Small artisan forges are creating cutting-edge culinary tools as Britain experiences a renaissance in bespoke knife-making.
Bearded men wield mighty hammers amid the silken glare of a roaring forge. Not a scene from a Viking epic, but a recent snapshot of daily life in a small workshop in Peckham, London SE15. British knife-making is cutting edge once more.
‘The steel we were producing hundreds of years ago was better than anything the Japanese could produce,’ says Jon Warshawsky, scotching the myth that centuries of Japanese sword-making expertise automatically makes them the world’s best. ‘Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese make some lovely knives. But so do we. And we’ve been doing it longer than they have.’
Indeed, he’s doing it right now, with a little help from his friends. Blenheim Forge was born in Peckham in 2012, where Jon works alongside James Ross-Harris and Richard Warner to create kitchen knives. The forge is among a niche group of British knife-makers winning back legions of chefs and home cooks who, until recently, have been more enamoured with Japanese and German blades.
Back in the late 19th century, British steel was the best in the world, led by the monster factories of Sheffield. Stainless steel was invented there in 1912 and the city became the epicentre of world production until the Second World War brought new technologies and market adjustments.
In recent times, innovation, smart design and old-fashioned hard work have been at the forefront of this quiet revolution, but serendipity has also played its part. ‘I decided to try and make my own knife one day as a side project,’ laughs Ben Edmonds, who was a graphic designer before Blok Knives was founded. ‘It wasn’t a work of art by any means, but I really enjoyed it.’ He points to a box in the corner of his little workshop in Derbyshire, which contains dozens of plain, unhandled blades.
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‘This is the knife graveyard,’ he explains. ‘There were hundreds of prototypes until I hit upon a design that I really liked and, one day, a bloke in the pub stopped me and said he wanted to buy one. I’d never thought of selling them, to be honest I just made some as gifts. My wife quoted him £150 and I thought she was mad. He pedalled off on his bike to the cash machine and came back with the money there and then. That was when we looked at each other and realised we might be onto something.’
The rise has been meteoric, with high-profile chefs such as Sat Bainsproprietor of a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Nottingham using Blok Knives and loving the fact that they’re supporting a British craftsman.
‘I’d been looking around for great steak knives for eight years and had almost decided on ones from France,’ explains Sat. ‘Then, I heard about Blok Knives, which is almost on my doorstep in Derby. I gave Ben a call and, for two years, he worked with us to create exactly what we wanted. The knives had to have that perfect weight and balance and to be comfortable in both a woman’s and a man’s hand. The wait was worth it and the result is a perfect meat knife that glides effortlessly as it cuts. We maintain them by whetstone and that gives us a feeling of connection to these unique blades.’
Owen Bush believes knife-making is part of our cultural heritage. As well as making Saxon-style blades for the modern kitchen, he also lets his imagination run wild. ‘I make axes, swords, daggers the sort of thing you might have wanted as an eight-year-old boy,’ he laughs. ‘I make weaponry for films, run knife-making classes and am an engineer and a coppersmith. My motto is “forging soul into steel”.’
Specialising in Damascus-steel blades which have an incredible pattern to their surface, reminiscent of eddying water Owen says knife-making has never been more popular. ‘It’s not cheap to buy one of these knives, but, for the work that goes into them, you’re getting real value. I’ll never make two identical knives, so you’re getting something unique that should last you a lifetime.’
Of course, you’ll need to look after your work of art if you want it to last a lifetime. It’s easy to make a grown (and often heavily tattooed and/or bearded) knife-maker cry: simply put one of their blades in the dishwasher.
For the necessary loving care, you’ll need a honing steel or, better yet, a sharpening stone. And take some advice on how to both realign and sharpen it’s not as easy as simply holding up a steel and swishing the blade across it a few times, as thousands of Sunday carvers do each week. Your knife-maker will know best.
Once you’ve taken the plunge and placed an order (these aren’t mass-produced items and each knife-
maker will have a waiting list), you’ll soon receive a tool to appreciate each and every time you use it. Even better, it will have been lovingly crafted by an artisan who pays homage to a great British tradition.