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      January 2013 Newsletter

 

 



SHUCK NO EVIL

Oyster shucking has been around for a very long time. Every so often, we are reminded just how long. The oysters themselves have not changed substantially. Their main predator of late has been humans. Ripping the shells apart with two bare hands did not work. A key was required to open the door to the oyster. Once we devised a safe way to open the shells and consume these tasty creatures, the consummation rates escalated. Knives and spoons were invented way before the fork. The oyster shell was a ready-made spoon. It is the knife that my monkey friend (above) does not have.

R. Murphy Knives - Since 1850

Mark Furman and his wife Mimi Younkins bought a knife company three years ago. The original company, R. Murphy Knives, was established in 1850, in Boston, by John Murphy. John's brother Robert soon joined him in the venture. By 1877, Robert was the sole owner. Eventually Robert's sons, John and Edward took over the company and renamed it Robert Murphy & Sons. They shortened the name to R. Murphy Knives in 1934. Two more owners rotated in and out of the business until Mark and Mimi came along. All of this sounds pretty normal until we remember that three years ago was not the best time for anyone to buy a new business. It was for them, in fact, a totally new business - they had never been in the knife business before. Their previous business together was the construction of high-end homes. It took courage.

Fast forward to today. Not only has the couple succeeded in maintaining the company heritage of high quality cutlery, they have invented their own new knives - even more beautiful than the rest. It's a pretty remarkable story. The new knives are oyster knives. One is named after the Damariscotta River in Maine and the other for a famous oyster in Massachusetts.

Above are some of the knives that the company was making in 1908. Do they look familiar? They should, these knife styles have not changed much in the last 100 years. When Mimi took over the files and archives of the company, she was delighted to find that the records had been meticulously kept. And the catalogs? Well the catalogs are priceless.

This catalog page from Harper's Weekly 1882 offers a snapshot of the oyster world of that time. In the center, that's right, seven people are shucking oysters and seven knives are displayed in a row on the wall.

THE NEW FRONTIER

Today there are numerous manufacturers of oyster knives. Some "manufacturers" are making them one by one with great care and craftsmanship. Others are geared more towards a consumer market making anything from clever gizmos to flashy polished blades that catch your eye in the kitchen store or super market. Frankly, some are made only for collectors - not really to use. The quest for the perfect opening device is, it seems, as eternal as the quest for perfection in the edible oyster itself.

R. Murphy Knives had the good fortune recently of being selected to participate as one of the entries in an America's Test Kitchen comparison test.  As fate would have it, their New Haven oyster knife was selected as the best knife for the task.

 

Knives are not complicated. They just must suit their intended purpose. To do so, they have two essential ingredients - a blade and a handle. The handle can be either made of wood or a synthetic, often plastic. As the old ads show, wood is traditional. Synthetic handles are a more recent 20th Century invention. Plastic is usually cheaper than wood even though, in certain circumstances, it may be more hygienic and durable. Wood is porous and, unprotected in the presence of air and water, can deteriorate. Wood finishes help to prolong the life of wood but the high temperatures of washing machines are a very demanding task master. Mark Furman questions the hygienic and durability reputation of plastic. Furman explains: "A scientific study in the mid-nineties proved that wood outperformed plastic in regard to bacterial growth. The wood showed no bacterial colonies after drying while plastic had still promoted growing colonies of bacteria. Our experience and user feedback has demonstrated no appreciable difference in the durability of wood versus plastic."

Knife handles usually express the purposes that they serve. A knife with flat handle sides, and a blade parallel to the flat sides, is generally used in the vertical plane. It cuts or chops vertically. A round handle, like a screw driver, is generally meant to twist around an axis. Some knifes, might be asked to accomplish both cutting and twisting, so the handle contains both curves and flat surfaces. Mr. Furman has also carefully studied the relationship of blade to handle. Says Furman: "User feedback has shown that handle shape has less significance than blade geometry with regard to oyster opening method."    .

Knife blades are generally made of steel. There are recent ceramic blade alternatives but they are brittle and not yet commonly used for oyster knives. The two kinds of steel used in oyster knifes are "carbon" steel and "stainless" steel. All steel contains carbon. It is a major element added to iron in precise quantities that actually defines the term "steel." Stainless steel, as the name implies, is a steel with various ingredients added during manufacturing that will allow it to retain its finish even in a very hostile environment. "Carbon" steel blades will keep "a sharp edge" longer than stainless steel. Stainless steel will keep its finish longer. Both types of steel can be highly polished. Most people prefer a stainless steel schucking knife. R. Murphy manufactures both carbon and stainless steel knives.

Attaching a knife handle to its blade usually means finding a way to permanently attach it. Because the handle is where the hand grasps the blade, the surface of the handle is designed to permit a safe and secure grip. Plastic handles may contain a raised texture, Wood handles are usually smooth. Wood handles are traditionally either attached by metal rivets, pins, or simply solid and predrilled to allow the hidden "tang" of the blade to be wedged into a hole along the handle axis. Such a wood handle often includes a functional trim piece that helps to secure the handle to the blade. Sometimes adhesives are used between the "tang" and handle "scales" on each side to add to the durability of the knife. 

Of course there is one more ingredient that may or may not improve the function of the knife - beauty. The polish and precise shape of a steel blade is notoriously exquisite. The glimmer and shine of steel is often highlighted by a flat finish and or color. Wood offers richness in colors, with both variety and grain. Plastics are manmade, like steel, and usually solid colors. As a weapon, a knife is rarely frivolous in design. But if you are designing an elegant knife, you might just prefer a wood handle. That is exactly what Mark Furman did for his new oyster knives. It is in fact the handles that make the new R. Murphy knifes so distinctive.

 

 




TWO NEW KNIVES

Mark Furman set out to use history to improve upon history. The blade of his new knife is pretty traditional in shape. His innovation is in the handle shape, wood type, and wood treatment. Both new knives have the same blade shape. It is sharp on two edges with a strong point for penetrating the oyster ligament. Both knives sit well in the heel of the palm following the line at the base of the thumb. I find that, with the Wellfleet model, the thumb naturally finds itself near the top of the handle and on the side of it. With the Damariscotta model, I tend to place the ball of my thumb on the flat face of the handle. During shucking, it is the thumb that moves back and forth from rounded handle side to flat handle face - poke, turn, and swivel.

THE MANUFACTURING PROCESS

As mentioned, the most innovative aspect of the two knives does not lie in the new shapes. It lies in the treatment of the wood handles. By thoroughly drying the wood and essentially voiding the pores, it is possible to use a vacuum process and impregnate and fill the wood pores. By introducing the liquid acrylic in the vacuum chamber with the wood, the pores will be force-filled with acrylic. The result is a handle with the beauty of wood and the water protective qualities of plastic.

The machine inventory of his new factory did not contain a vacuum chamber. Furman had to invent one. He experimented with a transparent vacuum chamber until he was confident that he understood the process and could observe the acrylic being forced into the wood pores. Then he attached his vacuum pump to a larger more durable chamber made from PVC pipe.

Oddly, the old factory also did not include a wood shop. So Furman built one. In this new shop, the new hard wood handle blanks are cut and prepared for the vacuum treatment. The wood blanks are precisely sized and drilled to receive the brass rivets that will eventually secure the two sides of the handle to the knife blade. A rectangular wood handle element can receive either two or three holes. Two holes allow room for a customized logo and need adhesive. Three holes allow for three rivets to secure the two halves of the handle. Once the wood blanks are treated, they can be shaped to conform to the new design.

 

A third important new ingredient to the fabrication process was an oven where the acrylic, newly lodged in the pores of the wood, can be cured and essentially made permanent. A small oven was added to a corner of the factory for that purpose right next to the new vacuum chamber.  Holding racks were designed to hold the handle blanks in place while they are heated.  R. Murphy craftsman, Joe Sacramone, is shown here removing the racks full of knife handle blanks from the oven. Employees are trained for various tasks associated with a wide range of knife types so that they can fill orders and stock the inventory of knives as necessary. Once the wood has been successfully impregnated, Mr. Sacramone will return to the wood shop with the wood handle blanks and complete the shaping process of the handle for each new knife.

Each steel knife blade has holes to receive the rivets and then is ground on both edges by a machine process (see below). This assures that each knife blade is fine ground to precise specifications. Elsewhere in the factory, the knife blades are cleaned, and polished. Then the blade must be matched to its wood handle counterparts. The assembly sequence is shown below. Once the rectangular handle is ready to shape, it can be cut, shaped, sanded, and polished to conform to the original design.

 

 




THE SOUND OF TWO KNIVES CLAPPING

A good dinner often begins with a "clink." The story goes that "clinking" cups goes back to some ancient need to add sound to the sensual pleasure of eating. The smell is there, the sight is there, the taste is there, the touch is there, but where is the sound? Take a cup in hand, fill it with liquid, and touch it to another at the lip. You may begin!

You don't really get the message of how fine these oyster knives are until you accidentally bump one butt end sideways against the other at the handle. If you do it right, the two steel edges captured by the wood handles will meet. The sound is a "clink" just like the one two fine cups make. It is both a kind of applause for the perfection of manufacture and a forecast of the intended quality of the experience to come. It is the sound quality makes. ED.

Note: Thank you to the R. Murphy owners and employees for the fascinating visit to your Ayer, Massachusetts, facility.

 

    

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