From Issue Five of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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Bob Kramer, wearing a black welding mask and long leather apron, flipped a switch on the induction forge. The beige box, about the size of a ‘90s-era computer tower, hummed to life. A steady buzz disrupted the otherwise quiet shop. Garage-style rolling doors on opposite corners of the high-ceilinged building let in a cool coastal breeze.
Moments before, Kramer had measured out a coarse, sand-like mixture of pure iron and carbon into a flat-bottom coffee filter. He swirled the gunmetal granules with a black-rubber-glove-clad hand before funneling the mixture into a ceramic crucible. Using blacksmith’s tongs, he placed the vessel in the copper coil of the induction forge and capped it with beige firebrick. Kramer stepped back and waited.
The black cup soon glowed with the yellow-white luminance of a light bulb. Vapor gasped out of a chip on the left side of the crucible. Kramer removed the firebrick and sparks flit upward. He powered down the machine and removed his mask, waiting for the molten steel to cool. It was Bob Kramer’s first time making steel in his new shop — the first step in producing a chef’s knife that would ultimately sell for thousands of dollars online.
Bob Kramer started forging knives in 1992. Five years later, he earned the title of Master Smith, the American Bladesmith Society’s highest honor and a designation bestowed upon fewer than 200 people to date. Focusing almost exclusively on kitchen knives, Kramer has since progressed to become one of the most revered and influential bladesmiths working today — a craftsman whose standing verges on celebrity. His annual output has never exceeded 500 pieces, and has, on occasion, dipped as low as 30.
For the average cook, owning a Kramer knife is as indulgent as buying a Lamborghini just to do loops around a cul-de-sac. His knives are masterfully balanced: lightweight, and with a virtually imperceptible heft running along the bolster that tugs down to facilitate an impossibly smooth cutting action. In professional kitchens, they’re a status symbol — a chef’s Stradivarius. The decision to invest in an original Kramer stands as proof of one’s dedication to their craft, and a commitment to future growth. “That’s the role that someone like Kramer plays in our business,” said Jeff Tenner, executive chef of Tatte Bakery & Café in Boston and owner of a 20-year-old custom Kramer knife. “As a professional chef, the tool you use can help you [work] more efficiently. You’re not just using a commodity tool to do a refined craft.”
At 58 years old, Kramer radiates the contagious energy of a person at least two decades his junior. An insatiable curiosity acts as his life force. He speaks deliberately, with an enthusiasm that intensifies when the conversation turns to steel. On the subject of his career success, however, he shuts down. Kramer is not one to acknowledge — let alone rest on — the acclaim his products have garnered over the past 25 years. Diagnosed with dyslexia in college, Kramer has long favored kinesthetic learning. Working with his hands, he said, has always been the most effective means of comprehension. Seeing successes and failures provides him with a concrete understanding of the effect of one thing on another. Ceaseless tinkering has long been at the core of his practice.
Kramer entered the world of bladesmithing by way of knife sharpening, which he took up following roughly a decade working as a prep cook in Seattle. The realization that both he and his peers lacked the skills to properly care for their most essential tools led him on a three-year quest to master the nuances of sharpening. “And then it started to get boring . . . it’s a service job, right?” Kramer said matter-of-factly. “So when I started making knives, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool, I’m making a tool that a lot of people need.'”
“I’d have an article come out in a magazine and I’d be deluged with orders from across the country.”
In 1992, Kramer enrolled in a two-week bladesmithing intensive hosted by the American Bladesmith Society in the small town of Washington, Arkansas. The course left him with a foundational knowledge of steel, the skills to forge a knife from scratch and, most importantly, the resolve to attain his Master Smith rating. He returned to Washington and set up shop in Seattle, sharpening knives and forging made-to-order blades: hunting knives, props for full-contact period theater, pagan ceremonial daggers. That, too, wore on Kramer, who had little interest in skinning animals or Medieval reenactments. Having worked in restaurant kitchens, Kramer began to make what he knew best: chef’s knives.
His decision during the late ‘90s to focus exclusively on kitchen knives garnered implicit denigration from his peers. Utility knives have long been the focus of the American Bladesmith Society, the guild responsible for fostering and promoting the art and science of forging. While not the sole Master Smith to produce kitchen knives, he was the first to take a stance and focus almost exclusively on the category. Others, like Murray Carter and P.J. Tomes, forge kitchen knives in addition to utility-driven blades.
Specializing in high-quality carbon steel kitchen knives, Kramer tapped into a previously overlooked and underserved market. “I’d have an article come out in a magazine and I’d be deluged with orders from across the country — two years’ worth of work, and they were mostly eight-inch chef’s knives,” Kramer said. “It was a nice problem to have, to be busy, but you kind of want to stick a fork in your eye after a while.”
Kramer’s first taste of national press coverage came in 1998 from Saveur magazine. The 1,500-word profile left him with a six-year wait list that took the form of four spiral-bound notebooks filled with names and phone numbers. In 2007, Cook’s Illustrated reviewed a Kramer knife, calling it “handmade perfection” before stating that it “outperformed every knife we’ve ever rated.” But it was a 2008 feature in The New Yorker that most dramatically altered Kramer’s world. Recognizing the pedigree of the publication, Kramer wrestled in fearful anticipation, before the story’s release, with how best to handle the impending, inevitable flood of inquiries.
Wary of being held to a years-long wait list, Kramer decided not to take any more orders. “At some point, it dawned on me that I could just say, ‘My books are closed right now. I’ll put your name on an email list and we’ll decide how to handle it later.’ I was trying to democratize the list, or my method. I didn’t want it to dominate my life.”
Since The New Yorker barrage in 2008, Kramer has sold the majority of his knives through an online lottery system. He sets the price of a piece, and a winner is randomly selected from the pool of registrants. Knives made from experimental steels and particularly complex Damascus patterns, meanwhile, are sold via online auction with a starting price of $100. Bids climb upwards from there, and pieces regularly sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The auction system takes pricing out of Kramer’s hands, allowing customers, whether they’re professional chefs or collectors, to pay what they believe a Kramer knife is worth. It also reduces criticism thrown his way.
“People kept telling me, ‘You’re not charging enough, you should charge more,'” Kramer said. “I think the craftsman in me was resistant. At a certain point, I was like, ‘Really? Eight hundred dollars for a chef’s knife?’ That seems crazy to me.”
The decision not to take any more orders — so as not to be held to an ever-growing list of blades to forge — has afforded Kramer the flexibility to focus on the progression of his craft rather than production. Yet for all that Kramer has accomplished in his quarter century of bladesmithing, there’s an irrefutable sense that he’s only now just getting started.
“At a certain point, I was like, ‘Really? Eight hundred dollars for a chef’s knife?’ That seems crazy to me.”
Three years ago, Kramer began melting his own steel. He was driven by the challenge — and expense — of acquiring tamahagane, a high-carbon Japanese steel reserved exclusively for licensed swordsmiths. A 1.5-kilogram lump of steel, purchased through a friend, set him back $400. Tamahagane is made by melting iron sand over a charcoal-fueled fire for three days. It lacks the mineral contaminants typically found in mass-produced steels, which Kramer likens to store-bought sandwich bread. “If you want some good bread, sometimes you have to make it yourself,” he said.
In July, after 12 years of working in Olympia, Kramer moved to the small city of Bellingham, two hours north of Seattle, into a workshop he now shares with fellow Washington-based Master Smith Tom Ferry. To the best of Kramer’s knowledge, this is the first time that two Master Smiths have joined forces in such a manner, combining talents and equipment with the specific intent of forwarding the bladesmithing craft.
While their skill sets are in opposition — Kramer produces chef’s knives and takes a scientific approach to his work; Ferry specializes in utility knives and complex engravings and favors the artfulness of Damascus steel — the Master Smiths are united by a relentless drive to unravel the complexities of steel. They’d been collaborating from afar since the start of the year, but their current shared workspace stands as a show of dedication to bladesmithing. “This place, metaphorically, is a crucible for us and the transformation of our ideas and stuff that we want to see come to pass,” Kramer said, hinting at one-offs and experimental projects to come.
In its most basic form, steel is iron ore mixed with pure carbon. The higher a steel’s carbon content, the harder it can become when quenched; it can then, in turn, be honed to form a thinner, sharper edge. While high-carbon steel is available commercially, most mass-produced steel is crafted to support as many applications as possible. Kramer likens commercial steel to an all-purpose batter: It gets the job done, but there’s always something better. “There are all these knifemakers across the country, and they’re all using the same stuff,” Kramer said. “In the same way that chefs have gone to growing their own vegetables . . . this [custom] steel is going to be different than what other people have.”
With an induction forge, Kramer and Ferry can produce a one-pound lump of steel in a matter of minutes, using whatever mineral composition they choose. Adding elements like chrome, nickel or manganese can yield a stronger, more flexible or simply more lustrous steel. “Being able to make steel in a really small batch and have complete control over the chemistry opened up a new world for me to begin to experiment with,” Kramer said. “And I just don’t see a bottom there.”
Kramer likens commercial steel to an all-purpose batter: It gets the job done, but there’s always something better.
“There’s a point where you realize that nobody knows what the capabilities of steels are in certain chemical compositions,” Ferry said. “[Steel mills] are making it for diverse applications, for everything but a knife blade. It wasn’t until very recently that people have started doing studies on swords and steels from the past.” Indeed, the formative studies on the structure and hardness of steel, conducted by metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith, were catalyzed by the Manhattan Project. That steel remains uncharted, for the most part, helps to explain knifemakers’ fascination with it, and why so many breakthroughs in contemporary bladesmithing involve one type of steel in particular: Damascus.
Damascus swords are the stuff of legend: sharp enough to slice cleanly through a silk scarf as it floats to the ground. Traditional Damascus steel, classified as wootz Damascus, was forged from a single ingot of high-carbon steel embedded with impurities. Production of wootz Damascus reached an apex between the 16th and 18th centuries before falling by the wayside. The secrets of its production, passed down from master to apprentice over countless generations, were never formally documented and have now been lost to time. It was only during the 1990s that renowned bladesmith Al Pendray, whom Kramer cites as his greatest mentor, was able to replicate the production of wootz Damascus.
While modern Damascus steel does not count wootz as its raw material, it still manages to replicate the swirling patterns, sharpness and strength that lent the steel its mythic qualities. Referred to as pattern-welded Damascus, the steel fuses alloys of varying carbon content and metallic compounds into layers that are drawn out into a billet and cut into smaller pieces before being stacked, forge welded and drawn out again. As the individual layers grow more and more intertwined, the metals harden and wear in different ways and at different rates, producing a micro-serration that enables superlative slicing.
Damascus patterns can be random, but many, especially those that spark obsession among contemporary bladesmiths, were forged in a precise — and theoretically replicable — manner. The desire to better understand how different alloys interact with each other, and how certain variables impact strength, hardness and flexibility is a driving force behind the quest to clone lost Damascus patterns. “Even with all the equipment and all the knowledge that we have, there are just some things that haven’t been unlocked,” Ferry said. “There are some old patterns that just haven’t been redeveloped.” Reproducing a centuries-old Damascus pattern is a monumental achievement for a bladesmith, reflective of mastery over the otherwise enigmatic characteristics of steel.
Having a person to bounce ideas off of will prove advantageous to Kramer and Ferry in their efforts to unlock otherwise incomprehensible Damascus patterns and steel compositions. “I’ve stumbled upon things over the years — as has Bob,” Ferry said. “There’s a big opportunity now, to look back at things that both of us have been involved in, to say, ‘You know, this needs to be nurtured,’ and see where we can evolve it, because it was a cool idea but nobody had time to proof it.”
The collaboration between Kramer and Ferry is not without precedent. During the 1990s, a rowdy group of bladesmiths called the Montana Mafia catalyzed the progression and rediscovery of Damascus steel. The group was led by Montana-based bladesmiths Shane Taylor, Barry Gallagher, Wade Colter and Rick Dunkerley, who, over the course of annual visits to the Oregon Knife Show in Eugene, Oregon, developed a relationship with Kramer and other Pacific Northwest-based knifemakers like Ed Schempp, John Davis and Matt Diskin.
The Montana group would hold hammer-ins between knife shows, inviting established Master Smiths to host workshops for the knowledge-hungry bladesmiths. Following a daytime lesson, the group would reconvene for midnight forging sessions, playing with steel, testing Damascus patterns, feeding off of each other’s energies and ideas well into the night. “We fueled one another’s desire to learn,” explained Kramer. “We’d all go back home [after a hammer-in] and there would be further experimentation, and we’d get back together and we’d have kicked the craft down the field. There was a level of acceleration that was so exciting.”
According to Ferry, who was a late addition to the Montana Mafia, the exploration of Damascus has yet to evolve at the same pace that it did during that 10-year stretch. In moving into a shared studio space, both Kramer and Ferry are looking to reignite a lost creative spirit. “There’s a point for me, as an artist, where it becomes very difficult to come up with [new ideas],” Ferry explained. “You have to wait for an external force to come in, and I think the synergy that’s going to develop — bouncing ideas and concepts — is huge.”
The new space, nearly 1,000 square feet larger than Kramer’s Olympia studio and with more equipment, will enable more and faster-paced experimentation. It will also allow Kramer and Ferry to host hammer-ins and workshops centered around bladesmithing fundamentals, sharpening and engraving — facilitating both the exchange of skills and the acquisition of knowledge. “The free exchange of information at this level [is going to go way up],” Ferry said emphatically. “We’re both in the same job. We’re not worrying about [competing with] other people. It’s about the experimentation and the craftsmanship.”
There’s no set roadmap for the pair of Master Smiths. Their work will be guided by the pursuit of knowledge, rather than an idealized steel or singular Damascus pattern, with projects arising, developing and evolving organically. The new workshop will serve as an incubator, grafting seeds first planted by the Montana Mafia. “For us, it’s about the experience,” Kramer said. “We need to make a living, but what we’re looking for at this point in our careers is to light up our brains as much as we possibly can. We’re trying to create a space that facilitates that to the maximum, to cultivate the environment to stimulate new ideas.”