Tucked away in Arden, Harold Kalmus spends his days sculpting in a studio behind his home within the tall trees.
But among the unfinished figure sculptures and supplies is the practical artwork that pays the bills: Kitchen knives. As Kalmus buffs knives into shape or finishes wooden handles, Dalmatian Millie keeps a watchful eye, making sure there’s always time for a walk or toy break with a sweet whine and puppy-dog eyes.
Kalmus, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), decided three years ago he’d teach himself how to create handcrafted, luxury kitchen knives. He was looking for an artistic outlet that would bring in revenue with little investment. “I didn’t want to get a full-time job, because that would have prevented me from doing too much sculpture,” he says.
He invested in one piece of equipment: a bench grinder. “I spent a year or so learning, basically teaching myself,” Kalmus says. (He jokes that his and his friends’ kitchens are full of reject knives. And last Christmas when there was no carving knife in sight? He snuck into his studio and borrowed one from his inventory.)
Operating under the brand Kalmus Knives, he now creates a variety of high-end kitchen knives, ranging in price from $165 to $490. While Kalmus makes all his knives in batches, each one takes about 12 to 15 hours to complete, “which is why they’re not cheap,” he says.
Making a knife begins with long strips of carbon or stainless steel. Carbon steel can rust but is preferred by people who take their knives seriously, Kalmus says. Using templates, he traces and saws the pieces into shape. He then sends the pieces to a facility in Pittsburgh for heat treating. (Steel is soft when it’s purchased, so heat treatment hardens it to the degree necessary for a kitchen knife, he explains.)
Once the knives return to the studio, Kalmus grinds them into the perfect shape, careful not to overheat the metal. He aims to make his knives lightweight and thin, but he’s also created thicker blades after feedback from knife aficionados. Then comes the artist’s favorite part—sculpting the wooden handles, which he says appeals to his primary art form.
Because Kalmus personally decides which woods and metal pins he wants to use, each handle is unique in look and style. Once everything is glued together, the handles receive coats of finish to make them waterproof. He then sends customers home with advice on how to treat these creations with TLC: Wash them by hand, clean them right after use and store them in a knife rack.
Most of his sales come through his website, but he also saw success at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show last November. He hopes to be accepted into about four major shows a year moving forward, and would like for Kalmus Knives to become self-sustaining so he can focus more on sculpting.
A helpful guide on how to use all those knives in your kitchen
This is a must-have for any cook. Chef’s knives come in various lengths—usually, the longer it is, the faster and easier the slicing. However, cooks with smaller hands sometimes opt for shorter lengths. This knife is perfect for cutting almost everything in your kitchen, from meat to veggies to tofu.
8” Chef’s Knife, Kalmus, $490, kalmusknives.com
Translated to “knife for cutting greens,” this traditional Japanese knife is perfect for chopping any vegetable. While it resembles a meat cleaver, it’s designed to make a controlled, smooth cut with no pushing and pulling.
7” Nakiri, Kalmus, $375, kalmusknives.com
This knife is self-explanatory. A carving knife’s long blade makes it the best for slicing and carving meats, or even filleting fish.
8” Carver/Slicer, Kalmus, $375, kalmusknives.com
Add style to your dishes with this tool. The paring knife is smaller, usually a 3- to 4-inch blade with a pointy tip. This allows precision when cutting up fruits or veggies and trimming fat off meats. Plus, it’s the best knife to use for prepping garnishes with precision.
3” Paring Knife, Kalmus, $165, kalmusknives.com
Published as “Knives Out” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.