Bob Kramer uses a 500-pound power hammer to lengthen a hot billet.
Courtesy Kramer Knives
Would you pay thousands of dollars for a kitchen knife made by a former circus clown? Sure — right after you buy designer clothes sewn by a retired bearded lady. Step right up!
Well don’t cue the rim shot just yet. Fact of the matter is that knife aficionados pony up some serious cash — and wait for years — to buy a custom blade crafted by Bob Kramer, who in addition to being one of 116 master bladesmiths in the world has also been a clown in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, a magician, a waiter, a restaurant cook and a serial college dropout.
For most people, waiting for a chance to see Kramer Knives on their credit-card bill is a Sisyphean prospect. In his shop in Olympia, Wash., Kramer makes just 100 to 120 knives a year. And while he won’t say exactly how many people have registered in a lottery at KramerKnives.com on the chance their name will be pulled from a digital hat, he indicates it’s “lots of thousands … more than I’ll ever get to in my lifetime.”
Yet register people do, and why not? Kramer, 53, is an outlier for sure — a man poised at the apex of a very specialized profession. Moreover, you don’t knock out knives like this in an afternoon then kick back with a brewski. It takes Kramer anywhere from a week to a month to forge his more intricate mosaic Damascus knives, which have fetched $20,000 to $30,000 at auctions. Making these sublimely beautiful knives is grueling. The wiry Kramer must assume beast mode: hammering, coddling, folding and refolding two or more grades of carbon steel several hundred times, almost like pulling taffy, at temperatures exceeding 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s kind of like doing a dance with the materials,” he explains. “It’s very physical. After a day of forging and grinding, you’re wrung out — totally whipped. But it’s a pretty good feeling. I feel like I make an honest living.”
So what’s the appeal? Kramer believes that in a world that reveres mass production, his hand-forged tools tap into something deeper and more mystical; primitive yet high-tech.