Meet the knife man of the South Australia's Barossa Valley
Shaking hands with Barry Gardner is a memorable experience.
To begin with the 61-year-old knife maker is not an over shaker. His calloused hand meets mine frankly and grips to an instant’s exquisite agony. I try to give as good as I get, but my citified grip is no match for a man who could probably straight-arm the anvil next to us.
We are standing at his forge in the 150-year-old coach house based in a studio at JamFactory in Seppeltsfield Winery in the Barossa.
The air is redolent with smoke from the hearth mixed with the tang of molten steel. A shard of light illuminates his green eyes which meet mine easily the way men’s do in mutual understanding over the top of a foaming beer, which I could totally do with about now.
Arrayed in front of us is an amazing collection of blades: swords, target knives and all-purpose kitchen blades. Many have the rippled effect of Damascus steel.
I ask him about the secret of making the finest Damascus steel blades.
“It began about 800BC and no one knows who was the first to make blades with it,’’ says Gardner, who is known by one and all, it hardly needs to be said, as Baz.
And for custom-made keepsakes he will use any metal you provide, from a meteorite that landed in the backyard to the barrel of grandad’s rifle. Interestingly, Baz says there’s quite the demand for meteorite blades.
Generally though, he uses a mixture of sawmill blades and old files, which have the right combination of carbon steel and tungsten.
“They make a good marriage,’’ he says.
“Sawmill blades are one of the best steels you can get for holding an edge. It’s easier to sharpen than stainless steel and holds an edge better.
“We have made knives for witches, warlocks, druids and Freemasons for purposes ranging from religion to target practise.
The steels are mixed together in the forge in a process called fusion welding at 2300F.
“Then we hit what comes out with a hammer and it’s no longer a mix of steels. We draw it out one metre and fold it and roll it twice then chop that into eight pieces.”
The eight pieces are then stacked on top of each other then get fused together and drawn out into the final length of the sword or knife.
Now the real work begins – turning those layers into a knife.
The final step is to create a great handle out of some Mallee root. “A lot of our timber is from Queensland and Western Australia.”
“I also enjoy using Australian timber for the handles of my knives, from gidgee through to lace sheoak, eucalyptus vasticola and Mallee varieties. These are really beautiful and richly textured timbers that enhance the look and feel of a handmade knife.”
Making the handle is child’s play after forging such a potent instrument.
“There is something very pleasing to use your hands to create something of beauty that people will spend the next 20 years enjoying,’’ he says.
“A lot of our carving knives and forks are passed down as heirlooms.
So much for the rewards: the challenges are etched into his hands, and one of his digits bears a fresh wound.
“I took a hunk out of one this morning,’’ he says. “I’ve got nine more – it’s part of the deal.”
Apart from the occasional wound, Baz says working at the forge in the Barossa is “pleasing to the soul”.
“It’s a lifestyle up here. We have 90 cellar doors if you are into wine and we have family friendly wineries.
“There is something about the beauty of the place when the canola is in bloom.”
He says many of his visitors are interstaters who come to the Barossa to make knives they are captivated by the beauty of the valley.
“We are 1 hour out of Adelaide and people can come up here, not at a great cost, and have a great time.
“For me it’s a little piece of heaven. I get a lot of peace and quiet I don’t get in Adelaide. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family – there is a great history to the place.”
“There is a community atmosphere – a special feeling when I drive off the freeway and onto the road into Tanunda. There is a feeling of place.”
Gardner says his own kids are in their 40s now, and visit with his grandkids.
“They get a chance to get away from the city and enjoy the tranquillity. It revitalises the soul.
“And it helps if you don’t mind a drop of wine.”
Gardner’s journey as the knife man of the Barossa began back in 1995. At the time he had no idea there was any such thing as a handmade knife.
“I went to a knife show in Adelaide and was walking around absolutely amazed the people there had actually made the knives that were on display.”
At the time he was working at a road construction job and after being there for 18 years, he’d had enough of the long seven to five routine.
“Something within me was driven to wonder if it was possible to actually become a full time knife maker … a seed had been sown. So I approached one of the guys I met at the knife show, who was happy to show me how he made knives.
He researched the ancient art, one of mankind’s oldest and eventually got to the point where he felt confident enough to actually go out on his own to produce a knife that people would be able to use, appreciate and enjoy.
“Since that first seed was sown all those years ago at the knife show, I’ve always known in my heart that I would achieve my dream of becoming a full time knife maker.”
“There’s something about the sounds of the workshop – it’s the song of the anvil… the roar of the forge… and the smell of burning gloves.”
To really get a feel for the art, Gardner’s workshops provide hands-on experience in knife making and take a minimum of one day, including a light luncheon at Seppeltsfield winery.
“People who have done the workshops go home and wow their friends and family with the beautiful and functional knives they have made. We also teach them how to care for their knives.”
And the blades that come out of the workshops are all unique – because the students craft them.
All workshops are run ‘on-demand’ although a maximum of two students per workshop means they are often booked out months in advance and Gardner is already fully booked for January 2016.
Aside from the workshops he runs out of the Coach House to pass on his hard won knowledge, his focus now is producing a range of unique kitchen knives with a Japanese influence.
“I’m so inspired by the Japanese craftspeople and the traditional Japanese-style of knives like the Deba, the Usuba, the Gyutou and Nakiri.”