Knife making is far from a dying craft

Carol O’Callaghan meets a man on the cutting edge of craftsmanship who is also the entrepreneur behind the Gubbeen range of cured meat products.
Knife making is far from a dying craft

The knife is a curious combination of usefulness and danger, even from its most primitive beginnings, when it was no more than a flint honed by our prehistoric forebears, it was rendered a sufficiently sharp and effective enough implement to carve up a woolly mammoth.

In the main, it’s now a mass-produced household item, but there are a few dedicated craft makers who are still honing metal and wood into knives for functions ranging from hunting to food preparation.

The latter is the focus of Fingal Ferguson’s knife-making which initially, was an adjunct to his family’s farm business in Gubbeen, Co Cork, but something he has now grown passionate about.

Knife maker Fingal Ferguson at work.
Knife maker Fingal Ferguson at work.

Brought up on the farm, he was, from a young age, aware of the need for different knives for different jobs, something that became even more relevant to him in his work as a butcher for the last 18 years.

However, it was the chance occurrence of his uncle leaving him his knife collection that got Fingal interested in the making of implements.

“I was young at the time and I damaged some of them, so I started repairing them and learned online how to shape a knife properly,” he says

Mainly self-taught, the legacy was the beginning of something in which he really immersed himself eight years, ago and now maintains on a part-time basis, in between farming and butchering.

However, his craft has garnered national and international attention for something he considers a hobby, so there are now 360 people on his waiting list, which developed once he had an online presence.

A finished blade with a Damascus steel pattern created from the forging process.
A finished blade with a Damascus steel pattern created from the forging process.

“I was blown away by the response and this huge wall of emails that came in,” he says.

“But things can’t just be churned out like if you were making handmade cakes or sausages — where the output can be upped.”

It’s clear that knife-making is a slow, time-consuming process but for Fingal it’s also a labour of love, and one not necessarily motivated by earning a living — but time away for a busy man who has developed a range of 50 cured meat products under the Gubbeen brand, and who is raising four children under the age of eight.

“It’s where I can go into the man cave and do something to relax,” he says.

He also maintains that the success of a handmade piece is dependent on the mood of the maker at the time.

“Hand forging can create an amazing finish,” he says.

“But handling of the raw material is what’s critical here. You could have the best quality material but not handle it right.”

A finished knife amid the debris of Fingal’s workshop.
A finished knife amid the debris of Fingal’s workshop.

This is why Fingal — like quite a few other craft makers — does not take commissions, as he considers it ties him by having to meet a brief, but once he’s made some knives, he then lets the waiting list choose what they want.

He readily admits that manufactured knives can be made to a high quality too, but he also says, “Handmade is individual, no two knives are the same as there’s no template or mould.”

Mainly his clientele are drawn from the professional cooking world but there are also individuals who may be collectors or who want something unique in their kitchen.

This might suggest there is a premium to be paid for a knife that has a beautiful, hand-carved handle and a blade made from the highest quality Damascus steel — a name given to a wavy decorative effect on the blade that is the result of hammering and repeated heating and forging — but, surprisingly, his prices start at €50, although the average is around €250.

His involvement in the family business, which is famous for its Gubbeen cheese, has also seen Fingal develop a range of smoked meat products from pigs which they hand rear.

They may not be as challenging a butchering job for him as a woolly mammoth, but no doubt the process has informed the crafting of Fingal’s handmade knives.

At the moment, his output is just two to three knives per week, so if you’re in dire need of a sharp knife, you might want to make alternative arrangements for the time being, while your name creeps up the waiting list.

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