what goes into a handmade knife
what they're made of:
LaSeur Knives are made with high quality carbon steel. The current mainstays are 1095 and 52100, followed by 1084, 15N20, 5160, and good old files when I can find them. I enjoy the opportunity to make pattern-welded Damascus, but don't end up doing it very often because it is extremely time consuming to hammer the billets out by hand.
The choice of handle material is often a personal one, intended to reflect the story of the knife and it's owner. The material can be sourced from the far flung corners of the globe, from the climbing tree in the back yard of a childhood home, or from what I happen to have on hand- but regardless of where it comes from, the choice will always be based on both beauty and utility.
If the surfaces of the materials selected tend to artfully showcase the passage of time- the patina of carbon steel, the mellow aging of wood or burnished brass- then the way the materials are assembled, the knife's construction, is meant to be unchanging- to last for generations.
how they're made:
When describing the knife making process, it's hard to know where to begin, and even harder to know where to stop. The individual steps involved can vary depending on the project, but a general outline may go something like this: new knife designs and custom profiles often begin their lives on paper with a trusty pencil (and eraser!), others start from an evolving set of templates that themselves likely began that way.
The actual blades begin to emerge from raw steel by either forging to shape or grinding the profile from bar stock depending on the desired result.
Heat treating is all done in-house, in part for reasons of quality control, efficiency, and flexibility, but the biggest reason is that as a knife maker, I feel I can't miss the most crucial and fascinating stage of the entire process: the transformation from a knife-shaped metal object into a functioning knife blade.
Following hardening and tempering, the blade is carefully ground to its final thickness. If there are to be bolsters or guards, they are cut from bar stock, pinned, and soldered or epoxied to the tang. The handle scales or blocks are cut, flattened, and drilled for bolts, pins or the tang itself. The whole assembly is scuffed, cleaned and epoxied tightly together. Then, when well cured, the handle is carved and sanded, the later stages of which are done with small blocks using increasingly fine grades of abrasive paper.
Finishing depends on the material being used of course but usually consists of building up several coats of penetrating Tung oil finish (less is required for stabilized woods), and/or buffing with Carnauba wax as in the case of impermeable materials such as the very oily woods.
Finally, the second most important part of the process, the edges are finalized freehand on a sequence of Japanese water stones.
Sharpening, like everything else, is a world unto itself, but I happen to use this particular approach because of the quality of the edge it produces, and also because that quality is repeatable- it's the very same edge the end user can reproduce at home or work. Plus it feels good to do…
At every moment throughout the creation of every knife, the outcomes of either disaster or success, and all manner of trouble in between, are literally in my hands. The value of doing it this way is that with care, the quality and attention to every detail remains consistent while each piece remains unique.
why kitchen knives?
From a design standpoint, the challenges the humble kitchen knife is asked to perform are surprisingly extreme. It must be as thin as possible without warping or bending, hard as possible without chipping. Above all it must be sharp, and stay that way for as long as possible while being easy to sharpen again when needed. It must be balanced and comfortable for hours of use, while being strong enough to endure the rigors of the kitchen environment.
For me, the study of kitchen knives has offered a window into the foodways of cultures from around the world, past and present, as cuisine and technology continually evolve together.
One advantage of a hand made knife, in addition to its performance, is that it can have an origin story, it can mark an occasion, or if given as a gift, can be a frequent reminder of someone important.
It may be an understatement to say that many people cook food every day for themselves, their families, or their livelihood. A good knife can both streamline and enrich that daily experience. I believe that of all the many types of knives, the kitchen knife can be the most useful to the most people.