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The Beauty of Use

The Beauty of Use

The Beauty of Use

December/January 2016 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Metal
Bob Kramer

At his workshop in Olympia, Washington, Bob Kramer forges high-performance culinary knives. Anthony Bourdain calls them “the finest chef’s knives in the world.” Photo: Michael Matisse

Step by step, master knifemaker Bob Kramer found his life’s work.

The culinary knives of Bob Kramer are among the most difficult to obtain in the United States. For almost a decade, the waiting list for one of his creations was nearly four years; now his knives can be acquired only through occasional auctions, by lottery, or by luck; Kramer pulls names from his email list in an effort to democratize the process. 

But before he made his celebrated culinary tools, Kramer began by learning to use one. 

Born and raised outside of Detroit, Kramer left at 19, roaming around the country before his sister and brother-in-law encouraged him to come to Houston. He landed a job as a waiter at the Houston Country Club in 1978. It was “an old-school country club,” he recalls. “I had never experienced a place like this before.”

Of all the lessons he learned in that kitchen, the most valuable came from observing the prowess of the career chefs and servers. “I was dyslexic and didn’t realize it at that point, so school was kind of a struggle. This was my first real vision of another way to make a living.” After the country club, Kramer joined the circus for a year, then moved to Seattle, where he attended a local community college, working for a stretch in the kitchen of the Four Seasons Hotel. 

There, the tools of his accidental trade caught his attention. “Your knives are going to get dull – that’s just the way it is,” he says. But nobody in the kitchen could adequately explain how to sharpen or maintain the knives. Kramer was intrigued – and motivated. “People have been sharpening knives for thousands of years,” he thought. “I can do this.” 

Establishing himself as a sharpener exposed Kramer to sharpeners from Italy, engineers, and tool-and-die makers, all making a living in a skilled trade. Kramer admired his new associates for their self-reliance and systematic approach. “I felt like this was my fraternity,” he recalls. 

It was a short leap from sharpening to making knives himself. In the early 1990s, Kramer noticed an ad for a course offered by the American Bladesmith Society. “I decided right on the spot ‘I’m going to do that,’ ” he recalls. As one of a dozen students learning to hammer next to piles of coal at the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing near Hope, Arkansas, Kramer realized he’d found what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “I can pound on a piece of steel that is essentially junk, a leaf-spring from a car, and turn it into a really, really good tool. Not only is it a good tool, it’s got this beautiful vibe to it because I made it.”

After the class, with a borrowed anvil and a propane forge in his garage, Kramer found a new rhythm: During the day he sharpened knives for restaurants, in the evenings he waited tables or cooked, and on weekends he forged blades. “As soon as I started making culinary knives, it made sense,” he says. “Here is a knife that really gets used.”

Kramer, who has lived in Olympia, Washington, since 2005, forges culinary knives in both European and Japanese designs. He uses either 52100 grade carbon steel or the more distinctive Damascus steel. Known by the wavy and often intricate patterns revealed after polishing, Damascus steel is made from a combination of two or more kinds of carbon steel with individual but compatible chemical characteristics. “Those [steels] get stacked up into sort of a Dagwood sandwich and forge-welded together,” he explains, until they operate as a single piece. The stacking and forging is repeated many times, creating a piece of steel from hundreds of layers. Carefully controlling the folding of the steel allows Kramer to reveal organic patterns or more distinct geometric shapes. The result of the intensive process is a blade with expressive character and a sustainable razor edge.

Kramer is one of only 120 or so master smiths recognized by the American Bladesmith Society and the latest recipient of the Rare Craft Fellowship Award presented by the American Craft Council in association with The Balvenie, a maker of single malt scotch. Despite the accolades, Kramer is unequivocal about what he makes: “First and foremost, it’s a tool.” He’s humbled and grateful that someone might look at one of his pieces as art, he says. “But I’m just trying to make a really beautiful tool.” 

Perry A. Price is director of education for the American Craft Council.