Words Josephine Grever
Photography Fred MacGregor
It is Friday morning. As you near the railway arches under Peckham Rye station in South East London, you hear the rumble of trains overhead. To this, as you walk towards the end of the lane, is added a clanging and hammering — the unmistakable sound of steel being beaten. It comes from the Blenheim Forge — a workshop, tucked away in a corner, that produces hand-forged kitchen knives for a growing number of connoisseurs, many of them chefs in the restaurants of this once run-down and increasingly trendy neighbourhood.
Inside there is dust, black soot and an abundance of metal. The forge fire glows. A bearded young man, in a heavy-duty apron and gloves, is stoking the flames. It seems a mythical scene: the Greek god Prometheus stealing fire from Olympus to give to us ordinary mortals. But the Blenheim Forge is very, very now. It represents the best of contemporary Britain: young people coming out of art and design college with a passion for ancient craftsmanship and a single-minded determination to renew it.
“It takes a lot of effort to make a perfect knife,” says Jon Warshawsky. Jon and his friends James Ross-Harris and Richard Warner make up Blenheim’s team of three young bladesmiths. All three met at the renowned Goldsmiths’ College in South London. After a few years of experimenting and — in Richard’s case — travelling, they established their business three years ago and now produce two types of blades: pattern-welded blades (known as Damascus steel) and triple-layer laminated blades.
“Damascus blades are knives from two types of steel that are fused together repeatedly to create a single billet that is composed of multiple layers of steel,” Warshawsky explains. “The triple-layer blades are made from a layer of Hitachi blue paper steel.” The latter — imported from Japan, bought in Germany — is considered by knife-makers to be superior to other steels. “It has a very fine grain structure and a lack of impurities.” It is also expensive. “A 1-inch-by-25-inch sheet costs 25 euros. But it does make a massive difference.”
Blue paper steel, one learns, is harder to work with, but produces a nicer edge and is easier to sharpen. At the moment the team is in the process of making a Damascus blade: two types of steel — one harder, another tougher — are stacked up and welded together in a blazing forge, its fire fuelled by a mixture of coke and charcoal to ensure minimal oxidation of the steel, to an incredibly high temperature of over 1,000°C. The lengthened billet is then cut into smaller pieces that are stacked and welded again. “The shape of the blade is formed by hammering it on an iron anvil and refining its profile with an angle grinder until it is thin enough to have a cutting edge,” Warshawsky explains. Hardening the knife involves heating the metal to a lower temperature around 750°C and cooling it quickly by dowsing it in oil. Hammering and grinding are repeated over and over again. The blade is finished on a rotating stone kept wet with a constant spray of water. Then it is the turn of a belt-sander, using increasingly fine grades of sandpaper. After that, the back of the blade — known as the tang — is inserted into a single piece of wood that has been shaped into a smooth handle. Finally, the blade is sharpened on fine-grit Japanese water stones.
“The quality of steel, the blade, the balance and the handle — everything has to be just right,” Warshawsky says. The four essential kitchen knives, he adds, are a cook’s knife for general chopping, a small vegetable knife for fiddly cutting and peeling, a carving knife and a bread knife. And merely being sharp is not enough. “The blade has to be the right size for the job.”
Looking after their knives is an important part of the work. The advice is to dry a knife immediately after use. “If you leave them wet they rust. Even with these precautions, a patina will form over time. This is a good thing, as it will protect the knife from further rust.” How else should their knives be properly looked after? “Never put them in the dishwasher. Oil them occasionally. Sharpen them once a month. They need more care than standard knives, but they will last you a lifetime.”
“We prefer to work slowly and carefully and have deliberately avoided automating any part of the process,” the Blenheim Forge website specifies. Some of their kitchen knives can take up to 40 hours of work to make, depending on the blade. Their most expensive knife for slicing through meat, fish and vegetables is forged from over 300 layers of pure nickel and iron with a blue paper steel core and costs a hefty 550 euros. But it is easy to understand why so many customers are building up collections of Blenheim knives and are coming back to the workshop again and again. Hand-crafted objects have a dignity, a richness, that machine-made products just don’t have. “More a Formula One car than a truck,” smiles Warshawsky. “That is why we insist on completing the entire production process in our workshop. We can honestly say we do what we do from beginning to end. Our knives are a hundred per cent handmade in Peckham.”