One year ago, Todd Harrington challenged himself to construct a useful kitchen knife from scratch. With little to no background in the how-to of hammering, bending, and shaping a blade, let alone attaching a sturdy handle, it was no easy task. But then again, this is a man who says he can put together Ikea furniture without instructions, so knife making should be a cinch.
“I’ve always been fascinated with knives,” Harrington says. “Then one day I decided to challenge myself to make one. I made it and I just fell in love with the final product. I took it to work, and everyone was like, ‘You made that? Wow.’ That gave me more fuel to try it again and do better. I look at it today and it doesn’t even look good compared to what I’m putting out now.”
A full year into his passion project, Harrington, who is culinary director of Blau & Associates, is churning out knives for friends, fellow chefs, and even housewives who want to slice, dice, and entertain with a bit of style. He’s close to completing his 100th knife and admits there has been a lot of on-the-job learning along the way.
“The process is long. I mean it’s no joke,” he says. “There’s a science behind it. Everything is so precise.”
Creating a custom knife is truly a grind. He spends hours in his workshop (often after a 12-hour workday) cutting, sanding, and sharpening the blade. Harrington uses 1095 high-carbon or Damascus steel for the blades, which he tries to source locally at Vegas Forge. But with a steel shortage, he’s had to look elsewhere and had some Damascus steel shipped in from Pennsylvania and Texas.
But where a Harrington-made knife stands out, visually at least, is the handle. Not only is it “the easiest part of the build,” according to Harrington, but it’s where he gets to be more creative and show his artistic side. His first handles were made of common hardwoods such as walnut, maple, and cherry but he’s since branched out and now uses 25 different “weirdo woods” including African zebrawood and padauk, which he says “look beautiful” when finished. But the look of his handles goes beyond just wood selection.
“Since I’m a chef, I had this crazy idea that I would take pickling spices or star anise or something that looked really pretty and put it into resin and then put that in a handle,” he explains. “I thought that would be really cool to make something that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Now he’s secured everything from candy and orange lentils to black peppercorns and Himalayan sea salt in his handles. For a chef in Idaho, Harrington included a dried chili pepper in an applewood handle from a piece of wood from a tree the chef chopped down and sent him. He also made a Damascus knife with ramen in the handle for chef Lanny Chin at La Neta Cocina y Lounge. “He told me that every time he picks up this knife it reminds him of eating ramen in culinary school,” Harrington says. “It’s more personal.”
Throughout his build, Harrington communicates with the individual he’s making it for, often tagging them on Instagram as the knife begins to take shape.
“I’m just posting what I’m doing, just like the girl over there is posting about her drink at Starbucks or her breakfast sticky bun,” he says. “It’s all the same. It’s what I’m doing that day, but they can see their knife being made.”
Harrington, who admits he’s a bit of a perfectionist, takes pride in his knifemaking skills, even joking that it’s a “good retirement plan.” But what he gets the most satisfaction in is handing over the final product to chefs and friends like Kim Canteenwalla, Jesse Moreno and Joseph Sneed and seeing their reaction.
“Every time I hand a knife to someone that look in their eyes is the best,” Harrington says. “They get a handmade knife that they requested with a little bit of my personality. It’s pretty cool.”
Many of the chefs he’s crafting the knives for think it’s equally cool. John Courtney, who spent several years in Las Vegas, recently moved to Utah to open Chop Shop, Park City’s first full-service butcher shop. Harrington made him a 10-inch cleaver, which Courtney says is one of the best gifts he’s ever received.
“The craftsmanship is amazing,” Courtney says. “It cuts through proteins and bone like butter. I think it’s great that he can switch gears into something more finite within our craft.”
While it’s a long, hard process, it’s one made easier with better tools and as Harrington progresses his toys improve and his shop grows. He replaced his original $60 bench grinder with a $3,000 version and that 42-inch belt sander has turned into a 72-inch belt sander. It’s made the process more efficient.
“It’s the big leagues now,” Harrington jokes. “I’m slowly putting money into the shop and getting some quality stuff. But you know, you can have the Cadillac of everything and it’s still not easy.”