AFTER a 17-year break, the Perth Knife Show has been resurrected to showcase intricate, hand-made knives.
The Knife Art Association is holding the event on February 2 and 3 at Fremantle Prison, inviting along anyone with an interest in cooking, carving, hunting or fishing – or just pretty blades.
Spearwood’s Jeremy Wheaton, a chaplain at John Curtin College of the Arts, is a knifemaker after hours.
He was a visitor at the last Perth Knife Show, but after 17 years of honing his craft he’s ready to be on the other side of the table.
Mr Wheaton says he’s tinkered with knifemaking since he was a kid, when he first cut a rough knife shape out of a circular saw blade.
Seeing the quality of the work at the 2001 knife show inspired him to get serious about his hobby.
“I remember going to it and looking at all this amazing stuff, thinking I can never get anywhere close to something like that. And now I’m going there exhibiting work.”
Embedded with gems
In Mr Wheaton’s backyard shed he has a forge, milling machine, belt sanders, a heat treatment oven to get the steel to the right hardness, and even a self-made hydraulic press for knives made in layers.
The handles are made of woods like silky oak, wattle and mulberry tree, resin-stabilised for longevity, and can be embedded with gems and decorative metal inlays.
The work is exacting and unforgiving: layered metals used in pattern-welded blades can crack apart during heat treatment, but if done right you end up with beautifully interlocking black and grey markings.
There’s a science to the materials used: Steels with a lot of carbon are tough and are easier to sharpen to a fine edge, but are more susceptible to rust than the stainless steels you typically get in kitchen knives.
The heat treatment is also a balancing act: Metal that’s too hard can be brittle and hard to sharpen, but if it’s too soft it won’t keep
There are a lot of hours in each knife. To get a chef’s knife up to a fine edge and a mirror polish requires up to 20 hours polishing with increasingly fine sandpaper; first with a belt-sander for lower grit and then the finer work by hand.
“Machines will only take you so far,” Mr Wheaton says. “After that, the hand-work takes over.”
With expensive steel and a lot of hours going into each piece, his prices are still pretty competitive with the better production knives.
The cost varies based on intricacy, material and the aesthetic inlays, but hovers around $280 to $400, and the sought-after pattern-welding is at least double that price.
Proud of using
“I’ll take about three or four orders a year,” he says, but many makers have a six-month to one-year waiting list.
“If you buy a Wusthof, which is a very good knife, you probably only get one choice of handle material, and you probably pay $250 to $300. At that price range, that’s where custom knives will start, and you can get something that’s how you want it—the colours you want—and a thing that’s yours that you’ll be proud of using.”
Mr Wheaton’s skill has seen him admitted to the Australian Knifemakers Guild. Gaining membership is a thorough process “that requires several years of work; submitting a number of knives to be scrutinised.”
Their standards are precise: 1/20ths of a millimetre matter when it comes to fitting the knife together. Every part–blade, guard, handle, any decorative elements like gems or acrylic inlays–has to lock together seamlessly. To gain full membership you have to forge three knives in their requested styles to demonstrate your range.
Mr Wheaton’s work had to undergo the scrutiny of master knifemaker Bruce Barnett from the Windy Hollow Forge in Bridgetown, a lecturer at the Australian Blade Symposium who’s considered a master at the “feather” pattern welded blades.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Mr Wheaton says. “It does have the pattern of a feather in the blade, and it’s very difficult to make.”
Mr Barnett’s knives will also be on show, along with 30 other makers including Albany veteran knifemaker David Brodziak, whose pieces are often hand-painted by artist Carol Ann O’Connor.
The high end of knifemaking is meticulous and artful, but you can start small and you don’t need a lot of equipment.
Mr Wheaton says he hopes the show inspires people to give knifemaking a go.
The Perth Knife Show runs February 2-3 at Fremantle Prison’s East Workshop, 9am to 4pm. $10 entry and kids under 16 are free.
by DAVID BELL