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Shea Stackhouse and his sword (Photo: Sylive Whinray).
Shea Stackhouse and his sword (Photo: Sylive Whinray).

PartnersJanuary 27, 2019

Sharp objects: A lesson in the fine art of knife-making

Shea Stackhouse and his sword (Photo: Sylive Whinray).
Shea Stackhouse and his sword (Photo: Sylive Whinray).

Catherine Woulfe spends a day at the Auckland Blade Show, a celebration of knives of all kinds.

This story originally ran in Barker’s 1972 magazine.

To make pasta you force a lump of egg and flour flat, fold it back on itself, force it flat, fold. Maybe half a dozen times.

Making Damascus steel is the super-heated, marathon version of that process. We’re talking hundreds of layers, days and days of work. And because you start with steels of slightly different shades, a pattern emerges. The resulting blades look like slivers of ocean. To see them is to covet them.

Damascus is everywhere at the Auckland Blade Show, held in the Parnell Community Centre one weekend in October last year. So is denim, and camo print. Men who spend most of their spare time hunkered in a workshop have pulled on their best jeans, wrapped up their keenest blades, and come to swap yarns and advice. Their arms have patches of stubble; they’ve been testing their edges.

Sunshine slides down the long blades of $1500 chef’s knives, hops and jumps across hunters and folders and the occasional sword. It sinks into leather sheaths and handles of wood and bone.

Raw Damascus steel (Photo: Sylvie Whinray)

This is the first Blade Show since 2006, and organiser Brent Sandow hopes its resurrection will gird the knife-making scene in New Zealand, itself in resurgence. Eventually Sandow would like to set up a guild – a watchdog to make sure standards stay high. The quality on show today is exceptional, he says, but new ‘makers’ are popping up all over. It’s not a cheap hobby, but the knives look terrific on Instagram, and YouTube is stuffed with how-to clips.

For Sandow, part of the appeal is that handcrafted knives endure: in 500 years, someone will pick up one of his blades and see his name etched on it.

And steel seems to lend itself to obsession.

“It’s a very, very deep hole to fall into,” says Uta Alexander. He’s from Patea – ‘Poi E’ country, as his wife Grace puts it – and sells his knives under the name Zander Blades.

“I was in the New Zealand army and just buying off-the-shelf knives which weren’t cutting it,” he says. “The edge would never hold up, it was never well made.”

He likes to work with premium-grade stainless steel. Why? Well. Every so often he’ll snap a piece and examine the grain structure inside.

“What we’ve found is that the kind of stainless steels that we use have got a very fine, pearly grain structure… It looks very smooth, kind of silky. We accidentally snapped a Stevens knife and it was like sand, it was just so coarse.

“No wonder they don’t hold their edge.”

Traditionally Damascus steel is made from carbon steel, which rusts unless it’s well cared-for. Uta’s just conjured a Damascus blade from premium stainless and put it through three months of everyday use in his kitchen. Didn’t need sharpening once.

“I mean, that’s like, it’ll shave [hairs off an arm] after three months.”

Cool but my Briscoes knives have gone three years without being sharpened, I tell him.

“In general, people tolerate a dull edge,” says Grace. Burn.

Uta: “A dull knife is actually far more dangerous than a sharp one.” He mimes knife versus pumpkin. “Pressure… more pressure… gone.”

Speaking of sharp. The daggers on the table of Peter Parkinson seem to emanate their own light. Thin and mean – and beautiful, utterly beautiful. 

They’re replicas of the Fairbairn-Sykes British commando dagger. The finest anywhere in the world, adds Sandow. The two work on these daggers together.

From start to finish each dagger takes about eight to 10 weeks; Parkinson spends two weeks simply polishing the blade.

These knives are bound for display cases, and mostly sell to collectors overseas. But they’re designed to slip between ribs. Per one of the original designers, William Ewart Fairbairn:

“It is essential that the blade have a sharp stabbing point and good cutting edges, because an artery torn through (as against a clean cut) tends to contract and stop the bleeding. If a main artery is cleanly severed, the wounded man will quickly lose consciousness and die.”

Steel (Photo: Sylvie Whinray).

Tip: when someone hands a knife to you, always point the blade up. “Especially if you get given a sword,” says Shea Stackhouse, of Wellington’s Stackhouse Knives. Also, if you’re having a nosy at a knife, it’s terrible etiquette to touch the blade with your hands.

Not because anyone’s particularly worried about your hand.

“You’ve got very corrosive acids on your skin that can cause the blade to rust.”

Stackhouse started making knives in a blacksmith studio at art school when he was 16. Now in his 20s, he has his own workshop in Wellington, and has sold roughly 1000 knives, for anything from a couple of hundred dollars to well over $1000. His wife Lena carves the handles – she likes to use insect anatomy as inspiration – and they teach knife-making courses.

People say: “‘Oh no, I’m not creative, oh I don’t do that.’ It’s like, ‘Here’s a piece of steel and

you can hammer it’ and they’re like, ‘Oh man, I love this!’”

Come for the craftsmanship, stay for the characters.

“I certainly view the world as a bad place getting worse,” Stephen Little says. He’s here with an importer called Knives for Africa. He’s heavily into knives. He’s also a prepper, as in preparing for the apocalypse.

What knives has he… prepared?

He snorts. “I’ve got 300, so it’s not like I don’t have enough. And that’s just knives. I’ve got everything else as well, so.”

Everything else?

He pauses. “You know. Crossbows. Bows. Guns.”

He shows me pictures on his tablet. To shoot his knife collection he arranged the blades on a pool table. He had to do it in three batches. The fourth photo is a spread of weapons. It looks like he’s looted the Batcave.

Holy shit, I say. Oh my God. He laughs. It was studying business ethics that put him in the prepping frame of mind. “Through that I started to look at what was happening in the world, and studying the damage, desertification…”

Little grew up shooting rabbits and possums with 22’s. His grandfather worked at the Patea freezing works, hence the knives.

“All my years in Scouts mean I know how to camp, know how to live in the wild, know how to…”

He trails off, looks at the knives.

Dispatch a pig?


Moving on.

I come to a table dominated by knives thick and brutish.

Fighting knives, Nik Wilson tells me. He’s from Westland. The knives are fully functional, he says, hardened and tempered, based on designs from the American South.

“I’m not a redneck.”

You’re allowed to be, I say.

“I’m not a redneck,” he repeats. “But they’re my bread and butter.”

Nik Wilson (Photo: Sylvie Whinray).

Wilson prefers the kitchen knives: he picks up a long, glossy blade with a handle of pounamu, turns it to the light. That’s his idea of a knife. He strokes the mānuka burl handle of a perfect, tiny “everything knife”; shows me the intricate patterns he’s pressed into copper handles. But those crude, heavy fighting knives are the ones that sell. He made six of them last summer and a tourist cleaned out his entire stock: about a dozen all up; worth about $5000. All winter he worked, making more.

“I kept thinking, well, they’re selling, you’ve got to keep making them…”

Wilson hasn’t been around this many people in years. “It’s just like, holy moly…”

That beautiful chef’s knife trembles in his hand.

“Oh, did you notice that I shake a bit? I’m on high doses of medications eh, so yeah I do shake a bit sometimes.”

You okay?

“Yeah, yeah. I’m good as gold. Yeah.” Not really. It happened about 10 years ago, down the mines.

“We were all lifting this big beam up and I was on the end of it, trying to put the bolt in, and the guys down the far end of it couldn’t hold it up any longer. They dropped it and it caught me in the neck and shoulder.”

He’s still in pain. Does he miss working with his mates? Oh yeah, he says, emphatically. “It’s good that you noticed that, because [knife making] is probably too solitary, eh.” Wilson was in hospital when the Pike River Mine blew, killing seven of his workmates. His mates.

I’m sorry.

“Oh, no. S’alright.”

He’d been planning to jump ship to Pike – liked the idea of all the nice new machinery.

“But anyway, this is what I do instead and I think it’s way better. There’s no windows down a coal mine, eh. You can’t put an aerial up on your radio or nothing. We were six k’s down. Six k’s.”

He’s on a sickness benefit, and spends a couple of hours a day in the workshop. He sells his knives at the i-Site information centre in Greymouth, near the railway station. Nabs the tourists. But enough about knives. Nik wants to know, have I done the TranzAlpine, the train through the Southern Alps?

“It’s awesome, eh,” he says. “It’s pretty cool in the winter, with all the snow. But in the summer, there’s wild lupins everywhere, just massive fields of lupins, eh, all in flower.”

He gives the smallest shake of his head. “Stunning, eh.”

This content was created in paid partnership with Barkers. Learn more about our partnerships here

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