KNIVES don't make the man. But in the case of Adam Balkovic, founder of BiltSharp, a man definitely makes the knives.
Emphasis on the singular.
In addition to being the creator of the Philly-based bespoke forgery, founded in 2012, Balkovic also serves as its CEO, creative director, marketer, chief fabricator and sales coordinator. He is the steadily growing company's only employee - and he's happy to report that he's got an excellent relationship with his supervisor.
"When I come to work now, I do whatever the hell I want," he said. "It's very fulfilling."
His own teacher
Look at the pieces Balkovic, a native of the small York County town of Dillsburg, produces with his bare hands, and it's easy to assume he's been at the craft for years, apprenticing under an experienced blacksmith, or maybe an elderly Japanese blade-maker.
But while the work screams veteran craftsman, Balkovic has been at this for only a few years and is entirely self-taught.
Right now, in his inventory there's a nearly foot-long chef's knife, made from raw, military-grade 52100 carbon steel and mounted on a gorgeous polished handle of rare Southeast Asian amboyna burl. There's a one-of-a-kind hunter's blade that Balkovic tricked out with a .44 Magnum casing in the base of the grip, and an elegantly curved fishing knife, complete with cocobolo handle and built-in bottle-cap remover.
The level of detail speaks to Balkovic's acuity for this type of labor, where singular focus informs the quality of the final product. His career before this one, however, found him focusing on the tastes of others.
Behind the counter
Before BiltSharp, Balkovic, who has a degree in photography from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, spent his time working behind one of this town's most iconic counters - the original Di Bruno Bros. shop, on 9th Street, in South Philly.
Working as a cheesemonger at the perpetually busy shop from 2008 to 2012, Balkovic honed his interpersonal and salesmanship skills but longed to get into a workshop and build stuff with his hands, as his father, a woodworker, had taught him to as a kid. He got his chance when Di Bruno's needed serving pieces for after-hours events at the Italian Market shop.
He began building custom cheese platters and serving boards from scratch that were so popular with customers, he started selling a few on the side.
One day at work, Balkovic announced his desire to swap out wood for metal. "I thought to myself, 'I'm going to make a knife tonight,' " he said. "I said that to [Di Bruno's owner] Emilio [Mignucci], who was standing next to me, and he said, 'You can't make a knife! Nobody can do that!' "
That's all Balkovic needed to hear.
"It was the whole challenge of being told that I couldn't do it," he said. He began researching the topic, reading articles, analyzing products and watching how-to videos on YouTube. He bought low-quality steel from Home Depot and began practicing, producing his first complete pieces in 2011.
"Thirty years ago, you wouldn't have been able to do that," said Balkovic, who left Di Bruno's in 2012 to pursue BiltSharp full time, of his rapid and determined self-education. "Now, there's such a wealth of knowledge out there."
Slicing through metal
Now based in a shared workshop in Brewerytown, Balkovic, who lives in Queen Village, spends every workday adhering to his own set fabrication schedule. "I probably put between 10 and 20 hours in on a single blade," he said.
This process begins with metal - mainly the 52100, traditional 1095 Japanese blade steel or rare, pricey Damascus steel. Balkovic cuts it, by hand, with a bandsaw. Shape, length, thickness and curvature vary greatly depending on what the destination of the final blade will be - the kitchen, the woods, the butcher's block or even the bathroom sink (he does old-school straight razors).
Then comes the step that Balkovic describes as the most complicated and temperamental of them all - placing the raw blades in his electronic, computer-controlled forge, which has the ability to reach temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. His knives are typically heated for hours at half that capacity.
"This is the most important part by far," Balkovic said of this step, which manipulates the unique molecular structure of steel, strengthening it so much that it can slice through a metal file (a good litmus test). "Everything else is just practice."
It took him years of trial and error to determine his ideal time, temperature and approach here, and it changes from steel to steel, and even piece by piece.
Once Balkovic's knives are removed from the fire, they're plunged into oil, which can drop their core temperature from 1,500 degrees to 600 in a mere three seconds. At this point, the blades are extremely hard but still fragile, and they can crack if mishandled.
Once they cool, the metal makes its way across the shop floor to Balkovic's industrial grinder, where he painstakingly shapes and sharpens each blade by hand.
And that's the basic timeline for just the metal.
Balkovic also does all the custom woodwork for the handles and produces custom leather sheaths and carrying cases by request.
"There's a lot of knife-makers who only do handles or only do blades," he said. "I do everything. That's kinda my thing."
This high level of customization translates to prices that might be higher than store-bought - anywhere from $150 to $900 - but are commensurate with the quality and labor.
"I make functional art," Balkovic said. "My knives aren't cheap. But the problem with commercial blades is that the attention's not there."
A global hit
Though it's proudly Philly-based, about 80 percent of BiltSharp's clientele live outside the country. Thank tools like Twitter, Instagram and Etsy, which Balkovic has a solid grip on, for that.
Recently, he's sold blades to Australia, Canada and China. His best customer, whom he's never met, lives in Norway and requested a full knife set that Balkovic has been working on since October.
"It's such a weird, small niche of people that make knives," he said. "It's very centralized and word spreads fast."
That's beginning to happen locally, too.
Peter Woolsey, chef and owner of Bistrot La Minette and the upcoming La Peg, is a vocal supporter of BiltSharp, as is Craig Rogers, who commissioned a large lamb cleaver for use at his Border Springs Farm, in Virginia. (He's got a presence in the Reading Terminal Market.)
David Wallace, a chef from Bucks County, recently approached Balkovic and requested "the nicest thing I could make for him" - a triple-layer knife, Damascus steel wrapped around a bar of carbon steel, which Balkovic is currently speccing out.
"I love curveballs and I love challenges," he said.
And he also loves taking on said challenges on his own, as BiltSharp's sole driving force. "I don't like other people doing stuff for me," Balkovic said. "It kinda kills me that I have to use the post office to get my knives where they want to go."
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @drewlazor.