“It’s in my nature to forge,” says blacksmith Arnon Kartmazov, owner of Bridgetown Forge in Portland.
When you enter Kartmazov’s shop, you see a variety of heavy industrial machines. All sorts of tools and steels hang on the walls. And you’re likely to hear the rhythmic pounding of machinery, the sounds of a knife being ground, or the striking of an anvil against piece of a steel. Sparks are flying and everything is covered with soot. And Kartmazov, an experienced blacksmith who has trained in Israel and Japan, is in the middle of it all.
Kartmazov was born in Russia and his family moved to Israel when he was 11 years old. He developed an interest in blacksmithing and approached a blacksmith in Jerusalem to learn about forging steel. Kartmazov spent part of a year as an apprentice while he was a university student. “So I got my first introduction into what it is like to forge hot steel.”
Kartmazov left for Japan to study Japanese for one year as an exchange student. “But one thing led to another and actually I ended up staying there for 12 years,” he says. A friend who owned a knife shop in Kyoto introduced Kartmazov to a knife maker in Sakai, a city in Osaka Prefecture known for Japanese knife making. He trained and apprenticed with a few knife makers and a sword maker before he eventually opened his own shop in Kyoto. The relationships Kartmazov built with the master blacksmiths and his experience in Japan have had a lasting impact on his career.
One of Kartmazov’s masters was knife maker Hiroshi Ashi in Sakai. “What I’ve learned more than anything else from Ashi-san is the openness of mind … also humility. If you show him something new, something he has not seen, even if the person who is showing it to him is not necessarily any kind of master, if he likes it, if it works, he will adopt it right away,” explains Kartmazov. “That really influenced me because there is always somebody who knows something you don’t know. So there is no need to be arrogant.”
Kartmazov recalls that often people were surprised to see him practicing the traditional craft of blacksmithing. It is an uncommon vocation for many Japanese citizens and even more uncommon for foreigners living in Japan. “But generally I found great acceptance,” he says.
”I had a shop in the hills of Northern Kyoto in a place called Hotokedani — Buddha’s Valley. I would open my door, I would see mountains and a river. It was quite pretty,” Kartmazov recalls. He made knives, woodworking tools, sculptural pieces and architectural steel work. “I worked with Japanese carpenters and I had a whale of time!”
In recent years, Kartmazov’s focus has been forging chef’s knives which are heavily influenced by the techniques he acquired in Japan.
“Making a tool is an interesting undertaking, in general, because you really have to have a degree of empathy for the user. You really have to understand how this tool is going to be used,” explains Kartmazov. “Which motion [will] the hand be making? What is the balance? What’s that being cut? ”
Although Kartmazov understands and appreciates the importance of aesthetics, he places more emphasis on a knife’s performance. “If the knife performs well, it will probably look good. So the appearance of my knife is dictated by [its] performance,” says Kartmazov.
Kartmazov explains if carbon steel is properly forged, heat-treated and ground, the knife can have a very keen edge and at the same time, it is easy to sharpen. Carbon steel can be heat-treated in such a way that only the edge of the knife will become hard and the backbone of the knife will remain soft to give it flexibility. It is a very common technique used in Japan, he says.
“I definitely know that every time I’ve ever gotten knives from Arnon, I could shave every hair of my body off and be totally bald within a matter of a minute,” says Ed Ross of Biwa Restaurant in Portland. Ross has been using some of Kartmazov’s knives, including the Yanagi and Deba styles, for more than three years.
Ross owns roughly 30 knives of different types, including stainless and carbon steel knives. “Whenever I start to work, I pull out between six to 10 knives and just have them sitting in front of me,” he explains. Then he picks a knife suited for a particular job.
“The carbon is awesome. Generally I prefer that. Then … you have to cut your lemons, you have to cut something acidic and once that happens, you can’t use a carbon knife because it will start to wear it down. Over time, it will corrode it. So that’s when you use the stainless ones.” Ross often uses Kartmazov’s knives to butcher meat or break down a whole fish.
Ross enjoys having a personal connection with a knife maker who does his best to perfect his work. “He is a very interesting guy. He has been really nice to work with because he will bend over backwards to make the knife exactly how you want it to be,” says Ross.
In addition to making knives, Kartmazov also teaches blacksmithing classes in his shop and gets great joy out of it. “My mission here is to get as many people addicted to blacksmithing as I possibly can, and I have to say I have managed to get quite a few people as severely addicted as myself,” he says.
“For me, blacksmithing is a really open-ended sort of occupation,” continues Kartmazov. “I will never exhaust it … I want to take this craft as far as I can go … There is no boring days for me. Every day is some kind of interesting discovery, small or a big one, so I plan to continue doing that.”