The artist and outdoorsman sculpts hunting, fishing, and cooking knives fit for a museum exhibition John Manikowski has a bone collection in his basement, and in his basement he builds knives. Add to this that it’s the basement of an 1840 general store-turned-farmhouse in the remote hamlet of Mill River, Massachusetts—a place accessible by one road and with shoddy cellular service—and the scene is set for a low-budget horror film.
But an afternoon encounter with the northern Minnesota native proves that he’s the antithesis of any slasher antagonist: he’s just a sixty-six-year-old nature boy, artist, and retired shop teacher with a deep-seated drive to create stuff with his hands. And though the guy quit hunting and fishing five years ago, he still crafts many of those knives specifically for these activities. “I had a lot of trouble with the killing part,”
he says softly. “I always did.”
Just yesterday, as he sat outside sketching the fast-changing fall landscape,
he noticed an orphaned baby chipmunk flip-flopping in the grass.
“So I picked him up,” he says, his voice returning to its usual singsong warble. “He shouldn’t have been by himself, so he was in my pocket.”
Minutes later, the creature crawled up his shoulder and slipped suddenly to its death. Manikowski’s eyes turn misty at the memory. “I was so crushed,” he says, having just found some crackers to share with his new friend. “I was shattered.”
The majority of Manikowski’s works—hand-sharpened steel slicers culminating in multicolored handles carved from exotic woods and ivories, some even inlaid with jewels and decorated with scrimshaw—are used by home cooks, a fact he noticed in 2007, soon after beginning to sell his wares to (predominantly female) locals and second-home owners at farmers’ markets in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and Norwalk, Connecticut.
“I like making big knives,” Manikowski says matter-of-factly, palming a massive chef’s knife based on a Japanese design he discovered in the New York Museum of Modern Art permanent collection. Moments earlier, he’d been on the phone with Jim De Lorenzo, a client from Becket, Massachusetts.
“Bet you miss your wooly mammoth handle!” he’d quipped to De Lorenzo,
who’s purchased a handful of knives since the two met at the Berkshire Crafts Fair this past August. De Lorenzo had used this particular knife so much already that he’d brought it back to Manikowski for its first sharpening.
Manikowski thanked him for putting his work to such good use. “It’s like buying a cane fly rod,” the artist had uttered into the receiver. “I’m gonna use the damn thing, not let it hang on a wall.”
Though Manikowski offers re-sharpening and cleaning for life, he can’t blame some of his clients for their hesitation to use his creations. Though totally functional, his knives are painstakingly shaped works of art. Set atop a petite dining table in his small, wood stove-anchored living room crowded with handmade birdhouses, bug specimens, and carved wooden mallards, with fish mobiles hanging from the rafters, is a makeshift display of Manikowski’s recent designs—collages of color and texture punctuated by sharp, satin-finish blades in all shapes and sizes.
Some of these are perched on pedestals made from gnarled wood burl and deer antler, like the long and slender Pheasant, a graceful filet knife or letter opener whose patchwork handle of rose, red, and safety-orange stabilized woods terminates with a bronze bird head, its beak carved into a tight grimace. The dyed wooly mammoth ivory handle of another, aptly dubbed Fish Eats Fish, appears to swallow its blade, also curved into the shape of a rotund bass and drilled with a small hole through the edge, where its eye might be.
There’s also the glossy amber, globular texture of armadillo skin; lost-wax-carved metal bolsters shaped like shark and octopus; and even an itty-bitty ivory minnow set to rotate on a thin metal post set inside a window cut into the butt of a hefty handle.
Among the polished pieces is the occasional twinkle of a precious gemstone, like a tiny diamond fish eye or a pair of three-millimeter rubies set in 18-karat gold bezel. These are tools that can turn celery-chopping into an exercise in elegance.
“I like a big, heavy knife that feels great in the hand, that has great balance and weight,” says De Lorenzo, whose recent purchase features a sturdy red jasper and water buffalo horn handle. “I don’t put it away, I leave it out on the counter—it’s a beautiful object. And you can really do a number on a chicken.”
Manikowski clip-clops down a rickety set of stairs to his basement workshop, a low-ceilinged square room bordered by cluttered countertops, heavy-duty machinery, and an island workstation staged with works-in-progress. It’s cooler down here, and every surface of the organized chaos is coated with a thin layer of dust.
Manikowski holds up a skinny plank of raw steel about three inches wide. “This is what it looks like when I get it,” he says, “CPM 154 because it’s the hot, sexy, new steel, and all the guys use it. I have to have it specially cut because almost no knifemaker buys it this wide. And I buy it in three-foot sections rather than a truckload.” CPM 154, he estimates, is about five times the cost of standard production steel, thanks to its ability to produce a unique luster during polishing. All the top exhibitors at the “world’s biggest knife show” in Atlanta are using it, he says.
After tracing and cutting the steel into a crude shape, with what is essentially a metal-cutting band saw (a process called stock removal; other blades may be forged, or hammered out by a blacksmith), Manikowski begins the grinding process on an upright machine outfitted with vertically looped sanding belts of varying grits. Usually he creates just a handful of knives at a time; for a custom piece, he’ll work on two blades—always one as backup.
“Gerber [a popular brand] might make five thousand at a time,” Manikowski explains. “They can run the edge through a machine and taper it in thirty seconds. It takes me ten of those belts at the cost of nine dollars each, and at least an hour and a half for what it takes a sixty-thousand-dollar machine thirty seconds to do.”
At the press of a button, Manikowski’s contraption kicks on with a whir. He holds a half-sanded sliver of steel to the whizzing strip. Sparks fly, and the acrid smell of burning metal wafts upward. Every minute or so, he dips the blade in a bucket of water and repeats the process, quickly falling into a rhythm.
“You can give any piece of steel a satin finish or a high-gloss finish,” Manikowski shouts suddenly as the machine whirs to a stop. He brings the blade to eye level for inspection: it barely looks any different. Eight hours of this manipulation and he’ll have a satin-finish knife; a shiny, mirror-like polish requires double that.
“People like sparkle and shine,” notes Manikowski, who prefers the subdued beauty of satin and matte finishes, “so I started doing this file work. It picks up the reflection, like diamonds with all the different cuts—the more facets, the more sparkle.”
These cross-hatchingsetched with small files into the top of a finished blade add glitz (they also help prevent thumb slippage on stout hunting and fishing knives), but his true passion lies in the next step: crafting the handles.
“I come at it from an artisan’s sense—not as a miller or a machinist,” Manikowski explains, approaching a slim tower of plastic shelving in the corner of the room. He pulls a drawer open and rifles through its contents: stapler-sized chunks of wood with exotic natural patterns dyed a rainbow of candy colors; craggy hunks of animal bone, ivory, alabaster, and shell; antler segments; and smooth strips of man-made materials like reconstituted stone or micarta, a linen-paper composite.
“I never use local wood because it will shrink,” he says, likening the native, raw material to the creaky, worn floorboards of his kitchen, which expand and contract with the seasons. Instead, Manikowski uses stabilized wood, injected with clear or colored acrylic resin to displace water and air cells, rendering it harder, heavier, waterproof, and virtually indestructible.
He rummages around some more, calling out a zoological variety of bone and tusk—camel, cow, sheep, walrus. He even snatches a dust-covered giraffe leg bone from beneath the counter. “The UPS guy laughed at that one,” he cracks, thrusting the baseball-bat-sized specimen in the air. Because of their densities, whale bone and elephant ivory are best for carving with scrimshaw, which is then stained with India ink (see Moby-Dick), but Manikowski is careful to make a point:
“I don’t buy it unless I know its history,” he says, alluding to the 1976 ban on the export of elephant ivory. “Pre-ban only. If it’s estate elephant, it was purchased, not poached, and I have documentation of that.” Also, he only patronizes suppliers who acquire materials from game farms on which the animals have died of natural causes or disease.
“That’s why I like wooly mammoth ivory, because it’s been dead for twenty-five thousand years,” he says. He always get a good chuckle at the occasional Are-you-endangering-the-species inquiry.
It was two years ago that Manikowski first tried his hand at carving handles, almost by necessity. “I had four little carving knives that had different tips, for carving decoys, but with no handles. I taught woodworking [at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts], so I thought I’d drill holes into dowels and stick ‘em in. But [then I thought] it’d be nice to have nice-looking handles. So I made one and I liked it, then I made two…” He ended up completing the entire set.
Always a do-it-yourself kind of guy, Manikowski had been teaching art at Harvard University before being lured to the Berkshires by a one-year residency through the Massachusetts Cultural Council, during which time he taught art at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington. After falling in love with the area, he decided to stick around, teaching woodworking in Huntington and Stockbridge, along the way meeting his now ex-wife, with whom he opened and ran the Konkapot Restaurant in Mill River for six years, and then the Charleston in Hudson, New York, for seven.
Shortly afterward, he wrote two cookbooks (Wild Fish & Game and Fish Grilled & Smoked, published by Artisan and Storey Publishing, respectively), both illustrated by his wildlife scenes of the great outdoors. The Rhode Island School of Design master’s graduate is an accomplished artist and enjoyed gallery representation at Holland and Holland on 57th Street in Manhattan for many years.
“I’ve had a sense of design all of my life, which is why I think I have an advantage over other knifemakers,” Manikowski says. “I always want to put my own touch to it. People have adorned knives for centuries—I’m certainly not the first—Japanese swords can take years to build…”
His collectors can’t seem to gush enough.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Mike Latino, a beaver trapper in Sheffield, Massachusetts, who’s bought multiple knives for himself and for others. “He’s very single-minded—like any great artist, he just gets into it and locks in. I’ve been to a couple of knife shows down in New York [City], and John’s stuff really measures up.”
Latino, a local filmmaker (Trapping with Ernie) and a cameraman on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, commissioned Manikowski to create a prototype of a Nessmuk, a broad, flat knife popular among outdoorsmen in the seventeenth century, for use in an upcoming cowboy film.
“We wanted something threatening but not too flashy,” Latino says. “It had to look old, so he just beat the blade to make it look old…. He ended up making another knife for my son that I can’t even describe. His attention to detail is amazing. The guy will not stop till you’re happy with it.”
De Lorenzo, waiting patiently for a new giraffe-bone specimen, concurs. “He kind of has a monkish quality to him,” he says. “He’s not too preoccupied with making a lot of money out of it; he just enjoys producing knives that are functional but beautiful to look at—pieces of art.” [NOV/DEC 2009]
An avid home chef and one-time authorized CUTCO sales representative,
senior editor Amanda Rae Busch appreciates a good knife.