30 November, 2022, 10:25

Custom “Don Nguyen Knives” are a Hot Commodity Among Chefs, Locals & International Enthusiasts

One tearful onion-cutting session set this knife maker down the knifey path.

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives grinding a knife (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Don Nguyen of Don Nguyen Knives grinding a knife (Credit: Jackie Tran)

A well-crafted knife is a thing of beauty.

The materials, weight, balance, size, and comfort are only some of the factors important when searching for your ideal cutting companion.

And kitchen knives are a whole other beast.

Vail-based kitchen knife maker Don Nguyen, 25, originally wanted to design supercars. However, he had a painful experience at a friend’s house trying to cut an onion with a serrated knife. He tried to use his own santoku knife, but it also wasn’t nearly sharp enough.

After obsessing over-sharpening, he started to make his own knives.

Nguyen juggled his love for both fast cars and sharp knives. During college, he was the fabrication director for Wildcat Formula Racing, a student-driven design, build, and compete club that constructs a formula-style race car every year.

The handles on Don Nguyen Knives feature modern design and sharp angles reminiscent of fast cars, bringing a young spirit to an ancient craft that draws romanticized visions of old bladesmiths hammering away on katana-like knives.

Don’t mistake the sharp angles as a gimmicky aesthetic — the handles are still comfortable with a well-balanced blade.

Gyuto knife and paring knife from Don Nguyen Knives (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Gyuto knife and paring knife from Don Nguyen Knives (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Nguyen shared his work with other kitchen knife enthusiasts on the Kitchen Knife Forums, then word of mouth spread with websites such as Reddit. Nowadays, his reputation is growing through his Instagram account.

Even though Nguyen earned his bachelor’s degree in material sciences and engineering in May 2016 from the University of Arizona, he still committed to crafting knives full time.

Knives range from roughly $300 for smaller knives to around $800 for a chef’s knife. Ambitious custom projects can reach the $1,800 mark.

Though the knife making process is lengthy and expensive, Nguyen’s following of knife enthusiasts across the country allows him to maintain his craft.

“Most of the people who buy my knives aren’t even from Tucson,” Nguyen said. “I can’t even afford my own knives.”

Nguyen’s knife making process can be condensed into five steps. It starts with a rough shaping of the knife, followed by a heat treat. Next is finishing touches on the shape to get the geometry just right, then the handle is created. The final step is the sharpening process.

Each step requires a deep knowledge of topics such as metallurgy and wood-working. In addition, Nguyen often uses high carbon steels and woods such as curly koa, dyed maple, and redwood.

To see the knife creation process, visit Don Nguyen Knive’s gallery on Imgur.

February 14, 2019 Updates

Since this article was originally posted in 2017, Nguyen’s business has expanded significantly. He moved to (far) west Tucson, hired a full-time apprentice, and represented Tucson at the Damasteel Chef Invitational.

View this post on Instagram

Throwback but not really that long ago. I love this one, it holds a special place in my heart. It's just one of those pieces where I had an idea, drew it out, and executed it to that vision. Strangely enough most of my knives don't follow the original ideas and always evolve throughout the process. Thanks @cheflivengood for just being like "yeah make whatever you want". Shredded CF with extra gold by @composite_craft. @damasteelab Odin Heim pattern. Photo by @sharpbycoop . . . . . #donnguyenknives #makesomething #doitfortheprocess #thisistucson #tucson#cookstagram #truecooks #chefstalk #foodie #cookingwithlove #knifecommunity #ilovecooking #knifefanatics #knifenut #knifemaking #knifeporn #ilovecooking #kitchenknife #chef #chefknife #cheflife #culinary #chefsroll #customknives #knifecollector #homecook #discoveringchefs #chefknives #chefstalk #realfood

A post shared by Don Nguyen Knives, Tucson, AZ (@donnguyenknives) on

While Nguyen’s business initially attracted online customers from around the world, his local presence increased to the point. Now, he can be considered Tucson’s go-to person for a handcrafted kitchen knife. At Tucson Knife Fight 2018, this beaut was the prize:

Tucson. Knife. Fight. Grand. Finale. TONIGHT! The tournament between the local culinary scene is now at the climax. 16…

Posted by Don Nguyen on Monday, October 1, 2018

Nguyen also collaborated with chef Kyle Nottingham from Commoner & Co. for an oyster bar pop-up:

“In the past year, even just the past few months, I’ve improved my technical skills to take on more ornate projects, my efficiency to run a better business and make more knives, my reach to have connected so closely to the Tucson community as well as a wider spectrum across the world, and ultimately my mind to really focus on what’s important to me and strive for fulfillment in life,” Nguyen said. “I hope to be able to inspire others to step outside of their comfort zone to pursue a passion they may be thinking about.”

For more information, visit donnguyenknives.com.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com and his Instagram @jackie_tran_.