It is a scene from a different century, perhaps even a different epoch. James Ross-Harris deftly seizes a glowing-red lump of steel and examines its shimmering flanks. Flames dance from the open mouth of the forge, letting a blast of heat escape into the cool air of a December morning.
With his wild hair and navy blue pullover, Ross-Harris looks every inch the urban artisan. The hefty tools hanging from the wall, the centrally positioned anvil and the pervading smell of hot metal all add to the overall effect – as do a couple of plants making valiant efforts to grow from the Victorian brickwork above our heads and the segment of sky visible through the taurpaulin that provides a rather fallible-looking roof.
‘We used to use coke and charcoal to fuel the forge,’ Ross-Harris adds, carefully putting the red-hot ingot back into the fiery blast and shoving a makeshift door across its opening, ‘but it produced a lot of smoke and that wasn’t all that popular with the neighbours.’
It did, however, provide a talking-point when Ross-Harris and his colleagues, Jon Warshawsky and Richard Warner, visited the local pub – their soot-stained faces and clothes leading to intrigued questions as to exactly what they were getting up to in their workshop.
The lump of metal that James is working on is on its way to being transformed into a custom-made kitchen knife that he’s producing to a client’s specific wishes.
‘As much as anything, I enjoy doing something like this because it’s a challenge and because it should look really good when it’s finished,’ he explains.
For the past three years this creative trio have been running their bespoke knife manufacturer – Blenheim Forge – from this workshop, hidden away beneath a railway arch in Peckham, south London.
Ross-Harris and his fellow knifemen began their metallurgical journey in the garden of the house they shared on a nearby street. A design engineer by training, he was already working part-time as a blacksmith, but all three of them were intrigued by the possibility of making what are termed ‘pattern-welded’ steel blades.
Such items – also known as Damascus steel – are notoriously difficult to produce. They require layers of different steels to be melded together to produce a blade that is slender, light and very sharp.
By skill, judgement or good luck the trio managed to produce a pretty acceptable knife at the first attempt.
‘I think perhaps if it hadn’t worked we might have moved on and tried something else,’ admits Ross-Harris.
That initial success, however, was something of a double-edged sword. The following attempt failed, and the next, and tens of others.
The would-be knifemakers began to wonder if they weren’t missing some crucial part of the process. But perseverance paid off. After around 100 or so failures another success appeared, then more, and soon the hits were outpacing the misses.
‘In the past two weeks we’ve probably produced more knives than we managed in the first two years,’ adds Ross-Harris.
Perfecting the process
While we are talking, he continues to check on the progress of the glowing steel bar within the forge. The latter has been constructed from a cut-down gas canister by the team themselves, in a process that they are still working on perfecting.
‘This one is different from the last one we had and the next one will be different from this one,’ says Ross-Harris.
The process of producing a Damascus blade is one of the hardest to master in blacksmithing, involving iron, nickel and steel fused together into 300 or 400 layers, in addition to a process of repeated heating and cooling.
Having largely mastered the complexities, however, the company has just produced what might be termed its first ‘mass-produced’ order, if such a phrase doesn’t undersell the complexity and skill of what goes on within the workshop.
‘We’ve made a batch of knives for the new Tate Modern,’ explains Ross-Harris, ‘to be used in the restaurant there and also to be sold in the shop.’
I ask him how he found the experience. ‘Let’s put it this way,’ he jokes, ‘I hope they don’t sell out too quickly.’
The finished product
Taking a moment away from the flaming forge, he shows me a selection of the finished products, ranging from small paring knives to chef’s knives and cleavers. What is immediately striking is just how light and well-balanced they are, with a narrow blade tapering down to a lethal-looking edge.
‘You have to look after them more than a stainless-steel knife you buy from a regular high-street shop,’ adds Ross-Harris, ‘but they are thinner and harder and they will hold a better edge.’
Those qualities have not gone unnoticed among chefs, broadcasters and food critics and, with sales and interest both on an upward curve, Blenheim Forge will soon be embracing the next stage in its development.
‘We’re planning to keep on the premises here,’ explains Ross-Harris, ‘and we’re also in the middle of a move to a barn in Hampshire.’
Ross-Harris expects this should allow the firm to expand its ambitions and potentially train up more people. Who knows – well away from the south London neighbours – it might even spark a return to the use of that coke furnace.
To find out more, or to buy a Blenheim Forge knife, click here.