Forest Blades

Two noble thoughts, the first from William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” The second, from Keats (Endymion, since you ask): “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Assertions you can live your life by, and which between them cover the virtues that distinguish the finest things in life: utility, beauty, and the ability – think Mona Lisa or an E-Type – to retain, even add to, allure over time.

A further tripartite observation. There are three strands to quality in all design, whether for a poster, a bridge, a pair of trousers or a knife. The first is fitness for purpose: if it’s illegible, falls down when you walk on it, comes apart at the seams, or doesn’t cut the things it’s supposed to, it has failed in its primary purpose. The second is value for money. Not price, because one object can cost much more than another and still be far better value. And the third strand, most immediately apparent yet hardest to pin down, is beauty.

Beauty comes in many aspects. There’s the (supposedly) subjective appeal of colour and shape, the beauty of a bird or a painting or a landscape, that can be found both in the austere simplicity of a Kyoto temple garden and the lush complexity of a Venezuelan rainforest. There’s the deep and constantly new beauty of a thing well made, an artefact that satisfies to the utmost the requirements of utility. And most satisfying of all is the object that reflects and resonates with all these facets of beauty, and adds to them the intensely personal pleasure of possession: a joy forever. There is, after all, a world of difference between looking at an E-Type (or a Mona Lisa) and owning one.

“the perfect balance between blade and handle… makes using your knife like writing with a fountain pen

All of which may seem a little highflown when talking about kitchen equipment, but it provides the background and motivation for what Philip Shaw and Laurie Timpson have achieved with Savernake Knives, although they almost certainly wouldn’t put it in the same words. They have arrived in the same place – a converted sawmill on the outskirts of the Savernake Forest near Marlborough in Wiltshire – by equally and extremely circuitous routes. Laurie via the Scots Guards, emergency relief in South Sudan and Ethiopia, clearing landmines in southern Africa and Afghanistan, studies at the University of Cape Town, and (as one does) running a power station in Nairobi. Whereas Philip, after launching and managing two successful London pubs, went on to run safaris in Kenya, successfully market companies both there and in Uganda, and provide consultancy services in South Sudan and Pakistan. Among other things.

Both finding themselves in the UK in 2016, and having previously run into each other a number of times during their peripatetic careers, they found themselves united by strikingly similar ambitions. To work only for themselves, on their own initiative and wits; to get as far from the city office – any city, any office – as possible; and most importantly to create something of intrinsic and real quality and value using what we now term artisanal craft.

As to what that might be, the answer suggested itself when Laurie, by way of downtime from graphically rendering quantitative data, decided without any formal apprenticeship or training to make an axe. Finding this more irksome than anticipated, he decided to learn to crawl and embarked on making a knife. This proved equally challenging, but for different reasons. Making a knife, it turned out, wasn’t that hard. But what Laurie and Philip both wanted to do was make the perfect knife. And above all to make perfect knives that weren’t mass-produced: that appealed to neither of them, and their research confirmed that in fact the concepts were mutually exclusive.

Making the perfect knife. The classic triple tenets of design needed to be satisfied. Utility: design the optimal shape of blade to cut and last; the ideal handle to hold once and use again and again. Value: establish a process of production that results in the highest quality at reasonable cost. And beauty: generate the absolute allure of a made object that works perfectly, is a pleasure to behold, and thereby brings joy to its owner.

Through research, inspiration, trial, error, and the creation of solid product, their enduring commitment to a shared goal led to Savernake Knives. What further emerged was the realisation of their objective that each blade, if personally attended to from raw steel to shaped form, would be individual and unique.

In this attention to the personal wishes and aesthetic of the user, each Savernake knife owes more to the craft of medieval and Japanese swordsmiths than to English cutlers. Not just in achieving the perfect balance between blade and handle, that almost occult process of making an object feel lighter than it is that, in the words of one of the chefs Savernake supplies, makes ‘using your knife like writing with a fountain pen’; but because no two knives are ever the same. Savernake only produce individual knives, either Custom, where the client chooses the handle material and blade engraving on one, some, or all of the wide range of knives made in the workshop; or Bespoke, where the customer also specifies the type of blade required for their particular purpose and Laurie and Philip design and build the knife around it.

Each knife goes through around a thousand minutes of production, its metal identified throughout by the buyer’s name it bears from the Haas CNC mill to its ultimate kitchen, and similarly the processes it undergoes are informed by the pre-industrial legacy of a producer dealing directly with the purchaser. Likewise, the material for the knife handle is the preserve of the client. Nothing is presented that doesn’t function in the kitchen, whether bog oak marinated in peat for three thousand years, plywood or paper artfully layered and presented, or the latest alloy shaped to fit the hand: but each is crafted to work, to fulfil its purpose, to support beauty and utility together.

In a world that seeks to spread uniform values without boundary or border, individuality and excellence is increasingly hard to find. A small sawmill, on the edge of an ancestral forest in a quiet (barring the cattle) glade, is a very good place to start.