Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

Finer Points

Story by Hunter Haskins. Photo by Dana Edmunds.

You know that cool neighbor down the street with the hot tub and workshop in his garage? The one with the lathe, laser engraver and computerized milling machine? That’s Ken Onion of Kāne‘ohe, who uses those machines to make knives. And he’s extremely good at it: Onion is so far the youngest inductee to the Blade Magazine Hall of Fame. Knife users of all types—from divers to chefs—know his signature.

Onion spent his childhood on a West Virginia farm, fixing secondhand knives and tools. He joined the Marines to become an aircraft mechanic and was stationed at Kāne‘ohe Marine Corps Base. He apprenticed with the late Stan Fujisaka, a legendary knifemaker, who lived just three miles away.“Stan’s folding knives are butter-smooth when you open them,” Ken says. “My goal was to create a knife that opened smoother than Stan’s.” Inspiration struck when Onion was working on a Harley. “I was milling a cam. I kept repeating cam, cam, cam.” He worked thirty-six hours straight prototyping two cam-assisted opening mechanisms, then presented them to Fujisaka. One was beyond butter-smooth, and it became Onion’s first and most successful patent: SpeedSafe. Now, almost twenty years later, it’s still a bestseller.

When Onion broke his back in an industrial accident, designing knives got him through recovery. “Picture me in my shop using a walker,” he says. He is fully mobile now, and his shop is not just his workspace but an ūber man-cave with a barbecue, hot tub and knife-throwing lane. Plastic mock-ups of his new designs lie scattered around. Some of his newest pocketknives can be field-stripped, meaning they can be disassembled and reassembled for cleaning without tools. Onion creates about twelve new designs a year; in his spare time he’s vice president of Alaska’s Healing Hearts, a nonprofit that takes disabled veterans on excursions to fish, hunt and pan for gold.

To make knives, “You don’t have to be incredibly intelligent or well trained,” says Onion. “It’s a brain-set.” The custom knife community is exploding in variety due to computer-aided design tools and advanced composites. “In the knife world you have to stand out in a sea of silver blades and black handles,” says Onion. “I have to innovate with every design.”