Nazila Merati and I had the pleasure of meeting Michael Rader of RaderBlade.com to talk knives and knife care. Mike is an amazingly skilled Mastersmith, with an attention to detail and level of woodworking in his knives that really needs to be seen and felt in person.
When we weren’t staring at gorgeous gear, we also learned about swords, that my knife had boomeranged, and Mike’s love for raw carrots.
If you can’t afford a Bob Kramer knife and want to still have something custom built, his knives are definitely worth a look. Don’t expect to be able to get a Rader original for the holidays, though – he’s backlogged until 2014.
Nazila Merati: How did you get started? What’s your background?
Michael Rader: My background is in martial arts. When I was a teenager doing Tae Kwon Do, I met this old cowboy who was a swordmaker in Marysville, and I started learning forging and grinding and heat treatment. I spent several years doing this, and we would sell swords and knives at the renaissance fairs and sci-fi conventions.
In 2002, I became associated with the American Bladesmith Society back, and earned my Journeymansmith stamp in 2006, and then my Mastersmith rating in 2010.
NM: Do you have people who are chefs, culinary professionals who are using your knives?
MR: I do, and have about 20 on my waiting list right now that are being very patient. And, for some reason, there are a lot of chefs on the East Coast that have my knives.
NM: How did you get started with the kitchen knives?
MR: Daniel O’Malley at Epicurean Edge in Kirkland really liked my work on swords and other knives, so I made a santoku or something, and he started to groom me – showed me some
of the finer points of handle and blade geometry and things. I owe him a lot of credit for that. He sells a lot of custom knives, but he also sells a lot of kitchen knives, a lot of Japanese knives, and also has a really good sharpening service there.
And then I started getting involved with the kitchen knife forums. I made a big chef knife with a fancy display box, and passed it around to a lot of the guys there, all over the country, and they said “Oh, it needs this and it needs that,” so that helped me learn a lot.
But it’s all word of mouth. I haven’t paid a dime in advertising. I have my own personal website, my business website, but I don’t do optimizing — and how did you find me?
Jessica Tupper: I found you through Lucky Peach.
MR: Oh, that’s right! That article was written by one of the guys from the kitchen knife forums. He has one or two of my knives, and he was part of that pass-around. I was just contacted by him, he said ‘give me some information’ and I didn’t know it was a big deal.
JT: So: Damascus versus high carbon steel? Do you have a solid favorite right now, or are you experimenting?
NM: I didn’t even know about this Damascus.
MR: There are two different types of steel. One steel has nickel in it, and the other has no nickel, it’s just a straight carbon steel. You mix the layers up and manipulate it like play-dough, and then when you forge-weld it all together you have a blade with a really nice silver and dark pattern running through it. It’s hard to believe that it just starts out as these different bars of steel.
Performance wise, there’s not very much difference. Hundreds of years ago there was a difference, and that’s what made Damascus knives so popular. It’s the process of taking steel, forging it, folding it, introducing more carbon to it, and driving out impurities, and that’s what makes it superior. Nowadays we have such amazingly advanced metallurgists and the steels that are coming out now are just amazing. And Damascus looks cool, but a lot of people think it’s overwhelming. They could care less about these geometric or organic patterns, they want steel that looks like grandma’s knives used to look.
I don’t have a favorite in that regard, I like them both.
JT: What brands do you recommend to people who love your knives but can’t currently afford them?
MR: Some of the Japanese knives in the $100-$200 range at Epicurean Edge, they’re just really nice knives and affordable. Or get on my waiting list and just be patient.
JT: What do you wish people would do in terms of knife care?
MR: I like to clean my knives with rubbing alcohol. Soap and water isn’t really good for wood or carbon steel so, I just suggest keeping a little spray bottle with rubbing alcohol around and wipe it off with a paper towel. It’s probably best to keep knives out of the sink completely.
A lot of people don’t know when their knives are dull. We’ll get people that bring their block in and say ‘just sharpen the ones that need sharpening.’ So, I’d say, learn more about sharpening. Take the time to understand what is really happening when the edge cuts (or doesn’t cut) your food.
NM: So what was your wackiest knife request so far?
MR: A guy wanted a walking stick with a sword – a hidden sword – and then at the top of the handle he wanted to be able to insert a canister of bear spray. This guy lives in Alaska and he wanted a walking stick where he could fight a grizzly bear. It had a purpose, but I don’t like to encourage my customers to sword fight with grizzly bears. Not that it’s any of my business – and I didn’t end up making that one.
JT: Then what’s the most outrageous piece you’ve ever built?
MR: Probably my Mastersmith dagger. The Damascus on it is something that is really unique and I really made a completely original handle for that dagger. I won award for that knife and I’m glad because it was the most difficult thing that I’ve ever made.
JT: You’re also really into woodworking. How do you feel that helps your crafting process?
MR: Obviously the woodworking is my trademark. The endcaps that I have on the handles are something that people have tried to copy but haven’t really succeeded. The woodworking has really helped me maintain my identity. A lot of guys are putting out knives that have solid handles and they look like everyone else’s, but you look across the room and you’ll know a Rader knife.
JT: Where are you hoping to go next with your craft?
MR: I’m always trying to improve. I’m trying to work on my marketing. I’m trying to make my shop better, more efficient, maybe get a helper in here. I still want to be creative with handle designs and blade work and eventually get into some stainless steels. I’m starting to think in terms of running this like a real business.
So, if you can be very, very patient, Michael Rader will make that chef on your gift list a happy camper. Trust us: these knives are worth the wait.
Featured image by Michael Rader, used with permission. All other images by Jessica Tupper and Nazila Merati.