Working on the Knife's Edge

Nate Bonner has found success, tragedy and redemption in the eye of his forge.
Nate Bonner has found success, tragedy and redemption in the eye of his forge. PHUONG BUI

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click to enlarge Knives and dog tags from Bonner's space-themed collection, forged from one-inch round bar Damasteel. - SPENCER PERNIKOFF
Knives and dog tags from Bonner's space-themed collection, forged from one-inch round bar Damasteel.

What they were onto was bigger than Bonner could have ever expected. After receiving an unexpectedly large amount of traction from a press release Noel sent out to different media outlets around the country, NHB Knifeworks gained buzz as an artisan knife company through features in the influential site Epicurious, which labeled him amongst the country's top knife makers, and Vogue, which described Bonner's knives as pleasurable to use. Suddenly, foodies around the country looking to buy from a small domestic artisan flooded his website for his signature chef knives outfitted with ornate handles. The interest only escalated after celebrity chef Tom Colicchio selected one of Bonner's knives as part of his "Artisan to Table" series. Suddenly, Bonner was experiencing success beyond his wildest expectations.

Inundated with orders, Bonner and Noel parlayed the exposure into a shiny new retail shop in Maplewood. With a small staff who helped him meet demand and a growing reputation in the knife world, Bonner looked around at all he'd achieved and was less excited by the success than he was filled with dread that he was in over his head. Unsure of how to deal with that, he kept working, but also began to panic.

"Things started to take off way faster than I was ready for them to, and it really freaked me out and put me back in a bad place," Bonner says. "You start fighting these demons that you created, and they are the worst to go up against because they are you. It's some scary shit."

Bonner felt compelled to teach himself knife making so he could move beyond just assembling his products and feel good about the quality of the knives he was putting his name on. However, he was too busy to step away from the business and kept operating through sheer momentum. Overwhelmed and unsure how to take a step back, he'd have that decision made for him that night in 2017 when he almost lost the use of his hand.

"There's this quote from the famous knife maker Bob Loveless that says you should never go into the shop after a fight with your wife," Bonner says. "I never understood that until it happened to me. I'd gotten into a huge fight with my girlfriend and was pissed. I was working so aggressively that I [accidentally] slammed the knife into my hand. It was bad, but what's sad, though, is my first thought wasn't 'ouch' or 'this hurts,' but that I'd get a vacation."

Bonner's injury, which completely severed a tendon and cut into the bone, was so severe he needed surgery and therapy, and there were serious questions as to whether he would be able to use his dominant right hand again. It was a dark time; the opioid medication he was prescribed for the intense pain became more of a comfort than he wanted, and it also caused terrible mood swings and put him in a bad place to the point where he had to stop taking it. Though he had the support of his family and friends, there were times when it was almost too much to bear.

"He was in 24/7 pain," recalls Noel. "Just the therapy he had to go through to even move his hand again at all was extensive and incredibly painful. He didn't know if he would ever make knives again because he had to get back on the horse that threw him, but there was a huge amount of fear involved in that. That period of time was very complicated for him."

Spencer Pernikoff, Bonner's friend, talked with him about that fear. Having had a front-row seat to the rise of his knife business after meeting Bonner in 2015, he knew what his friend was capable of doing; whether he wanted to do it again was another story.

"I would 100 percent define what he was going through as PTSD," Pernikoff says. "When he would talk about the injury after it happened, he would get upset and have an emotional reaction. Going into the shop was really hard for him, and even sharpening knives — not making them — was difficult to get back into because he was scared to use the machine. He was very open about how scary it was, and that mix of PTSD and being overwhelmed with the business side of it became too much."

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