Handmade Kitchen Knives Reimagine What A Kitchen Knife Can Be
Don Nguyen didn’t know what he wanted from life when he was in college. An evening cooking at a friend’s apartment changed him forever. He was frustrated using his friend’s subpar, dull knives and wanted something better.
“It was that weird moment sharpening at a friend’s place where I said ‘I’m tired of this,’” Nguyen recalled. “I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, and those videos led me from sharpening to seeing Japanese makers make knives. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life at that point so I was like OK, I want to do this. I dove in from there.”
Dive in he did, and now Nguyen has been making handmade kitchen knives, also commonly called custom kitchen knives, since 2017. He’s one of many makers entering the growing kitchen knife space and finding success.
Custom Kitchen Knife Advantage
Of course, the biggest difference between factory makers and custom makers is scale. A company like Wusthof can turn around hundreds of new knives every month. By contrast, Nguyen and his assistant complete a knife every one to two weeks. This allows for more delicate work when it comes to the actual knifemaking and makes getting different steels much easier.
“Right now we’re probably averaging one knife every two weeks depending on the complexity, but we’re working on multiple knives at once so it’s hard to dictate how long a single knife takes,” Nguyen said. “I have an assistant and he helps me work on a bunch of stuff. We’re juggling projects all the time.
“I don’t have a lot of steel that I need to go through, and the steel choices I tend to use aren’t exotic steels. I go with 52100 for the most part for carbon steel knives. When I go with stainless I go with AEB-L or RWL-34. Those are fairly accessible. They’re usually in stock.”
Why Buy A Handmade Kitchen Knife?
When you talk to him, Nguyen’s passion is clear, and even with that passion, a big question remains: why should someone spend money on handmade kitchen knives instead of buying from a well-known factory maker?
He spoke honestly about how handmade kitchen knives won’t be for everyone, but for those who want them, they want only the best.
“Custom knives are made for a specific type of person,” Nguyen said. “They need to have food as their hobby. If they don’t like cooking all that much, they aren’t the intended audience for that. But if you love food, you follow it, buy books, read up on chefs, then you get into custom knives. Then you get knives in the [top] percentile of performance that are unique, made by someone you admire.”
Steel Sharpens Steel
As more makers enter the market, finding out ways to make your knives that are little bit better than your competitors has become the key to knifemaking. So much so that, according to Nguyen, many makers are working on what the knife does after it cuts the food.
“There’s a lot of interesting trends in knifemaking and the pursuit of the last 1 percent in performance,” Nguyen said. “A lot of makers now are working on food release. Being able to cut the food and having it pop off the [blade] without any effort at all. That’s a huge difference between a knife you buy off the shelf and a custom-made knife.”
Nguyen is one of the highly-skilled makers producing handmade kitchen knives. The below makers are also making exciting knives.
Best Handmade Kitchen Knife Makers
A former executive chef, Mert Tansu has been making remarkable kitchen knives in his native Australia for several years, learning to forge san-mai and damascus, and officially hung up his chef’s coat in 2018 to focus solely on making knives.
His current knives are made in the Japanese tradition and fetch a tidy price, but the craftsmanship is clear from the moment you lay eyes on the blade.
Located in Washington state, Maumasi apprenticed under Bob Kramer, who we’ll talk about shortly, and makes multiple types of knives. He’s made many a wild damascus piece as well, and is a magician at working the steel to create exciting patterns.
“I think he’s one of the best makers out right now,” Nguyen said of Maumasi. “I talk with him all the time about business strategy, techniques, everything we’re going through.”
He worked as a professional chef for a decade before asking himself “why can’t I and other chefs keep our knives sharp?”
That question led him down the path to becoming one of the most accomplished makers of custom kitchen knives in the country. Kramer earned the title of ABS master smith in 1998, and since then he’s been “devoted … to the single-minded pursuit of crafting the perfect kitchen knife.”
His Kramer Knives not only turns out top-tier blades, but now features a small team to help keep the company strong and growing for decades to come. Additionally, his company has licensing agreements with a handful of major knife companies including Zwilling J.A. Henckels.
Andreas Kalani spent nearly a decade teaching himself the craft of knifemaking. He took his lumps and learned from his mistakes. Those years of trial and error have paid off as Kalani is now an accomplished knifemaker.
He makes beautiful Japanese-style knives as well as other kitchen utensils. Kalani even makes hunting knives and tools for skinning and processing your hunt. It all started with a dream for Kalani, and it has paid off handsomely thus far.
Knives from Will Brigham are just as much art as they are kitchen tools. He specializes in pattern-welded damascus and mokume-gane knives. His sells his knives through his company, The Artificery, and he’s pushing hard to make the most distinctive damascus designs and highest-quality blades.
“Will Brigham is making crazy stainless steel damascus,” Nguyen said. “I think he’s kind of the pioneer of modern stainless steel damascus.”
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