Human Documentaries

The Bladesmith; In pursuit of steel perfection

He’s one of my oldest, loyal and humblest friends. His name is Murray Roberts and I’ve known him since I was about 5. We were in the same class. One of my clearest early memories of Murray was when we had a fight at about the age of 11. I could be an obnoxious child and had overstepped the line with a cheeky and disrespectful comment. He got so angry with me that he threw my pencil and my ruler right across the classroom and I learned then and there, that my friend has his limits. And the boundary was set for both him and I. The next day everything was back to normal and we were friends again, only I was less cheeky (to Murray at least) and Murray was still happy to be my friend!

Some 30 years later, here I am having a cup of coffee discussing ‘limits’ with Murray. Of course I had already learned Murray’s limits, but it took my friend a very long time to learn his own limits.

For as long as I can remember, Murray worked relentlessly. He’d get a high pressured job that would involve round the clock management of people and operations. He’d start before the sun was up and he’d get home late, often working a gruelling 7 day week.  Eventually he’d burn out.

“The road you travel will remain as your destiny till you change the road.” Mehmet Murat Ildan

We all get to that point sometime in our life when we want to rethink things, change direction or possibly prioritise or focus on something particular.  Either way, it involves ‘change’ and requires a fair bit of courage to step into a new story – to see the possibility of another ‘way of life.’ To identify what you want and what you don’t want, then to make it happen.

A couple years ago Murray made the decision to change the course of his life. As a child, he’d grown up watching his father make knives as a hobby and once or twice he got to try his hand at making one himself. Hours passed as he’d hammer and grind the metal bar, shaping it into a workable knife. It was a labour of love and the beginnings of a keen interest in bladesmithing. 30 years on, he’d sign up for a Basic Blacksmithing course offered by Guy Sterling in Howick. He wanted to learn how to forge a knife. Murray believed that if it gave him as much enjoyment as metal work did growing up, he could potentially make a business of it, and spend his time in a creative space, doing something he loves.

Murray Roberts Bladesmithing in Dargle
Murray Roberts Bladesmithing

In Murray’s own words, ‘He did the course with Guy, and never left!’ After a week of burning metal and forging knives in Guy’s workshop, Guy cut an extra set of keys and kindly invited Murray to stick around and to continue learning and practicing the ancient art of forging knives.  With Guys generous offer to share space, tools and knowledge and with the loving support of Wendy, Murray’s fiancé, he was able to continue with his passion for bladesmithing. Soon after confirming that bladesmithing is what he wanted to do fulltime, Murray signed up and completed the ‘Hennie Van Brakel course of handcrafting knives using stock removal,’ followed by the intense two week American Bladesmith Society course offered by ABS Mastersmiths Kevin and Heather Harvey.

“The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you or gives you a sense of meaning, joy or passion.” – Terry Orlick

It’s a summer morning and I’ve met up with Murray at the workshop. We’re sitting outside in the shade of an old Poplar Tree, drinking Frisco coffee and catching up on the 10 years or so of life that have flown by since our last meeting.  Murray tells me his story and how he has got to where he is, to the point of being a full time, business owning Bladesmith!

Step into the Workshop!

The most I knew about knives is that I like them sharp! Truthfully, I had never put too much thought into how a knife is made. Forging, quenching and stock removal were concepts that were as foreign to me as my first science class! And I had no idea about the time and skill that goes into handcrafting a knife. I had a lot to learn today!

When I stepped into the seemingly dark workshop, I was instantly transported into another world; a fascinating work space lit by a few antique looking lamps, a space with nuts and bolts overflowing, traditional hand saws that I last saw being used in Malawi, anvils – so many of them, old rusted signboards, strange looking tools that seemed fit to castrate a bull or that resembled 16th century torture tools! I saw old radios, axes, a selection of handcrafted hunting knives, draws overflowing with bits and bobs from golf balls to fan belts. None of it made sense to me, but my goodness, this place completely consumed me! If there was ever such a place that Einstein escaped to, to inspire some creativity and to create some theories, this workshop would be it! It’s a world of its own, and I can quite see how Murray is in his element here, designing and handcrafting knives, enjoying the solitude and peace a space like this offers, all the while doing something he loves.

Murray Roberts Bladesmithing

Handcrafted knives to order

Murray handcrafts knives to order. Some of his most recent creations have included tailor-made steak knives, chef knives and hunting knives – all crafted with a choice of ‘handle’ from a selection of African hardwoods, as well as the option of either forged, marbled Damascus or stainless steel blades.

Murray makes handcrafted knives using 2 different methods of knife making.

The first is the ancient art of Bladesmithing; of shaping steel into a knife or sword by using a forge, hammer, anvil or other shaping related tools. It’s the method that reigned during the Iron Age, in the times of the Roman Empire and the Vikings in the North, all largely owing their victories to the highly skilled Bladesmiths of their time, who timeously supplied their armies with strong iron blades and swords.

The second method Murray uses to shape knives is by ‘Stock Removal.’ Stock Removal is the method of shaping a stainless steel knife using a grinder. Stainless steel blades are the popular modern day knives most of us are familiar with; a rust-proof hardy blade made with a mixture of iron, carbon and chromium. Chromium is the element that prevents rusting. Murray uses a variety of stainless steel alloys (combinations of metal) for his blades, of which all have a high carbon content and are popular for their durability, blade sharpness and strength.

In addition to these two methods of knifemaking, Murray also offers his customers the option of a Damascus Blade – a legendry blade with distinct marble-like patterns, renown for its strength and a knife that is a true showpiece. Making a Damascus knife is a process that was almost lost in history, but one that seems to be making a strong come back with today’s blade enthusiasts.

Knives like these won’t be found in a mass producing kitchenware shop. They’re a work of art that requires skill, precision and whole lot of patience! Handcrafting a knife can take a few solid days of work and processes to get the required end result – a unique and efficient knife that is not only a showpiece but one that offers its user durability, practicality, strength and sharpness.

Murray also refurbishes knives for customers as well as offers a sharpening service – sharp knives being a must for all foodies, cooks and chefs! You’ll find him in the Howick area in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. But if it’s a handcrafted knife you are looking for, Murray has made knives for customers all over the world and will get it to you, wherever you might be!

Over and above the business of handcrafting knives, Murray and Guy Sterling have teamed up to offer a Full day or a 2 day introductory bladesmithing course that will teach you the basics of bladesmithing and the opportunity to discover and try out some of the ancient knifemaking processes. They are also in the process of designing an Axe making course. This brand new course will be available soon. Murray and Guy also offer company teambuilding days and courses for groups of up to 4 people. Contact either Murray or Guy for more information.

Murray Roberts Bladesmithing Facebook Page

Contact Number: +27 (0) 64 893 6966.

Guy Sterling of Sterling Wrought Iron +27 (0) 82 218 1614

Sterling Wrought Iron Website

Guy Sterling in action!

9 replies »

    • I’m sure, Lianne. Photographing people must be one of the most difficult things to do. That is why I prefer landscapes. 😉
      I also loved the post, as my husband and his dad, about 10 years ago, did a week long course with Heather and Kevin to learn how to make Damascus steel. Something they both thoroughly enjoyed, and which he often wishes he has more time for as a hobby, although currently his passion is making clocks . . . 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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