Knifemaking: mistakes, tedium, pizza ovens, and the Cynewulf

“I’m not exactly sure what we’re doing here, so we’re going to figure this out by denial and error”

Frederick Pritchett, Jr.

I spent two years working in the warehouse of an auction company.  They specialize in used restaurant equipment.  All aspects, from tables and chair, mixers, slicers, refrigeration, the whole lot.  I kind of fell into this job and ended up managing the inventory and auctions.  But before that there was a lot of grease, dirt, rust, and burnt pizza…

A couple years ago I was in a tough place and I needed money.  A good friend of mine said I could come work for his auction company.  One of the first things they put me on was cleaning three commercial smokers.  They had spent three months festering in a hot warehouse and smelled of what I believe a sauna full of garbage trucks eating month old Vietnamese food would resemble.

It was here that I met Fred.  As I stood there with three stinking smokers, pondering my life’s decisions, the service tech came by and told me the best way to get those clean was to mix some bleach and ammonia together in a spray bottle and shake it till it got hot (“But don’t hold on to it for too long or it’s liable to explode”).  Then I was to saturate the interior, let it sit in the sun, and then hit it with the pressure washer that got up to two hundred degrees.  All while not breathing in the fumes.

I did all of these things and sure enough they got clean.  I hated myself a little bit.

The main thing I learned working here was that there are many ways to get things done.  Some ways are less insane than others, but then sometimes life calls for the insane.  Sometimes the insanity is all relative.

I also learned that in any sort of business one has to adapt to what makes money.  If that doesn’t happen then you’re dead.

One of the owners is second generation Italian and as it would follow many of the company’s customers were Italian.  They liked to support one of their own.  For awhile there were a lot of Italian restaurants opening up and these gentleman required pizza ovens.  Pizza ovens are heavy, expensive, and take up a lot of space.  Pizza stones for a double deck oven will set you back at least $600 and if not properly seasoned will crack or break.  It was decided that we would rebuild used ovens.

Here is where the adaptation of making a profit and the insane got together for a tumultuous marriage.  At first.  After awhile things settled in.  Fred was at the helm of this operation and we all moved bravely forward.

The first step was obtaining a used pizza oven.  We travelled far and wide.  One time Fred and I did a marathon drive to a closed restaurant in Florida, extracted a 3,000lb set of Baker’s Pride ovens, threw them on a trailer, and drove back.  Fred is really good at moving heavy things and makes it look effortless:  I’m pretty sure his ancestors built Stonehenge using nothing but Druid redneck ingenuity and several barrels of barley wine.

We would then strip it down to nothing.  Exterior paint was taken off and everything was sanded.  Everything.  For a solid month we cleaned out every Home Depot within a 20 mile radius of most of their abrasives.  Figuring out how to get the exterior paint off was tricky at first. Stripping the paint off the first oven we did was a bitch.  First we tried a blowtorch.  A pretty big one.  It didn’t work that well and made everyone smell of burnt pizza.  Then we tried every sort of angle grinder attachment known to the universe.  There was no quick way to do it.  All of the inner structural pieces had to be sanded as well.  Somebody would have to put on a paper suit and climb into the behemoth and sandblast it.

In the process of anything worth doing you encounter tedium at some point.  When tedium mixes with not knowing exactly what you are doing, self-doubt can settle in.  It becomes hard to focus and in this lapse of focus mistakes happen.  This is where many people either give up or figure it out.  We couldn’t give up because then nobody got paid.  Fred kept us all on task, for better or worse.

It is also in this tedium that you can find out a lot about yourself.  How you operate and what lies at the bottom of that self-doubt.  If you can be with that long enough you can start to blossom.  The things that used to hurt you start to help you.  I found myself making these really kick-ass playlists and began to appreciate the nuance of Barry Manilow.  When I got home completely covered in shit I would take a viking shower and cook myself something special.  All of the other side jobs I had became a pleasure.  I would see myself as a warrior, bravely defending the honor of the Oven of Pizza, and all of those who came before her.

I would go in and stare these things down everyday.  Sometimes it was overwhelming, sometimes time flew by.  Days of sanding, painting, polishing, going to the metal shop to have a piece refabricated, or having a special tap set ordered.  It was an adventure.  I’m glad Fred was in charge because I would have told the Italians to figure something else out.

Another area of tedium was polishing.  I spent many hours with a Scotch brite pad and 000 steel wool trying to make these things shine.  This was about the time Mr. Al joined us and as fate would reveal he is actually the Stainless Steel Whisperer….

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After Fred put new burners and controls in they would be ready for delivery.  It was a sprawling process.  At the time I stopped working there, the process was down to a week and a half to two weeks, start to finish.  They ship them all over the country now.

 This is the lesson of the Cynewulf.  Life can be a sprawling, tedious process.  It can be hard to stick with something and not being able to see where it is taking you can make it harder.  Instead of seeing yourself as the warrior you start to see yourself as the oppressed.  Momentum can turn to stagnation and focus can lapse.  You begin to question your life decisions and maybe sometimes you hate yourself a little bit.

I find myself in these places more often than I’d like.  And what I’ve found is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

This blade took me on a journey.  I had to start over after I had spent quite a bit of time on it and I got really frustrated.  The name Cynewulf means “Royal Wolf”, which relates to the regal bearing and balance of this blade but also to the ability to not get stuck in one’s mistakes or complacent with one’s successes.  It’s quite large at 8 inches and 13 inches overall.  It was really tricky to heat treat in my little forge.  I hammered it through some 2×4’s just to make sure she was ready for the world.

1095 spring steel

A rough grind
Ready for the forge

Phosphoric acid etch…

 The Cynewulf: 1095 spring steel with an acid etch, Cherry handle, and brass hardware. 

  

  The Cynewulf, with her fallen sister…

I gave this to my chef friend to try out and he ended up buying it on the condition that I customize it to his specifications, which I did.  You can already see the patina starting to reveal itself from the potatoes he sliced…

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Work through the tedium and pay attention your mistakes.  Even the kingliest and queenliest people make them and there are many possibilities in them.  There may be some pizza in it at the end…

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