Words: Jess Graves | Principal photography by Kristin Karch with additional photos by Caroline Fontenot
Kimball House co-owner Bryan Rackley shucks literally thousands of oysters a month, but he couldn't seem to find a good-looking oyster knife that actually worked. Enter Heartwood Forge's Will Manning: master craftsman and fellow obsessive. After an exhaustive collaborative process, they've come up with the KH-850: perhaps (finally) the world's most perfect oyster shucker.
Will Manning makes knives. Really nice, really cool, really beautiful knives. He's got a little workshop outside of Athens, Georgia where he makes said knives, a business he began after a stint working with sheet metal in his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida when he was a student at both Leon High School and Florida State University. The collegiate tinkering eventually escalated into full-blown passion, and Will decided to get serious about becoming a master craftsman. He continued his studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design and eventually caught the attention of the Florida Artist Blacksmith Association, who sent him to North Carolina on their dime so Will could hone his tool making skills.
Around then, he spent time working as the resident blacksmith at Mission San Luis, a historic Spanish and Apalachee Indian Settlement in Tallahassee which operates as if it were still the year 1703. Living nearby was a pretty fellow Leon High School graduate named Lee who caught Will's eye and eventually became his wife. It was in her kitchen where the pair conceived Heartwood Forge's first knives.
All of Heartwood Forge's knives are made from reclaimed materials, but one would never guess by glancing at the finished product. They are smooth, ergonomic and deeply thought out, tenants of craftsmanship which caught the eye of Kimball House Co-Owner and renowned oyster expert Bryan Rackley.
Bryan grew up nearby Tallahassee in Valdosta, Georgia. "Close enough to gulf beaches, so we would sometimes vacation there" He says. "I ate my first oyster there when I was five, but Dad says I liked them earlier than that."
He moved to Atlanta where he got an English degree from Georgia State University, "which promptly landed me working in a coffee shop right after graduation" He laughs. From there, he began working at the Decatur, Georgia institution Brickstore Pub, where he stayed for 10 years.
The final 5 of those 10 were spent in some mode of planning–Bryan and a few co-workers knew they wanted to open their own spot. "Apparently you need not only money but collateral for that type of stuff" He says, joking. "Banks want these business plan things too, so it took a long time for us to piece all of that stuff together."
Eventually, the idea bore fruit and Kimball House opened its doors to immediate critical praise. Wildly popular, it is noted for its cocktails and an inventive seasonal menu, but praise for the restaurant's oyster program (led by Bryan) is rarely omitted from the same breath. It is this writer's opinion the raw bar at Kimball House is arguably the best in the Southeast, and almost definitely one of the best in the country.
Jess Graves: So how did you two cross paths and get this whole thing started?
Bryan Rackley: Heavy in the coincidence department ... I have more than the normal dude's share of oyster knives. From antique, to cheap and synthetic, to several of the modern craftsman knives that have been popping up over the last few years. Most of them them have been gifts, which is awesome because there's a cool little personal side of each knife. The problem I discovered was that I never really loved the way the modern "artisan" knives performed. (I'm not totally picking on artisan. Just couldn't think of a better word). I just thought it would be so cool to sort of find a middle ground between the sexy knives that perform moderately and the fifteen dollar knives with plastic handles that are actually great for shucking. I'm not saying those other knives aren't brilliantly made, but I just couldn't find one that was ideal for shucking kinda fast and shucking multiple species of oyster from various locations. So I set out to find someone that could help me get to the marriage of fashion and function in an oyster knife.
Will Manning: Bryan and my meeting dates back to the beginning of the madness that continues to stem from Garden & Gun's Made in the South Awards [in which Will as a runner up in 2014]. Though I didn't shake his hand until much later, his brother (who lives in Tallahassee) came to visit the shop before a UGA game after reading about my work ... He and his friends basically purchased every available knife in my house, including my wife's favorite little petty, right off our knife block. He also snagged one of my very early oyster shuckers to give to 'his brother, Bryan, who owns an oyster house in Atlanta and has shuckers from all over.'
BR: One of my business partners had given me a Bloodroot oyster knife before we opened Kimball House. I thought it was so great looking, but it wasn't 'the one'. I sent Luke [of Bloodroot] an email to see if they'd like to collaborate and make something together, but they were just too tied up. They dropped Will's name and said Heartwood might be a good fit. Literally within days of that, I got a Heartwood oyster knife in the mail. My older brother (who lives in Tallahassee) had passed through Atlanta with his family and some friends and came into KH for dinner. [As Will said,] we showed them a great time and they went on to Athens for a football game the following day. He had heard of Will through someone and they decided to pitch in and get me one of his knives as a thank you gift... I know, it's a really nice gift. I've learned that if you give away caviar, nice shit will happen to you. So yeah anyways, I've at that point learned of Will's company and then had one of his knives magically appear at my door within days of each other. Pretty weird/cool right? Again, however, cool knife ... but for me it wasn't Excalibur, so I reached out to Will to see if he would be willing to work with me.
WM: There's a lot that goes into making any hand tool, and though daunting, I knew that getting through the design process with Bryan would elevate my understanding of shucker particulars tenfold. I jumped on the opportunity.
JG: Bryan, I know you said you've collected quite a few knives that haven't made you one hundred percent happy, can you explain the particulars of what makes a shucker useful to you?
BR: Most of the mental work was focused on finding the blade shape and size that would be as close to perfect as possible. The blade length [on the shucker Will and I collaborated on] is perfect for agility and leverage. You want to be able to pop a hinge without too much muscle and you need leverage to do that. The blade is also thick enough to not have to worry about it breaking. And the width is spot on to make a quick and clean cut of the adductor muscle without roughing up the mantle or scrambling the underside of the belly. Too wide is bad for speed and clean shucking in my book.
WM: He brought shuckers [to my workshop] from every southern knife maker who has ever make an oyster shucker, including Bloodroot Blades' early attempts, Chris William's monumental Edisto, and many others. For each one, including my early shucker, he had critical feedback. Too heavy. Too short. To fat. Dull. Uncomfortable. Too rustic looking. Pretty, but useless. I knew he was going to be difficult to please. Even for the mass-produced shuckers that are accepted as the gold standard for usability, he offered critique.
JG: Will, don't shuckers carry kind of a stigma in your line of work?
WM: Lots of knife makers stay away from shuckers. They have a highfalutin' aura to them that knife nuts tend to think reeks of overpriced steel. Yes, there's not nearly as much edge geometry going on in a shucker as there is in a chef's knife, but try to pry open an oyster with your super thin Gyuto and you'll be wishing you had a shucker to subject to that kind of abuse. I think another reason knife makers stay away form shuckers is that it's too much of a test on their heat treating ability. The unseen science of metallurgy is tested every time an oyster is shucked. The maximum amount of pressure is exerted and time after the time, the steel cannot bend or break. The moment it does, it has failed. There's not a lot to correct that. You can't grind out that bad part, re-sharpen and be on your way. It's basically catastrophic, and I think that puts people's abilities (and asses) on the line in a very black and white way.
JG: Tell me more about the collaborative process that eventually arrived y'all at the finished product.
BR: The easiest thing ever. We exchanged a lot of emails about what I was looking for and I took a field trip to visit Will's workshop. We scheduled a partner's meeting in Athens and popped in with knives and oysters so I could visibly show Will some pros and cons of different knife styles.
WM: He's got the Kimball House posse, riding four-deep. On a cold February or March morning, 9 AM, we jump right in. Tasting varieties of oysters I've only ever seen on the menu of 5&10 [restaurant in Athens]. I got schooled multiple times. First, on my shucking ability, second, on my ability to down tons of oysters for breakfast. Through my time working with Bryan, that became more routine as we'd visit and I'd be left with delightful Penobscot Bay Oysters (from my birth state, Maine - I was born in Harpswell, a small fishing/lobster village, 45 minutes north of Portland) and other, more exotic-looking and tasting oysters from the Pacific North West. I tested shuckers he had for their various qualities that either appealed to or displeased Bryan.
BR: After Will made some prototypes, I went back [to his workshop] and we tried them out, talked pros and cons again. We had some more discussions and he sent completed prototypes at that point.
WM: The collaboration included several of those meetings. The first time, I got all the info I needed to begin prototyping. When he returned later, I had used all the info and samples provided to create three test shuckers. We immediately threw one out and proceeded to develop the idea of the other two. He liked the handle of one and the blade of another, ultimately. So I created that conglomerate shucker and let him use it for a while.
BR: We gave feedback after extensive use [of those prototypes] in high volume hours at Kimball House. Will tweaked the handle one last time, and we were in business.
WM: Bryan essentially served as the technical director yet gave me freedom to design it anyway I wanted. I enjoy working within some confines while still have creative freedom. He gave me feedback on it's performance while I refined some of the contours in the handle waist and shoulders. I got the heat treatment dialed in for the steel. We decided to go ultra thin on the blade and used some of the super Uddeholm band saw steel I source from the lumber milling industry. It cuts 4' oak trees in it's first life and I use it for many different knives here, and now the KH-850 shucker.
JG: Why the name KH-850?
WM: We settled on "KH-850" as a nod to Kimball House's expertise in the oyster world and to my home town, Tallahassee, Florida [area code 850] for being such an essential part of my tool making and oyster experiences. We're currently working with SMARRT in Franklin County, Florida so they can accept a portion of KH-850 proceeds towards their efforts to counteract what water wars between Georgia, Florida and Alabama have done to the Apalachicola Bay. The flow of water has essentially been cut off by Atlanta's continual sprawl. Throw the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on top, and you decimate the area's seafood heritage, which used to be vibrant. Currently, they are not a proper non-profit so they can't accept Heartwood Forge donations at this time, but we're continuing the conversation.
BR: I liked the idea of the knife having a sort of serial or I.D. number. Will really identifies with Tallahassee, and we both have a strong affinity for the history and culture of Apalachicola. KH is obviously for Kimball House. It's a nod to the two sides collaborating here and can hopefully be a dialogue starter for people in Georgia that don't know how fucked Apalachicola Bay is and how much trouble all the water stuff is causing for the people that fish those waters for a living.
You can order the KH-850 oyster shucker at heartwoodforge.com