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Look sharp

There’s a type of knife culture that has nothing to do with violence. Emma Crichton-Miller explores the elemental pleasures of using the finest blades money can buy.

November 28 2011
Emma Crichton-Miller

A long time ago, holidaying in the green Aveyron, a boyfriend took me on a pilgrimage. We’d already visited enough Romanesque churches for a lifetime. This journey, up on to the wild plateau of l’Aubrac, south of the Auvergne, was to a different sacred spot: the village of Laguiole, origin of one of the most beautiful and efficient pocket knives ever made.

I had no idea that deep within the heart and sinews of every boy, however bookish or apparently devoted to the rule of law, lies a passion for blades. I had some idea that small boys coveted Swiss Army pen knives; indeed, I had one myself until it was confiscated by airline security, and very useful for opening wine bottles on trains I had found it. But this intense, visceral excitement about a potentially lethal sliver of steel caught me by surprise.

We spent some time in a shop poring over hundreds of examples. Each was a variant on the archetypal, palm-hugging, sleek shape, but because they were handmade according to the minutely different personal formulae of several blacksmiths, each was as appealing as an individual – in bone or horn or wood, with brass or steel bolsters, with the Shepherd’s cross picked out on the handle, and so on. Eventually, the perfect one was chosen.

I am now much older and wiser and realise that this boyfriend, far from being the exception, represented the rule. The mark of civilisation is not to have expunged all love of blades (indeed, the word culture is related to the Latin word for knife, cultr-, cultri-) but to have devoted much critical attention to the production, or purchase, of the best blades possible. And, of course, to the safe and appropriate use thereof. And this is what you find. Iwan Wirth, the president and co-owner of contemporary and modern art gallery, Hauser & Wirth, an epitome of Swiss sophistication, admits: “I love wood chopping and I have a collection of axes. An axe is only as good as its smith and while it is hard to name my favourite, I must say that the Gränsfors Bruks are among the best in the world. The surface shows the skill of the blacksmith and is marked with his initials. The blades are made of carbon steel and the harmony of shape, weight and length make the Gränsfors axes a pleasure [from £40].”

For blade aficionados, their subject falls into two categories: tool blades and fine blades. Stephen Barber, a group managing director of Pictet & Cie, the Swiss private bank, admits freely that he is “more of a tool-blade fetishist”. The fascination was acquired young, at his father’s side. He was particularly transfixed by the axe his father used that had been inherited from his own father, a watch-repairer. “It was a small hand-axe but it seemed hefty to me. Its hickory wood handle was dark with age; the blade was quite slim, and slightly splayed on the upper and lower edge – an ancient design even found on Stone Age axes. My father taught me how to split small pieces of wood with it.”

Now in possession of a large garden, Barber has discovered a whole world of axes: “I have short-, medium- and long-handled axes; I have slim chopping or hacking bladed axes; and I have log-splitting axes. These are my favourite.” According to him: “A large log-splitting axe must weigh 15lb to 20lb. Its head is at least two-inches thick and wedge-shaped; it tapers rapidly to its edge, giving it its splitting power. The handle is perhaps three-feet long.”

The skill required to wield it, as that famously outdoorsy president Theodore Roosevelt knew, is, once acquired, addictive. Barber is lyrical on the subject: “There is something elemental in the experience of splitting logs in a wild garden; there’s a sensual pleasure in striking a four-foot-long log, perhaps a foot in diameter, in precisely the right spot, swinging the axe through a perfect arc and feeling the steel wedge cleave apart the two halves exactly in two with an economy of effort.”

Barber suggests that the axe, with us for over a million years, is so simple a tool that almost any garden shop can provide a decent model. If you dare venture on to any axe-loving website, however, you hear a different story – and it’s all about the Swedes. It is not just their superior steel, but a culture of woodsmanship. See the Gränsfors Bruks website, for instance, and you are whisked away to a world of old-fashioned virtues. You’re invited to visit the over-100-year-old Gränsfors Bruks axe forge in Hälsingland, part of a thriving riverside artisanal community. There you can learn to chop wood, make fires in the woods, throw and even forge an axe.

Or, like Iwan Wirth, you can just order a beautifully made tool from Manufactum (Light Wood Chopper, £88; Hand Chopper, £70; Hunting Axe No1, £102; Cleaving Hammer, £111 – all made by Gränsfors). Alternatives include the Wetterlings range (available in the UK through Axminster and Rutlands – from £46 for a Wildlife Axe, from Rutlands, to £75 for a Splitting Maul from Axminster). Wetterlings assures me that if you wish to have a customised axe, you can contact its factory in Storvik directly. There are also the Hultafors hand-crafted axes, which are cult objects for bush-crafters. The Bushcraft Store lists a Gränsfors Small Forest Hunting Axe for £54, or you can buy a Hultafors Classic Forest Axe for £60 from Greenman Bushcraft.

Finally, if your imagination is kindled more by the Wild West than the mystic north, New York has its self-proclaimed Best Made Company, founded in 2009. Its first and most famous product is the American Felling Axe, painted “as a measure of respect for this tool and all that it represents”, made to order from $250; an unpainted version costs $158. A slightly smaller Special Edition Hudson Bay Axe (made “with canoeists and campers officially in mind”) is $135, or, slightly smaller again, is a make-it-yourself Axe Maker’s Kit for $140. The company retails only through Partners & Spade in New York, and Turpan in East Hampton and Santa Monica, but it will ship directly abroad.

There is a Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” But there is also cooking. And where once a carbon-steel Sabatier, or later a stainless-steel knife from German brands Henckels or Dreizack used to be the ultimate tool, now every ambitious chef wants a Japanese blade. It is undoubtedly the Samurai connection. I can’t count the times I’ve been hauled to the British Museum by my son for him to stand mesmerised by the exquisite ancient katana blades. I thought he showed a precocious interest in Oriental culture, but it was just the thrill of the edge that had caught him.

According to Jay Patel, owner of Japanese Knife Company in London: “Seventy per cent of my clients are men. These knives are the ultimate toys for boys.”

Patel set up his mail-order knife company in 1997 and now has four shops in London. He claims to supply and maintain knives to about 70 per cent of Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK. He had been lured to Japan by his own passion for knives. There he spent nearly 10 years, seven as an apprentice to one of the country’s master knife-makers, followed by two years with a master sharpener and almost a year learning to use knives – it takes 25 years to become a master. He worked in a village of 12 houses, each inhabited by a blacksmith. He now sources knives from over 50 suppliers – workshops, master blacksmiths or small factories – with prices ranging from £19 to £64,000. Knives in the beautiful Takayuki Damascus range, for example, have desert ironwood handles and hammer marks on the blades (£119-£269), while Takeshi Saji knives have stag-horn handles and gorgeous swirls caused by twisting the steel layers before hammering (£329-£2,200).

What makes Japanese knives different is the high carbon-steel content (between 1.1 and 3.5 per cent) layered in anything from three to 250 layers – the more folds of steel, the harder the knife. As I talk to Patel, a couple enter his tiny branch in Kensington Church Walk, looking for a present. He is a charismatic salesman. He slices tomatoes and onions into the finest dice without waste or tears. He says you only need two good kitchen knives to do all the jobs required. His shops offer lessons in sharpening, as well as a sharpening service.

Patel also stocks knives from the Laguiole area. Alongside authentic originals, with their manifold range of options, he sells his own line – produced by 15 blacksmiths working with Swedish steel from a workshop in l’Aubrac, making knives with a 1mm dip in the middle of the blade for better cutting. And this, after all, is what it is all about.

See also

Kitchen utensils