More than a decade ago, Rhys Gerow was working as a chef at a hotel in Ucluelet, on the West Coast on Vancouver Island, when one day he decided to explore the building’s dank, dirt-floor basement. “It was literally one of the scariest basements I’d ever been in,” he recalls. As if the space wasn’t spooky enough, Gerow found a bucket of water with two knives in it: a beaver-tail skinning knife and 22-inch chef’s knife. Excited by his find, he scrubbed, sanded, and sharpened the blades. “I noticed that they were sharper than any other knife I’d ever used, and I wondered why that was,” says Gerow, who later discovered they were made of carbon steel. Fast-forward to today, and Gerow is bringing this superior material—in the form of stunning Damascus steel—to chefs, hunters, and bush craft enthusiasts around the world through his company Unkel’s Daggers.
Gerow’s Damascus steel knives are works of art: a special hand-forging process, in which two types of steel are folded upward of 200 times, produces distinctive fractal patterns. “There are as many styles of Damascus steel as there are kung fu. There’s snake pattern, there’s fire Damascus, there’s water Damascus,” Gerow says, adding that the Middle Ages art of making Damascus steel was lost in the 17th century, but modern-day blacksmiths have developed new techniques with impressively similar results. In addition to being beautiful, Damascus steel is also extremely hard, which allows it to hold a razor-sharp edge; Unkel’s chef’s knives are sharpened to an 18-degree angle. “Way back in the day, Damascus steel was known for being one of the hardest steels out there, and people coveted it because when they were in battle, Damascus steel swords would break through other swords,” Gerow says. “That’s how hard and strong it was.”
Last fall, Gerow launched Unkel’s Daggers after purchasing some Damascus steel hunting knives for himself and posting a photo on Facebook. (Unkel is his nickname, and Daggers is a nod to his Vancouver skateboard crew, the Eastside Daggers.) He was surprised by how many of his friends liked or commented on his post—many asking how they could get their hands on a knife of their own. Gerow found blacksmiths in Pakistan and Canada and started a resale business, which he promoted on Facebook. “I was hoping to get 1,000 likes by Christmas, and I got 10,000 likes in 24 hours,” says Gerow, who is based in Nelson. “It blew me out of the water.” Today, his page boasts nearly 36,000 likes—an impressive feat for an accidental entrepreneur.
With his experience as a hunter and a chef, it wasn’t long before Gerow began designing his own knives and sending the specs to his blacksmiths. “Before, I had bought Damascus steel kitchen knives, and I thought they were a little clunky and needed some stylizing to actually fit into the parameters that I enjoy for quality for a knife,” he explains. Gerow also started scouring for unique materials that could be used for handles—he has a mammoth molar on order from Siberia, and is hoping to secure some wood from a Chris-Craft boat that once ported Dean Martin around a Nevada lake. Unkel’s Daggers also invites custom orders, which have proven popular: one woman ordered seven camping knives for all the boys in her family, each engraved with his name; another customer is sending in wood from a tree that fell on his family farm to be used for handles on a set.
“A lot of people come to me for custom knives that will hold sentimental value in the future,” says Gerow. And he can relate: he designed a replica of a beaver-tail skinning knife that he lost in a marsh on an otherwise successful hunting trip with his dad, and is also designing a knife to honour the friend who turned him on to hunting and passed away a few years ago.
Whether you’re cooking a family meal or hunting for your next one, your knife becomes part of that intimate experience. A chef’s knife can be as familiar as the guests at your table, a hunting knife as lucky as the weather on the season opener. “A knife is a tool that you can use forever,” Gerow says. “A knife is for life.”