Made from maple wood, the Banjo Knife fits easily into the hand | photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty


Handcrafted oyster knives created by champion shucker find niche market

Jason Woodside is a lot of things: skate punk, oysterman, dishwasher, restaurateur, musician, champion oyster shucker, and now a knife maker. An oyster knife in particular, but a knife that brings all of Woodside’s past and interests into one beautiful little thing.

“So I started shucking in 1998, and then I did my first contest at Rodney’s Oyster House in 1999 in Toronto,” he said. “After that, I was pretty much hooked on shucking oysters. The whole culture of the shuckers and the competitions and the knives and everything was kind of like really cool to me. It was what I would have emulated from my skateboard heroes from the 70s and 80s. That’s what I saw. So right away that’s always what I wanted to be a part of. It was all kind of punk rock.”

Woodside calls his oyster knife the “Banjo.” He wanted an oyster knife that gave the user better control with less effort.

“Right from the very get-go, I realized that (the basic oyster knife) just didn’t work for me and I had to customize them in some way,” he said. “So at first it was just sharpening them and putting a rubber band around the handle, or flattening off a part of the handle for some grip. That’s the secret right there is that [by] flatten[ing] off a part of the handle you make the little bit of grip.

“So then when I decided on my handle, I wanted that flat feature. That’s why the handle looks like a skateboard wheel. It’s flat on two sides so you get all that torque.”

Jason Woodside, owner | photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Originally the blade was set in the centre, making it look like a miniature banjo, hence the name. But setting the blade off centre gave the user better control and even better torque. It no longer looked like a banjo (although it does look like the letter b), but the design was tight.

After getting hooked on shucking Woodside worked in other restaurants in Toronto including Oyster Boy on Queen West. He learned from other Islanders and Islanders-by-choice like Robert Pendergast, Rodney Clark, and John Bil. He eventually became a two-time Canadian Shucking champion.

The speed and control needed to be a champion shucker got Woodside thinking about how the shape of the actual blade affects those things. The short blade on the Banjo is the result.

“The reason that [it’s] short is because when you’re a beginner you get all kinds of control with a shorter blade,” he said. “The other thing is it’s pointy. It’s got just the right amount of pointy, because you want to wiggle it in between the material between the two shells, the umbra, a rubbery elastic material. So if you can wiggle in there like half a centimeter or more, then twisting and popping the two shells, it doesn’t even take any effort.

“It is safer to use because you don’t have to push as hard to wiggle it in between those two shells. And then we just go with that perfect shuck.”

Woodside works as an oysterman throughout the year at Atlantic Shellfish. He happened into this work because of his love of shucking. But he went back to school in the mid-2010s to study a completely different subject.

“In spring of 2016 I was in renewable energy school at Conestoga College in Ontario, because at this point I hadn’t worked in the oyster business for a while. I had been shucking oysters and stuff for years, but at this point I wasn’t immersed in it. I was tired of the stress of constantly being at events and shucking in contests and all that running the circuit. It’s a lot and I had taken a few years off.

“We had to do a project for ‘small business’ which was one of the courses in the program. And I just thought, ‘Okay, well I’ll do my oyster knife.’ I did it and the teacher said, ‘Forget solar you should be doing this.’ I kind of laughed but I started the business just last year so our one year anniversary is coming up.”

The business may have been incorporated a year ago but Woodside has been at this knife project for much longer.

“…it’s been a 10-year journey. I designed the Banjo 10 years ago. Through trial and error, I finally came up with the right recipe but I was only ever doing it for myself at the beginning. I just wanted a knife for me but then other people were like ‘hey, those are really good, I want some.’ It became a business.”

The passion Woodside has for the oyster business isn’t just for the rock-and-roll of shucking championships, it’s also the way something as simple and as ugly can be an object of fascination and something that brings people together, whether they are versed in the way of the oyster or not.

“It’s something I kind of always forget when I’m talking about oysters, which is that the act alone of shucking oysters can bring people together around food. When you go to a potluck or something and everyone brings something prepared or they bring something they’re just going to prepare quickly while they’re at the dinner party that’s fine.

“But as soon as that first person comes with some oysters and starts shucking, soon other people want to try it. Everyone’s going nuts for it, and then all of a sudden everyone’s in the kitchen together in one spot. It’s a funny way to bring a party together, I guess.”

Woodside hopes that his knife will help demystify oyster shucking. He feels that shucking should be a basic skill.

“This particular oyster knife fills a market. People want and need to know how to shuck oysters at home and feel safe about it and this is the knife that helps them to do that,” he said. “If you want people to eat more oysters, you have to give them the tools that make it safe to do so at home.”

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

View All Posts