Top of My Wishlist: Hand-Forged Knives by NYCutlery

Photo © Christopher Harth

As an avid cook and kitchen professional, I can be kind of, well, obsessive ((cough, cough)) about my food preparation tools, knives topping the list. To work with a sub-standard knife is not only ineffective and dangerous, it’s just plain depressing. I can do without a lot of things – and in some cases even feel rather proud about doing so (look!! I fashioned a chinois from twigs and leaves!!!) – but for the love of all that is sacred and holy. I beg you. DO NOT make me do without proper knives! Okay, so brief melodramatic episode aside….really a good knife is like good sex; once you’ve had it you 1) know it without a doubt, and 2) will never go back, at least not without a lot of complaining.

And I have the answer to your prayers. Well, for the knives anyway.

And that answer is Christopher Harth. A Minnesota native (go Minnesota!) he forges knives with his own two hands in his shop in Brooklyn under the name of NY Cutlery. From reclaimed materials no less. These babies have soul. Now, I must be honest and tell you I have not yet had the pleasure of slicing and dicing with one of his knives…yet (I am saving up for it). I have, however used a hand-forged knife in the past and I can tell you it’s in a class by itself and well worth the investment. As with most things that are made with loving hands, there is a special feel, a certain intangible and intoxicating quality. It will become like a part of you.

One of things I really love about his work are the stories behind many of the materials he uses for his knives. He uses wood found in old furniture, ship boards and interesting scraps from the sawmill; every piece has a story behind it. I so enjoyed this background about the Buckthorn used a number of his projects:

“Over ten years ago, when I was still living in Duluth, MN a friend asked if I would help him clear some undesirable shrubs from a park to plant some other trees. I was instructed to bring long sleeves and heavy work gloves because the shrubs were going to be tough. We were cutting down Common Buckthorn that originally inhabited Eurasia. It turned out to be a small tree rather than a shrub, and there was a dense cluster of them with no other plants growing around them. What I learned is that they are considered a noxious invasive species and there is a major effort to kill them and plant native trees back in their place. According to laws regarding noxious invasive species no fruit or seed bearing part of the plant can be transported and no planting whatsoever is permitted. They had to be slashed and the branches burned right where they lay. The first Buckthorn I cut was about 4 inches in diameter and when it fell the color and contrast of the wood attracted me. I saved a couple of nice 6” diameter logs from the Buckthorn, and after the branches were all burned I took them home to experiment with. The wood is incredibly strong, has bright patterns with beautiful colors, and a close, even grain. From the first time I sawed one of the logs into small boards my imagination ran wild with the possibilities.

“Within two weeks I had advertised in the local paper that I was providing a service I called the Buckthorn Project. For a small fee I would remove Buckthorn for private property owners that were plagued with the thorny pest. After the cleanup I would take the logs and mill them for later use. I always imagined making furniture with the wood, but it never reached a large enough diameter to get good boards from. Fast forward ten years… I found the perfect use: knife handles. I am finally able to put that effort to good use. Obviously I had little to no guilt cutting down these invasive trees to replant native ones in their place. “

Photo © Christopher Harth

One necessity for quality knives is the steel used in the blade. Also, it should be “full tang” meaning the blade and handle are one solid piece of metal and high carbon steel. This holds the best edge, and I find has the nicest feel. Steel takes a bit more care but will stand by you for a lifetime if you do your part. Keeping with his green sensibility, Christopher sources his steel mainly from old saw blades:

“The logging and sawmill industry produced some very large, high quality, steel saw blades for making lumber. There were so many different variations amongst the blades depending upon the type of wood, diameter of log, orientation of log when sawing, and so on. The blades themselves range in thickness, diameter, number of teeth – their size and orientation, the flexibility and durability of the steel, … it can boggle the mind to account for the innumerable variations. The thing to consider is that no two that I have made into cutlery are exactly alike in their physical properties, but they have all been made of very good steel. The teeth get worn down and sharpened a few times before they retire the blade to the junk pile. Many of the old blades now have nature scenes painted on them and hang over the mantle at a cabin in the woods to add rustic decoration. Some of them are sold for scrap metal and sent over seas to major markets that are willing to absorb our old steel to build their growing industries. A few of them end up in my hands and become highly useful kitchen knives which help prepare the home cooked meals that many of my friends and neighbors enjoy. This good quality steel is useful for so much more than just sawing timber in those old sawmills. Hopefully the NYCutlery knives will serve a good, long, new life.”

One of the things I have always wondered, as a card-carrying member of the kitchen brigade, is the difference between edge grain and end grain cutting boards. Not just if one is better than another, but the why behind it (yes, the obsessive thing again).

Photo © Christopher Harth

Edge grain is the kind of cutting board you seem to see most often – maybe one solid piece of wood or strips bonded together – but I’ve always loved the look and the heft of end grain boards. They’re usually impressively heavy and thick, around 2″ or 3″ or more, and they have a rather graphic quality with all the squares and rectangles of the wood turned on end, hence the name. Well, reading through Christopher’s blog, I found the answer at last!

“End grain boards dull knives much less during kitchen work than edge grain boards because a sharp knife parts the wood fibers of the end grain rather than slicing across the edge grain while prepping food. After the knife has parted the fibers they close right back up leaving barely a trace of the action whereas the edge grain boards leave a more noticeable cut mark that can trap food and bacteria.”

Pretty nifty, eh? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got my Christmas list all filled out already!

So if you have any interest in a really special knife for yourself or you know someone who would go all breathless and swoon at the thought, you might want to check out Chris’s site here, or his blog here, or by email: NYCutlery@gmail.com

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