Blade Runners


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opposiTe page: Salter at work creating a Hawaiian wood presentation box

Chatting with master knife craftsman Gregg Salter is like sitting down in a friendly English pub with a gifted raconteur. Ask him, for instance, how he first became interested in handcrafting elegant, one-of-a-kind kitchen knives, and he takes you all the way back to the start of World War I, when his English grandfather went to see a recruiting sergeant, who asked his age.

“Fourteen, sir,” his grandfather said, to which the sergeant replied, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow, when you’re 17.”

And so, Salter’s 14-year-old grandfather joined, and he took his knife with him. He’d had it made, and in addition to its blade, there was a buttonhook accessory (cavalry dress uniforms had many buttons on the shins and forearms) and one for cleaning horseshoes.

Salter’s grandfather lost that knife in France, in the trenches, but his name was etched on the side, and it was later returned it to him. Years later, he gave the knife to his father, who much later passed it down to his grandson, Salter’s father, a Royal Air Force pilot. He carried the knife during World War II. He almost lost it out of an aircraft hatch one day, but again, it was returned. Now, that historic, hand-forged knife has been passed down to Gregg.

Before he began crafting knives himself, he shod horses as a blacksmith/farrier, and then learned woodworking and helped renovate a 600-year-old Tudor mansion. Due to historical preservation restrictions, they built an extension that wasn’t actually attached to the house (as it appeared to be). Even so, they were required to handcraft the tools needed to build windows, and to use only traditional building techniques, which included horsehair and thin strips of willow.

Later, he did a stint as a scuba dive instructor in the Canary Islands, where he met his golf-pro wife, Marie. They eventually moved to the Big Island, and Marie encouraged Gregg to start making knives professionally—a hobby he enjoyed.

While poking around online, Marie saw there was a cutlery festival coming up that very weekend in Japan. They jumped on a plane.

“Everyone was walking around eating snacks on sticks, and they were serving beer and selling lethal weaponry right on the street,” Gregg laughs. “If you did that in England or America, everybody would be lying around with handles sticking out of them.”

Here is where they met Kikuo Matsuda, a master steel bladesman who makes tactical combat knives used by Russian President Vladamir Putin’s personal bodyguard, militaries and some U.S. police departments.

“Of all the knives we looked at, and the crafts-manship,” Gregg says, “the nicest blades were Kiku’s. His products are extraordinary. He uses some steels that no one else uses, because they are not capable of working with them.”

Gregg asked Matsuda if he would craft some blades for kitchen knives, and Matsuda agreed. Gregg calls them “Combat Chef” knives.

“It’s getting a lot of interest,” he says. “People say, ‘Kiku Matsuda has made a kitchen knife? Really?’ There’s never going to be a lot of these knives, because he can only make two blades a month.”

Matsuda spent a month making the first blade: a premium, carbon-steel blade with a subtle damask pattern, and Gregg handcrafted the knife’s koa handle and special presentation box. The only one of its kind, it sells for $12,000.

A limited-edition series of 100 additional Combat Chef knives—which are also one-of-a-kind, can be customized and come in a koa keep-sake box—will be available for $3,500 each.

“People go into a gourmet kitchen shop and see a kitchen knife that’s $150 to $200, and it says, ‘handmade,’” Marie claims, “but it isn’t. You couldn’t do it for that kind of money. That came out of a machine, and then, people did little bits of it. Maybe somebody picked it up and banged a couple pins into it by hand.

“Ours are hand-forged,” she explains, “with one guy taking a bar of steel, banging it out, putting it in a forge, watching until it’s the correct temperature, banging it to correct the shape, putting an edge on—all by hand. The quality and edge retention is so much better than anything that comes out of a machine or a product lathe. Even our production lathe is more hand-processed and high-quality than anything you’re going to see in [any] department store.”

In the shadows of his earlier woodwork training, Gregg works out of his garage, only in natural sunlight, and doesn’t buy big, fancy tools. He uses koa wood that is naturally felled, reclaimed and then dried in a solar kiln.

“He tries to do everything the old-fashioned way: to minimize the amount of footprint we’re putting on the environment,” Marie explains.

Customized steak knife sets are one of their specialties. All of their knife blades are made by master bladesmiths in Japan. Their steak knives can be crafted in one of three di˚erent types of steel: VG10 is a very high-quality, culinary stainless steel; R2 is a powder metal dyed stainless steel, and makes for a very hard, durable steel; and Shirogami steel is a carbon steel knife chefs often use that has an extremely sharp cutting edge but isn’t stainless steel.

The VG10 steel can come in four different ˛ nishes: damascus patterned, with hammered forging marks, a mirror polish with a laser-etched pattern or a satin polish ˛ nish with no pattern.

Gregg customizes his knives to have either a solid koa wood handle or one with a bolster of African black wood, ebony, black buffalo horn, mokume hand-forged damascus, nickel-silver, brass or stainless steel. He handcrafts a curly koa presentation or keepsake box.

They also take custom orders for chef knives, carving knives and sets. Marie says she recently took an interesting order from someone in Abu Dhabi for a special carving knife with a 13-inch blade and an unusual shape. The customer explained he carves very, very large roasts for a large family and wanted a larger-than-usual knife.

And they can meet any sort of special need, she says. “We’ve had professional chefs with big hands order knives … that had uneven knuckle room, so they didn’t hit their knuckles.

“We have a professional chef that was so happy with our chef knife that he ordered identical ones for each of his three sons,” she says, “so he would have his own knife to pass down to each of his three sons as an heirloom. He said he would make sure to use each one.”

She says it’s not uncommon for someone to order a set of chef knives as a wedding gift for, perhaps, a daughter, and she helps them zero in on how to best customize the gift.

“I ask what she likes to cook. One gentleman told me, ‘She’s a vegetarian, and she has a very small kitchen.’ He told me what he’d like his price range to be, and based on that I told him, ‘You certainly wouldn’t want a boring knife. You’d want knives that vegetables don’t stick to, where they’d have a surface type of shape and, perhaps, design. You can do things like the hammered design to keep foods from sticking on the sides of the knife when you’re cutting.’”

Most people, she says, just go to a department store or kitchen shop and pick knives from what’s in stock. “But then, you get a bunch of knives that are going to dull quickly, or that are hard to sharpen once the factory edge is off. Sometimes, mass-produced knives look good in the beginning, but once the edge wears off, you have trouble getting that edge back on.

“Ours, as a handmade knife and high-quality steel, hold their edge longer and when they do need sharpening, they sharpen up very, very well,” she says. Salter Fine Cutlery also provides sharpening and re˛ nishing services.

She says they have bladesmiths who make both steak knives for them and some of their chef knives, too, so they are able to craft matching steak and chef knife sets upon request.

“We get comments where people say they knew they were getting a nice knife, but they never knew how much joy they’d have just holding the knife and using it and [by] how well it cuts,” she says.

When Prince William’s engagement was announced, Marie sent a catalog, offered the new couple a gift, and heard back that they would love one of Gregg’s carving sets. The Salters were proud and honored that the royal couple was interested in having one of their products.

Their craftsmanship is, literally, fit for a future king.

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