ARTIST INTERVIEW: Nicholas Berkofsky of Fell Knives
We spoke with EPCF artisan Nicholas Berkofsky of Fell Knives about his life, work, and creative process. Nicholas started Fell Knives in 2016 after he made his first set of kitchen knives and fell in love with the process and results. Based in Los Angeles, Nicholas works every knife by hand out of his garage and back yard forge. He makes his knives using traditional methods, no automated machinery and no special alloys of steel. The knives are imperfect, full of character and their edges are hair-popping sharp. Every knife having different qualities, grinds and handles, Fell will have a knife that speaks to you.
Describe the path that led you to the work you do now. Did you take any big risks to get where you are?
My first passion is permaculture, from both a landscaping and lifestyle perspective, they go hand in hand. I have been working as a landscaper and within this there is sometimes downtime. I needed something to do with my hands when they weren’t in the soil – so I started whittling and restoring old garden tools which piqued my interest in working with wood and steel. I then began to explore making my own knives as I have always been fascinated with them. In my research I came across a cache of old, raw, unworked, drop-forged, high-carbon steel blade profiles that had been made in France in the foundry that made the blades for Sabatier. These blades have to be ground, heat-treated, tempered, polished, custom handled, polished again and then sharpened to become a finished, useable knife. Through working with this cache of blades I have picked up blacksmithing, and have also started my own line of completely customized hand forged knives.
Do you have a daily working routine? What is it like?
I am an avid gardener certified in Permaculture design and I run a small personal landscaping business and have a garden at home. I wake up in the morning to one of my hens letting me know the day has started. I let the hens out, gather any eggs from the day before, and feed them, the rabbits get fed next, then I move onto garden maintenance and harvesting. After my morning round of the garden I’ll either continue on to working on maintenance or an installation for a client’s garden, and if I have the day off I make my way to the garage, the place where all the magic happens. When I work on knives I’ll find myself completely immersed and the hours pass by unnoticed, until I finish a knife and look up, realizing the sun has retired. It is very meditative. Then comes the rapid dash to clean up and do an evening round of the garden and put the chickens away. I’ll cook and work on plans for new knives and then drift off until the next day to do it again.
Do you have any artists in your family, mentors, or other important creative influences?
My whole family and my closest friends are all artists in one way or another. My father is a photographer, my mother is a stylist and my sister is a photographer and designer who has an amazing eye and takes on so many incredible ventures, she’s a true inspiration to me. I went to a couple of arts based high schools which allowed me to try out many different mediums and introduced me to my close friends who are all artists – illustrator, graphic artist, tattoo artist, painter, sculptor. They have all played a part in helping me get to where I am now. They have given me the confidence to continue striving towards my goals, and they are all willing to be honest and tell me when something needs more work, or re-working all together.
How does practicing your art or craft impact your life or way of thinking?
Making knives has had a definite impact on me, from the way I cook to the way I look at objects in my everyday life. Having an abundance of sharp knives… well it makes you want to cut things very often, and what better way than to cook something? I’ve been cooking a lot more and including more ingredients in my meals – which makes me want to grow more things to eat in my garden. I have found a new respect for upkeep of tools and wood, keeping metals dry and wood oiled. I find myself wanting to restore every tool that has rusted over or had it’s handle broken and every piece of wood that I could bring back to it’s former glowing condition.
What are your artistic goals for the future? Next week, next year or 20 years from now?
I’m working on expanding my understanding of the metallurgical process and skills with bladesmithing. I want to begin working with Damascus and San Mai steel. I want to expand my shop, getting a few more specialty tools to really streamline the process allowing me to make some really fantastic and unique looking knives and truly magnificent handles.
What are your most important artistic tools?
My workbench, my forge and anvil, my belt-grinder and a lot of sandpaper. Having a good workbench is vital, mine could be better but it’s sturdy and gets the job done. My forge and anvil are my pencil, they allow me to shape and harden my blades. My belt grinder is my eraser and blending brush, it’s the tool that allows me to clean the steel with ease, grinding the bevels and shaping the handles both happen at the same station. Lastly sand paper… I’ve always bought lots of sandpaper for my woodworking ventures, but as soon as I got involved with steel this tripled, sandpaper brings all my knives to life. It get the the edges rounded, smooths the surface until the wood feels like silk in your hands, it brings out the best in the woods grain revealing a natural luster.
What do you hope to share with those who purchase your art and bring it intimately into their lives?
In a world of mass-produced, disposable products which lack integrity and soul my knives are worked by hand, they are crafted to last a lifetime in keeping with the permaculture ethics of sustainability, and no two will ever be the same. I create each knife with it’s own particular qualities, look and feel and find that each knife speaks to a specific person.
High-carbon blades have a much higher carbon content than stainless steels making them harder and providing them with superior edge-retention – there is nothing like a sharp knife! These blades require a little more care and maintenance than stainless, but I believe this gives you a respect towards the knives, you become invested in them personally,wanting to keep them well maintained giving you an enjoyable cooking experience every time. I also feel it is important in this fast-paced world to sometimes slow down and enjoy a process.