Every knife has a story – and if it’s passed through the Bernal Cutlery, Josh Donald can probably tell it to you. He owns the knife shop, which shares a building with four other businesses on Cortland Avenue in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. On a recent visit to the cutlery, Donald showed off some of his wares.
“This was Julia Child's favorite [type of] knife,” he says about one knife. It’s a sleek steel blade with a smooth black handle. The handle is called a Nogent, he says, while reaching back into his case of vintage knives.
“This one’s kind of cool,” Donald says. “It’s a deadstock.”
That means the knife has never been used. Donald says it was found in a warehouse in France about ten years ago. It was likely forged right before World War II, so “it's almost like if you could go back in time and buy a knife in the thirties,” he says.
While they haven’t exactly traveled through time, many of Donald’s knives have traveled great distances to get to his store. He sells knives from Germany, Sweden, and France, to name a few places.
Jeff Banker, co-owner and chef of the Pacific Heights restaurant Baker and Banker, came to the Bernal Cutlery looking for a Japanese knife. Donald shows him one that he describes as “a big, triangular wedge-shaped knife.” Donald gives Banker instructions for proper use and sharpening of the blade, which has a concave bend to it. “So this concave side, you don't want to over grind it,” he explains.
Donald follows a Japanese method of sharpening, which uses a series of stones varying in texture. He starts off rubbing the blade on a coarse stone and moves on to a finer grain one to polish off the knife.
Donald first learned to sharpen Japanese chisels as a wood sculptor back in 2005, but his infatuation with knives began much earlier than that. “When I was five I found a pocket knife and that kind of started it,” he remembers. “It was cool … and I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to have it or not. So I think that kind of added a little bit of allure to it.” That allure evolved into an appreciation of other kinds of knives and of a well-sharpened blade.
“When you are, say cutting a carrot or an onion – seemingly very pedestrian vegetables – with a really great knife, with a really good edge on it, then there's a kind of magic that happens there,” Donald says. He says he gets that feeling when he’s using a “finely made hand-made knife that was made a hundred years or so ago.”
A century-old blade tends to show signs of age. Donald enjoys investigating these dings and dents for clues about a knife’s past. “It would have been worn in, you know over decades,” he explains. “And that stuff's always really cool, to see how somebody that's owned something, you know, the life that that object picked up through its use.”
“The life than an object picked up through its use.” It’s an interesting way of talking about a piece of forged metal and wood. But after talking with Donald for just a little while, it becomes clear that vintage knives are more than just tools to him. They’re almost like people, with their own histories. And to keep that history going takes care. “I guess the only thing that we really evangelize with is trying to get people to hone their knives with stones at home,” he says.
Josh Donald knows that new knives can be just as good or better than their predecessors; it comes down to the quality of the materials used and the care with which they’re made. It’s that intangible quality of craftsmanship that he keeps alive in his little shop in Bernal Heights.