To celebrate what would have been the 100th birthday of oral historian Studs Terkel, the radio show “The Story” is running a series devoted to his work and his influence. (Read an interview with Terkel here.) As part of the series, host Dick Gordon conducts new interviews with people working today, like knife maker Joel Bukiewicz, who is interviewed below. To listen to the radio program, click here.
You were a writer. Were you losing your enthusiasm for it? Or you weren’t happy with what you were producing?
No, the stuff was pretty good. For some reason it wasn’t feeding me like it once had, I guess. Writing into the void on a daily basis was a hard thing and I did it for a couple years, where you don’t know where your story’s going. It’s a fight. And I think I got to where I liked the fight. There was less of that.
Did you have a plan B?
No, I had to just reassess. The ground kind of went out from underneath me, and my folks had retired to a farm that was about a half-hour away from where we were. So, I started doing some work on it. The farm was beat up. So I started going fishing at 4 every morning, just before sunrise, and cleaning out the pond down there. Doing some work around the house, cleaning up. Kind of getting my hands dirty a little bit.
So where did knife making come from?
As I started to kind of become a little more interested in the world around me I started to realize that I had developed this itch to make things on a daily basis. I mean, this is what you do when you write, you sit and create a scene or a sentence or turn a phrase. And these are things you’re really proud of. At the end of the day, you’re like, I made this thing. I created this thing from nothing, from thin air. And that gets to be addictive.
I was in a spot where I didn’t really have that. And I figured I’d go back to the writing, but I just needed a break. In the meantime I started messing around, making stuff with my hands. I made a cool mosaic coffee table. I made my dad some bookshelves for his office and some paddles for the canoe out on the pond. And jewelry. Various things like this. At some point it seemed like it was the right place to try something like making a knife. I didn’t intellectualize it too much. I just thought, this might be cool, and gave it a shot.
You don’t have the tools for this in your average workshop. Like steel and steel-cutting and all that stuff. So you chose something you have to get a fair number of tools in order to do, right?
Making your first few, no, not really. One of the nice things about it is it didn’t require much of an investment. I just picked up a rusty old bar of steel from one of the equipment sheds on my folk’s farm, and I took an old belt grinder that belonged to my grandfather, a hand-held belt-sander, and I clamped it down to the workbench with a couple clamps and turned it out and just sorta went and tried to make something that looked like a knife.
And I burned that thing out — it sort of stopped after a couple hours. And I went to the local hardware store and got another one and then killed that after another couple hours. And then I did have to look into what I’d need if I wanted to keep doing this. Some sort of better, proper equipment.
When you look back to the starting point, have you been able to put your finger on what you liked about holding the steel in your hand? What it was about that?
There certainly was a moment of discovery. I’d always thought of a piece of steel as something so unchanging. Steel — you don’t bend it, you don’t cut it. You don’t affect it. So to learn that steel moves similarly to wood or any other sort of soft stone or soap. You can carve it and you can shape it. And like any other thing, once it’s gone it doesn’t go back. You get to a point pretty quickly where you wish it would move a little slower than it does. That was a moment that was kind of cool.
And was it easy to get something that felt good in your hand?
Yeah, it actually wasn’t that hard. I mean, it wasn’t pretty and nobody else would have thought it was pretty or nice or good. But to me, it was awesome.
And you could put a good edge on it?
No, those first knives I made, they were just made from a steel that I couldn’t identify, so it was just like mild steel. Basically they were knife-shaped objects. They wouldn’t cut anything or last. But it was an attempt, you know?
How easy was it then for you to do the research to figure out what was required to make a real knife?
Pretty darn easy. You can learn how to do just about anything these days on the Internet. It’s a kind of an astounding research tool. So there are these gathering places for knife makers and learning knife makers on the Internet where you can ask questions to folks who’ve been doing these things a long time, or you can search for questions that have already been asked. It’s a fairly small community too, and knife makers tend to just spend a lot of time alone in their shops. So they’re happy to hear the phone ring and chat with somebody about, how do I do this? Is there a special heat-treating process for this? These kinds of various things. So you can get these guys on the phone pretty easily. And then books. There are a few books out there that are sort of thought of as bibles for knife making.
There’s also this stuff about where do I find steel? And what’s the difference between hardened and carbon steel? When did you say OK, I think I got this?
It’s not really a very complicated process. I think probably I felt in my head that at least of the very basics that I could write down, say, the 10 steps that it would actually take me to make a knife, there are a few really simple tutorials out there. So I had the basic steps in my head within a week or so. The trick is they’re all pretty simple but it takes a long time to master each one.
So where were you getting the steel to make a knife?
There’s a place called Online Metals. You can order like O1 or I think A2 from those guys — there’s a couple kinds of tool steel that make pretty nice knives and you just search for the thickness that you require, the size that you want, put in your credit card number and hit the send button, and it shows up a week later.
And once you’ve shaped that, once you’ve worked with it, does it then have to be treated in some way?
It does. There are a couple ways to do it, but there are a few professional heat treating facilities around the country, that this is all they do. The folks that I use for my stainless stuff now is Meadville, Pennsylvania. It’s like a military grade facility, so they have these giant walk-in ovens. And you just send them your stuff and you leave them a note and they bill you a week or two later.
And so what is it about watching a piece of steel turn into a knife in your hands when it’s something that has that gleam to it, something that’s got a wonderful edge to it, something you just like to look at?
Yeah, it’s a funny thing. It kind of happens in a split second. You’d think it would happen over a length of time. But what happens is you actually work on the blade itself. Or what I do is I finish the blade completely and then I tape it up and then I start to work on the handles. So when the blade is done, without any handles on it, it’s beautiful, but it’s not a finished knife.
And then when you sort of affix your handles, and you work with an epoxy with these things, and it gets glopped all over. And you’re grinding and shaping and sculpting a handle on it. At the very end, when you’re finally just about done, you just need to clean, round off the spine a little bit, and round off the area where your forefinger will go. You pull off this tape that you’ve put on the blade. And all of a sudden a knife appears before you. And that’s a pretty awesome moment.
But you’d think it was growing in your hands all along. And I guess to a certain extent it is. But that final moment when you take the tape off and you finally see it and it sits before you as a knife. And either it has that something special that makes it a great knife, or it doesn’t. That’s a pretty cool moment.
You’ve been making knives for years now. Is that still true for each knife that you make? Like, I like this one, or, this one’s better than the last one.
Yeah, absolutely. I think for a very long time we’ll still be learning and getting better and better. And my goal with making has always been to, that the knife that I’m working on now be the best knife that I’ve ever made. So I push for each one to be better than the last, and more perfect in whatever way I see perfect at that time.
I’ve heard chefs talking about the balance of a knife in their hand. Is that important to you when you’re making it?
Oh yeah. I’d say the way it feels in your hand. Balance is one part of it — but I guess it’s probably all balance. The way that it feels. There’s a certain life that gets passed to the knife. If it spends its whole life in one maker’s hand, something of that maker … the entire time you’re making it you’re making adjustments. One of the maxims with knife making, and probably a lot of craft, is if you see a scratch you get it out then, you don’t wait. So all the way along you’re making these minute adjustments. So at the end if that’s the case and it’s been in your hands the whole time, for, say, 15, 20 hours. For your first few knives for weeks on end. There’s something of you that’s going in that piece. And there’s not mistaking that or faking that. It’s a little difficult to quantify. But you know it when you feel a handmade piece. Absolutely.
People are willing to pay good money for a good knife, right? Like 3, 4, 5, 6 hundred bucks for one of your knives?
Yeah my chef knives go for about 600 bucks.
But that in and of itself is a recognition of your skill, isn’t it?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say probably so.
It’d be one thing if you had a whole window full of them priced at 600 but nobody bought them. But — (laughing)
Yeah, yeah. The issue too is that I can only make so many. I can only make about eight knives a week and I usually end up making between four and six, so. Supply is pretty darn limited. So whatever demand is around. I’ve never had a problem selling knives, since my first couple pieces. It’s always been an issue of can you make more?
Is it art for you or is it production?
I wouldn’t say it’s production. But I also wouldn’t necessarily say it’s art. I’d say it’s craft. And I think there’s a difference.
That’s a great word. I was just sort of missing that in my –
It’s that kind of middle ground. I don’t think that what I do on a daily basis is art, no. Even when I’m designing a new piece. Folks say that and I don’t tend to correct them, but no. I don’t tend to think of it as art. I feel like I’ve made art before, and I probably still do sometimes and will again. But the knives that I make, I think it’s — and I don’t like to — I don’t think that craft is in any way at all a step down from art. I think it’s a noble, beautiful pursuit.
Do you still do any writing?
I write a lot of emails, but really that’s about it.
The reason I’m asking is, I wonder if that same itch that led you to study writing and write books and try to do that is the same kind of itch that keeps you motivated as a craftsman.
Yeah, it’s exactly the same. I’ve thought about this. I’ve spent a whole lot of time at the grinder or at a task, it leaves my mind a little freer than necessarily at the computer. But it’s the same thing, you know. You put yourself in the space to do the work and you do whatever you’re doing as well as you have it in you to do. And then, when the work is done you walk away and hopefully you’ve made something beautiful.