In 1986, Olympia’s Bob Kramer began sharpening knives for a living. In 1992 he started making them. And now, his beautiful, intensely sharp, extremely coveted kitchen knives are considered the best in the world.
Kramer, and Kramer Knives, have been featured everywhere from the New Yorker to the Seattle season of Top Chef. Most recently, Anthony Bourdain paid a visit to his workshop.
“Who makes the finest chef knives in the world? This guy, Bob Kramer,” Bourdain narrates in a Raw Craft web video. “Bob’s one of only 122 master bladesmiths certified in the American Bladesmith Society. And the only one who specializes in kitchen knives. Simply put, he’s a rock star.”
Bourdain calls him a “rock star.” But after sitting down with Kramer, a man with a calm vibe and wry sense of humor, I call him a caveman.
“I am a caveman, absolutely, yeah,” Kramer says, sitting in his workshop.
Because he makes tools, specifically knives, by hand, using only raw materials. He forges his own steel and even melts down meteorites.
“Basically starting from raw ore, adding some carbon and some nickel to it,” he explains. “But this is really clean, crucible steel. I’m going to grab that with some tongs and throw it in the furnace. The furnace is probably about 2400 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kramer says, while opening the forge’s hatch, revealing pulsing, hot flames.
A former restaurant cook, Kramer began making his own knives when he couldn’t find the perfect one on the market.
“And that meant using carbon steel, this is old fashioned tool steel. It will rust if you don’t keep it clean and dry. But you get this amazing edge that you cannot get from stainless steel. Nothing gets sharper than carbon steel,” Kramer says.
“I made my blades extra wide, I like a lot of knuckle clearance on a cutting board,” he continues. “I ground them extremely thin. And then I just worked on the ergonomics of the handle. What feels good, what’s organic. Not what’s easy to make or fast to make.”
It can take Kramer a month to make a custom knife and he only has two employees in his shop.
“At one point I had four employees. What I found is that I became more of a manager. I found that I was losing interest in what I was doing,” he says. “You know, we turned out a lot more product but I felt separated from the work. I’m much more of a technician than I am a manager.”
Kramer is a craftsman and if you saw one of his Damascus knives, the blade made from 400 layers of compressed steel and decorated with a beautiful pattern, you’d also call him an artist.
“I wasn’t very good in school. I kept trying to get through college and it just wasn’t feeling right,” he says. “At the same time I was working at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle, cooking. As a kid I was mildly dyslexic so I felt most comfortable in woodshop class. I realized eventually that I probably should work with my hands. I went to the American Bladesmith Society bladesmithing school, which is in Arkansas. I took a two week class in hand forging and I was hooked.”
“I came home and borrowed an anvil from a friend of mine and built a little, funky propane forge in my garage and found some old leaf springs and started pounding on steel in my garage,” Kramer said.
Plenty of chefs and home cooks would kill for a Kramer knife, but they’re not easy to get. After he accumulated a list of orders that would take him two years to fulfill, Kramer stopped taking them. Now, he only makes about 20 specialty knives a year, and he’ll either randomly message someone on his email list or put them up for auction on his website. Kramer recently auctioned off a knife for about $30,000.
“I don’t even know what to say about what those knives are going for, it’s really shocking,” Kramer said. “I keep starting them at $100 because I don’t really want to have any influence on what I think I should get for them.”