Knifemaking: power in the small things and the Petit Poucet

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes


When I was twenty-one I took a summer job in a cabinet shop.  I was in between semesters of school and had made some pretty significant life changes, at least for a twenty-one year old.  I had transferred colleges and I decided I wanted a summer job where I would learn something useful.

This particular cabinet shop did custom work.  Everything was built to order.  The owner was a friend of my family’s.  On my first day I was introduced to everyone in the shop.  It was noisy in there, with all the fans and sawdust collection systems, and everyone heard my name as “Bernard” instead of “Ballard”.

I didn’t find this out until later, after everyone had been addressing me as Bernie for at least two weeks.  I was just happy to not be called college boy.

I was hired to sweep floors, which I did for approximately one hour on my first day.  After that hour I was handed a reciprocating saw and told to cut up a stack of pallets.  When they found I still had all of my fingers, they gave me other things to do not involving sweeping the floor.  From then on I did whatever was asked of me, still happier to be called Bernie than college boy.

I built drawers for desks to go in lawyers’ offices.  I would be on a crew of four guys to build an army of receptionist desks for a medical complex.  I built a mile of L-bracket to mount cabinets in an insurance building.  When you work in a shop with over a million dollars worth of tools and machinery there isn’t a whole lot that you can’t build.  The owner liked to make money and I can count the number of times he subcontracted jobs out on one hand.

This was one of the best summers of my life.  I didn’t hang out with anybody.  I didn’t go on any dates.  I got to work at 7:30a and left at 4:45p.  When I got home I would practice my horn for four hours in my parents’ basement and then go to sleep.  Then I would get up and do it all over again.

I found myself spending full days on a panel saw, a massive contraption designed to rip and crosscut full sheets of plywood.  It cut everything perfectly square.  You see these at Lowes and Home Depot but this machine made those look like Tinker Toys.  This particular one was made by a Nordic company that specialized in making badass cutting tools.  It cost about thirty grand and when it broke down they had to pay a company service tech from Pennsylvania $600 an hour to fix it, which included drive time.  Clearly we were all in the wrong business.

I was given a cut list for each job.  Some of these lists would be casework for an entire building, others just one or two pieces.  I cut all the cabinet pieces by hand, within a 1/64th of an inch, which by industry standards is a pretty large margin.  The real tricky bit was cutting cabinet doors and drawer fronts.  These cuts had to be cut short to accommodate for the laminate that would cover the side edges of the door.  This was to allow the doors to fully close once the edge had been covered in laminate and for the drawer fronts to have the proper reveals once installed.  When I would get to the doors and drawers on the cut list I would know to cut them between 1/16th and 1/32nd of an inch shorter than what was written, depending on the type of laminate being used.

I cut hundreds of these things without incident.  Then one day I screwed up.

The boss called me over.  Shit.

I had sent over four doors that I hadn’t cut short, in this instance it was 3/32nds.  They had been laminated, drilled, installed with ungodly priced hinges, cleaned and finished.

“Bernie, you fucked up.  Let me explain to you the depth of your fuckup.”

He proceeded to tell me that not only had I wasted my time, but I had also wasted the time of everyone involved in those doors, plus materials, wear and tear on machinery, saw blades, electricity, and by default, company time that we weren’t ever going to see again.  With everything involved those doors came to about $240.  A piece.  He instructed me to take them and throw them in the dumpster, but to do it one at a time, and to use that time to reflect on the breadth of my folly.

Four long trips to the dumpster.  I was mortified.  Everyone else thought this whole ordeal was hysterical.  I made sure to not overlook the doors and drawers in the future.

The summer came to an end.  I went back to school with a deeper appreciation for both higher education and the people who build the things that make life possible.

There is much power in the small things and sometimes you only find this when you overlook them.  Sometimes they are absolutely necessary.  Sometimes they make the world a bit sweeter.  Small acts of kindness to yourself and others, small acts of gratitude and compassion- these are the stuffs that can give the world its particular hue.

This is where the Petit Poucet comes in.  I have been designing kitchen knives and also watching Jacques Pepin cooking videos.  There was one of these that struck me where he had all these beautiful knives at his disposal, some quite large and impressive, but he prepared a gorgeous meal using only a six inch utility knife.  Petit Poucet roughly translates roughly to Tom Thumb, a very small person who was able to accomplish large things.  It’s important to not overlook the small things.  This is the lesson of the Petit Poucet, a small but mighty kitchen blade.

I started with a bar of 1095 spring steel

After rough grinding and heat treat.  Thankfully he didn’t warp.

Keeping it cool during finish grinding…

 I had some Bloodwood that I found to be striking the Petit Poucet: Acid etched 1095 spring steel, Bloodwood handle, and brass hardware.

Mind the small things- the big things will turn out that much better…and you will save four trips to the dumpster.

P.S.- the man I worked for was possibly the best boss I’ve ever had, and one of the most decent men I’ve ever known.  We still talk from time to time.  He keeps saying he has a place for me in his business and asks me how I am with finance.  If he only knew…

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