On the cutting edge
From old saw blades to found antlers, knife-makers are turning vintage Canadiana into unique chef's tools and conversation pieces
In his Roseau River, Man., workshop, knife maker Marc Liss works on a repurposed chunk of carbon steel, sparks flying left and right like rogue sparklers on a birthday cake. That chunk may not look like much, but it's slowly taking shape into what Japanese knife makers would call a gyuto, more commonly known in Canada as a chef's knife.
Liss and his partner, Kayla Penelton, run their company – Origin Handcrafted Goods – on their farm, located just a short drive from Winnipeg. It started as a jewellery company, offering wooden and metal-fused rings sold on Etsy, and at various craft shows. Then, the duo ventured into the world of knife-making.
Liss says that the idea of creating a knife for someone else to create with – to cook with – was the initial spark for trying his hand at knife-making. It's become a metalworking passion. "I strive to create knives that inspire thoughtfulness of use. Kitchen tools that motivate their owners to learn to sharpen and care for them for many, many years," Liss says.
Origin is one of a handful of Canadian companies offering custom knives that are produced in a Japanese style – generally lighter, sharper and visually more appealing than their German counterparts – but incorporating unique or salvaged Canadian materials.
These custom-crafted blades cost, on average, $200 more than mass-market, commercially produced chef's knives: the best of them are high-quality and long-lasting, not to mention handsome conversation pieces. With local goods being sought out in every arena, from groceries to children's toys, it was only a matter of time before people began wanting locally forged knife-wear to help put dinner on the table.
Liss imports sheets of steel for a portion of his wares, but his real joy comes from seeking out vintage metal to breathe new life into. With rural Manitoba rife with farmland and plenty of abandoned machinery, the knife maker is always stumbling upon quality steel waiting to be transformed.
"My neighbour recently brought me a gigantic old circular saw blade from a homestead sawmill operation," Liss says. "I did some testing, determined it was high-carbon steel and have since featured it in about 20 kitchen knives." Origin offers an array of custom blades, ranging from hunting pack knives ($300) to the slender steel "Western Gyuto" ($420) that has become a signature offering.
Seth Burton, of Cosmo Knives, has two decades of steel-working experience on Liss, forging knives in his Salt Spring Island, B.C., studio since 1994. The locality of his product comes through in the handles: materials such as B.C. jade, water buffalo horns, cow bones and maple or cedar burls are a few examples of what the knife maker has repurposed over the years.
His top-tier blades are made of new steel. "[The steel I use] is made in New York from Crucible Industries – the oldest steel foundry in America," he says. "It is the most expensive and hardest to work with, but the results are unparalleled."
Burton's custom works range from steak knives or small paring knives to Santokus (a Japanese-style of knife used for dicing and on hard vegetables) and chef knives, all of which are produced in a Damascus steel style: A difficult technique of repeated hammered, heating and forging that yields a shimmering wave-like design on the blade. This, too, doesn't come cheap. Depending on which of Burton's creations piques interest, expect to invest from $395 for something smaller such as his four-inch Damascus paring knife to $995 for an eight-inch Damascus chef's knife.
"The art of forging knives is a continual learning curve," Burton says. "I was fortunate to have an experienced traditional coal forge blacksmith elder sharing my workshop … with his help, I made my first forged carbon-steel knife back in 1994. Since then, it's been a combination of travelling to visit makers around the world, books, Internet and drawers full of failures."
Burton has created custom knives specifically for the Gold Medal Plates (a culinary competition that fund-raises for the Canadian Olympic team) and designed blades for West Coast chefs – including Vancouver veteran and sustainable seafood advocate Robert Clark. Liss's lineup is growing in popularity in the Winnipeg food scene. Chefs such as Mandel Hitzer of deer + almond and Pizzeria Gusto's Jesse Friesen both use his knives.
In Halifax, Joshawa Lamkey has been running Grindhouse Blade Care and Ware since 2013. After a year spent repairing Haligonians' used and damaged knives, and refitting heirloom blades with new handles, customer demand led him into the realm of knife-making. He now forges a culinary collection, plus a number of "field and stream" knives – a short pocket knife from that collection starts at $100.
"Cookie-cutter knives are all the same. You know, going out different doors of the same factory, if you will," Lamkey says. "With a handmade knife, you can see and feel the difference [when you use it] and you get an interesting little story along with it, too."
Like Liss and Burton, the East Coast knife maker primarily looks locally for handle material and has used reclaimed wood and more unusual material, such as red-tail deer antlers.
For custom knives, Lamkey has occasionally used mammoth bone, provided by a friend in the Yukon. "Salvaged materials always find me," he says. "Anything older and cooler than [that mammoth tusk] would have to be a dinosaur bone."