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 Bonner's workshop contains many reminders of the injury that almost cost him use of his hand. - PHUONG BUI
Bonner's workshop contains many reminders of the injury that almost cost him use of his hand.

During his recovery, Bonner's staff stepped up to keep the shop running, and from the outside, things were carrying on business as usual. However, Bonner knew differently. Seven months away from the shop gave Bonner an opportunity to clear his head and figure out what he really wanted to do, and the longer he was away, the more he realized that meant not returning to NHB Knifeworks in its current form. He confided in Pernikoff that he was thinking about quitting, not because he wasn't into making knives, but because he didn't want to continue doing things the way he had been. He no longer wanted to run an assembly company but a place of true craftsmanship where he forged his own blades. It was the reset he needed.

"He told me that he felt like he was making knives he wasn't that into and that he had to pump them out and was completely overwhelmed," Pernikoff says. "My advice to him was why not go solo, to look at the other knife makers he loved. He'd see that they are just one person in a shop making knives that they want to make. That resonates with people. I think that's true about any art; if you don't want to do it and you aren't passionate about it, people know. I told him to just make Nate knives."

The advice resonated with Bonner, almost giving him permission to make what he knew deep down was the best decision. Bonner closed down his Maplewood shop three years ago so he could remake the company as the operation he always wanted it to be. Now, out of a small space in the basement of a True Value Hardware store not far from his former storefront, Bonner has focused singularly on developing his skills as a knife maker. No longer buried in the slog of endless production, he's taking things at a slower pace and learning from the top professionals in his trade, traveling the country to take intensive classes and workshops that are giving him the knowledge and skills he needs to get to the level he's always wanted to reach.

click to enlarge Bonner's current works in progress. - PHUONG BUI
Bonner's current works in progress.

"I think of this as having three different levels," Noel says. "For the original version, all he was doing was handles. The second was stock removal, which is getting a blank and grinding it so it has the shape and functionality of what you want. Now, he's at the level of making his own metal. Everything he did up to this point was a lesson learned and was all part of his journey to where he is now and where he wants to be. He's still refining and learning, but all of those lessons brought him to where he is."

In the three years since closing his shop and resetting as NHB Knives, Bonner is finally becoming the knifemaker he imagined, as evidenced by his recent award-winning piece at the Damasteel Chef Invitational this past November. The semiannual exhibition brings together the world's premier knife makers to showcase their use of Damasteel's proprietary Damascus stainless steel (considered one of the, if not the, best knife metals in the world), and invitations are reserved for the best of the best. Bonner not only got to participate; he walked away with the award for Best Integral Knife.

"I cried, then was elated, and then thought, 'OK, what do I have to do to stay here?'" Bonner says. "Right away, I was already thinking about the next Damasteel because I don't want this to be a flash in the pan or a coincidence. I have to get better."

Bonner knows he would not have won the Damasteel award, nor would he likely have been invited to attend the event at all, had his violent injury never happened. Had he continued on the path he was on, he believes it's possible he would no longer be making knives at all. Chances are, he'd been in a bad place searching for an answer that felt so close to being within his grasp. Having that forced reset may have been traumatic, painful and terrifying, but it ultimately gave him the out he needed. That's why he was able to push past the fear — because he knew it gave him the space to train and grow and admit with humility that he has much to learn. This time around, he is less afraid of the doubt and uncertainty and more comfortable with what he doesn't know; using that to propel himself to the next level of his craft is what will ultimately make him a great knife maker.

"I'm glad I went through it, because I came out so much better and smarter," Bonner says. "I've tightened the shoelaces on all of life because of what happened. I could have been a mess, or I could have been good, but the best thing is that it gave me the chance to go completely underground and not do anything but figure out if I want to do this and what it looks like. Mentally, I am in such a better place. The faster you get out of thinking you are good, that's when the learning starts."

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