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

The steel blade that Nate Bonner was forging at his Maplewood knife workshop sliced into his hand with such force and speed he had no time to register what had happened.

He wasn't even in pain. An injury this severe fails to register the usual "Ouch, that hurts" you get when you slice your finger with a bread knife. His was the sort of trauma so intense that the body shuts down as a form of protection. His only knowledge that something so awful had happened was the way the blood spread across the work glove covering his wounded hand after he pulled out the blade. Bonner remembers thinking how dark it was; the red wasn't the hue you'd normally expect from a cut, but a dark, almost black color that made him understand he'd severed something too deep to bleed like a regular wound. Disconnected from his body and feeling like he was having a heart attack, Bonner somehow managed to call 911 before staggering to the front part of his studio and collapsing in slow motion against the window, his head resting on the sill as he waited for help to arrive.

Bonner doesn't know exactly how long it took for the ambulance to arrive at the Maplewood storefront of his business, NHB Knifeworks, but it seemed like they were there within seconds. In and out of consciousness as they put him on a stretcher and then loaded him in the ambulance, he came to enough to struggle against the two EMTs who were trying to remove his glove because he was terrified of what was underneath the mangled cloth. Finally relenting, Bonner looked up at one of the emergency responders and begged him to tell him how bad it was.

"No, man, it's actually not that bad," the EMT said. Relieved, Bonner briefly shut his eyes, only to open them in time to see the EMT mouth the words "Oh shit" to his partner. That's when Bonner began to scream.

Bonner believes DNA carries memory. Though he cannot totally explain the phenomenon, the experiences he's had, beginning with his earliest recollections, tell him that something deep within him points to a visceral connection to blades that goes far beyond a fascination. Whether using a stick as a sword to wage war against the large sea cliffs near his childhood home in Santa Barbara, California, or always gravitating toward the knife section of his local department store when he was very young, Bonner has not known a moment when there wasn't some indescribable force pulling him in the direction of sharp steel.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated with blades, swords and knives," Bonner says. "Every time I saw a knife, it was a magnet. Something about them — about finding the largest stick I could find and going to war on these cliffs, the sand and rocks flying everywhere as I attacked them, everything bleached and sandy colored — it just spoke to my soul."

For the past nine years, Bonner has harnessed this passion through his artisan knife-making business, producing custom kitchen knives and utility tools for some of the biggest names in the St. Louis culinary scene, as well as home cooks and knife enthusiasts around the country. Originally founded as an online shop that sold knives he and his small team assembled from parts sourced throughout the United States and Japan, Bonner grew the company to include the Maplewood storefront. He ran that for three years before closing the shop and recalibrating his business after the hand injury in the summer of 2017 threatened all he had built.

Forty years old and tattooed as you'd expect a former chef to be, Bonner is not shy about the ups, downs, self-doubt, fits and starts that characterize his path to NHB Knives (originally called NHB Knifeworks) — one that is clear in retrospect, but not perfectly straight. As a kid, his fascination grew with each knife he was able to buy or trade for, and he eventually began dabbling in craftsmanship, making ninja throwing stars in the woodshop of a friend's dad. He knew he had a knack for craftsmanship, but he shifted his focus to art and photography and eventually discovered a passion for food and cooking that led him to the New England Culinary Institute. Bonner excelled in his studies and was invited to stay on as an instructor, where he relished the opportunity to learn from great chefs and share his knowledge with his students. However, as much as he loved the food component of his craft, Bonner was equally thrilled his work involved knives.

"During that time, I really started collecting knives and realized that part of the reason I loved cooking so much was because I got to play with all these cool knives," Bonner says. "My collection started growing, but also this really weird OCD side came out of me that I'd never seen before. I've always been this 'of the earth' sort of person, but I found myself polishing my knives religiously with a jewelry cloth, and when a scratch wouldn't come out, it wasn't cool."

click to enlarge Bonner uses a hydraulic press, one of the steps in his process. - PHUONG BUI
PHUONG BUI
Bonner uses a hydraulic press, one of the steps in his process.

Bonner moved back to St. Louis after a few years at the New England Culinary Institute and found work as a chef. However, something inside of him kept telling him the profession wasn't the right fit. The more he kept trying to figure out a way to stay in the culinary field, the worse his compulsive tendencies became. He found himself polishing knives like he was scratching an itch and drinking too much until, finally, he had a revelation.

"I realized that I wanted to be my own boss and be an entrepreneur," Bonner says. "So, one day, I bought a knife blank and put a handle on it. My dad said I could use his woodshop out back whenever I wanted, and I started buying blanks anywhere I could get them and started putting knives together and figuring it out."

Bonner hoped he could transition to knife making full time. On a whim one day, he went into Bertarelli Cutlery, the highly regarded knife shop on the Hill, and had a lengthy chat with owner Dan Bertarelli about his craft. He'd brought with him two of the pieces he was working on. Bonner now says they weren't the best made, but they were cool looking. Bertarelli ordered ten. It was unexpectedly great news, but the task of producing for one of the city's foremost knife experts was overwhelming. Bonner felt that things had escalated too quickly.

"I went to my car and started bawling my eyes out," Bonner says.

The unexpected affirmation Bertarelli gave to Bonner should have been cause for celebration, but these were not tears of joy. Instead, feelings of imposter syndrome flooded into his mind, making him feel both undeserving of the success he imagined and unprepared to meet the moment. He knew that if he was going to push through these negative thoughts, he would need the support of those who knew him best.

Bonner found that help in his family, particularly his stepmom, Melody Noel. After seeing the knives he was making, Noel recognized her stepson's talent, and she wanted to help turn his longtime passion into a legitimate business. It helped that she, too, was looking for a new direction. A longtime lawyer, Noel was ready to leave that field behind to pursue something else, even if she was not quite sure what that was. When Bonner came to her with the idea for a knife business, she wanted to help.

"I knew that he was not happy and not fulfilled with being in the culinary arena," Noel says. "He just really was not liking it, and when he came to me with these knives he'd made, I had never seen anything like them. He's such a creative person, and I felt that he could really make a go of this, so I gave him some help and ended up taking a sabbatical that turned into retirement."

Armed with that raw talent and a mutual desire to change course, Bonner and Noel cofounded NHB Knifeworks out of a dingy warehouse in south St. Louis in 2012. Bonner knew he would one day like to forge his own knives, but he wanted to start slowly and focused strictly on assembling pieces, adding handles he'd sourced from Japan to knife blanks that he would shape and polish. Through word of mouth and an online store Noel set up, they gained enough momentum right out of the gate to realize they were onto something.

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

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