STEELPORT’s Eytan Zias Forges a New Tradition of American Knife Making

On Location

three images of people surrounded by knives

The Spruce Eats / Todd Coleman / Michela Buttignol

Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.

A good knife is the most important tool in any chef’s kitchen, and few people know kitchen knives better than Eytan Zias, STEELPORT Knife Co.’s co-founder and bladesmith. Soft-spoken and technical, Zias—who spent years in professional kitchens prior to learning how to make knives—has sold knives to hundreds of award-winning chefs and home cooks across the nation. Since 2021, he’s been making STEELPORT knives out of the company’s Portland, Oregon, workshop.

Designed with all of the attributes of Zias’ favorite knives, STEELPORT’s 8-inch flagship model is the Platonic ideal of a chef’s knife, a New-American classic with full-tang construction and a proprietary heat treatment. The Spruce Eats team went behind the scenes to learn more about the construction and quality that has landed STEELPORT recommendations from Gear Patrol and the New York Times.

How did you get into knife making? 
I’ve been working with knives in one way or another professionally for 25 years. I got into knives through cooking; I went to culinary school in the late ‘90s and then moved to New York and cooked there and just got really into knives, into sharpening, in a tools-of-the-trade capacity. I moved to Arizona to help open a restaurant for Michael White and while I was there, I noticed that nobody there had any good knives. There were no knife shops. 

So I started a little sharpening business, started importing knives, and that grew into—as far as I know—Knife House, the largest collection of kitchen knives in the US. I have a shop in Phoenix and a shop in Portland. And about 10 years ago, I started forging knives, too; bought a power hammer, a basic forge. Ten years of just playing around, learning how to make a knife; that led to STEELPORT. 

Your website refers to STEELPORT’s knives as modern American heirlooms. Can you tell me about that?
I met my business partner, Ron Khormaei, at the very end of 2019, which was when I’d decided I wanted to make knives full-time. We looked around and saw that there were no good American items in the kitchen space, including knives. In the US we’re really good at making folding knives and hunting knives, but no one had ever focused on a kitchen knife. We set out to correct that. 

We wanted to reintroduce old-school knifemaking, something we never should have strayed from. That’s why we’re doing very traditional, carbon-steel, drop-forged knives. We wanted something that was US-sourced and made.

You use some specific craft materials in your work—among them, 52100 carbon steel and Oregon wood. What makes these materials unique? 
That’s a ball-bearing steel, 52100. It wasn’t designed for knives, but it’s become almost primarily a knife steel now. It’s US made and has all the properties that we’re looking for: toughness, hardness, sharpenability. Everything that makes a good knife.

For the wood, we chose to do an Oregon bigleaf maple. We're in Portland; we're trying to use all the resources that are available to us here. These are cuts of wood that are too small for furniture makers, or anybody else, to use, really. So this is stuff that would normally just hit the burn bin. Wood by itself is actually not a great handle choice, so we stabilize it in-house to make it a better handle material. 

Even the patina: We were trying to use something natural—no harsh chemicals. We experimented with everything. I mean, vinegars, teas, coffee, wine. The product that worked the best for us, and it’s almost a Portland cliche, was coffee. We’re able to use spent beans—stuff that hits the floor during the roasting process, anything they burn, anything they can’t use. So we give those beans another life.

What was the overall design process like for STEELPORT’s range of knives? How did your experience in the kitchen inform the knives you’ve created over the years?
I started off using German knives; that’s all we had available to us in the ‘90s. Then I discovered Japanese knives and I never looked back. I knew personally that I liked thinner, harder blades, because they meet less resistance when you’re cutting. But Japanese knives are very brittle. The European-style knives are more durable, but very low performance. So we wanted to combine the two, and with our special heat-treating, we were able to make a thin, extremely hard blade. It’s harder than almost any Japanese knife that’s on the market but as durable as any of the German knives. 

I’ve also been selling knives for about 15 years at Knife House, and I work with a lot of chefs. We’ve been compared to the wand shop in Harry Potter because you come in and there’s 700-plus knives. Over 15 years there, day-in, day-out, watching people pick out knives, I saw that there wasn’t one knife that combined everything. 

Our STEELPORT knife took all those years of working, talking to chefs and home cooks and seeing what they like about knives, into account. If I had to sum it up, I’d say we make the knife that I always wanted, that I always wish I had. 

Can you tell me about the transition from smaller batch/custom making, which is more prevalent in the US, to the production runs you do at STEELPORT?
That’s probably the most impressive thing about STEELPORT: We make a knife that was [previously] only available from really, really small US makers, because it’s not an easy knife to make. My business partner is an engineer by trade. So the idea was for me to show a couple of engineers how I make a knife. And then they would figure out how to make it faster, how to make it repeatable, and in a way that doesn’t depend on one bladesmith.

For example, the first thing we did was to switch from freehand forging to creating dies for drop forge. And that not only makes the process faster and more efficient, but also makes a much better product. Everybody likes the idea of somebody sitting there and just hammering away at a knife for three days, but it actually doesn’t make a better product. It’s just the opposite. Our tagline for the company is ‘craftsmanship without compromise’ and we are incredibly true to that. Other companies look at us and think that we’re crazy. 

Lightning Round

  • Fork or spoon? Spoon
  • Most used knife in your kitchen? A prototype of the first STEELPORT. It’s not as pretty as what we are making now, but it’s well-used.
  • Favorite dish to cook? I don’t think there’s anything as good as hummus.
  • Favorite spice? I hate to stay on-brand so much, but it’s za’atar.
  • Coffee order? Italiano