I first met Nick Berkofsky of Fell Knives at the Echo Park Craft Fair, a bi-annual community event in our neighborhood of Los Angeles where we'd been food vendors for years. A biodynamic farmer-turned-knife maker, he launched his business making knives with vintage Sabatier blanks he had found in an old shed. Speaking with him, a young guy making his debut, reminded me of when we were starting out, nervous and excited to share our ideas with the community. The next year when I checked in with him I was blown away by his new stuff. He had upgraded his kit to be able to produce amazing carbon-steel knives with beautiful hand-carved handles, completely in-house.
When we launched Tenzo, we had people like Nick in mind, artisans we knew from the community, whose products we believed in and wanted to share with the world. We got together to produce a set of knives to cover the basic needs of the home cook: a chef’s knife for slicing, a Japanese-style vegetable cleaver for chopping, and a paring knife for delicate work in hand. Nick came up with some excellent designs that married the best of European and Japanese knifemaking traditions, like a full tang octagonal handle.
As for the materials, we decided on carbon steel for its edge-retention and ease of sharpening, and rosewood for its durability and anti-bacterial properties. For an extra touch, we’re also offering a set with spalted maple handles, each one totally unique.
The results exceeded even my highest expectations. Everything from the blade thickness to the handle profile is perfect. I stopped by Nick's home workshop recently as he was finishing up the first run, and we chatted about his process, how he got started making knives, and where he hopes it will go.
How did you get started making knives?
I started gardening about five years ago which led to me cooking a lot, as I was really interested in using the produce I was growing. Around the same time I had begun carving spoons by hand, in turn finding myself completely obsessed with using beautiful less commonly seen types of wood. I was using knives in most areas of my life: gardening, whittling, and cooking (not to mention I had been collecting knives since about nine years old). This mixing with my new love for wood and making things, I found myself one evening researching how to go about making my first knives at home just to see if it was a possibility. Within a week I was digging out a primitive charcoal forge in the backyard and looking for appropriate steels to make my first knives. I made my first few with not much more than a handful of files and sandpaper, it was a slow and grueling task but I was bitten by the bug after my first one...six knives later I knew there was no turning back, and began putting together my workshop.
Can you walk us through your basic process of making a knife?
It begins with a drawing, usually a very rough scrawled version of what I'm envisioning. I then make card or wooden prototypes to make sure everything feels just right in the hand. Once the design is dialed in I'll begin my work. Depending on the knife's intended use I will choose the appropriate steel type and thickness for the job and cut it to the desired length. Through a mixture of heating, hammering, and grinding, I create the profile and initial bevels and tapers of the knife. At this point it is ready for the heat treat. The heat treat (to keep things incredibly simple I will only explaining my process while leaving out masses of boring and repeated steps) is a three part process, first normalizing, controlled heating and cooling of the blade to reduce stress and refine the molecule structure, second hardening, controlled heating of the steel up to critical (red hot) temperatures and then quickly quenching in oil to harden the steel to the point of being brittle (this is the single most important step in making a knife it is the heart and soul of the knife), third we have tempering, this is a slight softening of the steel which gives it its toughness, at temperatures around 400-500 Fahrenheit it will reduce the brittleness of the steel from the quench. At this point I finish grinding out the bevels and tapers, evening out the geometry and polishing the blade, all while deciding the materials for the handle as that is the next and second to last step. For full tang knives like our collaboration I use peened brass pins and epoxy to hold the handle to the blade, once secured I will grind them to approximate shape followed by hand sanding to bring them up to a beautiful smooth finish, and lastly buffing and waxing the handles to really make them shine and water resistant. Finally once the knife is at this point I can sharpen it and really call it finished.
You make mostly kitchen knives and I know you cook a lot at home. Does cooking come from your love of knives or is it the other way around? And how do you tailor your knives to the needs of a cook?
Surprisingly neither! My love for knives (and swords, and axes...and really anything sharp and pointy) came from my childhood love of Lord of the Rings. I began collecting knives when I was about nine years old and slowly continued ever since. Since I started cooking a lot more, I was using knives so much more than anywhere else previously, it really gave me a whole new appreciation for what a good knife really is.
Tailoring my knives to the needs of a cook has been one of the most exciting and ongoing/evolving parts of becoming a knife maker. It's one thing to make a piece of steel with a sharp edge that cuts things, and a completely different thing to make a knife appropriate for specific tasks in the kitchen. I started sheepishly reading through forums and blogs, finding out what it was people liked in their knives, asking my customers for direct feedback, using my knives endlessly, testing them with every meal I cooked, noticing all the smaller details that add to the whole of a great knife. That being said, I'll be improving my knives for as long as I'm able to make them, there is always more to learn, endless practices to perfect, and really each person will have specific preferences for their perfect knife.
For the collection we’re doing together, what were your inspirations for each form, and for the handle design?
My knife making so far has been mainly inspired by traditional Japanese and European bladesmiths. I am incredibly drawn to the designs and aesthetics of Japanese blades and will always praise the versatility and strength of European blades. In turn I try to create knives mixing my favorite aspects of each style to create beautiful knives that can last a lifetime.
I wanted the full set for Tenzo to be able to cover nearly every task one will encounter in their kitchen. The chef's knife is the classic workhorse in the kitchen to take on near any challenge and perfect for cutting meats. The nakiri is for when you want to get precise and quick with your vegetables, the fine edge can split hairs and cut paper thin slices of your vegetables. Lastly the paring knife, perfect for quick tasks in the kitchen, cutting some fruit, dicing a few small garlic cloves, or chopping up a pile of herbs, light and compact it is sometimes exactly what you want to use when the chefs knife and nakiri just feel too much.
The handle is based off of the traditional Japanese Wa handle (hidden tang, octagonal handle) used for nearly all of their kitchen knives. I used the same octagonal shape that I find is so comfortable and attractive, but I made them with a full tang construction like most western style knives for the added strength. A full tang handle has the steel of the blade running all the way through the knife's handle and is attached using epoxy and peened pins to hold the material to the knife creating an incredibly strong, well-balanced knife.
What are your favorite kinds of knives to make? What do you find most satisfying about the process?
This is a really hard question to answer...I find myself gravitating around a lot. I used to be obsessed with making santokus, but now it's nakiris. I really enjoy making little utility knives, but the most satisfying has to be a hefty chefs knife or camp chopper with an elegant handle.
As for the most satisfying parts of the process, they would have to be working with the forge, and polishing handles. Working with fire is just fun, bringing steels up to red hot and getting to pound on them with a hammer or dunk them into pools of oil in a violent burst of fire, all the while knowing the end product will be beautiful and incredibly useful. It will never get old. Polishing handle materials is the final reveal at the end of many hours work, until polished the knife will look a bit dull, but as you polish all these magnificent "secrets" in the materials are revealed to you, shining ripples and glows in wood, the glassy reflections in bone and horn, it brings the knife as a whole from a drawing to life.
How important a role has community played in your business, both in LA and in the knifemaking community at large?
Community has been massively important, without the wonderful Echo Park Craft Fair community I probably would not have become more than a hobby maker. I was very sheepish to show my products at first, but after my first reveal at the Craft Fair I received an overwhelmingly positive response. It hit me immediately that I had to continue and take things to the next step. Since that first sale I have been attending as many of the local craft fairs, pop ups, and markets as I can, making relationships with local craftspeople and vendors, like you all at Tenzo. I have learned so much and have made so many fantastic connections in LA that have made Fell Knives a possibility. The knifemaking community has also been very helpful and I try to give back when I can. I hadn't been able to learn any knifemaking directly from anyone due to a lack of connections and the fact that there are so few knifemakers, especially in and around Los Angeles. Because of this, when I started out I had to learn almost entirely from books, videos, and the unorganized sprawl of information that other knifemakers have put together online just to help share knowledge. Getting involved with the knifemaking community online allowed me to find a few local makers and businesses, and to places of discussion on specific techniques. It is such an open community with very few secrets, nearly everyone I've encountered is incredibly friendly, encouraging and usually more than willing (often times excited) to explain their process to anyone.