The Art of Knife Making
DON NGUYEN KNIVES
We love chefs because of what they create with their hands. But their hands always have help. Fruit, the vegetables, and meat don’t cut themselves. Which brings us to the people behind the scenes if you will, that also have a hand in bringing the dish that you love to your table. I’ve set out to learn more about them and bring you yet another series of those outside the kitchen who make your plate taste exquisite. For this piece, I made my way out West to meet with Don Nguyen, knife maker extraordinaire. If you’ve heard of Don before, you know his creations are perfection itself. And if you haven’t, let me introduce you to him with this video and take you through his passion for knife making.
The video is Don's story and passion and this written piece is his skill. I decided to ask him some more in detail questions for the readers that are invested in learning or knowing more about how Don makes his knives. These can get a little more technical for the average person, but worth the read until the end.
What inspired you to start making knives?
I liked cooking but I hated dull knives. There's this story about when I first started thinking about making knives. I was cooking at a friend's place and all he had was a serrated knife and I was making curry and I had a lot of onions to cut. I sawed through three or four and I was crying and I said no more and I decided to learn how to sharpen knives.
How long have you been making knives?
I’ve been making knives since 2011. I made my first one ever at the Pima Community College workshop and my first knife I wanted it to be a big chef's knife, but it's a learning process. With that big a knife there would be mistake after mistake and it became shorter and shorter and my big chef’s knife just turned into a paring knife. That was my first one in 2011 and I've been making them ever since. Part time in college then I graduated and I went full time last year.
What's the process you go through to make a knife?
The first step is rough shaping. After you have your design you have to shape it out to the rough profile of what the knife is going to be. For a simple carbon steel you can use anything. You can use a bandsaw, you can use a grinder, water jet, plasma cutter, you can heat it up and hit it like what a lot of people like to do because it's just fun. It doesn't really matter. The next step would be to heat treat it. The heat treat is the most important part of the steel. This is where you're physically transforming the structure of the steel to make it hard and yet not brittle. There are multiple steps within the heat treating; it’s not just the quench for more complex steels. This can involve different times and temperatures, going from a very high specific temperature and then cooling it. Depending on how quickly or slowly you cool it, you're going to induce different changes into the steel. And depending on whatever steel I do, I always have to heat treat it and once that's done then it's ready for grinding, getting the actual cross sectional geometry so that it can cut right. I grind the blade and I do a lot of testing. I test on different foods, make sure it doesn't stick on anything and once it’s done I make it look pretty, sharpen it up and put a handle. That's about it.
What are the foods that you test on? What textures, what kind of things do you specifically test on to make sure that they're good?
For the general purpose knives I use potatoes and carrots. It's a pretty good test on how nice a knife will glide through the food, how it will cut through without wedging because if it's too thick at a certain point of the blade, it will just start wedging the food and crack it in half instead of cutting it. That's why the carrots are really good for the lower end of the spectrum on the lower part of the blade. Potatoes are taller, you get more of a dynamic of the midpoint of the blade towards the top. And then if I'm doing, let's say a meat slicer, then I’ll get chicken, steak, maybe some Ben Forbes meat just as an excuse.
I'd like to interject by saying Ben Forbes if you're reading this GIVE US THE MEATS. Thank you.
Do you freehand your handles or what tools do you use to keep those facets on the handle and not round out those defined lines?
Freehand. It’s always freehand on those, unless if I start getting into more of a production rate, more of the water jetting style where all the knives are mostly the same design, then I'll think about making a jig to get the angles down, make it more efficient. But for now every handle is different so I freehand it and I just look at every single angle from front to back, up and down, and flip it around every now and then just to make sure all the facets are symmetrical and as flattened and even as possible.
What are the blade and handles of your knives made out of?
I focus on two different steels for the blade. I use 52100 and W2 and both of them are high carbon steels. They’re not stainless so you have to take care of them. They'll develop a patina, but there's nothing sharpens up like a simple carbon steel. There's a feedback to it, there's a feeling to it. It sharpens up extremely easy, it gets a really sharp edge and will hold it for a decent amount of time and it just feels right. There's something romantic about the steel too. It's kind of like a cast iron pan. That's not the greatest looking thing, but a lot of people love that stuff in the kitchen. So those would be my two main steels. I'm going to be adding a stainless soon. A new stainless line that'll be a third steel. As far as handle materials go, I do maybe half and half. I do composites and I do woods. I'm pretty picky about what I use because if I use the wrong handle material it can shift with different humidity, moisture and temperature. And if it shifts, it’s gonna eventually break the bond of the epoxy and I like my knives to last decades, they should be passed on to generations. So when using a wood it has to be a very stable wood, something really hard or something that's been artificially stabilized.
How about other methods of sharpening? What is your best advice for someone that's just starting?
It depends on the learning curve that you want to invest. The easiest way is just a honing rod, that's the old school rods you put at an angle. It's limited in the sense that you can't really sharpen a blade like that. You can touch it up and keep it sharp, but once it starts losing the edge, now you actually need to sharpen it. For me, there's no better way than to use an actual waterstone (also known as a whetstone). The flexibility you get with it, with different types of stones, different grits, the angle you hold it up, the pressure applied, you can troubleshoot edges if it has problems like that. You can change the geometry of a blade if you really wanted to. There's just so much you could do. You could do everything that honing rod can do and more, and it's actually not as difficult as people think it is. There are a few key concepts to keep in mind, to learn, but after that it's simple and it's not confusing at all.
How would you recommend someone start getting into knife making?
Just jump in. There's a lot of research to do. There's loads of information out there. So many people are learning now just through the Internet, through YouTube, through forums, things like that. There are huge communities of people that are willing to help out. But at the same time there's also a lot of bad information. There's a lot of information to sift through and at the very beginning it can be really confusing to know what's good information, what's not so great, so it just takes a lot of research, building connections with people and just kind of eventually figuring out the right process for you because everybody has a different process. Just do a lot of the research and jump in, see if somebody in your local area can give you a little head start or just start building your own workshop and go from there.
Do you have any specific websites, specific YouTube channels or anything that you would recommend?
Nick Wheeler is a guy you can look up on Instagram (@nick_wheeler_knives) and on YouTube (NickWheeler33) and if you want to make good, solid, high quality knives, his resource is one of the best out there. He breaks down his builds, design process, everything. So a lot of the fit and finish techniques that I use I learned from him. He's a fantastic guy. He's extremely skilled.
How much do your knives sell for?
It depends. A small knife, like a paring knife, can be $250, $350. Depends on the materials and the size, and how crazy we go with the design. And then some of these special projects can be $1,500, $2,000, $3,000. It really depends. If I make something that's totally wild and that nobody's ever done before, it's going to take me a long time so the price is going to be relative to that and especially if it's something that I wouldn't see myself making for a long time or nobody else is going to be making for a long time, the price is going to reflect that too.
What kind of feedback do you look for when people test your knives?
A little bit of everything. You can tell if somebody tests your knife and they don't like it immediately, they don't even have to say anything. Other than that it's ergonomics. If the handle is comfortable for them, if it balances right, if it cuts well. Every knife of mine is different, thicknesses are different, the intended type of knife is different. It depends on what they're looking for, what their preference is. Everybody has a different preference and I have to base that knowledge on what I want that knife to be. Then of course if there's any flaw, I definitely want to know in order to fix that for the future knives.
So if someone were to test your knife compared to someone else's, how would they know that it's yours?
The first impression would be the handle. My handle style is a modern angular handle style and there’s nobody in the world that does a hande like I do. That would be the first thing, just the overall design of the handle and blade. Second would be some of the smaller embellishments that I do. I do a very rounded polished spine and underside where the finger meets the choil. Those are some touches that I do that not a lot of people do in the world.
What would you say is the hardest part of knifemaking?
When I was just part time, trying to do the best work that I could in the amount of time that had. Now it's discipline. I have to fight the feeling that it's work. I try to find the balance between the interest and drive that I've always had and keeping a steady paycheck. The hardest part is keeping the workflow going without losing the passion.
Doing this interview with Don showed me how something so simple can become such a passion. It was great dipping my toes into a different part of what makes the culinary community thrive and it was fascinating to see Don work and learn a couple things throughout the process myself. If you’re interested in seeing more of his knives or purchasing one, please go to his page either on Facebook or Instagram (@donnguyenknives) and take a look at his pieces. He recently went to Chicago for a knife convention where his most favorite piece was showcased and it’s so gorgeous I have provided you a picture below for you to see. And for those asking him if he’ll ever do something other than kitchen knives, he mentioned a little something about a possible dagger and sword… stay tuned!
Roots is dedicated to providing a conversation about those behind the scenes in the culinary community that also have a hand in bringing the dish you love to your table.