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The Kitchen Bladesmith

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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.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

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.”

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