Forging a new path for the bladesmithing industry in Australia

Forging a new path for the bladesmithing industry in Australia

At only 13 years old, Leila Haddad has achieved unimaginable success in the bladesmithing industry. Her hand-forged cooking knifes are highly sought after by professional chefs, she’s delivered a forging demonstration at the International Cutlers Exhibition in Sydney and was a guest presenter at Ben Shewry’s WAW gathering in Melbourne.  Bladesmithing is a talent shared by Leila’s father, Karim, who has over twenty-four years’ experience hand forging knifes and has been teaching his craft for the past 13 years. The father and daughter duo create artisanal knifes at Tharwa Valley Forge, Karim’s bladesmithing school and forge in Tharwa just outside Canberra.

Leila’s incredible bladesmithing journey started as a curious 6 year old after spending time wandering through her father’s workshop. Fostering her curiosity, Karim began teaching bladesmithing skills and passing down his knifemaking knowledge to Leila when she was just six years old. For Karim, he spent his bladesmithing journey working under master bladesmiths, expanding his skills through years of trial and error and research into the craft’s limited resources.

In Australia today, cutlery and knifes are almost entirely mass-produced and imported from overseas factories. As a result, no cutlery industry exists in Australia outside of the small group of hand-crafting companies such as Tharwa Valley Forge. The Apprenticeship curators recently caught up with Karim and Lelia to discuss how they have acquired and fostered their bladesmithing practices despite the challenges mass-production brings to the bladesmithing industry.

You can see Karim and Leila’s stunning knifes in The Apprenticeship exhibition until 25 June.

Find out more about the Tharwa Valley Forge here.


How long have you been hand forging knives, and what drew you to it initially?

Leila: I have been making knives for 7 years (since I was 6). My dad is a knife maker so watching him made me interested in the art.

Karim: I have been making knives for 24 years and I have been teaching bladesmithing courses for the last 13 years. I was initially drawn to making knives because I wanted to make something useful with my hands.

 

Karim and Leila in their studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

Karim and Leila in their studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

What has been your favourite project or product and why?

Leila: I love the forging part of knife making because of how dramatically you can change the shape of the steel. It is interesting how different temperatures can change the steel from soft to hard or change the way you can work the steel.

Karim: No particular favourite. I enjoy making beautiful things that people love to use.

 

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Beautiful hand forged damascus steel knife blade during the making process. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

What does a normal work day look like for you?

Leila: I don’t really have a normal work day as I can only get up into our workshop after school or the weekends. I try to fit in knife making when I can by working on parts of a knife or planning out my next one when there is space in the workshop during weekend classes.  During the holidays is a busy time for me and my making.  I also run blacksmithing classes in the holidays for young people.

Karim: Nothing is normal. Start in the workshop around 8, and I could be forging blades, grinding, working on handles or working with leather making sheathes or making tools and repairing bits broken in the classes. Most days someone will ring wanting a custom knife, or some help with making a knife, or sometimes I get random drop ins wondering what I do. If I am teaching (which is at least two days a week) I am in the workshop an hour before the students arrive preparing the day’s class setting things up so I can move smoothly through the course. I’ll be demonstrating, coaching, rescuing, advising, cleaning up and answering questions. We make about 8 knives a class which makes for lots of sparks and dust. The day usually ends with me sweeping the shop.

 

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Leila in the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

How did you learn the techniques and theory behind your craft?

Leila: I have learnt from doing – and mainly from being with dad in the forge and workshops. I also listen and talk with other local and interstate knife makers about their latest designs and get inspiration from them. Learning from mistakes also plays a big part in my learning.

Karim: I was mentored by Mastersmith Thomas Gerner in the early 1990’s. He got me started on my journey. Then it took many years of trial and error, and some limited books and magazines before the internet arrived. Now it is much easier to learn new techniques through the internet, but nothing beats developing the muscle memory; just because you can see it doesn’t mean you can do it.

 

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Leila in the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Leila, have you had any mentors apart from your dad

Leila: My dad plays an integral part in my knife making  – keeping me focussed and on track.  He encourages me to follow my passions but also to finish things! Shaun Macintyre is also a big influence in my knife making.  His knives are amazing, his attention to detail, the finish he achieves and the overall design of his pieces are inspirational.

 

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Lelia and Mastersmith Shawn McIntrye in the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

What has been some of the main challenges in acquiring this knowledge and skills?

Karim: When I started most makers were reluctant to share skills. They saw new makers as potential competitors so kept their secrets. Now the internet has opened all of this right up.

 

How was bladesmithing traditionally learnt in the past, and does this path still exist?

Karim: You would work for a master or in a cutlery factory. Most skills would be learnt on the job because there were never any formal classes available. These paths don’t really exist anymore in Australia.

 

What pressures do you think have led to the traditional pathway becoming problematic today?

Karim: Mass production of cutlery and other knives being done overseas. Australia has no cutlery industry outside the small custom made group.

 

In hindsight, what resources would have been useful in developing your skills and establishing the business?

Karim: If I had access to the kinds of class that I run now, it would have been an easier journey.

 

Left to right: Leila's knives, example of knifemaking process, knives made by Karim. On display at artisan.

Left to right: Leila’s knives, example of knifemaking process, knives made by Karim. On display at artisan.

 

What do you think an apprenticeship for your craft/trade might look like that gives makers the skills they need to establish themselves today?

Karim: I think new makers need some initial short courses to understand the basics, then follow this with a good mentor and lots of practice. You need to be self-driven as there are no companies employing knifemakers in Australia. You have to start the company.

 

Karim, your knifemaking has become a viable living. How challenging do you think it is for others to achieve this today?

Karim: I make a living by teaching these skills; making the actual knives only accounts for about 20% of my income. It has taken me more than 20 years to make it viable. I have had other jobs to support my family as things built up. I now am one of only 10 full-time knifemakers in the country. It is very difficult for someone starting out now making a living out of it. It takes a while to build up the machinery and tools and the customer base. Best approach is to do it part time until you get to the point of jumping in full time. It is a big decision.

 

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During the bladesmithing process. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

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Leila making a billet of Damascus steel. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

 

Knifes are obviously produced on a large scale by mass-production. What has that meant for the design and quality of the knife industry in Australia?

Leila: There are lots of brands that make knives on a large scale but the problem with those knives is that the handles aren’t made for your hands or that the steel isn’t hard enough to stay sharp for a long time. You also don’t get the beauty or the story that comes with the wood in the handle.  I love to make knives that tell a story or are made with a particular person in mind.  Shaping the handle just right so it a perfect for the users hand is important for me.

I also make because I want to use a particular piece of wood and see how it comes to life while it is being shaped and polished.

I also have a small line of semi-production made knives that are “naked”.  The knife is all steel, handle included and I then finish them in funky colours creating a bright range for the kitchen or family picnic.  They are my Bare Blades.   I am conscious of the design throughout the process from concept drawings to finished edge.  Design is imperative. The knife always has to look good, feel great and carry out its purpose – to stay sharp.

Karim: Yes they certainly are. Some knives have become a disposable item, rather than the heirlooms of previous generations. Design is mainly to make it easier to manufacturer or to differential the product. It doesn’t have a real effect on performance. But mass production has created a better appreciation for the bespoke item. More people are seeking something different and unique to them.

I make one of a kind heirlooms. Something you can’t buy in a shop; Something with a story.

 

What skills have been important in contributing to a revival in your bladesmithing in today’s economy that were not historically a part of this work?

Karim: Social media marketing is a great tool. Rather than developing a local presence, your distinguishing yourself on a global scale. Being able to see what people are doing around the world in their sheds is inspiring.

 

As a contemporary bladesmith, how are you making this craft relevant and shaping it for the future?

Leila: I think by being a young woman speaks volumes. If you are passionate about something and want to create then follow what’s in your heart. Art and craft will always be relevant while we create beautiful pieces that are designed well, useable and tell a story.

Karim: I think mainly through the classes I run, making the skills accessible and building the individual’s confidence so they can have a go. The rise of the maker movement has encouraged many people to go out and try and make something. Most of the time confidence is the biggest issue and a fear of failure. A structured experience where they succeed at making something beyond what they thought they could make give them the boost they need to continue.

 

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Beautiful hand forged damascus steel knife blade during the making process. Image courtesy of the artists.


Feature image: Karim and Leila in their studio. Image courtesy of the artist.


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