Joel Bukiewicz lives above his kitchen knife storefront, Cut Brooklyn, with his wife, Julia. After Julia goes to bed, Joel likes to sneak down to his basement workshop, turn on one or two dim lights, and grind knives in the quiet. “Basically what I do is turn solid materials into dust,” he says.
When he moved into this space, he stopped taking orders and commissions, which, at their peak, had been piled on to a three-year waiting list. He opens the shop on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons to sell his weekly yield.
The knife-maker, who recently made a film with director Rob Howard to feature on Imagista, met us at his dwellings to answer more of our questions.
Q: Do you associate as an artist?
A: I’m not an artist. I’m like an artisan and a craftsman and a toolmaker but I mean, in parts of my life I’m not really. Man, I’m a fuckin’ craftsman. Yeah. That’s what I associate as.
Q: Why kitchen knives?
A: These tools that I make, I know they’re scary. They’re tools of entropy and destruction. At its base, a knife is made to turn one thing into two. But kitchen knives are also tools of creation. People use them to make beautiful food. That’s plenty for me.
Q: What do you enjoy about the process of knife-making?
A: One of the really cool things about a knife, a kitchen knife especially, is that there are so few parts to it and so few lines but you could spend a lifetime learning how to put the right edge on a knife and there’s so much nuance involved. I’m always introduced to new levels of it. I like doing things right. I like hard work that turns out well. I like killing myself to make something that I’m proud of at the end. I think that I got really fuckin’ lucky stumbling upon something, in one of my darkest hours, that happened to just fit me perfectly and that’s been able to sort of flex with me, change as I change.
Q: When did you start making knives?
A: I had given up a lot to be a writer. I had been like poor, poor for a long time. And I was okay with that, man. I was okay with that. I loved it actually. Those were great times, man. But I had hit this brick wall in the world of publishing.
Julia and I were living in Georgia. I would chop firewood to sell in the yard. I kind of reverted to that time when I was kid when I would get these weird little fevers of making something. That is one of the best feelings in the world to me. That is as special as it gets. It’s like you’re itchy all over and just like, gotta make this thing. So I started making stuff. All of a sudden shit was working out and I was like, that’s awesome. So I started making other stuff.
Q: What differentiates a Cut knife?
A: So some guy maybe thinks he can like fuckin’ chop an oyster shell in half with his knife. I don’t build knives for those people. I say, think of this as a race car. Stay away from bone and frozen foods and you’ll be absolutely fine. It’ll sing through everything else you want to cut with it. My knife is made for like really humming on the cutting board and moving through food as smoothly and efficiently as possible.
I’m able to use special materials. The walnut I’m using now is from the barn of a friend who lives in central Pennsylvania. His grandfather cut down this walnut tree 60 years ago. He asked me to make a knife out of this material and when he came to pick it up he brought two thick planks of it with him. I only require little parts of it for each knife so I’ve been working with that stuff for two years now.
Q: How do you learn about what your clientele need in a knife?
A: Well, for example, the butchering knives I do—that stuff’s a little trickier in that you’re dealing with guys who, if they’re any sort of professional, have muscle memory in their hands. You have to really see what they’re doing day in and day out to know how to hold these things. This is not something that I could come to an understanding of just by buying a pork shoulder and deboning it once in my kitchen. I had to visit several butchers and I’ve learned that these are such personal tools.
Q: How do you decide what to make next, since you don’t take orders?
A: It has to do with what I’ve made recently. I usually have ideas about changing something up and that’s what I want to dive into. Even if it’s little. I try to allow that room for that little evolution. You don’t necessarily want, with one particular design, a massive evolution. You just want to see it change over time and lead to better work. It’s the subtle stuff, man. All those teeny little details.
Q: What purpose does the Cut storefront serve, aside from displaying the new knives?
A: There’s a fridge in the back that Julia turned into a kegerator for my birthday two years ago. So I’ll barter with local beer makers for good craft beer that you can only get here. People will come on a Saturday and I’ll pour beer and show them around the shop downstairs. One thing I’ve learned about what I do is that as much as people want to purchase a knife from me, they come here to interact with me in some way. It’s not just the piece. It’s how it’s made and I think people really appreciate that.
Q: Is it difficult to make a living as a knifemaker?
A: I only started making money here beyond just paying the bills in the past two years. And I’ve been fuckin’ making knives for, like, 10 years. When I see my bank account, I’m like, there’s money in it? That’s ridiculous. Everything is tied together, with the way I’ve set this up. This is my fuckin’ life. If you were to knock into anything here, that would be hitting a nerve to me.
Q: What is success to you?
A: It matters to me that I can sell my knives. The things that I’ve wanted to do with my life were to make beautiful things and not be bossed around by assholes. Isn’t that the good life? That’s it. Man, this stuff that I do every day really fills me up and makes me happy. I think that a really good life of the mind can be had at a craft.