Finding the edge in the artistry of knives

A love for Japanese martial arts-style Iaido led knifesmith Alan Kirkaldy from drawing swords to making them.

Well, he hasn’t actually got around to making an actual sword yet, but that was what inspired him to go into making knives. The Makhanda resident has over the years made about 50 knives from scratch, finishing them by hand and even making the handles.

To feed his curiosity about the art of knife-making, Kirkaldy began by watching several YouTube videos, which were informative but not enough. Craving more information on his newfound hobby, Kirkaldyfound out about a knife-making course offered by the only master bladesmith in Africa at Heavin Forge, a bladesmithing studio and school located in Belfast in Mpumalanga. He attended a three-week course there where he not only learnt more about knife-making but also met other budding knifesmiths.

Now an experienced knifesmith himself, Kirkaldy said he loves the craft, mostly because of its stress relieving qualities.

“You can be completely wound up and completely stressed about something but the minute you get into your workshop and start hammering away at a piece of steel then you start to feel better almost immediately,” he said.

There are two types of knife-making. One is called stock removal, where a bar of steel is shaped through grinding away metal to shape a knife. A more ancient form of the art is bladesmithing, a branch of blacksmithing, in which steel is heated in a gas or coal forge before being shaped by being beaten with a hammer on an anvil. This also allows different steels to be combined through a process known as forge welding. The most famous of these is Damascus steel, which can have decorative patterns showing the different layers and colours of the steel. The knife is then ground or filed to its final shape.

Once the knife is shaped the steel must be hardened to ensure it holds an edge. This is achieved by heating it until red hot and plunging it into either oil or water to rapidly cool it. The blade must then go through a process called tempering to soften it slightly and prevent it from being too brittle.

Once the blade is complete, handles are made from many possible natural or synthetic materials, often with adornments such as carvings or protective guards, and fitted. Finally, a sheath is made to perfectly fit each knife.

Using a hammer, anvil and forge, Kirkaldy has over the years made a variety of different knives, which range from kitchen to hunting knives.

He is currently making a Sgian Dubh, a traditional Scottish knife worn with a kilt.

For Gonubie-based knifesmith William Farrel, a goldsmith by trade, knife making was inspired by a dual love of working with steel and blacksmithing.

“Knife-making means combining so many different things. There is the steel, copper, wood and leather, and for me it’s just fascinating to be able to combine all of those things and create something,” he said.

Farrel said one does not need all the equipment to get started – a small, simple workshop or a garage and some basic tools will do. A little bit of knowledge of machinery making or welding can help one to make one’s own equipment, which makes the hobby much cheaper.

Patience is one of the most valuable tools needed, which cannot be bought.

He explained: “There are some people who have made knives with only hand tools. It takes a long time, but it can be done. But generally speaking, you can’t go into your workshop and quickly make a knife. It takes quite a while. For me they end up being long-term projects.”

In two years, Farrel has made only about a dozen knives, two of which were sold.

His favourite is a bowie knife, a historical American style of knife made famous in the Wild West. The blades are usually thick, with a brass guard on the handle.

Barry Sahd – a full-time knifesmith with 20 years’ experience under his belt – lamented the lack of clubs or associations where like-minded individuals like himself can meet and share information.

It was this that inspired him to start a 34-member club, of which Kirkaldy and Farrel are members.

“I was desperate. I tried to find who else in East London was interested in making knives and I couldn’t find anyone,” Sahd said.

It was the manager of a local store selling abrasives and sand paper – tools knife makers use – who assisted in the club’s formation.

“He gave me the names of two people who buy sand paper, not knowing if they made knives or not. I phoned them and I said ‘I’m interested in starting a club and would you guys like to join?’ They both said ‘yes, that’s fantastic, thank you for doing this, we need something like this in East London because there’s a big need for it’.”

Other knifemakers heard about the club and came in their numbers. Sahd said there were members from all walks of life, including doctors, lawyers and insurance brokers. Both young and old are into knife-making, with the oldest club member being 65 years old.

Despite the huge interest, Sahd said they faced other challenges, one caused by a lack of local steel merchants selling knife steel.

Sahd said knife-makers sometimes struggle to find the correct steels locally.

“We also don’t get much exposure, unless we go to shows. It costs lots of money to go to shows,” he said.

“Then I thought, why don’t I host our own show, which we are doing this weekend. I know it’s a little bit cheeky because we’re a very young club but I’ve had a fantastic response so far.”

The Border Knifemakers Show takes place this Saturday at the Gonubie Hotel.

Knife-makers from across the country will be in attendance, with a live knife forging demonstration by a member of the South African Knifemakers Guild on the day.

A variety of handmade knives will be for sale.

Entry costs R50 for adults and R20 for children under the age of 13.

The event kicks off at 8.30am and runs until 4pm.