People often talk about a light bulb moment. Mine was more of a blinding rabbit in the headlights occurrence. From the moment, I first encountered freehand knife bevelling in a centuries old knife making workshop in Sakai, Japan, I was stunned - and I was a changed man.
It was 1993 and I had never known anything like it. Prior to that moment in time, I had always believed in the advancement of technology - of the utility and efficiency of using milling machines and jigs. All nicely aligned. All neatly measured.
But in the dim light of the workshop that morning, I saw another side to knife making. One that was freer and more organic; hands working in tune with the materials they formed; a tradition almost as old as the act of making tools itself. It was free, unrestrained and it felt as if anything could go wrong. I was immediately hooked.
In comparison to the tight mechanical restraint of the world I was used to, this was like a wilderness waiting to be explored. It was a celebration of centuries of tradition and a slower advancement of civilisation and society.
In front of me, amongst the clamour and regiment of the sound of hammers striking newly forged steel, was a Japanese master knife maker, turning out blade after blade on what seemed to me, the most basic of tools.
Body locked in position beside a large 60 inch mud wheel, he seamlessly applied bevel after bevel; passing them through without as much as a second glance. Experience and muscle memory had taught him when he had the blade right. His precision was consummate.
To say this experience stopped me in my tracks would be an understatement. I did a complete 180. Here there was no need for the cumbersome setting up and realigning of jigs every time you wanted to grind the alternative side of a blade. It was liberating … and it was infinitely faster.
The soft whish-whishing of that watery wheel would see up to 40 to 50 kitchen knife blades made that day. It was a skill I wanted to learn.
Flash forward three decades and I am still in awe and reverence of the skills I was privileged to learn and invited to participate in in that workshop. It is an honour for which I will be forever grateful.
Japanese knife makers don’t just make knives, they make functional works of art. The beauty and symmetry of a Japanese knife or sword is masterful. I am still trying my best to put into practice what I have learnt and, being from Western origins, my own background also naturally fuses into my work.
I do still have a jig in my workshop but it sits in a corner and gathers dust. I keep it ‘just in case’ but those ‘just in case’ instances never seem to crop up. I think it is more a reference to the past within me than a nod to my current processes. Still, like an old hoarder, it is something that I haven’t given away, even though I never use it.
To freehand bevel takes time to learn. You have to feel the steel heating up under your fingers and the drag of the blade on the grinding belt as the angle of the bevel becomes more acute.
You smell the metal as it warms and listen for the tone of the grind to change as the steel gets thinner and hotter - constantly cooling the knife when it gets too hot to hold, knowing that the point at which you can no longer hold it is far below the degree that the blade was tempered at.
As the belts get finer, you need to watch for the colour changes on the edge of the knife. With a jig, you are always one step removed from this organic process. And you can’t feel the steel heat up in your grasp with gloves on either!
Making knives in a freehand fashion is a dive into the physical senses and every day is both different and the same as the day before - such is the paradox of handcrafting knives.
Every knife is unique, with its own sense of being - and try as you might, you can never replicate exactly, a previous version of a certain model. That is both the beauty and the challenge of making a knife by hand.
Depending on what the knife will be used for, there are a myriad of decisions around steel types and thicknesses, forging processes, the design and shape of the blade and the bevel grind (will it be optimally functional for what it is designed to do?) … tempering, how long does it need, is more than one tempering cycle necessary - and at what temperature?
Grind angles and types, plunge lines, length of blade and handle, types of blade finish, degrees of Rockwell hardness; they all make a difference to the experience of using the knife. And the list goes on…
The biggest challenge when applying bevels, however, is to make sure that you don’t overheat the blade after tempering. Do that and your hard tough edge is lost; soft and good for nothing but swatting flies, you will have to do it all again.
Freehand bevelling a knife is a very physical process without any barriers. It is just you and the steel. You have to ‘feel it’ into existence. It takes time to learn but it is worth it. It’s the kind of gig where all of your senses are connected.
For me it is the same as hunting or fishing. It has a time honoured lineage. It’s very sensory-oriented and it has its own form of authenticity. It is about honouring the process. Eventually, when everything falls into line, you just know and it flows.
But lots of things can go wrong and you have to be very aware of the process. Being aware and trusting your instincts in the workshop is just as important as relying on your wits and knowledge when you are on the sea or in the bush. Everything is connected and it is only time and practice that teaches you when to ‘go’ and when to ‘woah’.
Awareness is cultivated over time but the overarching drive is toward synthesis and a form of oneness with your process and the environment.
It is honesty wrapped into an action or series of actions. It allows an exploration of the world at a different level and that for me is perfect; a life of continual learning and connection; a life less restrained.
Bevelling freehand offers me just that.