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A craft that predates written history
Knives... possibly the single most important advance in early human development after the discovery of fire and before the invention of the wheel.
The development of the knife... took man from being an ambiguous extra in a live documentary broadcast of planet Earth to becoming the main character. And the master of his own destiny.
What are Knives?
A knife is a cutting implement consisting of a sharp-edged blade and a handle. The blade is usually made of steel, while the handle may be of wood, bone, horn, plastic, or metal. Usually the blade is fixed to the handle by means of a tapered extension, called the tang, which fits inside the handle and is held by rivets, adhesive, or friction. Sometimes the blade and handle are one piece. In other knives the blade or blades are hinged to fold into the handle.
Depending on their use, knife blades are made in various sizes and shapes. For example, linoleum knives have a curved blade with a cutting edge on the inside of the curve. Hunting knives have tapered blades with a sharp point and edge. Table knives are only moderately sharp with a round end. Knives for cutting that involves no piercing, such as vegetable knives, have squared ends. Some knives, such as bread knives, have serrated, or scalloped, cutting edges.
Knifemaker Jere Davidson engraving a blade (Image in public domain)
I read an interesting article on knife making
Back in late 1994 I read an article on Knife-maker Simeon Jurkijevic. I felt drawn to write to him.
At the time I was an apprentice fitter machinist working at Australian Defence Industries. At their weapons and engineering facility at Lithgow. Formerly known as the Small Arms Factory. When I was there they were in a production run of the F88 Austeyr 5.56mm assault rifle for the Australian Army.
Lithgow was the birthplace of steel manufacturing in Australia (before the entire operation got pulled up and moved to Newcastle) and the factory had a long history with gun making.
They also made knives. Well bayonets actually. Unfortunately bayonet manfacturing at the factory had ceased operation years before I started there. I think they imported the Steyr bayonets from Austria to add to Austeyr rifle. But you'd still find the odd one lying around in some of the parts of the factory that had closed down as technological advances made multiple manual machines redundant. One computer controlled (CNC) machining centre would often take the place of a whole production line. And working at the facility was like taking a step back in time, as whole sections of factory had been closed down and left like that for years until they started selling off machines in auctions about a year after I started.
It was frozen in time. Cigarette butts sitting in ashtrays near machines. It was as if all the workers had gone for lunch but never came back.
But I digress... knives have always intrigued me. As part of our TAFE course in Mechanical Engeering we learnt about metal. It's properties. Tensile strength, hardness, and a lot of other specific information I've either forgotten or have been pushed to the back of my mind from 10 years of following a different career path.
I can't remember what I wrote, but imagine my surprise when I received a letter rich in detail with a backstory vivid in character.
Except for the reason why I made contact with this unique and highly skilled man the letter needs no further commentary. Read, learn and enjoy...
And I got a reply from the master knife maker himself...
Thank you for your letter concerning knife-making.
My father was Russia - a Black Cossack officer, my mother was Hungarian - a chef in St Johann in Tyrol and I grew up in what was then north-eastern Jugoslavija. I was born at the beginning of the second World War and the area changed hands more than twenty times during the curse of the War - Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Partisans, Chetnicks, etc. So I grew up knowing about a variety of languages, cultures, guns and knives. (Mind you, I didn't know what a decent steak looked like until I got to Australia!)
My knifemaking apprenticeship was under an Hungarian master - Bela Bernad - a director of the Guild Board of Exotic Crafts in Subotica (Subotica is a city in what is now Serbia). Later, I worked on restoration work in a castle - Schloss Vestlas - in northern Australia before migrating to Australia in 1966. In Australia I gained trade certificates as a Fitter and Turner and also as a Welder and worked in heavy industry until I could buy my farm and set up my own knifemaking workshop, in 1986.
I hand forge all my knife blades - usually from the coil springs off old vehicles, sometimes leaf springs. These are good sources of reliable-quality metal. (Car manufacturers know what they are doing!) These steels are both carbon steels - 9260 or 5160 - and produce good quality working knives. I forge stainless steel stiletto-type 'letter-openers' from the exhaust valves stems but these are fancier knives with sterling silver and good quality gemstones which are mainly for decoration. All the working knives are carbon steel, which holds its edge and is easier to sharpen than stainless steel. Sometimes I laminate the carbon steel with the stainless steel, which gives an interesting wavy pattern in the blade. The stainless steel stays bright and shiny, the carbon steel tales on a black look but can be polished up with Goddards Metal Polish or Puma paste, or just used a lot and wiped clean after each use so that it never gets a chance to go rusty. People who want a knife to use a lot prefer the 'old-fashioned' carbon steel.
9260 and 5160 are code numbers used by the SAE (the USA Society of Automotive Engineers).
1 = Carbon Steel
2 = Nickel
3 - Nickel Cromium
4 = Molibdenum
5 = Cromium
6 = Cromium Vanadium
7 = Tungsten
9 = Silicon manganese
ie. Leaf spring 5160 = Cromium 1% and Carbon .6%, the first number (5) indicating the Cromium, the second number indicating how much, and the third number is always Carbon and how much, in this instance '60 points' or .6%.
The hardness of the blade is measured in Rockwells. Hand forging packs in molecules of metal tighter along the cutting edge to the spine and the back of the blade. My knives therefore vary between 54 or 55 Rockwells to 58 or 60 Rockwells. After forging the blade is annealed and filled to its finished shape. (As I have now had a lot of practice with my hammer it doesn't take me long to put the final touches on with a file, but novices may spend many hours filing!)The blade is hardened and tempered
The blade extends through the hilt up through the grip to the pommel, where it is threaded and bolted and the nut is covered with a gemstone, which gives a decorative finish. Grips which consist of sections of wood, bone and horn are pinned internally to prevent rolling. All my grips are sculpted 'in the round' no slab scales are used except on very small knives eg. 20mm blades. My biggest knives are traditional Jatangans with blades up to 500mm.
Most knives are for hunting, skinning, carving etc but I do make various knives traditional to the area in which I grew up, but I use only Australian woods, horns and gemstones. My favourite wood is Ironwood (Erythrophleum chorstachys) but some of the local Acacias are also very hard and make beautiful grips. I make whatever style of knife the customer wishes, but i do not make 'fighting knives' or knives particular to the Japanese or Indonesian cultures except in exceptional circumstances. Customers need to draw around their hand so that i know what size to make the grip - also knives and scabbards for left-handed people are obviously different to right-handers.
Most customers have a fairly good idea of the size,shape and style of the blade,hilt and grip and also choose whatever colour gemstone they wish - sometimes a cabochon of Buffalo horn or toe is used instead of a gemstone, or the pommel is just nickel silver or brass. The blade can be acid etched with the customer's name or nickname, army number, or a motif such as crocodiles, buffaloes, pigs, dogs, motor-bikes, ships, eagles, family crest, fish (especially for filleting knives), mushrooms (especially for kitchen knives), snakes, flowers, a gorilla or a Porsche emblem.
Prices range from about $50 upwards. Most knives are about 200mm long (ie, blade length) and cost about $250 to $300. For totally hand crafted knife worked in the traditional medieval method (the acid etching is also by hand, not photo-etched) this is much cheaper than comparative work from the USA where hand forged blades sell at thousands, not hundreds, of dollars! I had a customer last week who had bought a knife (not hand forged) in the USA for US$950 and required me to fix up the grip to his hand measurements!
DVD's on the craft of knife making
What has Simeon Jurkijevic been doing since I contacted him?
Top End TAFE Teaches Knifemaking
"Knifemaking courses are now in full swing at the Casuarina Senior College in Darwin under the tutorage of long-term full-time blademaker, Simeon Jurkijevic, the best credentialed bladesmith in Australia. Simeon, now well into his sixties, was apprenticed during the 1950s to Bela Bernad, a Hungarian Master and board member of the Guild of Exotic Crafts in Subotica. Before immigrating to Australia, Simeon was employed on restoration work on castles in Eastern Europe. Simeon also holds Australian trade certificates as a 1st class fitter & turner and welder and worked for several years in the trade around the Northern Territory, before setting up as a professional knifemaker..."
A blade is born...
Interesting facts about the Master Knifemaker
- Simeon trained under Hungarian Master Knifemaker Bela Bernad.
- Guild trained knifemakers like Simeon are few and far between.
- Simeon holds trade qualifications in welding and fitting-turning.
- Simeon lives on a mango farm, 50 miles south of Darwin in the Northern Territory.
- Simeon's blades are traditionally forged.
- Simeon is a professional associate of Craft Australia and is authorized by that body to display the Craft Mark logo.
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