Ben Edmonds – Blok Knives

Ben Edmonds – Blok Knives

“If you make something that you really enjoy making and you can get just get that across, if you can show that you love making what you are doing and you are putting all your effort into it, then it seems that people are interested in it.” Ben Endmonds

About 4 years ago Ben Edmonds embarked on making his first knife, not with any view of the business it has become but just for the shear pleasure of it. No stranger to using his hands Ben has applied his skills a number of projects including a customised motorbike. His background in print and graphic designer has helped provide an awareness of aesthetic quality and value in the end product.

Photography by Daniel Dytrych
Interview by Daniel Lingham
Transcribed by Katy Mack

Is there a term for this type of work or field you are in?

There are different terms depending on the discipline or the process. We are known as knife makers. We take flat sheets of metal and cut out the knives, whereas a blade smith would hammer the metal. The terms Little Mesters referred to individual people working in a big group, like a collective and they were knife makers basically based in Sheffield.

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How long ago would that have been?

About 50 years ago probably. That was still a big thing in Sheffield then. The Little Mesters is a phrase from Sheffield, we’re Derby based.

Are you aware of a maker movement in the UK? Do you feel a part of something?

I do yes. I wasn’t really until I started making. I suppose when you involve yourself in something doors start opening and people start coming to your attention. Even just within the realm of knife making…there’s a lot of knife makers in this country that are making some really beautiful knives that no one knows about. I think there is a huge maker movement. I did the DO lectures. They were set up by a guy called David Hieatt who set up Hiut Denim and they just make jeans. Their whole philosophy is do one thing and do it well. And they literally just make two pairs of jeans and they’re incredible. So then he set up this thing called the DO lectures on his farm. It is basically like a mini conference, not necessarily just for makers but for ‘doers’. It’s a lovely ratio of speakers to people attending. I spoke there last year and that was the first time I thought that actually, there is a massive maker movement now in the UK, if not the world. Now I am in that maker movement, the amount of people that I am getting to meet that are doing it is really quite interesting. I think people care more now about where their stuff is coming from.

We had this 20 year period the internet where everything had to be digital. It’s so transient so possibly it’s an antidote to that. Things disappear online so rapidly, there’s nothing left to hold on to?

Yes, there’s nothing tangible. I think that’s what I found when I got into the making side of things. I started out in print design and that was quite nice because you would have a physical item by the end of it. You could touch it and it was tangible. The more I started doing the web stuff, everything seemed to be changing so rapidly, it would soon be outdated. I never owned a TV at home until a couple of years ago, because I was sick of staring at a screen all day, and the last thing I want to do was go home and stare at another screen. So I would make stuff. I would do stuff involving my hands and a different set of disciplines. That is when the knife stuff came about

What got you involved in making knives?

I always had projects. The motorbike was a project and the car was another project. I was into illustration and I did a bit of furniture stuff too. I would just make something and move onto something else. The knives just seemed to be part all of that. I watched a video of somebody making a knife and thought that was the next project. I didn’t intend to make more, I just thought I would make one because that would be something good to do. However I did make a few more because I had more steel and I enjoyed the process.

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Did you have the things to hand or did you have to order them in?

No. I ordered in some steel. I clamped it onto the side of the table and just went at it with a file. After making a only few of those because it was so time consuming, I bought a cheap belt sander to take the metal off with that. Then I thought I would order some more metal, and another machine to make that process a bit different or more effective, and then it just kept going like that.

So what happened in terms of you deciding to switch to a commercial enterprise?

I think the turning point for me was when people started wanting to buy them or saw them as a thing to buy. I never had any intention of selling any, I just seemed to be making lots and we had knives knocking around the house. It was almost somebody else’s decision. They saw one and said “I’ll have that”. It hadn’t crossed my mind that it was a sellable item until my wife said that they could buy it. So I blame her, it was her business decision. In fact she bartered with the chap about how much it was worth.

How long have you been going?

It’s 4 years now.

You must have progressed a lot since then.

Yeah. And then I suppose when you are doing it in your spare time it is only so fast that you can develop. When you take it on it is always a scary leap, going from something you’ve always done and I have always been able to pay the mortgage through a job, to take that leap of not having any of that security. But, they just started selling. I didn’t really do anything. I am quite lucky in that respect. All I have done is focused on trying to make a beautiful thing.

They are amazing objects in themselves and I imagine if I bought one I kind of wouldn’t want to use it.

I know. We’ve had people frame them and it’s kind of sad in a way because I wanted to make something usable. That’s why I’m making them.

Part of the aesthetic appeal is the handle.

I’ve spent a year developing the shape of the whole knife. When you are developing one, if you mess up you can’t stick anything back on. So you’re done. I’ve got boxes that are full of blanks that I’m just not happy with. It’s all about the balance and the weight and how you hold it.

Have you had any direct feedback from the customers about the balance and feel because you are selling to some quite high profile people?

It is an interesting mix of people that we sell to. We do a leather case with three knives in it and it’s £1000, so it’s not a cheap thing to have. But we do have people that have a few of them. One set for each of their houses somewhere. On the flip side of that, we are making a knife now for a guy that couldn’t afford one. He set up a direct debit of £30 a month until there is enough money for the knife. We have had a similar situation with a guy, I call him ‘the cheque guy’, who sends us post dated cheques, and asks us every month to just cash one of these until he has enough. We sell to chefs, professional chefs, and people that love handmade stuff and cooking at home.

Has it been an easy or difficult road for you finding those clients?

This is why I think we are quite lucky. I have worked really hard at trying to make a beautiful thing. We had a bit of press and then it just spiralled from there. If you make something that you really enjoy making and you can get just get that across, if you can show that you love making what you are doing and you are putting all your effort into it, then it seems that people are interested in it. The first thing was an article in Derbyshire Life, ‘New Kid on the Blok’. Then loads of people picked up the story. We are in Vogue the next month. There was a makers thing for the Peak District and they want to use a Blok Knife image for the piece. It’s lovely. We have never paid for any advertising but we have been in some of the biggest publications you can get in, just because we have a nice story. I guess it’s that whole transition between me going from never dealing with metal and wood before, to then making a business of making knives. People are interested in how I got to that point. But again, I always go back to the fact that I kind of fell into it, but loved doing it and still love doing it. It’s always evolving so the knives now are different from a year ago. I’m always learning. I need to know that I’m progressing.

What do you think it is that makes you so appealing, because there are other great makers who aren’t necessarily picked up by the press so much.

…and I think they should be. I don’t totally understand why. All I want to do is make really nice knives that people use.

Are you getting both men and women buying your knives?

“…all you need to do is, first of all, love what you are doing. And the second thing is get that across. If you can show people how much you care about the product that you are making or what it is you are doing, then I think it speaks for itself”

We are getting women buying them. We get a lot of people asking if they can come here as an apprenticeship or to work from all around the world and it’s phenomenal. Again, I feel a bit embarrassed because I’ve only been doing it for 4 years and there are a hell of a lot of people out there that are a lot better than me, that don’t have as much press as I do and that have been doing it for a lot longer. There is an article that has just gone in Country Life about a guy called Owen Bush who is a phenomenal blade smith. Absolutely phenomenal. Grace Horne, who is in Sheffield, she’s just out of this world. I class those guys as some of the best makers in the world, and we are bundled in with them. Everyone has their own approach to it and that’s fine, we are all slightly different.

Do you think it’s something in the simplicity of the object that you are making? You haven’t complicated it have you?

For me, it’s a piece of carbon steel and two pieces of wood with some nice pins through and that in essence, is it. I’m dumbing the process down there because we have spent a lot of time making them what they are, but I don’t think it needs to be over complicated. 01 Tool Steel is carbon and iron in its purest form, really, It doesn’t get more simple than that. It just means that you can get a real tight grain structure, so you get a real fine cutting edge and it’s sharp. Like anything, the more you use it, you have to sharpen it. We’ve picked wood for the handles because aesthetically it’s pleasing, it feels warm on the hand.

Solid Wool handle - Blok Knives - Photography by Daniel Dytrych

Solid Wool handle – Blok Knives – Photography by Daniel Dytrych

I notice you are doing solid wool handles, are you still doing that?

Yeah we are. They are such a stunning product. They make chairs out of it. It’s encased in resin, but you still get a warmth from it. It sounds ridiculous because it’s not wool in it’s pure form, but there’s something about it. We don’t high gloss finish it either so you get kind of a rough finish to it when you hold it and for me that really works. It has a real depth to it as well because it’s layered.

Are you thinking about expanding materials or are you happy with where you are at the minute?

Well what I don’t want to do is over complicate it. Going back to David Hieatt and the DO Lectures and his motto: ‘do one thing and do it well’. So we make four sizes of knives. One’s a chef knife and I would argue that you can do 90% of anything in the kitchen with that one knife. We then do a paring knife. A paring knife is designed to be used off the board, so peeling, coring all that kind of stuff. We do a carving knife and then we do a slightly bigger chef knife if somebody wants a slightly bigger one. That’s it. You get a knife block at home and you always tend to go for your favourite knife, all the others sit there redundant. So I don’t want to expand the range in terms of the style of knives, but I am interested in looking at the actual materials in use. The wood is always been lovely. It is a traditional thing to use for handles. But then someone comes and makes solid wool and it’s incredible. We’ve been looking at some stuff from Canada at the moment which is compact, recycled paper and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s the toughest stuff. I’ve had one, testing its durability at home for about a year. Using it, leaving it in water, basically giving it to my wife. That’s the biggest test any knife could ever go through!

So what sort of wood do you use?

We use lots of different types of wood. What we try and do is use wood with lots of character, spalted woods, burs. Lots of those woods need to be treated. Spalted is a fungus. If you see wood with a lot of black grain through it, if it hadn’t gone through any treating processes you would just be able to pull it apart. We get those stabilised in a vacuums, full of resin. All the air is drawn out and it soaks in all the resin so they become non-porous. Some of the wood we use has to go through that process. The denser of the woods, some of the walnuts, the African black woods the ebonies and stuff like that, don’t have to go through that process because they are dense enough anyway.

Can you tell me about the effect you create on the blade of the knife?

The patina. A patina is the oxidisation of the metal. Because they are carbon steel, they don’t have any chrome in them. Chrome is what makes stainless, stainless. Straight carbon steel doesn’t have any of that in so it is more likely to rust and corrode. That’s why nowadays most kitchen knives are made from stainless steel because they are easy to maintain. When we are hand making these, I like working with 01 tool steel because it works better and I find it’s got an easier edge to keep. The trade-off is you do get this patterning on the blade. We force the patina on for a few reasons. One, if you’ve eaten some fruit with a carbon steel blade, the steel tarnishes the food and it tastes metallic. By forcing a patina it puts a barrier between the surface of the steel and whatever it is you’re eating. It also protects the metal, so there’s less chance of that rusting quickly. What we do is start that rusting process with vinegar. We stop it after about an hour and clean it off. The third reason is that it looks pretty. The more you use that knife, the more that patina builds up and goes to tell a bit of a story as to how that knife’s been used. If someone left an onion on it for an hour, you would see an onion ring mark on it. The knife will change with the person that’s using it. We’ve had a few back that are a couple of years old. Someone has dropped something on the handle and it’s split for example. So we’ve had them in to re-handle. But I love getting them back with all the marks on them.

Do you photograph and document them all?

No. We should do really. We have got a picture of each knife. So when we finish a knife we photograph it and send it to a client to make sure they’re happy. So we have got a picture of each knife that we’ve made, which is quite a few now. I’m not sure how many that is.

If you could kind of go back in time, maybe to when you were doing print and graphic design and you knew what you knew now what advice would you give to yourself?

I was speaking to my wife last week, we’ve got an 18 month old son. Obviously your brain goes ‘I wonder if he’s going to be a knife maker, what is he going to do’. Then I’ve asked myself that same question. What would I be like now as a knife maker if I’d have known how much I’d love it and I’m actually quite good at doing it, if I’d have done it ten years before? Then I think part of why people are interested in what we do is the whole aesthetic side of it. It’s how we’ve presented ourselves to the world. I probably would have stopped the design side a little bit earlier, but a lot of that comes into the shape of the knife, in the aesthetics and the whole brand. I don’t think we would have got there without me doing that as a living for 12 years. I do think although people are buying into the knives as a product, they are very much buying into me as a person and the story of that transition between graphic design and making knives. I wish I’d have been a bit more playful with materials I’m working with now, but again I can move into that. It’s a lifetimes worth of investigating…

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You can see the graphic element in terms of your logo, your web design. Did that help in terms of saying “this is a product, this is how it should look”.

It’s almost a lifestyle choice. People look at the website and they see the video and they see the little log burner in the dark and it’s all nice. I guess sometimes people aspire to that way of living. I understand how lucky we are to come to work here with the river nearby and it’s stunning. I think people buy into the whole thing don’t they, that whole aesthetic, I don’t know. Maybe that’s where other makers are slightly lacking. Every maker I’ve bumped into has been making some beautiful, incredible things but they just aren’t known enough. People aren’t shouting out about them.

When an apprentice or would-be apprentice comes to you what do you say to them?

It’s a question that I’m asked quite a bit and it’s lovely that people value my opinion on it. My main response is all you need to do is, first of all, love what you are doing. And the second thing is get that across. If you can show people how much you care about the product that you are making or what it is you are doing, then I think it speaks for itself. Whether we’ve had the right breaks at the right time, I think if you can get across your passion, then people want to hear it. Do not just get out of the rat race just for the sake of getting out of it. I didn’t leave graphic design hating it. I hated the clients, but I didn’t hate the job. Find something you love doing, and build on that. This doesn’t feel like a business, we just make knives, but we love it!

Probably one of the attractions, people must look at this thing you’ve created and think ‘can I have that lifestyle?’

Yes, I keep saying we are really lucky but actually I’ve worked really hard. If you want something, you have to put the hours in. I started off at a cellar at home. I’d get home from work and I’d go in the cellars for 6 hours, or it would be like 3 o’clock in the morning. I was just into it..

“I never owned a TV at home until a couple of years ago, because I was sick of staring at a screen all day, and the last thing I want to do was go home and stare at another screen. So I would make stuff. I would do stuff involving my hands and a different set of disciplines.”

Was it pretty early on that you were getting exposure?

Yes, because press reads press don’t they? It’s a classic thing. The big one for us was the Observer Food Awards when we were asked to make the trophies. The year before Heston Blumenthal had made edible plates. They’d never previously had a repeat person make the awards. We made them the year before last and they got on with them so well that we made them again last year. Then BBC One came along to film for Food and Drink. It was on a Friday night, hosted by Tom Kerridge. Arabella Weir came into the workshop and made a knife. She was brilliant. It was a good 4 or 5 minute slot. 15 minutes after it had gone out, we had 600 new orders.

How did you cope with that? Presumably you weren’t ready for it.

No. We’ve basically had to shut the order book now. We don’t take orders anymore. We have 3 years worth of work ahead of us.

That’s got to be disappointing for some people.

Well, what we do every Friday at 1pm on the website is put 5 knives on as a first come first served. We still have the waiting list. I email everyone on the waiting list. It gives somebody a chance on the waiting to get one if they want to quicker. It also shows people that we are still actively doing stuff. I didn’t want to just shut the order book down and then be seen to not be doing anything for 3 years so I emailed all the people on the waiting list and said this is what we’re doing knowing that I’d probably offend a few people. I offended only one person out of 900 which is fantastic.

How quickly do they sell?

As soon as we click live, it’s gone. We’ve created a demand now and we can only make so many knives. We’ve still got this 3 year waiting list that we are working our way through, and then we’ve got this Friday Knife ritual thing. People get quite angry actually if they can’t get them, which is a strange position to be in. When you get people on the phone saying they’ve been trying for 6 weeks to get a knife, what can you do? What can I do? It’s lovely that people are getting angry because they can’t get hold of what you make, but again it’s a weird position to be in after just 4 years ago being in a cellar. I don’t want to change what we’ve got here. I’ve got two guys and I’m training them to become knife makers, but that takes time.

The future is pretty bright for you. Do you know what’s next?

I’ve no idea. I know that where we are now is incredible. I wouldn’t have even imagined it 4 years ago. We have 3 years worth of knives to make which is incredible as well. I think I’ve got some important decisions to make about how the business grows, but whatever we do it will be handmade, it will be British made.

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