Walpole Editorial | The Value of Craftsmanship Part 1: Blenheim Forge by Lisa Grainger

“It’s like being a cook. Each blacksmith has their own recipe, and you just have to keep at it until it works.”

Craftsmanship is at the heart of most iconic British brands – whether that’s engineering a car engine, sewing a handbag or knitting a cashmere cardigan. In the first of a monthly series highlighting local makers, Times LUXX’ Lisa Grainger visits Peckham to meet the young blacksmiths whose hand-forged knives are in the hands of some of the world’s finest chefs.

It says a lot about Blenheim Forge that the knife supremo Tim Hayward mentions them in the same sentence as German giants such as Wüsthof and the Shokunin sword-masters of Japan. Their elevated position is even more impressive given that ten years ago the three founders of the Peckham-based forge had never made a knife between them.

James Ross-Harris (a design engineer), Richard Warner (a machine engineer) and Jon Warshawsky (a philosophy graduate) had made other things in the back garden of the house they shared – including a meat smoker and a hot tub. But to James and Jon, Damascus knives, whose blades are adorned with intricate patterns, were “the holy grail” of strength and beauty.

So, with the aid of YouTube videos, the pair started to experiment with a makeshift coal furnace, using coal and a leaf blower. They read about sword-making in Damascus in the Middle Ages. They cut their hands and burnt their fingers. And after two years, with the aid of Richard’s machine-making skills, they finally figured out the ideal temperature to heat the furnace to (2,000C), the perfect steel to use for the core (high-carbon Japanese blue-blade) and how many times they had to combine the steel with other metals to get the perfect mix (between 300 and 400), before beating it into shape.

“It’s like being a cook,” says James. “Each blacksmith has their own recipe, and you just have to keep at it until it works.”

When I visit their London workshop, it is exactly seven years since the three thirtysomething founders of Blenheim Forge sold their first knife, and started their journey to become the (dirty, fire-and-grease-stained) darlings of chefs around the world, ranging from Francis Mallman in Argentina and Nuno Mendes in Portugal to Gordon Ramsay, whose set of 24 hand-made knives adorn a wall of his restaurant Lucky Cat.

Since those early days, James says, they’ve learnt not only about making knives but the ways that chefs use them. Today, the trio can forge just about any kind of tool a chef might dream of: very fine, long blades for Secret Smokehouse in London Fields (to slice whole fillets of smoked salmon); blades with rough tops at Atari-ya Japanese restaurant (to prevent the chef’s fingers from slipping as he cuts raw fish); long-handled tongs and paddles for Brat in Shoreditch (to cook on fires with). They’ve also come to understand how tiny design alterations can make a chef’s day: how little indentations in a blade can make cutting ham easier, for instance “as it lessens resistance”, or why a good fish knife needs to be thick enough at the base to cut through bones but fine enough at the tip to fillet delicate flesh.

Today, having grown to a team of seven, Blenheim Forge can make 50 knives a week, and 20 specialty knives a month, depending on the size and complexity of each. Their bespoke, specialty knives take the longest – some take 20 hours to complete – and their biggest project is one on which they are currently working: making a 24-piece “megaset” with silver ferrules and 5,000-year-old bog-oak handles for a left-handed Swiss client. They can’t take on too many projects like that, James says. “There are only three of us – and a big commission is a lot of pressure. I think restaurant owners who come here to buy knives for their top chefs are often shocked we’re such a tiny team.”

As well as selling online, to clients from Japan to Scandinavia, they’ve recently created a showroom in a neighbouring railway arch from which they’ll sell their most popular knives, ranging from a small paring knife (£190) and an eight-inch Santoku (£275) to a set of four kitchen essentials in a handmade leather roll (£1,320). While the shapes of the basic knives are standard, each has its own individual striations, patterns and pittings: the result of the way different metals have been melded, then beaten, then ground; the British wood that’s been used for the handle (from elm and walnut to oak); and the artistry of the craftsman who has made it.

Even after ten years, they’re all still learning and experimenting, James says, and release their more unusual individual pieces to fans on the first Tuesday of every month. The most difficult, he says, are the single long bevelled knives popular with fishmongers, which are concave on one side and convex on the other. “If you master those, then you’ve more or less nailed the craft.” As he undoubtedly has.

Blenheimforge.co.uk
Editorial 20/05/2021
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