Printed March 1998
Master of the Blade
By Schuyler Ingle
Some of Kramer’s classmates, who came from as far away as New Zealand and France, were professionals; some, like Kramer, were just learning–but every day at lunchtime, they’d all walk to the local inn and talk knives.
Kramer came home an apprentice knife maker and a member of the American Bladesmith’s Society. He also came home with the life-changing knowledge that with time and skill he could make a kitchen knife better than any other on the commercial market. “I’ve spent years and years figuring out what makes a great knife,” he explains. Kramer’s voice, while gentle, is direct and carries with it the weight of a man absolutely confident about and excited by what he does. “When I go to the Asian art museum in Seattle and look at a 1,500-year-old Japanese sword, I feel a connection to the guy who made it. The sword maker had only primitive tools and his experience, and he was able to turn out something technically perfect and visually stunning. It’s really satisfying to be doing a similar thing and have those people as an inspiration.” Though knives were at the end of Kramer’s search for self-discovery, they were also, in a way, a beginning. He now spends time traveling and exploring in southeast Asia, and on a trip to Indonesia a year and a half ago, he met a 12th generation maker of krises (daggers with a serpentine blade that are a sacred part of Indonesian culture). Kramer didn’t speak a word of his language, and the old kris didn’t understand English, but, says Kramer, they talked for hours in the language of fire and steel.
Kramer opened his Seattle shop, Bladesmith’s, in 1993 and now has about $50,000 invested in it. “Ideally I’d like to just do custom-made knives, but it’s not an easy way to make a living,” he says. To supplement what accounts for 30 percent of business, he stocks the same Trident and Forschner knives he started selling, and he still sharpens. He spends ten to twelve hours a day in the shop, and lives in what he calls his “downtown artist’s studio”–an apartment filled with books on every kind of art. “I’m really into ceramics lately, and my girlfriend and I have been working on that when I’m not at the shop.”
The kitchen knives that Kramer forges at Bladesmith’s are of heirloom quality, with beautifully polished blades and exquisite handles carved from cocobolo, a hard, dark wood that is rich in oils. But they’re working knives, too, designed to last the lifetimes of several generations of cooks. He makes chef’s knives in three sizes, as well as filleting, boning, paring, slicing, and bread knives, and they range in price from $125 to $225. For Kramer, the recipe for a great knife begins with carbon steel, which is stronger, easier to sharpen, and takes a much keener edge than stainless steel. He heats the steel to a forging temperature between 1700° F and 2100° F and, with a hydraulic hammer, slowly draws the metal out like taffy, and into shape. (A good bladesmith, according to Kramer, can complete 90 percent of the blade-shaping process between the forge and the hydraulic hammer.) The blade is finished at the grinding wheel, to the precise shape demanded by its function. For Kramer, this means the various cooking knives, as well as period pieces and ethnic replica. (He recently completed a Japanese tanto, a 16th century fighting knife.)
Shaping is followed by heat treating, an almost magical process that stabilizes the properties of the steel. By taking the blade through a series of temperatures (on the cold end, as low as minus 300 ° F), the steel is made hard enough to retain a very sharp edge while remaining flexible. Finally, Kramer attaches the handle and sharpens the blade to perfection. Once Kramer has set the edge on one of his knives, only a minimal amount of maintenance is required to preserve if for as long as a year without resharpening. Carbon steel does demand a little extra attention, however; If you leave water on the blade, it can rust, but wiping it dry is all the protection the steel needs. Acidic foods can discolor the knife, but having it polished brightens it right up.
Two years ago, Kramer was awarded the title of journeyman bladesmith by a panel of master blade smiths. Last year, he submitted five of his hand-forged knives to a similar panel for the master bladesmith’s test. Each knife had to be flawless in order for Kramer to pass, and every one was. Kramer is now one of 67 recognized master knifemakers in the U.S.
“I can put all my time into an art knife somebody’ll hang on the wall,” says Kramer. “But there’s something special about making a knife that’s going to be used, especially in the kitchen. What I strive to do is combine beautiful metal and handles with function. That way, the creative energy gets passed along–it keeps moving past me, through the blade.”
Graduates of every major cooking school in the country have come through Bob Kramer’s shop, and he’s reached this conclusion: The students are taught a lot more about using their knives than about caring for them To keep your knives in good condition, Kramer suggests a few basic rules:
Sharpening Have your knives professionally sharpened once a year. Sharpening devices made for the home too often take the profile out of the knife, leaving you with a chef’s knife that can’t be used correctly.
Maintenance Invest in a ceramic stick and hone the edge of your blade by steeling it between sharpening. To steel, anchor the tip of the stick on a cutting board and place one side of the knife’s edge against the stick at a 20° angle. Keeping that angle and making an even motion, draw the edge across the stick from the base of the blade to the tip. Repeat with opposite side.
Storage Keep your knives in a wooden block or in plastic edge guards. This will protect the blade and prevent if from being bent or chipped by other utensils.
Using Always cut on a board made of wood. Marble, metal, glass, and even plastic surfaces can dull the knife’s edge.