chef’s knives through an online dialogue with American customers. Several asked repeatedly for an “eased” spine, yet Hattori ignored their pleas. Kramer, like many custom smiths in both Japan and the U.S., has not missed this sore spot. He puts a “crowned” spine and rounded heel on each of his custom knives, and for months had been pushing Kai to do the same. “We talked about it,” Epstein now said. “We just didn’t have the skill to do it.”
While the Japanese were perfecting assembly-line craftsmanship, the Germans perfected their robots.
Kramer was baffled by this. Kai is one of the kings of cutlery expertise. It is Japan’s leading producer of surgical blades, which must achieve tolerances so fine that they can be graded only under a microscope. When it came to Kai’s kitchen cutlery, its industrial process was distinguished by its emphasis on hand-finishing—a system we had just witnessed during a tour where we watched most of the factory’s workforce, each with a single knife in hand, bent over grinding wheels. During the tour, Epstein himself had proudly boasted that before each Kramer knife was finished, it would be touched by one hundred fifty people—roughly ninety percent of the factory’s workforce. Epstein now argued that, even if those workers could be taught to crown a blade, the extra time it would take would price Kramer’s knives out the market. Kramer disagreed, and performed a mock demonstration of how he crowns a knife on a grinder within minutes. Epstein grimaced. “None of the mass produced knives in the marketplace have a crowned spine,” he said.
Laborers hand finishing knives at the Shun factory of Kai Cutlery in Seki City, Japan
Kramer drew a slow, deep breath. Only moments before, Epstein had just been talking to the Sur La Table executives about the retail market’s continual need for new knife designs; he’d even proposed expanding on a popular blade that has been rated as ineffective. “You’re spending so much time trying to be innovative,” Kramer said. “This is a very simple innovation that will pay off for the life of the knife, and that every serious cook will appreciate, every time they use it. And the thing is, no one is doing it.”
THE INTERNATIONAL CUTLERY WARS
In the following days, Kai entertained its guests royally while continuing to stumble with more design and production details. This concerned the Sur La Table people, and their difficulties say a lot about the upheaval that has occurred in the cutlery market. For most of the past century, European knife makers (primarily Wusthoff and Henckels, the two German giants) have dominated the retail knife market. The reason derives not only from the German blade’s ruggedness but also from its mass-market affordability. In essence, while the Japanese were perfecting assembly-line craftsmanship, the Germans perfected their robots.
As the new century dawned, American cooks found their appetite for fine tools. Kai was one of the first cutlery firms to notice this trend, jumping on it in 2003 with its Shun line. Suddenly, culinary aficionados began talking about those clunky German knives. The Germans responded by struggling to catch up with the Japanese, but did so with noticeably Teutonic flair. An example was Henckels’ new line of Japanese-style knives, which is made in a factory the company opened about 10 years ago in Kai’s industrial backyard, Seki City. Labor assignments at the Henckels factory are the exact reverse of Kai’s: only fifteen percent of the operation’s one hundred workers do any hand labor on the knives; the others primarily drive robots. The result? Mostly gorgeous, Japanese-style knives with a bit of German weight and clumsiness. As Kramer put it after visiting with some Henckels’ executives in Tokyo, “Craftsmanship—I’m not sure it includes robots.”
In the meantime, international demand for Shun cutlery outstripped Kai’s capacities, leaving its executives scrambling to please everyone. Months after this trip, when Kramer’s Shun knives finally hit the Sur La Table stores, it was clear that Kai had put a little more effort into refining his knives. But the spines and heels, and the knives’ handles, still did not compare to those on a custom Kramer. As a further slap in the consumer’s face, Kai included a small honing steel in each set of Kramer knives. But the steels were so coarse that their most likely effect is to damage Kai’s blades—or at least wear them out prematurely. When Kramer asked Kai to replace the honing device with something better, Kai said they’d look into it. But they never made the change. Years later, Kramer got a chance to produce another commercial line of his knives with Henckels’ parent company, Zwillings, and was impressed with how much closer they were able to get to his custom details than Shun could. But Zwillings dared to sell these knives at a premium, some for nearly $2,000 apiece. At that price, Kramer, and Zwillings, could ask factory laborers for some attention to detail that was beyond what Kai could afford.
How a Japanese Factory Makes a Knife
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[See image gallery at craftsmanship.net]
Japan, of course, has no shortage of expert knifemakers. Curiously, whenever fine cutlery has gotten media attention, most of the food-writing press has, in its gullibility, misleadingly focused on the mass-produced knives coming out of Seki City (billed as the birthplace of the samurai sword) or the hand-forged cutlery made in one southern city, Sakai. While the cutlery in Sakai is indeed top-notch, it tends to adhere to the ultra-traditional Japanese style, which is not always easy for Westerners to handle. The blades’ edges, which are unusually thin and delicate, are ground to a “single bevel”—that is, angled on only one side; the opposite side seems completely flat, but it’s actually slightly concave. For a skilled chef, a blade with this geometry can turn a cucumber or radish into perfect, paper-thin rounds. For a cook with lesser skills, the cucumber will promptly become a mess—a pile of unevenly cut slices—to say nothing of what might happen to such a delicate blade, or your finger. Knowing this, many Japanese knifemakers, when producing for export, create blades with the softer, double-bevel edges that are common in the West. Most of these are factory made, but in a few small corners of Japan, solo artisans hand-forge blades in both the Japanese and Western style. Kramer was therefore eager to find some of these ambidextrous masters—to test his own techniques, and to pick up whatever tricks he could.
INTO THE HEART OF JAPANESE CRAFTSMANSHIP
The region most known for bi-hemispheric cutlery is the province of Niigata, a few hours northwest of Tokyo. Kramer had once looked at several knives that were made here, part of a collection I once picked up from a California importer. All of the blades were supposedly exemplary, but he was particularly captured by one–a simple, crude-looking kitchen knife made by a blacksmith named Junichi Takagi. “This knife is very cool,” Kramer said the moment he touched the blade. “It’s going to cut like crazy. I bet it will get sharper the more you use it.” To confirm his impressions, Kramer had subjected Takagi’s knife to a series of standard bladesmith tests. The blade’s behavior—its “toothiness,” its sparking pattern when put to a grinding wheel, its capacity, as Kramer put it, “to cut rope all day”—suggested something unusual might be going on. So he sent the blade in for a laboratory analysis to determine its chemistry. The results showed trace elements of tungsten, not commonly found in American tool steels. Kramer suspected that if a steel of this type were combined with his other steels, it might create a unique Damascus edge. “You’re getting, basically, three different surfaces,” Kramer had told me. “It’s freakishly good cutting material. It’s like a bladesmith’s wet dream. It’s knife pornography.”
On a rainy July morning in Yoita, a small Niigata town, I followed Kramer into a narrow, smoky shop, where we were greeted by Takagi, a smiling, miniature man of seventy-two whose hands were as black as the soot all over his walls. Takagi is reputedly Japan’s last maker of the hand-crafted adz (which is essentially a carpenter’s hoe, used to hand-shape wooden beams). Takagi, we soon learned, is burdened with a commercial paradox: he has become famous for his adzes, some of which sport gorgeous Damascus waves. But carpenters don’t use an adz much anymore. So the demand for his primary expertise is shrinking. To compensate, Takagi recently started making kitchen knives. He didn’t put much research into the endeavor, drawing instead on what he had learned from building a tool that must endure hours of slamming through lumber. That experience is what led Takagi to choose a blend of steel laced with tungsten, a metal known for its resistance to wear. Kramer politely inquired about Takagi’s source, and soon had a steel order in the works.
The moment we entered their workshop, Kramer gasped. This, at last, was the environment he had been looking for: the ultimate blend of tradition and modern science.
Before we left, Takagi told us, in a moment of classic Japanese humility, that despite fifty years of experience making tools, he was still learning, still striving “to reach my goal.” When I asked what that goal was, he was taken aback. After an awkward pause, he said that his dream was to be classified by the government as a Living National Treasure—an honor currently reserved, in the realm of tools and cutlery, for a select group of samurai swordmakers. Later, reflecting on our visit, Kramer said it was a shame that Takagi could not be graced with the honors he deserved. Just days before, during a tea ceremony hosted by Kai’s president, Kramer had a chance to drink from a ceramic cup that was made by one of Japan’s master potters–a group that is eligible for National Treasure status. Many of the cups at this ceremony were made with relatively simple designs, yet they sell for up to $100,000 apiece. Takagi’s Damascus adz sells for the price of a nice pair of shoes.
The next morning, we visited Niigata’s most highly regarded bladesmithing shop, Shigefusa, which is run by the Iizuka family in the town of Sanjo. The moment we entered their workshop, Kramer gasped in admiration. This, at last, was the environment he had been looking for: the ultimate blend of tradition and modern science. A dirt floor runs along the bulk of the shop’s workspace. Sitting on one side was a small, low workbench that looked like a museum piece from pre-industrial times. The bench functions as a vise: with the aid of a wooden peg, it held the knife still while the smith shaves and shapes its concave side. The Ii