It’s been said that a Damascus steel blade can slice through the barrel of a rifle. While this may be urban legend, such tales have lived through the ages for a reason – these blades were seen as razor-sharp, strong and flexible during the Crusades.
That was a long time ago, of course, but the art of crafting Damascus steel blades is still alive – alive in what might seem to be the unlikeliest of spots, far from its Syrian roots. In the sleepy Otago town of Omakau a blacksmith is toiling. He folds layer upon layer of steel, over and over, heating the steel white-hot – hammering, folding. Incorporating different pieces of metal, the knife takes shape and is sharpened. Cleaned off, it is then submerged in a solution. When it emerges, the blade looks like disturbed quicksilver – that’s the different layers of steel showing through.
The man behind this blade is Peter Lorimer. His particular skill set has paid his stipend for about 20 years now – but the career could be considered a beautiful accident.
“I never worked with my hands,” Lorimer recalls. “It was just a bit of fun, it wasn’t something I had ever done before.”
His previous career in IT and tech is now a distant memory. Lorimer’s craft started out of curiosity and frustration. He wanted a good knife, without the daunting price point. He picked the brains of a friendly blacksmith and the rest, as they say, is history.
Presents for family and friends were first, then replacing “old faithful” for chefs followed. Now Lorimer is importing sheets of Austrian steel, combining it with New Zealand bone, paua and wood. Some of the blades contain a piece of history that is unique to its owner and to a time and place, whether that’s old springs from a defunct New Zealand Railway locomotive or wrought iron salvaged from the old Westport Wharf.
It’s about creating a product that has its own personality, something that can’t be replicated, and for that reason his knives are highly sought after in chef circles – his clients include the likes of Al Brown and Peter Gordon. Lorimer continues to take bespoke requests, whether that be for Damascus steel dough scrapers or hacksaw-like bread knives.
One of his most famous knives, a rounded chef’s knife about 12cm long, is his herb knife. It was a mistake, he explains: “It cut down into a little round thing.” But, as fate would have it, “I had a friend in Christchurch who said ‘I have a mate with one arm’.” It was the perfect mistake for the one-armed man, as its rolling action made it much easier for him to work with.
Peter Gordon, meanwhile, now uses the knife for meat, says Lorimer, as it allows him to get into the hard-to-reach places. “It’s just a nice little shape. I saw that someone had been using it as a foraging knife.”
The different ways people use knives the world over fascinates him. He refers to Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, a critically acclaimed 1994 Taiwanese film centred around food. In the opening scene, the character of Mr Chu shows speed and precision with a hulking blade that many would cringe at the sight of.
A chopped digit waiting to happen.
“You see him with this big cleaver and he is slicing chillies with it. Every culture has all these different [uses for knives].”
That’s the nature of what he creates, he says. No matter their shape or size, knives are adapted to be worked with. That’s the beauty of his craft.
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