A Knife for the Drunken Chef

Gary M. is an old friend of mine (also a computer security guy) and is a serious cook. He’s also a serious drinker. One night at 3am after we had been up working on bottles (him on a bottle of bourbon, me on tequila and cokes) he announced he was hungry, and proceeded to make some beef with black pepper bearnais sauce. It was perfect, and amazing because he was barely able to stand upright.

Last time I visited him I measured all of the knives in his block that showed high use and casually asked him which was his favorite. When he pointed to this darkened high carbon Wusthof that showed signs of many years of abuse, I had all the dimensions I needed.

Since he doesn’t sharpen Japanese-style on water stones or a block, I made sure there was a small ricasso to keep the bolster from getting things slammed into it. Let’s not get started on “How not to sharpen a knife” Gordon Ramsay style, but Gary uses one of those steel abominations. So I did this blade in solid 1095 wire rope, nothing fancy. To make him miserable, I quenched it so that it’s probably hard enough that his knife steel thing will just skate around on it like it’s glass. I can be a bastard like that, sometimes. I didn’t try but I am fairly sure that this blade could chop divots in a knife steel.

The bolster is ebony and a big chunk of fine silver, with a handle of resin soaked bog oak. When I was getting ready to shape the handle I got a text from my friend Jenna K that she had just graduated from mortuary school top in her class, and that gave me an idea.

Usually when someone refers to a “coffin handle knife” they are talking about the shape of the slabs on either side of the tang. So, I was being whimsical but it turns out that shape feels super great in your hand.

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After the steaks, I started nodding out, and Gary went upstairs to bed. I wound up sleeping on the brick hearth in front of the fire. As the fire died down and down, I kept moving closer and closer. When I woke up in the morning, I was sleeping in the ashes, so I tiptoed out the front door and lay down in the cool wet dewy grass. I was such a mess when the sun came up that the dogs didn’t recognize me and I had to negotiate a safe departure with them.


  1. says

    OK, that coffin profile in black wood looks a bit moribund, but I do believe it is comfortable to hold.

    What type of knife steel does he use? Because some are intended to skate around the blade like glass. They are completely smooth, have very high hardness and they are intended to just straighten and burnish the edge.

  2. says

    Marcus, now I see that the bolster is made from ebony with the same grain direction as the handle. I have never worked with ebony, so I know near nothing about the wood, but when you use it as a bolster like this, isn’t there a risk of it cracking and splitting along the grains?

  3. kestrel says

    @Charly, #3: No idea what Marcus will say but I’ve carved ebony and what I say is it’s not likely to crack. At least, the material I worked with was pretty stable and in my view unlikely to crack… and I was carving it down into tiny thin pieces for jewelry.

    As far as the OP that is a really lovely knife. I think your Drunken Chef will truly enjoy and treasure that.

  4. jrkrideau says

    Now that is a knife! As a former cook/chef I have been a bit dubious about some of your other knife designs for cooking but l love that one.

    he was barely able to stand upright.

    Not exactly an unusual situation in a professional kitchen. He was probably going on professional training and skills.

    Being totally drunk, high as a kite on drugs or seriously injured are not reasons to stop cooking and often cooking well.

    Most cooks that I have known have a tremendous sense of duty to the customer and will stagger through all sorts of mishaps to see that they are properly and safely served.

  5. jrkrideau says

    Gary uses one of those steel abominations

    Is that an actual sharpener?

    I have what we in the cooking business call a “steel” but it is not intended to sharpen a blade. It just tends (as I understand it) to realign the blade elements a bit.[1]

    Extremely useful if one’s main tool for the 8 hour day is a knife. If you are a cook a knife often is. It does not replace actual sharping.

    1. Bloody difficult to use on a Chinese cleaver. I have to haul out the stone.

  6. says

    Marcus, now I see that the bolster is made from ebony with the same grain direction as the handle. I have never worked with ebony, so I know near nothing about the wood, but when you use it as a bolster like this, isn’t there a risk of it cracking and splitting along the grains?

    Ebony’s pretty tough, and it’s epoxied to the silver behind it. I’ve never had it crack, but it’s going to get scuffed up over time.
    I’ve tried vacuum soaking resin into ebony but the grain of the wood is so tight there is basically no air in it at all. The only materials I know of that are better are: metal, synthetics, and lignum vitae in that order. I used to use so much lignum vitae I got really bored of it.

  7. says

    The premise of a steel is that it “realigns” the edge. When you’re talking about a differentially quenched martensitic edge, there is no “realignment” option. You either abrade it, or crack it.

    I did tell him not to use a steel on it and I know he has some nice water stones. So unless he decides to deliberately destroy the edge it should be alright.

  8. says

    I’d like to see your thoughts on how to sharpen a knife.

    I sharpen knives according to how much I expect I will have to re-sharpen them. So, my little suminigashi knife I use for daily cooking, I just give it a couple passes on a wet diamond plate (fine grit) and leave it at that. It doesn’t need to be absurdly sharp.

    Most of the sharpening I do is on diamond plates; if I need to go beyond that I use a leather strop that has many ancient layers of abrasive on it. The diamond plates I use are the DMT steel plates [woodworker] they sell a variety including curved hones that are amazingly useful. The nice thing about having a diamond plate is you can use it to sharpen knives and keep your fancy Japanese wetstones flat, if you have them. I like the 4×10 plates because you can just put them on a silicone pad (silpat) on a counter-top, and they flatten stuff like nobody’s business. The DMT diamond plates are inexpensive compared to Japanese stones, and they’re tactical as hell. Unlike a Japanese stone, you can kill someone with a couple whacks from the steel plate, and it won’t alter its perfect flatness. This is what I mostly use: [woodworker]

    When I’m making a blade, I get to decide the geometry, and almost everything I do is flat-ground. Shaping the blade and grinding it flat leaves it pretty sharp just from 2000-grit sandpaper on a surface plate. Final sharpening is just a matter of buffing that edge with an extra-fine stone a couple degrees off the angle of the bevel. You can see that the scuff area on Gary’s knife is not perfectly even. That’s because the blade is not perfectly flat, even though I shaped it on a surface plate; I’m not using CNC machines. ;)

    As far as angle, I sharpen the blade one or two degrees off the angle of the primary bevel if it’s flat ground; if it has a secondary bevel that’s big enough to be visible I usually polish that a bit and otherwise I don’t touch it. I’ve seen some secondary bevels that are close to 45 degrees; they’re not even worth sharpening. Ditto with Japanese-style weapons – those have very complex convex grinds that are best ‘read’ by a professional sword-polisher and unless it’s a blade that I made, I don’t want to risk damaging something.

    That reminds me:
    Now that my wood lathe is bolted down I can make a perfectly balanced maple wheel and wrap it in leather. I made one of those back in the 90s and stupidly gave it to someone else who fell in love with it. I’ll do a build posting if I re-do that process.

  9. says

    Yes, there used to be a company that sold the MDF kits. The great thing about the MDF is it’s “toothy” and you can load it up with rouge really easily. It’s a lot safer to use than a rag buffer; the flexible cloth can grab the blade and hurt you.

  10. says

    I forgot to mention that I actually like the knife. Sorry about that, I got hung up on the coffin and the knife steel use.

    And now I just got an idea about cutting the wire rope. Could you not use a steel hose pipe clamps to secure it against unraveling when cutting? They have an advantage over pliers and utility wire in that they are stronger, reusable and apply very consistent pressure all around. It’s just a thought, I won’t get any time soon to test it.

  11. lochaber says

    Marcus> nice, yet another pretty, yet still useful blade.

    Charly@11> that’s pretty clever, thanks for sharing the vid link.

    sonofrojblake@2, or anyone else> if you don’t have a sharpening process/setup already, I’m a big fan of Spyderco’s sharpmaker system. It’s easy enough to use that a beginner can get a decent edge, and it’s fairly versatile, it will work on serration and recurve blades that are otherwise very hard to sharpen on a flat stone. It also packs up rather nicely, so it can be taken on trips and such if that’s any concern.

  12. dangerousbeans says

    I learnt to freehand sharpen with whetstones, so now i’m emotionally invested in my whetstones :P I find them a bit nicer to use than diamond plates

    that handle shape looks interesting. it doesn’t look comfortable, but i suppose you can’t judge it by appearances.

  13. says

    Nice whetstones are a joy in themselves. I save mine for when I really want to do something special.

    Now I am going to have to do a walkthrough on making polisher wheels (though Charly posted a good link) you can make knives sickeningly sharp with a polisher wheel.

  14. Jazzlet says

    Lovely knife. I’ve just been curling my hand up to look at what shape the hole it makes ,and I can see why the coffin shape would work.

  15. dangerousbeans says

    I would be curious about how to make them. There’s a spare spindle on my bench grindr

  16. jrkrideau says

    @ 8 Marcus

    The premise of a steel is that it “realigns” the edge.

    And it does very nicely. It can be amazing the difference makes in a long day’s work.

    When you’re talking about a differentially quenched martensitic edge, there is no “realignment” option. You either abrade it, or crack it.

    I am only used to using professional kitchen knives so I had not realized this. I do have a stone as well but I am not exactly competent with it. Still I do manage to keep the Chinese cleaver in fairly good shape. And since it is a pretty cheap cleaver that I probably paid $20 or $30 dollars for it and another $10 for the stone I should not complain.

    The stone worked well with the Opinel knife as well once it occurred to me that sharpening a knife on an stone might be a good idea. Duh.

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