Living On The Edge

A novelist-turned-knifemaker grinds out a living.

Under gray-blue steel tracks where the F train clankety-clanks past water towers and tar-topped buildings, down the end of a lonely industrial alley off Second Avenue, sits a broad, brick warehouse. Inside, up a flight of concrete stairs, in a tiny room past a winding white hallway, bearded, blue-eyed Joel Bukiewicz runs a strong, fleshy thumb along the edge of a 7-inch chef’s knife.

“I have to make them super thin,” he explains, flicking on the blade grinder’s power switch. As he presses the blade against the whirring orange sand belt in a slow swipe from back to front, fingers dangerously close to the moving parts, a sound like a musical instrument’s fills the air, starting from a low alto note and climbing to a high “zzzzing!” His hands are black with the fine, powdery remnants of ground steel, his knuckles a patchwork of healing gashes.

“It just kind of grinds me away,” he shrugs. “It’s a design flaw in the human body.”

Design flaws—or, at least, unplanned diversions—are what brought Bukiewicz, 33, to open his year-old knife shop, Cut Brooklyn, in the first place. After earning an MFA in creative writing from the New School, he left Windsor Terrace for Georgia, intending to pen the first of many books.

“My girlfriend and I both had novels to finish,” he recalls, “and wanted to move off the coast.” They settled in a town where his mom’s family had some farmland and spent the next few years in writerly bliss. But when his manuscript didn’t sell, “I was like, ‘This was my plan! I want to be a writer! Now what?’”

He found the answer in an unexpected place. Hanging around the farm one day, he wandered into an old toolshed where he found a rusty bar of steel. “I always had a fascination with tools, and thought, ‘What if…?’ I clamped a hand belt sander to the bench top and made a little knife out of it. It was cool. It was fun!” He made another and another, soon garnering the attention from his buddies and beyond. “Once my wait list went up above six months, I thought, ‘wow, maybe I could do this.’”

During that year of trial and error, Joel turned his attention to kitchen knives, making about 20 prototypes before he found the shape that felt right in his hand and the materials he liked to work with—a high-carbon steel used for turbine engines, sturdy glass laminate for handles, plus a black epoxy to hold one to the other and add a funky racing-stripe design element. The plan had always been to move back to New York, but instead of a book deal under his belt, he arrived with a custom knife business. Bukiewicz soon set up his Gowanus workshop and it is here that, each day, he sets to work profiling (literally drawing a knife’s outline on a piece of steel and cutting it out), grinding, honing, and polishing his line of five high-carbon steel kitchen knives—one of only a handful of such artisans in the country who do so. “Most people think art is only about inspiration or whatever,” he says, “but it’s about working your ass off.”

Far from the lonely hours he logged in the Georgia workshop, in Gowanus, he’s found a group of like-minded artisans with whom he shares the building. “I didn’t go to art school and I’ve never been in a studio environment, but I like that everybody is dirty and working hard.”

He spends 10-hour days in the demure shop, where stacks of knives await his attention in various stages of finish. A tidy bookshelf holds out-of-print hardbound knife books, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. A tiny, tuskless jade elephant stands unsurely on the top shelf, above a small chair and spare glass-top desk with a Mac perched on top, from which he handles all orders and marketing himself. Sanding belts in yellow, orange, black, brown and red—signifying a finer to coarser grain—hang next to the grinding machine, giving the monastic little room its only color, save for the red checked Vans on Bukiewicz’s feet, the sparks that fly off the grinder, and his trademark bold-colored knife handles, which he fashions from a laminate of thin layers of glass fabric, a material that’s impervious to liquids or odor.

“A kitchen knife is tough to get right,” he explains. “There are a couple different schools of thought on ergonomics. Some think you should have something that melts in your hand, but in my opinion you need something that you know is there.”

The process goes something like this: Bukiewicz profiles the outline of knife onto a piece of steel and cuts it out, a step that takes about a half hour per knife. He then sends the cutouts to be heat treated, a process that makes the material harder and thus ready for grinding. “When you heat treat steel,” he explains, “it needs to be held at very specific temperatures for a very specific amount of time. It needs to be professionally done.” After they come back, he sets to work grinding down the blades from a width of around 30 thousandths of an inch to about 7 thousandths. The handle shapes are cut and epoxied onto the grip, then clamped to dry.

Bukiewicz prefers a new, high-carbon stainless steel that al- lows him to hone a very fine edge. “It’s a lot stronger. You want a hardness that will hold the edge, but not so hard that it will chip. With this steel, I’m able to get to a 62 Rockwell,” he says, referring to the standard measurement of hardness for steel. “A lot of the carbon steel knives are at about 55 Rockwell, but if you took them up to 62, they would chip. I did a lot of research on the type of steel I was going to use because I wanted an edge that would really hold. It’s costly, and part of the reason that my knives are more ex- pensive.” True enough, his 8-inch chef’s knife is $350; the 7-inch $330. Even the paring knife costs a cool $180.

“For the quality, and the work he puts into them, it’s certainly worth it. He lovingly and painstakingly goes through the process every step of the way,” pledges Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of the lovingly stocked Brooklyn Kitchen, Williamsburg’s cooking Mecca. She started selling Bukiewicz’s line this spring and reports, “It’s the sharpest thing I’ve ever used. I love the shape, and it slices like a laser. I cut carrots with it and I tell people to lick the surface,” she laughs. “It’s so smooth it’s unbelievable.”

Applewood’s David Shea took a shine to the 5-inch utility knife Bukiewicz brought into Applewares, the charming shop attached to his locally minded South Slope eatery. Shea really liked the knife, but the handle was an unabashed, nearly neon pink. “He was like, ‘This is awesome—but I’ll totally get beat up in the kitchen.’” Bukiewicz made him a rich, bright-blue version, the handle held in place with Cut’s trademark brushed steel pins that look like tiny silver constellations dotting its length. Shea loves it.

Bukiewicz makes about 25 knives per month, a number he seems reluctant to increase. “It takes about 10 hours to make each knife. I’m getting a little faster. I could farm out more of the processes to save time, and I guess I probably will eventually, but I think that’s the big difference between this and something made in a factory. I don’t put my logo on it until it’s, you know, perfect.”

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.