What do Andrew Ullom, the executive pastry chef at Ashley Christensen’s restaurants, the Governor’s Mansion executive chef David Gaydeski, and Joseph Jeffers of The Stanbury have in common? They’ve all commissioned Duncan Stephenson of Horn & Heel to craft knives for them. The handmade tools are undeniably beautiful but don’t get fooled—they are functional and ergonomic, making them a hit in culinary circles. We spoke with the metalsmith about his work.
How did you get interested in making knives?
While I was getting my BFA in small metal design at East Carolina University, I made my first knives as a part of an independent study. I consider myself a craftsman first and foremost so I was enamored by the idea of making a tool—something that has utility and at the same time can be aesthetically pleasing. Combining artistry with functionality, to me, is the core of knife making and the reason I love it so much.
Can you tell me about the crafting process?
I start with rough sketches that help me work out the ergonomics, design and scale of the blade to best serve its final purpose. Next, I cut a section of bar-stock steel particular to the type of knife and then forge the desired profile. Once I’m satisfied with the blade profile, I begin the heat-treating process—the most crucial part of knife making. It is where the appropriate grain structure is established within that particular type of steel. The grain structure determines how long the knife stays sharp, which is ultimately what matters most. You could make the world’s most beautiful knife but if not heat-treated correctly, all you have done is made the world’s most beautiful butter knife. I hand-grind the bevels of the blade, giving the knife the geometry it needs to cut.
Now it is time to apply the handle with epoxy and rivets for added durability. Once that is cured, I begin shaping the handle. To me, this is the most intuitive part of the process because I’m constantly checking the handle for comfort, grip and how well it will perform for its intended use. The final touches require hand sanding until the handle is glass smooth. The blade gets one last touch-up and the handle gets its final finish.
Chefs take their knives very seriously. How do you perfect it to address practical needs?
Whether it be dicing onions or breaking down a whole hog, I try to create something that is based on time-tested, classic designs. I apply my own touch, whether that is improving the overall visual aspect or, more often, adjusting the ergonomics of the knife to make for a more useful tool. I’m lucky enough to spend a good majority of my time making knives for people who have some kind of need or problem they are trying to solve. I have been tasked to create something seemingly simple, like a comfortable general-use knife for someone who has larger hands, but they like to pinch up on the blade for control. I have also been asked to create a squared off blade—made specifically for slicing octopus. I love the challenge of accommodating distinct needs.
We have received an amazing amount of positive feedback from professionals and home cooks alike. There is nothing I like more than hearing back from clients. It may be the art-school kid in me but critique fuels me. I always want to be better not only for myself but for my clients who support me and allow me to do what I love.
Can you talk about the creative aspect? How do you come up with the designs and wood choices?
The designs come from trial and error; I’ve thrown out more knives than I would like to admit. I learn tremendous amounts from professionals who have ordered custom work from us. I apply those findings to my next knife and the one after, building a better, broader knowledge base for future clients. As far as wood combinations and aesthetics—it really comes together when I see different pieces of wood with interesting grain or color.