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KÜHL chats with Morgan & Duncan, owners of Cudaway Knives, to learn more about the importance of a great kitchen knife, one blade at a time.
Written by Sam Brown. All photos by Mak Crist.
This new series from KÜHL goes beyond getting to know an artist’s work and what inspires them. We dive deeper into their origin stories and struggles to learn how they cope with failure, critics, and success, yet still find time to do the things they love. Born in the mountains, raised in the workshop – these are their stories.
Without love of wild experiences, making knives lacks purpose, for it is in the intentional pursuit of adventure where a bladesmith finds dedication and inspiration in their craft.
Knives are a primal tool that have helped humans thrive in wild places. It's these experiences that provide the demand for a tool that's now commonplace in every kitchen in America. Yet time dilutes memory and many people have forgotten the importance of a proper blade or even a sharp one.
Morgan and Duncan at Cudaway Knives aim to change this. They want to strike a balance between utility, function, and form and seek to remind every home cook of the importance of a great kitchen knife, one blade at a time.
Cudaway Knives began in a run-down barn in Bozeman two years ago. There, on hoof-worn and weathered boards with fire hazards abound, Morgan began his goal of owning his own knife company. But really, this dream started well before he even arrived in Bozeman.
Morgan grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and studied art and business in college at UNC Wilmington. He focused on entrepreneurship and found his love of functional art forms in a ceramics class during his freshman year. The pottery wheel engrained a sense of love and appreciation for working with his hands that he took with him once he graduated.
After school, he headed west with his brother on the TransAmerica Trail, a 4,253-mile dirt bike route that stitches its way from east to west on dirt roads through the United States.
After five weeks on the trail, Morgan sent his dirt bike off a cliff, which ended the trip. A few days later he tore his ACL in a skateboarding accident. Luck wasn't on his side. While healing, he hitchhiked back home to North Carolina to get his priorities straight. There, he took a job for an internet sales company. Despite growing quickly with the company, it still didn't feel right, so he packed his bags and headed to Alaska after his knee healed.
While working construction and guiding raft trips in Alaska, Morgan found the life he had missed–not sitting at a desk. After two years in Alaska, he moved to Jackson, Wyoming to work on a farm and he began an apprenticeship at New West Knife Works. There, he worked up the ranks to become their head knife maker. But he wasn't just in Jackson to make knives.
Morgan thrives in the woods and used the restorative playground around Jackson Hole to unplug and recharge. After leaving New West Knife Works, Morgan headed north to Bozeman, Montana to see if he could start his own knife-making business.
That's when he found the barn. After making knives in this dismal barn-turned-workshop, he decided to invest in himself and his business. He took out a loan, moved shop, and began designing Cudaway’s flagship blade.
A year later after starting his business, he met Duncan. Morgan was looking for a CNC machinist to help with his new knife business. Duncan grew up in Gardiner. To him, Bozeman was the big city, but not quite big enough to keep him away. Duncan went to school for CNC machining and settled in at Spark R & D, a company that specializes in splitboard binding and accessories.
He loves Bozeman for its size, and just like Morgan, what it had to offer outside the city–space to roam. Duncan was making knives in his garage well before he met Morgan. With experience in a metal shop, a forge, a CNC machine, and a propensity for tinkering–the partnership was a perfect fit.
Morgan and Duncan have been behind the helm at Cudaway for almost two years. Their goal is to produce a quality blade that stands out in the kitchen and restore our appreciation for kitchen knives that aren't carelessly tossed in the drawer with the spatulas and spoons.
Everyone uses kitchen knives, but many have forgotten how to appreciate them. The two wanted to make blades that people were proud to use and could be handed down to the next generation. Knives are the cornerstone of every kitchen and Cudaway wants to remind everyone of our innate and undeniable connection to these tools.
Very few people appreciate the tangible qualities of a well-made blade; one that feels great in the hands and is sharp–and stays that way. Custom knives shouldn't be out of reach for people who just want a great blade to make dinner with.
There's a gap in the market between custom knives and production knives. They found a niche in the blade world and wanted to fill it with high-quality kitchen knives that don't carry the excessive price tags of other custom blades, yet stand apart from production knives.
They didn't want to get caught up in the custom knife mentality–$1,000 blades that are too good looking, or ornate to even use, with waitlists that are months or even years-long to get your hands on one.
Production-made blades lack character and craftsmanship. Cudaway wants to strike a balance between custom knives and production knives. Their flagship knife is the Sanrock–a full-tang beauty with a seven-inch blade, sheepsfoot tip, and an inverted heel. The inverted heel is ideal for the "pinch grip" and puts more weight on the business end of the knife which allows for more control when preparing food.
There are two primary methods to making a knife: forging and stock removal. Neither is better than the other, and each presents unique challenges to the knife maker. Stock removal, which is how Cudway makes their knives, begins with a knife blank which is a rough form of the blade's final shape. Turning this blank into a blade involves sanding belts, saws, and abrasives to coax the knife into its final form.
The blade begins as a blank piece of steel. Selecting a knife steel is a fine balance, too hard and it will easily break and be hard to sharpen, too soft and the blade will bend and won't hold an edge long; the steel they use provides the ideal blend between durability and usability. This is one reason why so many production kitchen knives are garbage, they begin with terrible steel.
After the knife blank is shaped into its rough form with abrasives, they set the bevel. Next, they heat treat the knife. The knife goes back and forth between heat treating and setting the bevel before it's finally sharpened. Cudway uses a cryogenic heat-treating process that aligns the microstructure of the steel in order to achieve the highest possible strength and hardness.
It takes a keen eye, steady hand, and patience to bevel the blade. The entire process is a spark-showered dance between heat and abrasion, too much of one or the other could ruin the blade. How much is too much? A few extra seconds on a belt can easily heat the blade beyond repair, ruin the temper, or remove too much material that it goes to the scrap pile.
Not many people understand the amount of time required to properly remove stock from a knife blank. There's so much energy and elegance that goes into what looks like "just standing at a belt sander." But it's so much more than that; it's finesse and skill that takes years of practice, nicked fingers, sliced palms, and clouds of fine carbon and metal dust.
Once the blade is finished, it's time to put a handle on it. Cudaway uses G10 or stabilized walnut for their kitchen knife handles. The premium materials really set the stage for the perfectly beveled, sharpened, and honed blades to shine; the G10 is rugged, durable. The stabilized walnut is handsome, traditional, and unique.
Finally, the finished blade is wrapped in a saddle-grade leather sheath made by a close friend of theirs.
Throttle therapy, endurance events, backcountry skiing, skateboarding, mountain biking– Morgan and Duncan have plenty of activities keeping them busy when they're not in the shop. Their outdoor pursuits provide the platform for rest, inspiration, and mental clarity which hones their creative process.
Both of them sketch and draw to help them develop new concepts. Although their main focus is culinary knives, they do have a few hunting knife prototypes in the hands of a few hunters and are waiting on feedback.
The two are on track to sell enough blades to support their vision of success. But Morgan and Duncan are chasing much more than numbers. Sure, they earn a living making knives, but they'd still be making knives even if they didn't have a business.
Their love of the craft, the shop, the highs, and the lows keep the machines humming. They haven't lost sight of what matters most to them, their community, their business, or their passions; everything is sourced in the USA and they always make time for powder days.
Duncan and Morgan are trying to find a way to sustainably grow the business without losing sight of the reasons they opened it up in the first place. Sure, they could charge more. Or they could ramp up production and risk quality issues. Both paths undermine the foundation on which their business slowly grows, so for now, they're taking it one day, and one blade, at a time.
Although both are guilty of working around the clock to sustain their dream, fortunately, that dream also has the soundtrack of a 4-stroke engine, a splitboard gliding down a skin track, a loamy bike trail, and a swirling river.
Keep an eye on these talented dudes committed to fulfilling their pursuit to put quality blades in more kitchens and chase a dream that isn't a dream at all, just an outcome of hard work, intention, a vision, and a love for the wild places and spaces that matter to them.