One fall evening in 2007, 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 took on this task 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 cooked and served. Without a sharp knife, the task of cleaning and trimming abalone becomes an act of crude carpentry, and a potentially bloody one.
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 one last time, with more 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, so the boning knife's challenges captured his curiosity, and he asked me to put it in the mail. A week later I got a phone call: "It's old, high-speed tool 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." Nevertheless, 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 World War One 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."
Proceed as the way opens
At the time of this conversation, Kramer was 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), he 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, 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.
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 first round of commercial knives would be manufactured. And I was lucky enough to trail behind him. I soon discovered that Kramer's itinerary matched the way he lives: continually engaged in a restless, almost insatiable search for essences; for the soul of craftsmanship; for perfection in a household tool.
Most bladesmiths come out of the ranch lands 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. In his mid-fifties when I first met him, 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, for example, 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. 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 that if the knife didn't satisfy, he should just say so. "I'll bake another for you." And he did, without pause. That move was in concert with one of Kramer's life habits, which is 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 him 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 he 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. And sure enough, they continually serve their purpose, both aesthetically and functionally.
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.
For the complete version of this story, please go to Craftsmanship Quarterly.
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 master bladesmiths in Japan, and his idiosyncratic pursuit of perfection. It also includes photographs, videos, and a new sidebar on Kramer's recent quest to make a knife out of a meteorite.
Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine's newsletters.