Have you ever been handed a knife that glides through a tomato so seamlessly it changed the way you approach cooking? That’s what twenty year-old Max Wenerstrom, who comes from a family of cooks, hopes to do with the Japanese-style forged knives he makes on his family’s farm in Ohio. Max’s interest in knives began at the age of fourteen. “I bought a two hundred dollar camping knife and was so disappointed because it couldn’t even cut. This happened right after I’d finished a blacksmithing class, so I started researching what makes a good knife.” With his Dad’s help, Max built a forge in his garage. He used a brake drum from an old car, put some black iron tubing in it, a hair dryer at the bottom, and used charcoal to start the fire. After several years of garage-forging, Max enrolled in a training program in Oregon. He studied under the direction of 17th-generation Yoshimoto bladesmith, Murray Carter, where he learned to forge knives made from Hitatchi white steel.
Carter imports Hitatchi white steel from Japan because it has a higher carbon content than American-made steel. This higher carbon content makes for better ‘metallurgy’ which, according to Carter, means “the steel has a more refined and consistent grain structure throughout the blade which will result in sharper, longer lasting edges that are easier to sharpen.” Hitatchi white steel is a lot like vegetable tanned leather in this way, it affords the craftsman more freedom but requires a higher level of skill.
The Japanese forging tradition is a multi-step process that requires the continuous heating and reheating of steel at lower temperatures. A bladesmith shapes the blade with each decrease in temperature, often hundreds of times, until it has the desired properties: hardness, sharpness, and durability. The trickiest part is maintaining these low temperatures, because if the blade gets too hot, it loses carbon and creates a duller blade. Once the basic shape and balance is achieved, the next step is “annealing,” where the blade is placed in straw or wood ash to cool. It’s then tempered, or re-heated again, to get rid of any remaining brittleness, before being coated in clay and quenched in lukewarm water. That final dip is what solidifies the molecular structure of the knife and sets its temperature and hardness.
A traditional Japanese chef's knife that Max sells on his website: the Wa Bocho.
After completing his apprenticeship with Carter in 2019, Max returned to his family’s farm in Ohio, about fifty miles outside Columbus. In the midst of a global pandemic, Max has kept himself busy baling hay and making knives (one hundred and twenty in the past four and a half months). He continues to get Hitatchi white steel from Murray Carter, who imports it from Japan, and only re-sells it to fifteen bladesmiths in the United States that he trusts.
Working at the farm is what sparked Max’s interest in land management and ultimately what led him to Ranchlands. Max recently worked with Duke III to create the ideal rancher’s knife: easily accessible, fast, sharp, and beautiful. He kept the design quite simple with a bird and trout style and put a recurve in the heel, which allows the knife to bite into rope faster. It’s a small fixed blade, roughly three inches long, and sits nicely against your hip to prevent snags.
Knives should make any job; hunting, ranching, cooking, easier. As Max says, “a good knife is going to make your experience, whatever it is you do, more enjoyable”. Chopping an onion can be something to look forward to. Cutting baling twine can be satisfying. Knives have the potential to bring a new, deeper layer of meaning to tasks we often consider monotonous or straightforward. The chance to change a person’s perspective with his craftsmanship is what motivates Max on a daily basis. He acknowledges “it’s an extreme privilege” to not only have work right now, but to be in high demand. Each time Ranchlands adds Max’s knives to the mercantile shop line-up, they sell out within days. Max never expected to start and grow a business in such strange circumstances, let alone have the flexibility to take a vacation (he and I spoke over the phone from a cabin he and his brother are renting outside Twenty Nine Palms, CA, for the month). He is quick to highlight the weirdness of this recent success and the silver lining; that the purchase of his knives are inspiring people to spend more time in nature or in their kitchen, two fantastic places that also happen to be Max’s two favorite places.