Slash & Burn: Geoff Feder: Sculptor, Blacksmith (and Knifemaker to the Stars)
Geoff Feder is a Peekskill knifemaker who actually doesn’t have any wares. You can look at his knives, even lust after them, but there is no way that you can visit his shop, plop down some money and walk away with a knife.
This only makes them more covetable.
The blades come in slate-colored high-carbon steel, a material prized by fetishists for its ease of sharpening (and its ability hold a razor edge). He can also make blades of polished stainless steel for customers who crave shine and the freedom from rust and stains.
Nowadays, Feder is also forging Damascus blades using a complicated technique of folding and re-folding high-nickel steel with high-carbon steel. Feder, who attended culinary school, likens this process to making laminated croissant dough—and he doesn’t think this analogy is strange. The resulting Damascus blade is dipped into acid that etches only the layers of high-carbon steel; this creates rippling, wavelike lines in the polished flank of the blade. Finally, Feder engraves his blades with a touchmark of his stylized initials.
Then consider the handles that most distinguish Geoff Feder’s knives. These are made with contrasting sheets of colorful G10—a glass-reinforced composite similar to fiberglass—bookending the tang. (On a well-made knife, the tang is the continuation of the blade through the handle.) Feder knives have another killer signature: He files the edge of the tang into a sinuous decorative pattern whose undulations hint at heavy metal album artwork, or the beefy geometry of Polynesian tattoos. These knives are so badass. And you can’t have one—not without putting in the time.
It takes two months between placing an order with Feder and the moment when you finally touch your knife. All of his knives are custom collaborations with clients, who include elk hunters, fishermen, Blackhawk helicopter pilots, home cooks and celebrity chefs like Charlie Palmer and Bryan Voltaggio. During the long wait for your knife, you will not feel abandoned. After a lengthy consultation, Feder will email you weekly progress reports that illustrate (in both words and images) every stage of cutting, forging, quenching, hammering and grinding that goes into your purchase.
In addition, Feder—who is a sculptor by profession and an artist by compulsion—will beautifully draw and hand-letter his design. He will then paint that drawing using watercolors, sometimes waking in the middle of the night to do it. As Feder observes, “This is not like going on Amazon and clicking ‘Buy Now.’”
Geoff Feder is a tall man, well over six feet, with arms like a blacksmith, mainly because he is one. Currently, he forges about 200 knives per year in a eight- by eight-foot shop behind the Hudson Avenue house where he lives with his wife and daughter. The shed is jammed with a carefully organized array of metalworking tools: anvils, buckets of quenching oil, an oven, a grinder and grinding belts. There are knives in various stages of completion, and the hammers and tongs that Feder forges for his own use. When Geoff Feder stands up in his shop, you need to find somewhere else to be.
It seems like an obvious transition for a metalworker, blacksmith and former culinary student to become a knifemaker, but Feder’s path unfolded with some mystery. After graduating from Kenyon College with a BFA in sculpture, Feder operated out of his studio in Brooklyn. He pursued his education in metalwork and blacksmithing while assisting in the studios of established artists—Lee Tribe, JJ Veronis and Petah Coyne. Feder, who had just proposed to his future wife, figured he should have a backup plan in case his art didn’t pay. He enrolled in cooking school, which is the point when the Charlie Palmer Group contacted him. The group needed an “unstealable” table for the public landing outside Metrazur, Palmer’s restaurant on the east balcony of Grand Central Station. Feder made Palmer his larceny-proof table. “It weighed 400 pounds. It took three of us to bring it in.”
This led to more work with Charlie Palmer, who hired Feder when he learned that he was pursuing a culinary career. Feder then bounced around the Charlie Palmer Group—project manager, metal fabricator, bartender—before eventually returning to sculpture. You can find Feder sculptures in Jackson, Wyoming, and in and around the Hudson Valley. He was reasonably successful in sculpture terms, but Feder was also formulating a plan.
Feder believed that he could unite his disparate talents by becoming a bladesmith. He didn’t inform his wife, though, because he didn’t want her to worry. He began forging knives in the spaces between his sculpture commissions. “I’d just be banging away, banging away, doing it very piecemeal.” When he walked into his house with a finished knife, his wife was impressed; she thought he’d purchased it.
“She says, ‘So what’s going on with this knife thing?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t want you to think I was crazy, but I think there’s a business here.’”
Other knifemakers charge $100 per inch for custom knives. This gets into real money when you’re talking about 8- to 12-inch chef knives. In contrast, a custom chef’s knife by Geoff Feder costs only $460, and this includes emails and 4am watercolors. His pricing philosophy emanates from Feder’s Manhattan youth.
“I grew up in the ’80s watching graffiti artists like Keith Haring, who did the Crack is Wack playground. He didn’t commission that, it was just there. You’d see his work everywhere in the street for free.” He continues, “So I came up thinking I didn’t want to kill anyone with the price of my sculptures or my knives. I want people to have them and enjoy them.”
Feder is fearlessly unsentimental about his work, which all represents unique designs. “I knew this sculptor who felt funny about selling his sculpture. Incredible sculptor. I couldn’t understand why. Then I realized that it was because of a fear: He was afraid that he couldn’t do it again.
“And that’s a terrible mind-set to have as an artist. Because if you think, ‘It’s never gonna get better than this,’ you are fucked. Picasso said that you have to kill your babies. That’s it—you have to make your work and not get sentimental about it.”
Feder’s knives are so craveable that he could easily settle on a single blade design, filework pattern and G10 color combination, then have a factory crank out duplicate knives while he sits at a desk and counts the money. This will never happen, because Feder needs to keep evolving. “I’m a sculptor. I want a piece of this … and when I say ‘a piece of this,’ I mean I want to make these knives. The day that I sit in a chair and let other people do what I’m doing, I’m hanging it up.