Ben Abbott is a compact guy with an English accent, a guileless face and a haircut that straddles the border of ironically hip and mercilessly efficient. An electrical engineer at Caltech by day, he’s a metal worker by night and on weekends, turning out steel-bladed chef’s knives and an astonishing variety of period-perfect replica cauldrons, bowls, weapons and jewelry. He carves the wooden handles for the knives and creates the boxes they are stored in; he casts his own fireplace tiles for his Pasadena Craftsman cottage, and he forges his own fire tongs. Ben also made his wife Mandy’s beautiful sterling silver dogwood necklace, her massive copper and tin kitchen pans, and her delicate horn caviar spoons. And if that’s not enough, he rigs his own metal presses, does his own wiring and copper plumbing (of course) and creates his own hammers and chisels. He’s a young old-fashioned craftsman through and through.
Up close, Ben’s knives are works of art. The metals weave and writhe together, the blades sporting beautiful patterns like marbleized paper or zebra stripes. He makes knives to order for dedicated chefs who love the weight, the handling and the beautiful functionality of each piece, and he stamps the blades with the initials of the owner. All around his house and workshop are blades of various designs, from small to massive, with and without handles, half-completed or nearly ready for their eager owners. And he’s got a literal ton of 19th-century anchor chain stored in two metal trashcans, the raw material for plenty of satisfied chefs to come.
I went to Ben and Mandy’s Northwest Pasadena bungalow to talk to him about blacksmithing and knives.
Is it knives only? Or other types of “forgeries”?
I enjoy knife making the most, but I make all sorts of things, ranging from industrial machinery to wedding rings. I’ll leave the forgeries to the folks who make brand-new Monets.
You’ve been making knives since you were a kid. Were your parents alarmed by your passion for sharp objects?
My first attempt was with my dad when I was around 13. We took an old file in the fireplace outside, got it red hot and beat it with a hammer for a while. Later, as I got better at making hotter fires, I burnt the end off that one and had to start over. Both my parents have always been supportive of my eccentric creative exploits.
How did you learn?
After the episode with my dad, I did a lot of trial-and-error blacksmithing by myself. If I worked myself into a corner, I would read books and visit some blacksmiths at village restorations or museums and chat with them, while trying not to be an annoying 13-year-old. In the past ten years, there have arisen any number of online forums where you can ask advice from some of the world’s leaders.
Do you have a collection of knives?
I do. I’ve bought a few over the years, but the vast majority are ones I made myself.
Tell me about all these tools—you’ve got a lot!
I use all sorts of tools. I almost have enough hammers (but I doubt I will ever have too many). I have a forge that runs on propane, so I don’t make smoke and bother people. I made myself a 27-ton hydraulic press that I use for some of the rough shaping of hot metal—it really saves me a bunch of time and wrist injuries! Some of the tools were store bought, some were garage-sale finds, and many were made by me.
How long does it take to make a typical knife?
To make a kitchen knife takes about eight to ten hours. To make two at the same time might take ten to twelve hours—it’s kinda like how cooking dinner for eight people doesn’t take four times as long as cooking for two. Some of the pattern-welded knives I make can be made of many different pieces and be very complex. I never remember to time myself when it comes to making those ones, but I would guess that I can easily put 20 to 40 hours into something like that.
What goes into making a perfect chef’s knife?
Some attributes that I find essential are: profile shape, thinness, sharpness, toughness, ease of “steeling” and beauty. I like to grind my blades so thin that cutting with them is nearly effortless. Looking at cheap knives, you can often see that they are extremely thick right behind the edge and, even though they “never need sharpening” would rather split a carrot in two than slice through one. A steel actually has to be pretty hard to achieve a very sharp edge, but if it’s too hard it gets brittle. The perfect chef’s knife has to achieve a good compromise between these two extremes. One thing about stainless steel knives is that their 13-18% chromium tends to make them more brittle (less tough) than carbon steels, which is why I don’t use stainless. Another benefit of this good compromise is that the steel is hard enough to be sharpened on a stone but soft enough to be “steeled” back to a razor edge when it stars to get dull. Steeling is the act of rubbing the knife against a harder steel rod to burnish the edge. This usually takes less than ten seconds and creates a knife that just about falls through a tomato. The last aspect of a good chef’s knife is beauty. I now use nickel silver rivets and bolsters on my kitchen knives, with a beautiful pale boxwood for the handle. I think the result is quite distinctive.
Do you only make custom knives?
All of my knives are completely handmade by myself, so they always have variations from one to the next. I do, however, have several patterns (like for the kitchen knives) that make that subset look similar to each other. But they’ve never exactly the same.
Who are your customers? Chefs? Whittlers? Renaissance Faire types? Hunters?
I have made knives for chefs, hunters, military personnel, home cooks, “pirates”, etc. They’ve been mostly local, because my website is largely blank, at least so far.
Should we get into price range?
I have sold knives for $50, and I have sold some for $1,000. The standard chef’s knife is currently priced at $200.
Is there a big underground knife scene? How cool would it be if there was?
I’m not sure what an underground knife scene would look like, but there is a custom knife show every year at the Pasadena Civic Center. No secret knock needed at the door.