Blade runners: the artisans revitalising the British knife industry

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Blade runners: the artisans revitalising the British knife industry
German and Japanese-made products dominate the UK knife market, but British artisans are fighting back with beautiful blades that have now become status symbols for top chefs

Who made your knife? It’s a question that’s becoming more and more common in top cheffing circles. For many chefs, mass produced blades no longer cut the mustard. They want something more rarefied and bespoke with a story behind it. And they increasingly want these razor-sharp totems to be British made.

Britain used to make its own kitchen knives but – in common with many other traditional homegrown manufacturing sectors – the industry petered out in the late 20th century. Until just a few years ago, a British made knife was a rare sight in kitchens with German and Japanese-made blades favoured by most chefs.

But a small group of artisans are starting to change that, enabled by a number of factors including an increased interest in British handmade products and the marketing power of the internet and social media. Notable new wave British knife makers include Derbyshire’s Blok, London’s Blenheim Forge, Wiltshire’s Savernake, and Ferraby and Stuart Mitchell, which are both located in Sheffield, but there are many others.

Ben Edmonds started out making knives in his cellar. “I saw a YouTube video of a dude making a knife and thought ‘that looks fun’”, he recalls. What started as a hobby has morphed into one of the UK artisan knife scene’s biggest success stories. Established five year’s ago, Derbyshire-based Blok Knives has an eight-month wait on work and a client list that includes two Michelin-starred Nottingham chef Sat Bains, for whom Edmonds recently made a bespoke range of steak knives and – surprisingly – some new tables.  

The stock removal technique

Blok’s knives are Western in terms of shape and weighting but are made with high-carbon, non-stainless steel. Edmonds does not forge his knives, preferring the stock removal technique whereby metal is removed from pieces of steel that have already been cut from a sheet to create the knife’s shape and edge.

“I believe that a knife needs to be as thin as possible,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if the blade is very sharp, if it’s too thick the knife will force apart the food rather than glide through.”

Blok knives have wooden handles and Edmonds even handcrafts the mosaic pins (what lay people would call rivets) that hold the handle and blade together. The result is highly covetable but Blok knives don’t come cheap – most pieces retail for around £300.

Edmonds does some custom work, allowing buyers to choose their preferred handles and blade finish alongside custom etching and engraving options. Blok also makes a handful of off-the-peg knives each week and sells them every Friday on a first-come, first-served basis.

By contrast, knives made by Blenheim Forge – a Peckham-based knifemaker held in similarly high-regard by knife aficionados – follow the Japanese school of design. This extends from the shape of the blades right through to the steel, with founders James Ross-Harris, Jon Warshawsky and Richard Warner using the lamination method to produce extremely hard blades that they say are easy to sharpen (Blenheim Forge also make Damascus knives, where steel is folded to create an effect that resembles oil on water).

Blenheim Forge’s knives – which are fully-forged using a hammer and an anvil – are comparable in price to Blok’s at around £300 a piece. Like Blok, the vast majority of that cost can be attributed to labour – the team only forges 10 or so knives a week and not all of them will be deemed good enough to sell.

High bar: Blenheim Forge makes 10 knives a week, and not all are good enough to sell

Focus on customisation

There’s less of a focus on customisation at Blenheim than at Blok – chefs after something a bit different are advised to simply turn up at the workshop where there are often some of the team’s more unusual creations laying around.

Ross-Harris is the only member of the trio with any experience of smithery prior to setting the company up four years ago. “I used to make high-end furniture,” he says. “I was drawn to knifemaking because I was already quite experienced in metalwork. I thought it would be similar and that there would be transferable skills. Actually it’s a very different process. You need to be extremely accurate. We’re still improving and learning.”

Blok Knives 28th Sept 2017 © Daniel Dytrych_03
The daily grind: Blok's knives have an eight month lead time

The railway arch-based business’s wait on commissioned work is about eight weeks. At the time of writing, it does have a small number of off-the-peg knives available, although the Christmas rush will almost certainly see them sell out.

Both Ross-Harris and Edmonds estimate that a third of their business comes from chefs, but they’re not necessarily using them at work. Non-stainless blades must be looked after carefully. They need to be washed straight away after each use, especially when working with acidic ingredients. Even with careful cleaning, a patina will gradually build on the blade.

“It’s a trade off. We believe non-stainless steel offers a much better edge, which is easier to keep sharp,” says Ross-Harris. “Don’t get me wrong, our knives will stand up to prolonged use in professional kitchens but to keep them in good nick you need to treat them well. They’re not cheap objects either. A lot of our chef customers don’t want to have something that expensive at work.”

“To be honest most of our chef customers have them as their special knives to use at home,” adds Edmonds. “A handmade knife takes a lot of looking after. They’re very precious. On the other hand we do have some chefs that put our knives through their paces.”

Stamped blade approach

Based just outside Marlborough, Savernake Knives eschews the fully-forged approach in favour of stainless steel stamped knives, a process that sees the blade ‘stamped’ or in this case cut out from a large sheet of stainless steel and then honed and heat-treated for durability. Stamped blades are normally associated with less expensive knives because the technique lends itself to mass production; forged knives are made from a single bar of steel that is heated and then pounded into shape.

But director Philip Shaw says that Savernake Knives are more than a match for their fully-forged counterparts. “It means we can use very high quality stainless steels. We use Swedish-made Sandvik, which is about as good as it gets. We don’t think chefs should be using knives made from non-stainless steel, they lose their edge too quickly and become rusty easily. Our knives have the potential to be lighter, too,” he says.

Technology plays a much bigger role at Savernake Knives. Founder Laurie Timpson uses 3D modelling to design his knives, cuts them out using a CNC milling machine and uses a specialist sharpening machine to give his knives a hollow ground edge (where a concave hollow is removed from both sides of the edge, producing a very sharp but very thin edge). “This results in a lighter blade. As you sharpen you’re going up through a thinner bit of metal than a flat ground knife, which means you don’t need to remove as much metal.” 

Savernake knife makers
Precision engineering: Savernake uses computer-controlled milling machines to make its knives

The pair’s high-tech processes allow them to offer a fully bespoke knife making service. Chefs can dictate the shape and the form of the blade, the weight of the knife and the design of the handle. The service includes a prototype that’s given to the buyer to work with for a couple of weeks.

“We came to the knife-making world with no pre-conceived ideas,” says Timpson. “Using CNC means we can create any form we want, accurate to hundredths of a millimetre. We would say that everyone else in the bespoke game is actually only customising, or approximating at best. We see ourselves like draughtsmen; we sketch and sketch until the customers are absolutely satisfied and only then do we ink up and do the final knife.”

A bespoke knife starts at £750 but the price point of Savernake’s off-the-peg knives is broadly comparable to Blenheim Forge and Blok with most larger knives priced a little under £300. Shaw and Timpson will soon launch a new Professional range of knives made with input from a number of high profile chefs including Phil Howard, Nigel Haworth and Emily Watkins.

Precision made blades

British handmade knives may look the business, but in performance terms do they really offer anything over the high-quality overseas-made blades that retail at roughly a third of the price? Ross-Harris believes they do. “They’re more precisely made. Machines have their limitations. Grinding by hand allows you to make a much thinner main bevel that will define how well a knife will sharpen over its lifetime,” he says. 

Despite Blok’s success, Edmonds is adamant that he won’t increase production (he employs just two other knife makers). However, Edmonds will soon launch a diffusion brand (of sorts) that will be machine ground in Sheffield before going to Blok’s workshop to have the handles put on, be sharpened and be thoroughly quality checked. Outsourcing the stock removal will halve the price of the knives, with a chef’s knife in the Blok Sheffield range expected to retail at around £150.

“I want to grow the brand but I don’t want to compromise what we’ve got going on here,” maintains Edmonds. “The handmade stuff needs to stay as it is or we’ll lose what makes it special.”

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