Oyster roasts rotate through the social calendars of South Carolinians until the last cold snaps before spring. These gatherings provide an opportunity to commune with friends and neighbors and to expand an existing network of acquaintances. As the first bushel of piping hot clusters is deposited on newsprint-covered tables, wafting clouds of salty steam through the darkness of night, several attendees may unsheathe personalized oyster knives with which to enjoy the seaborne harvest.
Personal oyster knives ought to be standard accoutrement for any proud South Carolinian — or for those wishing they were from here. For sanitary reasons, it seems far better to use a personal shucker than to rely on the cleanliness of a communal one from which the last person may have practically kissed the blade while slurping an oyster from its tip. Better hope it’s not an aggressive flu season. Additionally, using a mass-produced oyster shucker can be downright dangerous. Broken and bent blades are prolific with these inferior tools, and using one of them to pry at a particularly stubborn cluster of oysters could mean a trip to the emergency room. Using a personal oyster knife ameliorates these hazards in addition to alleviating some of the burden on hosts who must collect and clean communal knives.
After you have decided that an oyster knife stamped from a machine in an East Asian sweatshop simply won’t do, consider these thoughtful points. The blade of a well-tempered oyster knife should be sturdy enough to pry but not so thick it cannot fit between an oyster’s natural opening. Of course the blade ought not be too sharp, and the width of its handle should fit its owner where the second knuckle of the index finger and back of the thumb rest comfortably against the finger guard and thumb rest. Lastly, a personal oyster knife can be a conversation piece among friends sharing a table.
Philip Matthews of Duck and Strut Outdoors felt inspired to make his own oyster knife after pining for one from Williams Knife Company. “After admiring them for a while, I decided I wanted one, until I looked at the price tag. I did some research with some other competitors and decided this can’t be that hard,” Philip says. He purchased an angle grinder and steel blank to shape the blade and tang and then fashioned a curved handle from cocobolo wood, a naturally water-resistant South American wood from which he also makes duck calls. The finished product looked and felt as good as anything he ever wanted from another maker. Since then, Philip refined his process, creating custom made-to-order knives with leather sheaths. “I got my process down from 16 hours per knife to four, and I outsource the leather work to an artisan in North Carolina.”
Kennedy Bynum of Sumter forges oyster knives from railroad spikes. As a blacksmith, he bridges old world artisanship with new world projects, working mostly on larger scale custom and antique restoration pieces. He credits his father, Ed Bynum, for allowing him to chase his passion for blacksmithing. “I’m glad to be one of the few people still doing blacksmithing. It means less competition,” Kennedy jests.
After marking and cutting the railroad spike, he heats his forge to 1,900 degrees F and then twists the glowing metal to form a thick-handle grip, with the head of the spike at the end of the knife’s hilt. He then reheats the pointy tip of the railroad spike in his forge, and with a blacksmith’s hammer he pounds out the blade on his anvil. Kennedy then grinds and polishes the blade of his knife, which will outlast several generations. “I make a variety of custom knives, but the railroad spike knife has been my best seller. I’ve sold about 300 of those,” Kennedy says.
Though the plastic-handled shuckers work in a pinch, they pale in comparison to the craftsmanship of an artisan oyster knife. Investing in a bespoke oyster knife invites a conversation at the oyster table, and well-developed conversations sometimes lead to life-altering events.