“That feeling of a knife going effortlessly through a bell pepper under its own weight is truly addictive. Once I got used to a supremely sharp knife edge, it was hard for me to go back,” blacksmith Shehan Prull says. The gleam in his eyes reveals that, while it may not be the only reason Shehan loves hand-forging knives, crafting this level of perfection is a driving force behind what has been a 20-year journey to create Shi.han Fine Knives.
Shehan has established a blacksmith shop on Santa Fe’s south side where he creates a limited—for now —line of kitchen knives that has earned quick attention from local chefs like Rocky Durham of Santa Fe Culinary Academy; Joel Coleman of Fire and Hops; and Mark Connell of State Capital Kitchen. Most of Shehan’s customers, however, are serious amateur chefs who have run their courses through standard kitchen tools and are looking for unique and artisanal implements for their collections. “For a lot of people drawn to these hand-forged knives, there’s a relationship with the tool that’s meaningful. It’s like an old friend,” he says.
Shehan, now 32, is one of the rare—perhaps supremely lucky—individuals who discovered early on his life’s passion. “It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,” he says of metalwork. At age 12, he began hanging around the studio of his blacksmithing neighbor who—Santa Fe being what it is—happened to be MacArthur Foundation Fellowship artist Tom Joyce. Joyce, who now fashions grand sculptures, is known for a contemporary style, though he uses traditional techniques that Shehan found alluring.
Shehan began doing chores around the shop and learning those techniques, though applied in an artistic form. “Something about metalwork attracted. Now it’s very hard for me to say what’s part of my original intrinsic connection with the material and what’s a connection that we’ve built all these years. I can’t imagine working in glass or stone or even precious metals…Iron and steel are still completely captivating,” he says. “The energy of something being made from a very rough, raw material to a very refined state was mesmerizing, and I just knew I wanted to be able to do that.”
After graduating from high school, Shehan passed a year in college in Scotland, though he didn’t find it as intensely appealing as his work with Joyce. He returned to his hometown and shuttled between working with Joyce and Peter Joseph, another metal smith. However, his hometown soon left him stir-crazy, and he longed for adventure. Following his fascination for its language and culture, Shehan traveled to Japan where he lived up to the journeyman trade in all senses, moving from rural craftsman to craftsman seeking room and board in exchange for work.
He eventually found Hiroshi Ashi, in Sakai, with whom he interned for two years learning the traditional art of Japanese knife-making. Most traditional Japanese-style knives are single bevel, which are sharpened on one side, flat on the other, and known for both strength and sharpness. Typical styles include the deba, a clever for butchering fish; a yanagiba, a sword-like blade used for slicing raw fish; and a usuba, a thin-bladed knife used to cut vegetables.
Shehan returned to Santa Fe in 2009, with the goal of starting a metal shop to create knives. “I thought it was going to take a year or two. It’s taken more like five,” he says, pressing his forehead into his blackened palm with a smile. Insistent on having the best tools at his disposal, he took decorative metalwork commissions and saved to import a mechanical belt hammer and grinding stone from Japan. He began dedicating his time fully to knife-making in November 2015.
He named the business Shi.han, a re-translation from his Japanese name into English that reflects his journey from the U.S. to Japan and back again. As of this publication, his knives have a more American geometry, with a double bevel. He hones two lines of knives: The first, a stainless-clad series, is available in paring and one size of Gyuto. In these knives, two layers of stainless steel sandwich carbon steel, sought after for its strength and sharpness. The stainless protects the sometimes-brittle inner layer and keeps it from developing a patina that might discolor or interact poorly with some foods. Some purists, however, prefer the other line, made purely with carbon steel which has a bit of aesthetic patina already—Shehan’s version of kurouchi (blacksmith’s finish), the black oxidation on the spine left over from when the knife was forged. The latter is available in four sizes. The knives cost between $110, for a paring knife, and $560 for the largest Gyuto. The price reflects Shehan’s intensive process, which stretches from five to nine hours, depending on blade size.
As Shehan walks through his shop, his footsteps are still soft in his steel-toed boots, though his quiet, thoughtful demeanor grows more bold as he describes the process: The knives begin as a steel rod, which Shehan heats in his forge and, using both his anvil and hammer and the belt hammer, fashions into roughly the right shape. He then compares this rough shape to a template, cutting the excess. The metal is then heat-treated and quenched to create a certain temper to reduce hardness and brittleness. Then it’s off to the imported grinding stone, on which he tapers the metal into its primary geometry, which is further refined on a variety of belt sanders. He then heats the tang (the steel portion hidden in the handle), searing it in to the handle. The handles, made of water buffalo horn and magnolia wood, are made and shipped from Sakai, Japan.
Joel Coleman, of Fire & Hops and the just-opened La Lecheria, says, “Shehan’s knives are pretty amazing. The craftsmanship and design are of the highest quality, and I’d put them up against a lot of the mass-produced knives out there. The amazing thing is that it’s world-class knife making, and it’s happening right here in Santa Fe.… I’ve known Shehan for a long time, and it’s been so amazing to watch his progression. I’ve even talked to him about making me a custom scooper for the new ice cream shop.”
Shehan’s knives are available through Japanese Knife Imports in Beverly Hills, California, and Bernal Cutlery, in San Francisco. He’s opted against selling in local stores because he hopes to establish his own storefront where shoppers can also watch him work. Shehan also hopes to expand the variety of knife styles he creates—“each one takes a year or two of R&D,” he says—and offer more accouterments, from magnetic storage boards, to Japanese whet stones to sharpen the finely crafted blades—and yes, perhaps someday ice-cream scoops.
Shi.han Fine Knives are available online at shihanfineknives.com.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers