Printed November 2008
By Todd Oppenheimer
Bob Kramer and the Secret Lives of Knives
Bob Kramer is one of a hundred and twenty-two people in the world, and the only former chef, to have been certified in the United States as a Master Bladesmith. To earn that title, which is conferred by the American Bladesmith Society, Kramer underwent five years of study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives. One of those was a roughly finished, fifteen-inch bowie knife, which Kramer had to use to accomplish four tasks, in this order: cut through an inch-thick piece of Manila rope in a single swipe; chop through a two-by-four, twice; place the blade on his forearm and, with the belly of the blade that had done all the chopping, shave a swath of arm hair; and, finally, lock the knife in a vise and permanently bend it ninety degrees. The combination of these challenges tests steel’s two chief but conflicting capabilities: its flexibility and its hardness.
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 amount of nickel, manganese, or some other selection of chemistry’s basic elements. The amalgams continue to respond in ways that baffle the most experienced metallurgists. Even so, he has not done badly. One morning, the no-nonsense culinary magazine Cook’s Illustrated called his shop, in Olympia, Washington, and ordered one of his knives to include in an equipment-rating article. Kramer worked into the night for three days, and then shipped off an eight-inch chef ‘s knife. When the magazine’s story ran, last year, it included a small sidebar asking whether such a seemingly straightforward knife could be worth its exorbitant cost (four hundred and seventy-five dollars, at the time). 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 commercial line of knives, which the store introduced this fall. 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. 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-theatre performer, and, for a year in his twenties, a Ringling Brothers clown–arrives at knife shows looking like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur: button-down silk shirts, neatly pressed slacks, a thin goatee on a sharp face. Now fifty, 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 lookout for fun. He is almost allergic to advance planning. One morning in 1997, when he was refining the design for his chef ‘s knife, a passerby, stunned by the sight of a blacksmith’s shop in downtown Seattle (Kramer moved to Olympia in 2005), popped in and started badgering him with ideas. Rather than drive the visitor away, Kramer listened to him. It turned out that the man was a sailor, and he was adamant that the shape of Kramer’s blade should match the lines of a Six-Metre sloop–a curve, he argued, that holds universal value. That line remains one of the hallmarks of a Kramer knife.
Earlier this year, when Kramer took me inside his shop (a quintessential prefab industrial cavern), he explained why he’s no longer a chef: “I decided I wanted to make something that lasted longer than a meal.” Tools, thick leather aprons and gloves, dusty old swords, and strips of steel in various stages of knifeness were strewn everywhere. Stacked along one wall were approximately a hundred plates (six feet long, two feet wide, a quarter inch thick) of Kramer’s favorite grade of steel. The pile would 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 in an hour.) Surrounding the steel was a cornucopia of metal in various forms: bars and rods of assorted lengths, thicknesses, and grades; bags of specialized powders; and a scattering of power tools that hammer, cut, or squeeze.
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 “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” for an act that he performed at 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!” (Cutting paper may not sound like much, but it’s a surprisingly demanding test of blade sharpness which is still in use, even in modern factories.) Richtig supposedly had a special system for heat-treating his blades, which he never revealed. To this day, scholarly papers occasionally appear in the annals of metallurgy which 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 steel plate 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 that Richtig and centuries of samurai swordsmen before him did: by eye. Visual acuity is paramount in bladesmithing, because slight temperature variances can mean the difference between a blade that’s tough and another that’s brittle. Within two minutes, this blade was a glowing orange, just shy of fifteen hundred degrees. Kramer picked up his tongs, removed the blade, and dropped it on the floor to cool. (The standard blacksmithing image has the smith beating the blade with a hammer at this point; while many still do this, to eliminate bubbles and the like, 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, lets 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, the final step that keeps a blade 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 cool. 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.
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–but this time he tried an old trick: when sharpening the blade, he gave it a “beefy” edge, grinding it to a relatively wide V. Kramer took this route reluctantly, knowing that it might draw scorn. Sharpness, it turns out, is a surprisingly complex and contentious notion. Any decent knife can be made sharp at its cutting edge; what matters is the shape of the steel behind it–what cutlery experts call “edge geometry.” A blade that is ground, for instance, with wide, heavily angled geometry won’t move through fish or a tomato as smoothly as a thin, tapered edge can, but it will murder chicken bones; and so, Kramer figured, it ought to do a job on a bolt. This time, the bolt split and left 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.
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. Kramer was sitting a good twenty feet from the kitchen, with his back to the chef, but he immediately recognized the faint sound of steel against steel, as the chef took a moment to work his knife over a metal rod called a honing or sharpening steel. “That was really weird,” Kramer said. 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. Moreover, sharpening steels are meant for European, or “Western,” cutlery, not Japanese. Either this chef, an elderly Japanese man, did not know how to use his own cutlery (which was unlikely) or he wasn’t using a sushi knife. After our meal, Kramer approached the sushi counter, thanked the chef, and peeked 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 cutlery, a story that unfolds the moment these two kinds of knives hit a simple sharpening steel.
Since any good 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 stand up and cut again. (In this sense, a sharpening steel doesn’t actually sharpen; it just realigns, or “hones,” the edge. On a Western knife, in fact, the hairlike edge is often so soft that, when sharpened, it forms a flimsy, invisible burr, which is best removed with a compound-soaked leather wheel or strop.) 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 relatively yielding foods (primarily fish and soft vegetables). If Japanese knives are restricted to this cuisine, and used carefully, they will remain sharp far longer than Western knives do; this is what cutlery dealers really mean when they say that Japanese knives are “sharper.” When the edge of a Japanese knife dulls, however, its tiny teeth do not bend: their points break off. That’s what happens, quickly and disastrously, when a traditional Japanese knife is “steeled.” If damaged like this, Japanese knives can be fixed only with a proper set of sharpening stones or an expert regrinding. 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.
Kramer first became fascinated by sharpening in the mid-nineteen-eighties, when he was in his early twenties, and was hopping from restaurant to restaurant as a prep cook. In each kitchen, he met chefs who knew almost nothing about knives. “These are our main tools,” he recalls thinking. “Why don’t we know how to take care of them?” Kramer decided to learn everything he could about the process. At first, all he found were the coarse electric sharpening machines popular at the time, which 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 home town of Seattle. At each stop, he recalled, “I went to every knife store I could find in the Yellow Pages, and asked to see its sharpening room.” Most turned him down. Then he arrived in San Francisco, where, at a small shop named Columbus Cutlery, an elderly Italian man led him into a room outfitted with a variety of sharpening wheels, all slowly turning on one big spindle. 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. Upon returning to Seattle, Kramer spent the next three years setting up his truck to look just like the Italian’s workshop.
One evening, 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 three folk-art import stores and a hip little shop in a downtown warehouse which offered sharpening services and handmade knives. Kramer now felt ready to seek a Master Bladesmith’s certification, a coronation that the A.B.S. confers once a year, in Atlanta, at the Blade Show and International Cutlery Fair. Kramer passed, on his first attempt, but he still vividly recalls his jitters the night before his exam. He woke up repeatedly, oiling and cleaning his knives again and again–anything that “would put some good juju in ’em.” Throughout his hotel, other bladesmiths were going through similar moments of panic.
When I visited this year’s convention, 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 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 old craftsmen’s guilds of Europe. The knifemakers had each brought five gallery-quality knives, which they laid out on white tablecloths with their test knife–the fifteen-inch bowie that each man (all were 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, explained that the slightest imperfection in a blade would cause the maker to fail. The same went for tardiness. In response, one smith, whose hotel was only ten minutes away, got up at 3 A.M. to make sure that he wouldn’t be late. Another, an American based in Australia named Shawn McIntyre, said that he woke up “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 reported having slept more than a few hours. (“Sleep?” a pipe fitter from Columbus, Ohio, asked. 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 this may sound extreme, but so are the judges’ standards, which are neatly illustrated by the story of Bill Burke. In 2002, a trucker used Burke’s knife to escape from a wreck. The trucker had first tried another knife, made of the same steel, but it snapped; Burke’s knife cut a large hole in the truck’s cab, reportedly made of “double-thick-layered steel,” and suffered only a mild chip. When the news spread, knife orders poured in. Several years later, Burke applied for his master’s smithing stamp, but the judges turned him 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.
Kramer’s role at this year’s show was to serve as a human display item at the booth for the U.S. division of 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.
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 (partly in pursuit of contracts from the military, which still regards a knife as the soldier’s ideal all-purpose tool, and the 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, and medieval cleavers longer than your arm. At table after table, big men with thick fingers showed off knives with such intricate patterns that one would think they were made by a diminutive Old World jeweller.
Much of this energy is relatively new. “When I first got into this business, in 1964, 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.” The surge of interest seems partly due to the Internet, which not only has made once obscure items suddenly accessible but has also 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, the editor of the magazine Blade, told me.
To see how these knives can perform, I watched a cutting contest one afternoon, staged in the parking lot outside the exhibit hall. The contestants, armed with huge knives made especially for these competitions, were being timed as they 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, meant to simulate 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 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-sharp edges were virtually intact.
To my surprise, most of these knives were not forged by 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, which holds an edge that is ferocious but difficult to sharpen. “It would probably eat up a water stone,” Kramer told me. In some ways, these obstinate alloys keep solo smiths in business. A significant virtue of a forged Kramer knife is that it takes a keen edge, holds it well, yet sharpens easily; one of Kramer’s fans, Charlie Palmer, the award-winning chef of the Aureole restaurants, told me that he can revive the edge on his Kramer knife with “literally four or five motions” on a basic water stone (which is about the size of a cribbage board). Kramer’s knives achieve this level of performance because their Rockwell ratings hover around sixty–comfortably between Europe’s soft cutlery and the hard blades of Japan–and because his carbon steel has an unusually fine grain structure. Carbon steel does have the drawback that it rusts, which is what led, a century ago, to the invention of “stainless” steel. This 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, which creates an edge that is normally coarser, and more difficult to sharpen, than its carbon cousin.
To be fair, many A.B.S. smiths make carbon-steel 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 that their competitors lack. Thomas Keller, of California’s French Laundry restaurant and New York’s Per Se, calls his Kramer meat slicer his “show knife.” 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 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; in 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 re-creating 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: a watery swirl on the blade’s surface. Today, the effect is typically achieved by welding slabs of different metals together and then etching the surface to reveal their contrasts. The original Damascus, now known as “wootz,” achieved its watery striations very differently: by growing those whorls, organically, within a single piece of metal. Wootz has long fascinated metalsmiths–first, because it was reputed to make unusually lethal weapons (legend has it that, during the Crusades, Muslim soldiers sliced up not only 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 have been experimenting and theorizing. Then, one day in June of 1993, a Florida horseshoer appeared at a Damascus conference in Hagen, Germany.
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 knives to an ancient Eastern test: cut a silk scarf as it floats to the ground. 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 microscopic diamonds.) Pendray’s signal discovery was a way to control how the carbides aligned, which yielded wootz’s unique pattern. If luck strikes, Verhoeven explained, those carbides can line up along a knife’s edge.
Pendray’s initial forays were hit or miss; it took him and Verhoeven ten years to figure out a recipe that produces wootz consistently. (The ingredients have included fresh-picked tree leaves, broken glass, oyster shells, and a pinch of vanadium.) 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 new metallurgical findings Pendray could suggest that might help 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. Carbon, Pendray says, “is one of the fastest-moving little atoms. They’re very active. They boogie all around.” And they continually surprise, Pendray said, sometimes “spheroidizing the whole cotton-pickin’ thing!” (That’s when carbides in steel assume a spherical shape, lessening the metal’s brittleness.)
Once Kramer had soaked up enough new possibilities, he walked me to a table that offered some of the garden-variety Damascus that’s made today. Here, he explained the differences between the average American smith’s treatment of this form (which he follows) and the version generally found on industrial cutlery. In smith-made Damascus, carbon steel and other metals are forged into hundreds of layers, and often mixed throughout the knife the way vanilla and caramel are twisted into saltwater taffy. Commercial Damascus generally uses only a few dozen layers, and the pattern is 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 a practical purpose. It allowed smiths to surround a strip of good, hard steel with cheap, softer metal. Modern Damascus, however, is usually made entirely of high-grade metals. The combination is attractive and, if the knife were ever used like an axe, the slightly softer jacket might keep a blade from snapping in half. In a standard kitchen, though, today’s Damascus does virtually nothing, despite cutlery dealers’ claims that rough surfaces keep food from sticking to the blade. Still, plenty of respected cutlery is made with these laminations, including some of the finest knives in Japan. Kramer’s Shun knives were being fabricated this way, too, with some of today’s new, high-grade, stainless steel, in a design that he hoped would remain faithful to his principles.
O n Kramer’s first morning in Japan, he 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 that is surrounded by the tiny commercial vegetable gardens, many no bigger than half an acre, that speckle nearly every Japanese city outside central Tokyo. On the factory’s top floor, as Kramer and the leading players from Kai and Sur La Table collected outside a conference room, eight women in matching checkered vests stood up in their cubicles and bowed in unison to greet everyone. Almost immediately, though, the meeting led to conflict over last-minute changes, one of which involved a seemingly simple matter: whether Kai could smooth out the blunt sides of Kramer’s knives. These edges–the “heel,” at the back of the blade, near the handle, and, more important, the “spine,” along the top–are typically squared off, because that is how industrial machines stamp out a blade. But the harsh corners can 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 forefinger 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 calluses at the base of their forefingers. Knowing this, Kramer, like many smiths, puts a “crowned” spine and a rounded heel on each of his custom knives, and for months he had been pushing Kai to do the same. “We talked about it,” Dennis Epstein, Kai U.S.A.’s senior manager, said. “We just didn’t have the skill to do it.”
Kramer was baffled by this. Kai’s industrial process, after all, was distinguished by its emphasis on hand-finishing–a process we had just witnessed during a tour, where we saw most of the factory’s workforce bent over grinding wheels. But Epstein argued that the time it would take to crown a knife would price Kramer’s knives out of 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. Yet hadn’t Epstein just been talking to the Sur La Table executives about the retail market’s continual need for new knife designs? “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’s doing it.” (Months later, when Kramer’s Shun knives hit the stores, there was noticeable improvement. But the spines and heels, and the handles, did not compare to those on a custom Kramer.)
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 recent upheavals in the cutlery market. For most of the past century, European knifemakers (primarily Wusthof and Henckels, the two German giants) have dominated the market for mass-produced cutlery. In essence, while the Japanese were perfecting assembly-line craftsmanship, the Germans perfected their robots. Over the past decade, however, American cooks began to grow interested in Japanese knives, a trend that Kai jumped on, in 2003, with its Shun line. Suddenly, culinary aficionados began talking about those “clunky” German knives. Demand for Shun cutlery soon outstripped Kai’s capacities, leaving its executives scrambling to please everyone.
Japan, of course, has no shortage of expert knifemakers, and Kramer managed to visit several in Niigata, a province north of Tokyo that specializes in a variety of handmade tools, including kitchen cutlery. While most small Japanese bladesmithing shops make knives only in the Japanese style–that is, with a one-sided, “single bevel” edge–Niigata smiths also forge knives with the symmetrical, double bevel that is popular in the West. One is Junichi Takagi, a tiny seventy-one-year-old with soot-black hands who is reputedly Japan’s last artisan of carpenter’s adzes. He also makes a simple, crude-looking kitchen knife that Kramer was particularly taken with. “I bet it will get sharper the more you use it,” Kramer told me. During tests, the behavior of Takagi’s steel–its sparks on a grinding wheel, its “toothy” capacity to cut rope again and again–suggested ingredients that Kramer thought would, when combined with his own steels, create a distinctive Damascus edge. “You’re getting, basically, three different surfaces,” he said. “It’s freakishly good cutting material.” Takagi, after all, was accustomed to making tools that had to survive hours of slamming through lumber. Sure enough, his steel, which is especially wear-resistant because it contains tungsten, was a kind that Kramer cannot find in the United States. He promptly ordered some.
Before we left, Takagi, who works in a narrow, smoky shop, mentioned, 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 as a Living National Treasure by the government–an honor currently reserved, in the realm of tools and cutlery, for a select group of samurai-sword makers.
One morning, when Kramer was back in Seattle, he called with some exciting news: a package had just arrived from the nation’s leading Richtig knife collector, Harlan Suedmeier. “There are about twelve knives in there,” Kramer said. “My heart is pounding. They’re cool. They are very simple, and they are thin. If these things go through a bolt, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
Although Richtig collectors tend not to test their knives, Suedmeier was willing to let Kramer test two “to destruction.” Kramer soon struck his best Richtig pose and started hammering. The blade crumpled. Kramer was crestfallen; then he found one of Richtig’s old advertisements, in which the smith acknowledged using wider edges for demonstrations. Kramer retraced his Atlanta conversation with Pendray, returned to his metallurgy books, and discovered a diagram that might lead to a crucial refinement. Then he forged some steel that, when broken open, revealed an unusually “creamy” grain structure. He promptly sent some samples to a laboratory, to see if the grain size was dropping to a level that would allow some extra hardness without lessening the blade’s resilience.
To his surprise, the laboratory report came back with only a partial reading: apparently, Kramer’s grain structure was so fine that the laboratory’s microscope couldn’t bring the particles into focus. Elated, Kramer returned to his forge. Days later, he sent me a photograph of a bolt and a baby pork bone, both splayed open with numerous slices. Lying on top of them was a blade with a fat but unchipped edge. Kramer had cut a newspaper with it, too. He knew it was not a knife for tomatoes, but it was enough to make him dream about more experiments when his Japanese steel arrived, and another possible breakthrough: a kitchen knife that would cut through a cooked lamb bone. “That,” he said, “would be huge.”