Local Maker Spotlight: Mareko Maumasi - A Culinary Bladesmith
At first glance, the knives on Mareko Maumaski’s website initiate an immense artistic appreciation, and potentially, for those unfamiliar with custom-built kitchen knives, a bit of sticker shock.
But that’s fine with Mareko, who’s making it his life’s mission to educate culinary knife lovers about what goes into producing an exceptional knife that can ultimately bring more joy to their cooking.
Working in kitchens across Olympia and Denver, Mareko knows firsthand just how tough cooking environments can be. “Not having to fight the tool so you can get the work done and make the meal is half the battle,” shares Mareko.
Mareko’s first foray into the culinary world began at 21 when he began working at the Fish Tale Brew Pub just after they remodeled and were expanding the brewery. Like a lot of people in the food industry, Mareko started in the dish pits, working his way up to prep cook before working on the line.
“I had a ton of jobs before I got into food … I’d say over 20 by the time I was 24,” laughs Mareko. “I had a tendency to get bored pretty quickly and wanted to move on to learning something new.” In the kitchen at Fish Tale, Mareko found that he really loved cooking, but not so much working in an intense and confined environment. It’s also where he met Bob Kramer, a local knife maker. This pivotal meeting would ultimately change the trajectory of Mareko’s life.
“It's always a trip to think back on how the smallest choices and decisions you make influence where you are now,” he recalls. “I didn't know what I was doing with my life. I was half-heartedly working on an unfinished AA at South Puget Sound Community College, and I wondered where I was going. I had no idea what a bladesmith was, but Bob’s life experiences appealed to me. He’d traveled the world, at one point he was a clown, and now he owned his own business.”
Mareko met with Bob hoping that he might perhaps impart some wisdom to help him kickstart a different direction. After sharing each other’s stories, Bob offered Mareko an opportunity to work in his shop. No promises, no guarantees upfront, just an opportunity extended for him to give it a try. His apprenticeship with Bob began with sweeping floors, cleaning, and organizing the shop. After he proved he could be trusted with the basics, Bob gave him more hours, and soon he was giving his two weeks’ notice to Fish Tale.
Mareko soon moved into production and was helping Bob prepare handles for blades, then eventually sculpting handles, grinding blades, and learning to make the Damascus (a process that involves melding two different types of steel into a singular design).
“I learned a ton and it was an invaluable experience, but for me it was still ‘just a job’,” he recalls, until he had another pivotal experience that would confirm his decision to make knife making his calling.
One of Bob’s customers was a surgeon who enjoyed cooking at home as his primary way to relax, and he relied on Bob’s high-performance knives to enhance that process. After receiving a knife that both Bob and Mareko had built, he sent them some feedback, expressing how the contouring of the handle, specifically, made the knife feel like a natural extension of his hand.
“That was the first time I’d gotten any feedback about my work, and it really made an impact on how I thought about my work,” says Mareko.
Working in kitchens, Markeo was no stranger to culinary knives. He began keeping journals, drawing sketches, and taking notes on how he might design his own signature chef’s knife. He was making culinary knives at Bob’s, but they weren’t his idea of what a culinary knife could be.
“I felt like there were ways Bob's design could be evolved. I wanted to try my own idea on what a quality chef's knife would be. My wheels were constantly spinning, thinking about different ways that I could manipulate, play with, and forge steel to create different patterns. That’s when it finally hit me – I’d considered myself a Jack of All Trades for some time, but this was something I knew I could be potentially great at.”
Mareko knew he wanted to get serious about knife making, but he didn’t have a shop or a place to hone his skills. He’d heard of a maker up in Seattle who had his own blacksmith shop and a knife making studio. Still living and working in Olympia at Phoebe’s Pastry Café, Markeo would run up to Seattle every other weekend to work on his knives three or four days at a time. Soon he was making and selling enough of his knives out of the Seattle shop to retailers that he was able to quit Phoebe’s and start making knives full-time.
Mareko raised $10,000 with the help of crowdfunding platforms to get his first studio off the ground. That might not seem like much, but when you look around his shop, you won’t find a lot of machinery. What you will find is a hydraulic press used to compress metals, a heat-treating kiln, a high temperature kiln, and a grinder.
“With those and a few hand tools, I can get a serious amount of work done,” Mareko confides. He’s not big on fancy equipment, he’d rather keep pushing himself to fine-tune his skills and get more work done with what he has.
Around 2014, Mareko began building knives directly for customers who were looking specifically for custom-built, quality culinary knives. His business model may change in the coming year with some of his work going to specific retailers that he’d like to work with, such as Blade Gallery in Seattle, Eating Tools in New York, and Coutelier NOLA in New Orleans.
The majority of Mareko’s knives are made from Damascus, which is a combination of two types of steel. They’re very similar in chemical makeup, but one has a high nickel content which in finished products shows as white or silver lines against a black background. The steel is stacked into a rectangular bar called a “billet”. Think of it kind of like an ice cream sandwich. Some of the steel will end up presenting dark, and some of it will end up presenting bright white or silver.
Heating the steel to high temperatures and compressing it causes the material to come in such close proximity that at an atomic level the materials start trading atoms. The materials become bonded and are effectively a homogenous piece of steel. The two types of steel have welded together, but they still maintain their original properties which ends up becoming the pattern in the finished blade.
This is not a quick process. From start to finish, it takes at least two weeks to build each individual knife, which gives a buyer insight into why a custom-built knife costs so much more than commercially, mass-produced knives. So why buy a custom-built kitchen knife? One of the main advantages to Mareko’s knives is that the quality of the steel he’s using can handle the blade being taken to a finer, sharper edge without losing its integrity. This results in a knife that is more stable that will last a lot longer than standard knives.
Mareko and his family ventured out to the East Coast for several years, continuing to hone their process and learn from some exemplary knife makers, but Olympia was home. They’ve been building knives and making connections now in the Olympia region for the past three years. “There’s just a really great sense of community here in Olympia,” says Mareko, “and of course the access to outdoor recreation is a big deal to us.”
Maumasi Fire Arts shop in Olympia is not open to the public, but Mareko is very much a part of the Olympia community. You can always contact him through his website to commission a blade, but if you’re here visiting, pop into the Saturday Market at the West Central Park on Saturdays (check his schedule on his website) to chat with Mareko in person. At the market, he shares his “five pillars of knife care” (how to properly store, clean, and maintain your knife’s surface, as well as to cut on proper cutting surfaces that help to maintain your knife’s edge), and he’ll sharpen any blade you feel like throwing at him.
Figuratively, of course.
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