November 23, 2012

At 84, Mainer gets handle on business of knives

His craft takes off with wood from Yarmouth's famous elm, Herbie.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

YARMOUTH -- Bruce Bohrmann's magic, after 50 years of honing, still flows from his fingertips.

click image to enlarge

Bruce Bohrmann fashions the handle of a knife in his Yarmouth workshop earlier this month. “I can start working on a blade and I can tell immediately if it’s going to love me or hate me,” Bohrmann said. “The steel talks to me, and I swear back at it.”

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Attention to detail and sense of place make Bohrmann Knives sought-after items.

Gabe Souza

Additional Photos Below

Cradling a hunk of hardwood, Bohrmann, 84, paused over a belt sander running at full speed and rubbed a thumb along the wood's grain. Bohrmann's seasoned senses detected a row of hairline score marks, barely visible to the naked eye, and in an instant, returned the work to the whirring belt.

In a few painstaking hours, a knife will emerge, a balance of gentle curves and elegant lines.

"This is the most exciting part," Bohrmann said. With a few flicks of his wrist over the belt sander, the handle's taper took shape.

"The knife is gradually evolving," he said. "Each one is a little different."

In the last two years, Bohrmann's hobby has exploded into a full-fledgled business.

The transformation began in 2010, when the town of Yarmouth removed its beloved 217-year-old elm tree, Herbie, the oldest American elm in New England. When the 110-footer finally succumbed to Dutch elm disease, its lumber was sold to area craftsmen, including Bohrmann. Soon, a limited-production "Herbie" knife was born, and so was a new interest in his craft.

"I got orders from all over the country, from ex-Mainers, ex-Yarmouth residents who wanted a piece of history," he said. "All hell broke loose. I almost panicked. I'm not organized at all."

He turned to SCORE, a network of more than 13,000 volunteer professionals who provide advice to small-business owners and entrepreneurs nationwide. When Bohrmann's commemorative knife took off, one local mentor, Skip Orem, was fascinated with Bohrmann's process.

"I got so enthralled by what he was doing, I said, 'I think I'll take this guy,' " said Orem, 83, of Harpswell, a former submariner and executive of a marine propulsion company.

Since the tree came down, Bohrmann has worked in his shop, grinding and shaping nearly full-time.

"One of the first questions Skip asked me was, 'Do you want to be rich, or do you want to make knives?' " Bohrmann said.

Bohrmann, who said he isn't "equipped mentally or physically" to be rich, chose the latter.

Though his business acumen was lacking, his craftsmanship was never in doubt, Orem said. The attention to detail and sense of place have made Bohrmann's creations sought-after items for knife collectors, sportsmen and history lovers. The knives reflect with their simplicity and toughness the mystique of Maine.

His new Heritage series will use wood harvested from the estates of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and other founding fathers.

"I do believe there is a pureness, a simplicity that I think appeals to a certain group of people," said Nancy Stronjy, 60, a second adviser from SCORE. "I call him a lifelong learner. He just wants to figure it out and sell more knives. I think that's unusual at any age."

Stronjy, a marketing professional from Cape Elizabeth and the chairwoman of the Portland chapter of SCORE, said Bohrmann's earnestness and attitude make him an unusually driven client.

His sense of his work also verges on ethereal.

"I can start working on a blade and I can tell immediately if it's going to love me or hate me," Bohrmann said. "The steel talks to me, and I swear back at it."

Knowing his craft was not enough, Bohrmann realized, so reaching out for help to sharpen his business sense was a natural next step.

"(He) realizes he is not trained in or particularly sophisticated in dealing with marketplaces," Orem said. "Individuals, yes. Marketplaces, no."

The Bohrmann Knives website has spread sales to more than 40 states and a host of international clients, including a Saudi prince, many European customers, and Harrods, the London luxury department store. In August, Bohrmann Knives was recognized as an outstanding business launched by someone 50 or older.

Still a student of his own business, Bohrmann has shown flickers of marketing genius, Stronjy said. Once, a woman was examining the blade she bought for her husband and dropped the knife; the hardened Swedish steel knicked her thigh. Now Bohrmann includes with each creation a Band-Aid branded with his antler logo.

"She said, 'I'd rather have a scar from a Bohrmann knife than a tattoo,' " Bohrmann said.

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Bruce Bohrmann sharpens a knife in his Yarmouth workshop earlier this month.

Gabe Souza

  


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