BLADE RUNNER

“Being a smith means being able to make something out of nothing.” —Nick Rossi, smith

 

interview NANCY GORDON
photographs courtesy NICK ROSSI

Assorted kitchen knives in 80crv2 steel.
Handles of Maine river maple and vintage phenolic.
Integral titanium folding knife.
Nick Rossi heating a bar of knife steel in a coal forge, as part
of a demonstration for the Northeast Blacksmith Association
fall meet at the Ashokan Center in New York.
Japanese inspired daily carry.
Edgar Brandt.
Forged folding knives.
Nick sizing titanium stock under the 50 pound tire hammer.
Assorted chef knives in dyed Maine maple.
Eastern chef knife with paua shell handle.

Tell us a little about your background and how you came to metalsmithing.

I was knife-obsessed from the time I was about 6 years old. I think that the swordplay in the classic movie The Princess Bride made me first start thinking about the fact that someone had to make those swords. [Movie character] Inigo Montoya’s father was a swordsmith, so cruelly murdered by the “six-fingered man.” I thought that having the ability to design and then produce any knife or sword I could imagine would be the coolest job imaginable. Runners-up at the time were automotive design and fighter pilot.

Any advice that has stayed with you through your career?

I was fortunate to spend some time with blacksmiths from Colonial Williamsburg, the most well-known being Peter Ross. He lived as an 18th-century blacksmith* for many years and is considered (at least by me) to be the greatest living blacksmith. He would say “Every time you turn to a modern convenience for a solution to a forging problem, you are cheating yourself out of the opportunity to develop your fundamental skills.” This focus on fundamentals has driven my work and how I approach the craft.

* In the “living history” world, where crafts are performed today as they would have been long ago, smiths like Peter Ross can only work with 18th-century tools. No electricity. There are no modern conveniences such as electric welders, grinders or drills. That means that your fundamental skills have to be at their sharpest. You can bypass the need for many of those tools by relying on your hand skills but it is only by denying yourself those conveniences that you can develop those hand skills.

What drew you to knives?

A knife is humanity’s oldest tool and knives seem to elicit an emotional response from the person who wields it.

Your website states that “The heart of a Rossi knife is that it’s forged.” What is the forging process and what does it bring to each piece?

Ninety-nine percent of all knives made today are produced using the “stock removal” method: You start with a bar of steel and remove whatever doesn’t look like a knife. There was a time when labor was inexpensive and steel was very expensive. Prior to the Industrial Revolution it would have been unthinkable to waste steel by turning it into dust or chips. Knives and all tools were physically forged to shape using a very small amount of this precious material. I use this same process, working a piece of steel using a hammer exactly how a ceramic artist uses their hands with clay. I have complete control of the material and I can distribute it in such a way that a knife will be very strong and resilient, yet feels almost weightless in the hand.

Your knives are forged for many different uses, as well as collecting. You must have an interesting range of clientele. Can you tell us about them?

I’m lucky to have faithful and varied customers. I’m happiest when these knives get used every day, but I’m flattered that people think that my work belongs in a safe as an investment. My first customers were hunters who wanted something a bit more high performance than what was available at the sporting goods store. I love cooking and eating as much as I like making knives, so the culinary knife market was a natural move. I have made knives for almost every purpose for people of every walk of life. Leatherworking knives, oyster knives, historical reproductions and independent movie props are just some of the projects I have had the pleasure of working on.

Many of your knives are chef’s knives—German, French and Eastern. Do you cook?

Oh yes, I cook every meal in my household.

What makes a German chef’s knife different from the French chef’s knife? Would the uses be the same?

The difference between kitchen knives is the amount of curve in the edge. As far as profiles go, it’s hard to beat the classics. Wusthof, Henckels and Sabatier made the most iconic and functional knives of the last 100 years. Those profiles can’t be beat. I can make you a prettier knife, I can make you one that holds a better edge, but those blade shapes can’t be improved upon. A German pattern typically has a “belly,” or more of a rounded blade shape. This is good for a “rock and chop” technique. A French knife is more triangular, for a “slice and rock” technique. My Eastern-style knives are for a “lift and chop” technique and have a flatter edge. It’s 100% personal preference.

Where do the textured designs on the upper part of the blades come from? Can you control the patterns?

The texture on the blades is the natural finish of my forging hammer on the anvil. It tells the story of how it was made. Different textures can be used, but I only like the naturally occurring finishes.

Do you personally create the handles?

I do every part of the process from the forging to the handles to the leatherwork.

Are all the handles wood, metal, both?

I will make a knife handle out of most anything responsible. Metal, bone, synthetics, it’s all a possibility! I especially like Maine hardwoods.

Do any of the knives have their own stories? If so, will you tell us a few, please?

The most emotional story was from a wonderful woman whose father was killed in a knifemaking accident (it is a potentially deadly craft). He was a well-known knifemaker and he went to his shop to sharpen a kitchen knife before dinner and was fatally injured. His daughter contacted me and wanted a very special kitchen knife to be made for her wedding, as knives were such a part of her life growing up and they reminded her of her dad, who she wanted so badly to be there. It was a pleasure to make something extra special for her.

The most fun story was a lady who had a pet deer. It was a deer that would come by her property and would allow himself to be fed and pet. The deer had spent years and years hanging around her property and she had all the shed antlers. She wanted a matched set of knives made with those antlers. It was very fun!

This Eastern chef knife has a uniquely interesting handle. What is it made from?

This one is paua shell. I love natural materials like shell and mother of pearl. So many fun colors. Too many knife handles are brown and black.

Do you have a best-selling knife?

Everyone loves the 7- to 8-inch chef’s knives.

Which part of the knifemaking process intrigues you the most?

In any sort of forging, each step of the process determines the success of the subsequent step. If you isolate* 3/16 inch of the original stock too much or too little, it has a huge effect on that next step. Forging two or three identical blades and have them vary within only 1/16 in profile and 1/64 in cross-section, I consider to be the most intriguing and maddening part of the craft.

* In a piece of raw material, a certain amount is allotted for the blade and a certain amount for the tang. An isolation is a forged shoulder that separates the blade from the tang, isolating the very specific amounts allotted for each part of the knife.

Do you celebrate a finished piece?

I celebrate a piece for about four minutes. I’m too excited to get to the next one!

You mention getting inspiration from industrial design, artistic movements, architecture, fine art and literature. Please give us some examples of a knife and its major source(s) of inspiration.

I try to let all these influences blend and distill into one cohesive style, but I’m a big fan of Edgar Brandt and I had a request for a Deco-themed letter opener with stand for a General Motors engineer. I used repeating scrolls and collaring, which is a classic Brandt touch, but the stand had it lying on stylized fold-formed leaves—which was still Deco, but less in Brandt’s style. I try to stay away from direct homage, but that project was just too fun! I find museums to be my favorite way to “fill my creative tank.” H.P. Lovecraft was an early influence, especially [the short story] “Herbert West—Reanimator.” What excites me is doing the impossible—using forgotten techniques and exotic materials to create something the world has never seen. In Lovecraft’s story Herbert West wakes the dead using science and creating magic. That’s what I want to do. Also, the repeating “beet” theme in Tom Robbins’s epic [novel] Jitterbug Perfume, representing an elemental and magical elixir, reminds me of the elemental nature of blacksmithing. When you forge the line between hidden worlds, the space gets a little thinner.*

 

* This hidden world is the story of humanity, which is also the story of iron. We take something that occurs in nature and use it to make swords, shears and chisels, with all the potential to create and destroy. 

You give classes with specialized instruction at the New England School of Metalwork in Auburn—known for some of the best blacksmithing and bladesmithing instruction in the country—as well as private classes. Do you teach both types of classes at all levels?

I teach group classes at all levels at NESM as well as workshops all over the country. I’ll be teaching private lessons at my Vassalboro studio very soon.

Are most of your students there to hone an aspect of the craft?

It depends. Most students are beginners who want a taste. They want to see what it’s like and if it’s for them. Unfortunately, the start-up cost for knifemaking is a big barrier and before students invest in the tools they want to make sure they like it and they want to try everything out. My seasoned beginner-to-intermediate students have a goal in mind. They want to learn to make a kitchen knife, or how to make pattern-welded steel. More project based than process based.

What does being a smith mean to you?

Being a smith means being able to make something out of nothing. Our ancestors made tools, jewelry and weapons with literally dirt from the ground and fire. I want to continue that tradition. There was a complete Viking-era tool chest found and the blacksmith tools look exactly like the ones we use today (a little nicer, actually). It’s amazing to have something in common with a Sudanese, Turkish or French smith, not just today but 2,000 years ago. We all use the same tools. We all speak the same language.

nickrossiknives.com

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Favorite …
Guilty pleasure?
I don’t feel guilty about much anymore except for a box of really, really good donuts.

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