This is my knife. There are … actually, there are none like it, and this one is mine. My knife is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
(Borrowed with apologies and respect for the US Marine Corps. Used without permission. Clearly.)
This is my level-up. I’ve known for years that I wanted a kitchen knife made for me. Like a tattoo, this is a permanent thing – I needed to be certain about exactly what I wanted. This isn’t about developing better knife skills or about a style of cooking. It’s about zeroing in on my behaviors and moves when cooking. Being aware of what characteristics best suited my own style. Reaching this level means, in a way, I can articulate my own workflow and habits. That’s a lot of self-awareness to channel through a knife.
This is a post that has been years in the making.
PART ONE – THE KNIFE
Start with the punchline. This is a custom 6″ petty (utility) knife made from 52100 carbon steel. The handle is amboyna burl with box elder bolsters, nickel silver pins and a mosaic pin at the back for decoration. Not shown well in this photo is a blue liner material on either side of the blade tang for a pop of color. Handcrafted leather sheath dyed coffee brown with snap closure. Created for me by Russell Montgomery of Serenity Knives.
A petty knife is the Japanese knife style similar in use to a western utility knife. It’s larger than a paring knife, smaller than a chef’s knife or gyuto. This isn’t a typical form of any of those knives, but it falls in the category. This size of knife is the workhorse in my kitchen at home.
Amboyna is the burl wood from the Pterocarpus species. See The Wood Database for the burl and Wikipedia for the species. Box elder is a type of maple tree; see The Wood Database and Wikipedia for more.
How does it perform? Well, it’s a knife. It cuts things. But seriously, it feels great in the hand and cuts quite well. This is a great all-arounder for my needs.
PART TWO – THE SETUP
I’ve been following Russell’s work since he made the steak knives for Oxheart at it’s opening a little over four years ago. We had moved into our house in the Heights the summer before (mid-2011), and I had gifted myself a super-thin Japanese gyuto for surviving the process. Discovering a bladesmith making great knives within walking distance of my house? That became a grail knife for me.
Russell and I met later that year, when I asked if he could help straighten a blade for me. I didn’t expect anything was possible, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. Plus, it was a way to meet the guy. Bless him, he did his best, but there was no correcting that one. I did learn that you’ve never met somebody so completely happy to be working at making knives. You can’t avoid smiling when talking shop with Russell. It’s infectious.
(Actually, the guy who cuts my lawn is that way. Ridiculously, blissfully happy to be out in the sun cutting lawns. All year long. In Houston’s heat and humidity. But that’s another story.)
At that point, I set the idea of my own custom knife aside to germinate. I stalked Serenity Knives on social media. I promised myself that once I knew exactly what I wanted, I’d order my grail knife.
What pushed me over the edge? I knew I was ready when I realized I had been completely wrong about what I wanted. Self-awareness, level up!
I started out thinking I wanted a perfect 10″ chef’s knife, the king of the kitchen. And I use mine quite a lot. Problem number one with this is – I’ve got those needs covered. Off the top of my head, out in the kitchen are:
- The 10″ Victorinox Forschner my parents gave me for a birthday present because I wanted to see if it was as great a value as it is lauded to be. (Answer, by the way: YES. Thin enough to slice very well, comfortable in the hand, easy to sharpen, and holds an edge, and amazingly priced. No wonder it perpetually tops the American’s Test Kitchen reviews.)
- A 10″ Thiers-Issard Sabatier in stainless steel. Sentimentally French. Does everything well.
- A 10″ Mexeur et Cie Sabatier in carbon steel. When you REALLY want to get old school, go carbon steel. Rusts if you aren’t (mildly) careful, develops a well-worn patina with use, can impart a metallic taste to acidic foods (though it’s never happened for me), and sharpens razor sharp.
- A 240mm Konosuke HD gyuto. There’s a reason this subset of knives is referred to as a “laser”. It’s a very thin knife, made from a steel that takes an extremely keen edge and cuts almost effortlessly. It’s not stout enough to do heavy work, but it’s light and fast.
(That’s just the 10″ chef’s knives, by the way.) The point is, all those knives are well-loved, well-used, and have a lot of life left in them. Each of them purchased deliberately to try something new or fill a gap. Collectively, they hit on everything. I didn’t have a need to fill with a new knife.
The second realization is that the most used knife in the kitchen – the one I reach for every time I cook dinner – isn’t one of these. It’s a knife I almost didn’t get in the first place. It’s a 210mm damascus petty knife that Christine picked out when we visited Epicurean Edge in Kirkland, WA. (If you haven’t been, and you’re in the area, and you’ve read this far – GO. Daniel and the crew there are awesome.) I was looking for one knife that they helped me find as I explained what I was trying to do (general use, break down chickens, etc). Of the six or so knives we talked through, I had picked mine, and dismissed another as too thin. Christine picked up the dismissed knife and commented on how it felt right in her hand. She could see herself using it, and suggested we get it as well. So, we did. And it’s the knife I use every day.
Those realizations cemented it for me. Generally, what I wanted was a utility knife. Something to use everyday. Not too large – I’ve got the “bigs” covered – and not too small (don’t need another paring knife) – and it’ll see use every day.
PART THREE – THE PROCESS
Earlier this year I packed up my most-used kitchen knives in my knife roll and headed over to meet with Russell. (Same infectious glee.) While I knew what I wanted, I also wanted to walk him through it – have somebody with a strong perspective and more experience check my math, as it were.
I unrolled the knives on the workbench and we went through each of them as I explained the few paragraphs above. Then I talked about what I didn’t like about that damascus knife – it was thin, but felt too thin at times; it’s not tall, so my knuckles keep banging on the board before I finish a cut – and what I thought a better knife should be. Russell brought in a few other knives he had made and asked questions about how they addressed my concerns. He stood there, nodding, “mm-hmm. mm-hmm. yep.”
And that’s when he flipped over a sheet of paper, took out a pencil, and began drawing. Tracing lines from parts of three or four knives. Erasing and connecting dots as I commented. Picked it up and looked down the lines as if he was looking down the actual knife. Asking me more questions as he went along.
The result is what you see here. Totally custom, designed from my head, interpreted by Russell and made real. It hits on so many key points;
- carbon steel blade, because I like the characteristics of the metal and the look of its patina;
- a long, flat section of the blade because if a blade has too much belly (the curve up to the tip), I find not enough makes contact with the cutting board for me to make clean cuts;
- A bit of a dropped tip because I wanted a tip for fine work, not a strong upsweep;
- Stout enough to not feel like I’m going to snap it when doing heavier tasks like butchering chickens or separating pork ribs;
- A wide, beefier handle because I have big paws for hands, and while the main grip on a knife comes in the pinch between thumb and forefinger, handles that are too small are simply uncomfortable.
And then the aesthetics. A wooden handle, contrasting for effect, decorative because, frankly, I’m only doing this once. A more rustic finish left on the flat part of the handle, initials on the pile side of the blade, et cetera. I chose every detail. This is it. This is MY knife.
And you know what? I couldn’t be happier with it. Seriously. This knife is everything I asked for and more.
A knife maker can produce a good knife. A craftsman can produce a high quality well-appointed knife. A distinguished craftsman can take an idea from a crazy obsessive like me, interpret it through his own skill, and bring that idea to life in a quality that is unmistakably his yet custom for me. Russell is definitely distinguished that way.