“A great knife can change your life,” says Adam Simha, for whom that is an understatement. He has put great knives in the hands of great chefs (Think Sharp, Design New England January/February 2014) and found his true passion along the way. The one-time drummer, MIT physics major, restaurant kitchen worker, baker, and furniture maker took a course in welding at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston and immediately had “an overwhelming sense of rightness and belonging.” That was in the mid 1990s when, working with his teacher JD Smith, he learned blade smithing, a skill he has been perfecting ever since.
In his tiny workshop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a knife begins to take shape in the form of a profile of the blade and handle sketched on graph paper. That begets a wooden prototype, which he uses to test the feel of the knife in the hand. (For his custom knives, he might make a template of the user’s hand, or measure it against his own to guide him as he forms the instrument.)
“The speed of the knife [i.e. the flexibility of the blade] is subjective,” he says. “Getting the balance can vary from person to person.” And so observing the user is often helpful to finding the right mix. “Each chef gets to the end result differently. Their philosophy, body, and training play into it.”
But Simha knows most home cooks are looking for an off-the-rack model so, in line with one of his egalitarian goals — to put more American-made knives into the American market — he worked with knife manufacturer Dexter-Russell in Southbridge, Massachusetts, to create its Heritage line of chef’s knives. With handsome maple or box elder burl or bubinga handles, they retail for $250 each.
Back in his Cambridge shop, Simha buys high-carbon stainless steel in 4-by-4 foot or 4-by-6 foot sheets. (He also uses an industrial carbon steel that only recently became available for blade making.) “The grunt part of this work is tough on the body,” he says, so when the blades are ready to be cut into shape he sends the sheets to a laser shop.
But the “finessing” of the final blade, the making of the beautiful handles (from amboyna burl, box elder, maple, Hawaiian koa, or acrylic), and the assembling of the pieces is all done by Simha’s hand. Working the blade alone can take up to three hours. “Getting that geometry right is a slow process,” he says. The belt grinder is his finishing tool and it is by eye and feel that he deems a blade “knife worthy.” He then sands the steel until the grain is 100 percent in one direction. Whether this adds to function is debatable, but, he says, “it is aesthetically pleasing.”
After an overuse injury halted his career as a drummer, he learned the importance of proper technique. When a friend asked him to teach a small group some knife skills he obliged with a class that started with body mechanics. “I took a small block of wood and had them slide it in a straight line across the counter,” he explains. “As they adjusted their stance, the task became easier. Being immersed in design in general, I think about the whole process.” Thus, slicing and dicing isn’t just about the knife and the hand but about body and soul.
Simha still likes to spend time in the kitchen and can wax poetic about the simple pleasures of expertly cutting a pepper. So, what does he have in his own kitchen? He grins broadly and answers: “All the odd ducks and step children,” like the prototype knife he designed with fellow blade smith Joel Bukiewicz of Cut Brooklyn in New York City. “We don’t usually agree,” says Simha of his friend, “but we have hashed out some good things.”
Great design is always at your fingertips — read the January/February 2014 issue online!