The blade of a knife can be beautiful. I didn't know this until I stepped inside the Isaiah Schroeder Knifeworks workshop in Madison a few weeks ago. Skilled in the art of creating the Japanese knife, Isaiah Schroeder is a self-taught craftsman making highly functional art that any chef and serious cook could appreciate.
Schroeder and his apprentice, Alton Janelle IV, a Texas native and one-time product designer for Lands' End, work together in Schroeder's home garage-turned-professional workshop crafting traditional chef's and paring knives along with the popular Wisco Cleaver (designed with a cut-out of the state of Wisconsin). The blades are among the strongest on the market. Light in hand, they make careful work of slicing when a bit of finesse is required.
Patrick DePula, chef and owner of Salvatore's Tomato Pies and this year's Madison Magazine Chef of the Year owns two of Schroeder's Gyuto-style chef's knives, one of which, the Lazy Twist Damascus, was custom-made for him. Schroeder carved the handle in red and black wood—the colors of his restaurants. These knives Depula says, "hold an edge extremely well and are the best performing knives I've ever used ... up there with the best Japanese knives available."
For the past six years, Schroeder has been crafting his knives mostly in the Japanese Wa style, where each is blade-heavy (the tang—the part of the blade that attaches to the handle—does not go all the way through) versus Western style, defined by more a balanced weight throughout the knife (the tang runs inside the full length of the handle).
However, Schroeder abandons tradition when it comes to securing the blade to the handle. In Japan, the tang is burned into the handle, unfortunately creating space where water can seep in, which can cause rust and loosen the blade from the handle. Schroeder's blades are firmly secured inside stabilized wood handles with epoxy and aren't going anywhere.
I was surprised to learn that the blade he forges inspires the handle—varying nuances of colors, hues and textures begin to appear. Schroeder is pleased with the uncertain turn-out of this process. "It keeps the work interesting," he says. His chef's knives are made in the San-Mai style of sandwiching carbon between two pieces of stainless (much like an Oreo cookie he says) and with use, the carbon will develop a patina.
Schroeder enjoys foraging for the wood whenever he can and shows me rough pieces of porous spalted maple and redwood that he brought back from a recent trip to California. He tells me a Douglas Fir would make a beautiful handle as well and I can tell he's making a mental note. In his mind, there's an elegantly carved handle from this "old growth pine."
Both Schroeder and Janelle have enmeshed themselves in Japanese culture, bringing a meditative approach to their work. A calm spirit along with sharp focus is necessary when working with extreme temperatures that can range anywhere from -300 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 1950 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prior to starting his own business, Schroeder worked as an apprentice for Richard Judd, a 30-plus year designer of contemporary furniture, whose woodworking studio is part of Zazen Gallery in Paoli. A customer asked Schroeder if he could fashion a new handle for his Japanese chef knife setting him on the path of creating his version of the traditional culinary tool.
Janelle apprenticed with Judd as well and that's how the two met. He designed the Knifeworks logo and says it was inspired by Kanji symbols used by Japanese makers. "It's a monogram that can be read both ways. It is recognizable at any direction," says Janelle.
This fall, Schroeder will be moving Knifeworks to 1516 Gilsen St., directly behind his garage into 1200 square feet—more than double the space he has now. Not only will this new location house both the woodworking side as well as the metal-working (as of now he does all his forging at Acme Iron Works shop on Park Street), there will also be room for retail space and knife sharpening.
In the meantime, Schroeder's knives can be purchased at Underground Butcher at 811 Williamson St., at Wisconsin Cutlery & Kitchen Supply at 3236 B University Ave. and online at schroederknifeworks.com.
THE MAKING OF AN ISAIAH SCHROEDER KNIFE
The day I visited the shop, I was able to see the "quenching" process of five Wisco Cleavers. The stainless steel blades are heated to 1,975 degrees-Fahrenheit for ten minutes. They're carefully removed one at a time then placed between two heavy aluminum blocks where the heat is "sucked out" by shooting compressed air in the space between hardening the steel.
The blade is dipped into a liquid nitrogen bath at -300 degrees-Fahrenheit. From there the blades are placed into a 375 degree-Fahrenheit oven in Schroeder's home kitchen which he explains "tempers the steel back to a more tough state so it is still hard but not so hard that it will break during use." (Videos by Kathy Brozyna)