Looking Sharp

Master knife maker Ken Onion, who works quietly from his Kaneohe shop, was recently inducted into the Cutlery Hall of Fame

Susan Sunderland
Friday - July 10, 2008
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Ken Onion and a sampling of his knives
Ken Onion and a sampling of his knives

Ken Onion has always been on the cutting edge of his profession. In fact, his ingenuity and achievements recently led to top honors in the Cutlery Hall of Fame. Onion is a master craftsman and well-respected knife maker and designer.

Didn’t know we had a famous knife maker in our community? Well, that’s no surprise. The Kaneohe resident has operated a bit under the radar here.But in his field, he is a big name with a bigger reputation for his skill and innovation. To have a Ken Onion knife is to have a highly valued work of art.

Why make such a fuss over a sharp, dangerous tool? Calm down. This is not a tale of terror or threat to anyone’s safety. In fact, when you learn more about Onion’s knife designs, you’ll appreciate what he’s done to optimize safety considerations.

It’s part of his genius in this field.

There are several categories of knife users, of course.

There are knife collectors, who value the historical and artistic aspects of the craft. There are utility users like the military. There are sport knives used for hunting, fishing and competitions.

Then there are everyday chefs and home cooks like you and me, who adroitly handle kitchen tools to cut through meats, vegetables and other ingredients. We might be the most fastidious of all knife users, Onion claims.

But we’ll get to that chop-chop after we tell you more about Ken Onion. And we’re not making up that clever name either.

Onion was raised on a farm in Palestine, W.V. Population: 120.“I milked cows,hunted,fished and was an outdoorsy kid,” he says. “I was born with a fascination of knives. It was a tool, not a weapon.

“I collected knives as a hobby and especially liked old ones,“he recalls. “Every ding, dent and rust spot told a story ... had a history rubbed into it. I began to wonder what it would be like to design for a knife company. There was always something in the knives that I wished could be different.”

Onion at work in his shop
Onion at work in his shop

Fate stepped in when Onion grew up, joined the Marines and was stationed at Kaneohe. He picked up an issue of Knives Illustrated magazine at a local drug store.

“From there I found a local knife maker named Stan Fujisaka and begged him to teach me.I made my first knife in November 1991 and have continued the craft since,” Onion says.

Cut to 17 years later and Onion is sitting on a mountain of knife designs on paper and thousands of custom and production knives that carry his signature. From a hobby in his back yard, cutlery has become a full-time career that has brought him fame and fortune. His line has expanded from limited-edition custom-designed knives to mass-produced kitchen knives co-branded by world-renowned manufacturers and sold at gourmet retailers such as Williams-Sonoma.

He is best known for designing the first assisted opening knife known as “Speed Safe.” His first patent in 1996 created a new category of knives between manual and automatic styles (such as switchblade) that is a guided opening method that is easy and user-friendly.

Two years later,he signed on with world-renowned manufacturer Kershaw Knives as a designer. It led to more than 36 patents on various items including locks, gadgetry, mechanisms, safeties and designs, as well as trademarks.

Ever the inventor, Onion has some 65 patents pending in various stages of concept or development. His mind never rests on how to solve problems or finding a product niche that needs to be filled.

“It’s what gets me up in the morning,” he says of his relentless drive for perfection and invention.

“I have influenced a great surge in creativeness in both custom and factory-produced knives,“he says. “I co-designed super titanium alloys in search for a new super titanium blade material with Dynamet Technology in Massachusetts (yet to be released).I invented and developed a pocket torch for military and other government agencies for use in underwater cutting and welding applications, breeching, escape and entry applications (not for public use).

Onion with, from left, son Kenny, wife Noel and daughter Ashley
Onion with, from left, son Kenny, wife Noel and daughter Ashley

“I’m currently developing and designing a ground-breaking sharpening system, micro-surgery tools, personal grooming accessories and kitchenware,” he adds.

He describes his versatility as “Jesse James meets Martha Stewart meets Eddie Bauer.”

And if all of that doesn’t keep him busy enough - and it doesn’t - the ex-Marine is national spokesman for the Paralyzed Veterans of America Heritage Fund,to which he donates proceeds from the sale of his ZT (Zero Tolerance) knives.

Knife-making is a big, multi-billion-dollar business employing tens of thousands of craftsmen. Onion is part of that industry, but says the relationships are very fraternal and supportive. It also is a highly regulated industry because of public safety considerations.

But as a practical tool for everyday use, a knife is basic and essential to civilization. Onion reminds us the first tool of prehistoric man was a crude cutting stone. In reality, he asserts, it has never been a man’s search for a better mousetrap that helped shape society, but rather his search for a better knife.

Any way you slice it,that’s the passion in Onion’s life.He uses his intellect and mechanical abilities as a former jet aircraft mechanic and designer of robots to create outstanding, user-friendly cutlery for today’s consumers and collectors.

He watched hours of Food Network cooking shows to design the ergonomic and durable chef’s knife known as the Kershaw Ken Onion Shun. It’s an award-winning design that dazzles classically trained chefs as well as appreciative home cooks.

Even when he suffered a major back injury that could have impaired him for life, Onion turned his back on self-pity and pushed through to excel at what he loved doing.

The pinnacle of those achievements came May 31 in Atlanta when his peers in the knife industry inducted him as a unanimous choice in Blade Magazine‘s Cutlery Hall of Fame. Onion, 45, is the youngest to be nominated for this honor and is one of only nine living knife makers in the hall of fame.

Applauding loudest are his biggest fans, wife Noel, son Kenny, 12, and daughter Ashley, 15.Watch out for young Kenny, who is a chip off the old block and designed his first knife at age 4 (the Kershaw Ken Onion Chive).

Well, now you know the story of Ken Onion of Kaneohe,master knife designer and knife maker to the stars such as Steven Seagal, Nicolas Cage, Wayne Newton and others.

What more can we say about this talented guy, other than he is really sharp?


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