Japanese Knife Making - Tharwa Valley Forge

My friends know I'm an easy mark for interesting, unique, and some would say crazy food ideas. Cheesemaking courses, the Steaklocker on Kickstarter, etc. But a couple of months ago a friend sent me a link to Tharwa Valley Forge and their Japanese Chef Knifemaking courses. I was hooked. 

So, when my mate's wife emailed me to say she had booked him into a course and was wondering if I wanted to join him, I jumped at the chance. Little did I know just how much hard work actually goes into making quality knives!

To start, Tharwa is about 30 minutes south of Canberra, or about 4 hours from Sydney. I skipped out of work at 2pm and got down there in enough time to grab a bite before our Friday evening introduction. The first evening consists of a couple hours of introductions to Karim and the other students, a primer on knifemaking, and an opportunity to design our custom knives from scratch. I immediately was reminded of my geometry class days, with rulers, protractors, and French curves. 

After a bit of a browse through Karim's Japanese knife book collection I was set on two types of knives: one for meat and fish, and one for veggies. I ultimately tweaked the first one but these were my initial prototypes.

Saturday starts early, just before 8am. It probably didn't help that I stayed up far too late the previous night, redesigning one of my knives and generally pumped with excitement about what was to come. 

First task, don the gear and fire up the forge. We were given the (apparently) standard warning to not stare into the forge for long periods of time as one can BURN their eyeballs. Yep, I'm dead serious about this. 

Forging begins by cutting the steel to length, heating it up, and the initial forging of the tang and blade. Here I was, thinking it was pretty simple... but I quickly learned there is much more skill involved in the initial phases than just bashing the hell out of the steel with a hammer. Karim warned me, "The more mistakes in this phase, the more you pay for it later." Little did I know...

Once the blade is forged it's time to normalise the steel. This is done by heating it up to an orange colour and then waving it in the air three times. This de-stresses the blade. Then it's brought back in front of the forge for annealing. This allows the blade to be shaped in ground in the later phases.

They're not much to look at but our blades are now ready for grinding. I think I might have walked away had I know just how badly I'd done!

Next is de-scaling of the blade. The fire scale is pretty harsh on sandpaper so this grinder takes the layer of file scale off so that the blade can be shaped and sanded.

It's at least starting to look like a knife. And if you're wondering what the top half is, we used a special hammer to put a pattern into the top of the blades. You'll see that later.

Now comes the hard part, grinding and shaping the blade. I very quickly realised that each and every errant hammer strike while forging was adding to my workload. And I picked too large knives - just to make it interesting.

And in case you're wondering... the blade gets FUCKING hot. I'm still growing my finger tips back.

I have to admit, I was amazed at just what sandpaper can do to a metal blade. Here, I'm shaping heel.

Seriously, take a look back at the blades after the forging process. This is my meat/fish knife on the flat side, ready for hand sanding. 

As an aside, did you realise that the knife is ground differently, depending on which hand is dominant? I didn't! But I learned quickly how to make a right-handed knife and this is why the back of the blade is flat. I've also hand-filed the notches for the guard and handle.

Finally! I have blades that look like knives! They're starting to take shape and all the hard work is starting to pay off.

The last two major steps left in the process are hardening and tempering. Hardening requires a torch to be applied to the blade and then it's quenched in oil. Karim has a Russian-designed welding gun that was intended to be used on the Space Station. It runs on nothing more than water and methylated spirits. He calls it "Natasha". We decide to stand way, way back.

Once the knives are hardened then they are tempered in an oven for a couple hours.

And then more hand-sanding. Patience is a virtue in knifemaking, apparently.

Having hardened and tempered the blade, it's ready for optional acid treating and then a handle. I have to say, I was pretty chuffed at this point. It looks like a knife!

While we sand (more... did I say there's a LOT of sanding?) Karim prepares the handle material we've chosen. 

Now here's a step I'd probably skip in the future - acid treating. It gives the steel a pretty cool matte grey look but my next set will be polished steel on all sides. That said, I don't regret doing it as you'll see from the finished product later.

More... fucking.... sanding.

Well, my knives in all their glory. They're not perfect by any means but they were hand crafted. Time for those handles.

Because I was behind the group most of the time I was the last one to choose my wood. I grabbed two nice blocks of myrtle and got right into drilling the holes for the tangs.

At this point I was a bit dubious that it would all come together. I mean, these handles aren't anything to marvel at. But that said, I like my choice of aqua blue, white, and gold to offset the myrtle in the handle.

Time to glue up.

Karim was right, this was the point where I questioned what we had been working on for two full days!

Time to shape the handles with the bench sander.

MORE hand sanding. But at least this time I can see it all coming together...

The reward. My knives are now complete and all they need is a coat of varnish. That blue Corian really pops.

The finished products. My two are in the middle and my friend's are up top (left-handed freak). I think they're just beautiful. And I know how much work went into each and every one of them. 

So, it's not cheap at about $700 for the weekend, plus travel and accommodation. But what an incredible experience! And I now have beautiful Japanese chef knives to use in my kitchen and to show off to friends and family. I'd definitely go back as I'd like to create a full set for the new kitchen that we're building. 

If you're interested, check out Tharwa Valley Forge and tell Karim that I sent you. You won't regret it...

Tharwa Valley Forge

1 Naas Rd
Tharwa
ACT 2620
Australia

0418 165 433