Published in April 2018 by Chaska HeraldDownload PDF
As a kid in Jordan, Jason Kraus collected abandoned railroad spikes from along the tracks and stashed them in the woods. Little did he know, they would be there, waiting for him, when he returned more than a decade later as a bladesmith.
Railroad spikes are made out of decent steel and Kraus likes the fact that the metal is reclaimed. The resulting knives that have emerged from his Carver workshop, Northstar Forge, are particularly popular with people who were connected to the railway industry through employment or family legacy.
Kraus likes those kinds of knives — the ones with heart and history behind them; the kind of knives that become family heirlooms. And he has several more in his backlog of projects, which stretches beyond June, he said.
An employee from a Cannon Falls bison processing plant is about to celebrate his 40th work anniversary. To recognize his work, the company commissioned Kraus to make a chef’s knife out of bone from a buffalo jaw and saw-like blades from the plant’s past.
Another customer sent Kraus a massive cleaver that belonged to his late father, a butcher. The knife was too unwieldy for anyone else to use, but too important to part with, so Kraus is transforming it into a camping knife and a chef’s knife for the butcher’s two sons and a letter opener for his wife.
“It’s going to be a really fancy letter opener,” Kraus said.
He’s also working on a pair of hatchets based off of a piece he made as a contestant in season three of the History Channel series “Forged in Fire,” commissioned by a man from Puerto Rico. The design will be more refined however, with elegant recurve blades, since he has far more time to work on the project, Kraus said.
In the past year, the bladesmith has probably made 30 knives, in addition to the occasional sword or hatchet and custom sheaths. He’s shipped items to Canada and the Shetland Islands and has fans in Italy, Russia and the Middle East.
For every project he finishes, two or more come in, and his one-on-one classes, or “tutorships” have been growing in popularity, drawing individuals and pairs to his small Carver forge.
“I’m trying to keep up. It’s an awesome problem to have,” he said. “I love Mondays”
Tom Gould of Savage is nearly impossible to shop for. So his son, Allan Gould of Minnetonka, arranged for the two of them to take a class with Kraus to create their own heirloom carving knife, to be used for butchering deer during hunting season.
The first two days of working on the Goulds’ knife focused on shaping a raw bar of high-carbon steel into a knife, heating and cooling the blade to strengthen it, and sanding the blade until it turned mirror-smooth, except a stretch of darker metal with an aesthetically pleasing pattern of hammer marks.
The handle is made of walnut — in homage to the family’s walnut-tree-covered farm in southeast Minnesota — which was dry-aged two to three years to avoid shrinking and warping.
After the Goulds joined it to the knife with epoxy and mosaic-tipped pins, they clamped it into place in preparation for the next phase of the process: further shaping and refining the handle.
The process is far more detailed than Allan Gould thought, he said.
“The shaping of the metal and smacking with the hammer is the easy-fun part,” he said. “Jason’s forgotten more stuff than I’ll ever learn about this.”
“There’s more tricks to this than you’d ever realize,” Tom Gould added. “This is not something to do at home. You have to go to Jason.”
BEGAN AS TEEN
Kraus first started forging metal as a teenager, working at a makeshft coal-powered forge in his parent’s backyard. He used a hairdryer as a fan and didn’t have a decent-sized anvil to work with — just a chunk of railroad track he got from a junkyard and a tree stump.
“It was mainly just learning the metals, I think” said his mother, Jan Fox-Kraus of Belle Plaine. She occasionally stops by the forge to watch her son at work.
But “bladesmith” is not exactly a common profession with a clear career trajectory. Kraus decided to become a chef, apprenticing at Suzette’s in Jordan for five years. He got married, started a painting business.
“But that passion was always there to do knives,” Fox-Kraus said.
Kraus’s wife, Allison, eventually found a two-week introductory program with the American Bladesmith Society at Texarkana College in Arkansas.
It was “completely life changing,” to work with experienced smiths and learn how much you can expect from a knife and how to meet those standards, Kraus said.
For example, the Gould family’s knife is intended for carving. It has to be able to both navigate joints and provide leverage, which means it has to have the right balance between strength and flexibility. The edge has to be sharp and tough — almost a hybrid of a chef’s knife and a Bowie knife, Kraus said.
“It’s a deer knife!” Tom Gould said, beaming as he set up his next visit to the forge with his son. “It’s going to be perfect.”