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A Cut Above

A father describes his son's remarkable transformation from aimless youth to master knifesmith.

When I was in school, my father urged me to study English, as he had done. I thought his advice was premature and told him I had not decided what I wanted to do. "I suggest that you study English," he said again. "That way, when you figure out what you want to do with your life, you'll be able to tell somebody." The effect of this counsel was lingering, and I urged a similar course upon my own son, Thomas. I am astounded that he heeded my advice, though there was a malingering quality to his college years, leavened by sustained periods during which he beat on slabs of metal, drilling, honing, filing, polishing; making knives out of discarded implements and old farm tools; making small knives out of broken big knives--hunting knives, fishing knives and kitchen knives. Nothing, from Chinese cleavers to the straight razors he found in junk shops, escaped his notice if it had a usable or salvageable blade. He filled shoeboxes with parts of cutlery, and I probably should have seen that he would one day make all this his profession, as he does now at his knife shop on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana.

He thinks his obsession might have begun when we lived in Key West and he made spears out of sticks, by dragging them on the pavement while speeding along on his bicycle. Or when he took my little Finnish Puukko fishing knife and ground it into a dagger. He loved the disposable paring knives in the kitchen because they were either sharp or they were gone. He and his childhood friend Lorca had lots of them in their fort, where they pretended to prepare food by mincing leaves and weeds and chopping up apples from the half-wild orchard behind the house. Thomas always seemed to be thinking about food: One Christmas long ago, he asked Santa Claus for an omelet pan. Once he had it, he grew so fond of chopping garlic and onions and other things that his omelets were as laden as homemade pizzas.

He began to acquire heroes among the nation's bladesmiths: Bob Loveless, for the refinement and lightness of his knives, the sense that no line was out of place and that the design had been completely thought through; Walter Randall, for the strength and purposefulness of his designs; and Ron Lake, whose knives he describes as "mystery machines," for the perfection of their technique, the seamlessness of the fits in nonwelded areas, the precision of their locking.

Thomas bought a knife kit in college and modified it beyond recognition, making three more knives, including one he hollow-ground with a rock on the end of a drill bit, a deed approaching mania that impressed the outstanding bladesmith Steve Brooks. He acquired a Japanese World War II sword from Brooks, with an Imperial Navy hot stamp, and learned a bit more by reconditioning it. Then he met a dealer in Japanese swords through whom he began to discover what is probably the most advanced tradition of bladesmithing in the world. The Japanese swords that he examined could all be taken apart for maintenance; and though sometimes bearing the scars of battles, they were often in remarkable condition, even the legendary "Little Crow" sword made in 973. In a somewhat rueful tone, Thomas points out that "the Japanese had high levels of bladesmithing connoisseurship in place a thousand years ago." He clearly felt a powerful romance in all this, one that made his mind and hands tingle.

When Thomas traveled to Japan in his late twenties, he was able to spend time with Akira Kiihara, a man in his seventies whom he describes as "open, warm and countrified." From his home in the mountains of Yasugi Prefecture, Kiihara makes most of the steel used by the Japanese swordsmiths. Thomas learned that some of his old heroes, like Bob Loveless, had influenced Japanese knifemakers. He was also astonished to discover the array of knives available for the preparation of food. A midsize chef's knife, for example, could be found in 30 or 40 shapes and designs, each specialized for the kind of food being prepared. Sometimes several knives were used for different stages of preparing the same thing. There was an etiquette of knife usage that was so resonant with love of food preparation as to approach pageantry. Thomas returned from Japan convinced that Americans were missing something in their kitchenware that would enhance the quality of their day-to-day lives.

The last time I visited my son's workshop, he had just completed a left-handed, hollow-ground Damascus sushi knife. I held it in my hand and gazed at the contrast between the thick forgings of the back blade and the hollow precision of the cutting edge. It was a supreme instrument for a client Thomas described as "a big, left-handed guy." Additionally, there was a rush order for a number of sommelier's tools that had arrived from their maker at what Thomas considered an undesirable level of finish. Without his customers' knowledge, he refined the fit, finished the handles and removed the tool marks. "I'm losing money on these," he remarked sourly, "but I wouldn't want them in our customers' kitchens in the shape I got them."

Looking on with the amazement of the manually challenged, I attempted to imagine where this capacity for transmuting materials seemingly at will might have come from. He had been an imaginative child and a confused young adult, but the expression of his imagination through his hands is what seems to have brought him happiness and a capacity for sustained work. I thought of all the young people fleeing the wilderness of information management to make things. Houses and boats are built, horses are shod and crops grown by an increasing population fleeing the spreading abstractness of our world. It is an unpleasant sensation to be out of touch with your own body. Imaginative people working with their hands, like Thomas, are spared some of this, and the rest of us are perhaps entitled to our envy, recovering some lost ground through cooking or tying flies or painting the garage. My friend Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump, many years ago asked William Faulkner, then visiting his college class, what he would suggest a young writer should do. "You might learn to shingle a roof," replied the great man.

My inadequacies notwithstanding, I enjoy visiting my son's small workshop, where the power hammer looms over benches covered with the rather specialized tools of metalsmithing. There may be world music playing, perhaps Cesaria Evora, or Lauryn Hill, or Brahms. Most of the work is close work, and the dyslexia that plagued him as a schoolboy now enables him to grind the edge of the knife so that it is in the exact middle of the blade, nearly the hardest thing to do and one of the many things in a good knife the owner scarcely knows is there. Knifesmithing is the sort of work in which a long, time-consuming project may be ruined by one of the last and smallest things you do. There is a touch of dramatic tension in the process; indeed, there are few spots where complete concentration is inessential. The shop is only a few yards from his house, where breaks with his wife, Michelle, and his young son reduce the accumulated tension. But there have been times, at the end of long days, when a howl of anguish indicates that the worst has happened, often at a scale so small that no one else can see it well enough to sympathize plausibly. As to the power hammer, I congratulate Thomas on his tolerant neighbors.

When he decided to open a cutlery shop, I who had recommended the study of English literature thought it was a long shot. He has flourished--struggled but flourished. Cases and cabinets display the work of regional bladesmiths and the classics of commercial kitchen knives: the burly and purposeful products of Eberhard Schaaf of Germany, the sleek, modern, brilliantly balanced Global knives from Japan, as well as specific examples of nihonbocho, or traditional Japanese cutlery. Thomas still finds time--somehow--to work at the waiting list for his own handmade knives, which have found their way around the country, to France, to China, to Japan and elsewhere: skinning knives, hunting knives, folding knives of all kinds. He has made exhibition-grade swords and bowie knives. His growing passion for kitchen knives has been a study in durable materials: These are things that are used daily over lifetimes. Food preparation, that daily chore, is a challenge, a war on dreariness, an opportunity to restore joyousness to repeated tasks. Good knives that you sharpen and care for, that you perhaps find beauty in and keep, good knives help.

Thomas McGuane is the author of twelve books, including the novel Nothing But Blue Skies (Vintage).

Published November 2000
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