Need a kitchen knife that's sharp and balanced just for you? Savernake Knives will make it for you
Next time you watch a television chef chopping away at a bunch of parsley or taking micron thin slices off a carrot, try not to think about the risk to their fingers - instead think about the knife he is using.
Chefs get very attached to their kitchen knives and have very firm views about them - and they will have very firm views about the kitchen knives being made by Savernake Knives in Chisbury. This is a business 'start-up' in the real meaning of the phrase.
Laurie Timpson and Philip Shaw have taught themselves how to make beautiful and lasting kitchen knives that are aimed to fill a hole in the market.
At one end of the market are the artisanal knife makers who produce knives by hand and to individual specifications. They can take weeks if not months to complete one knife and they can charge up to £800 for the privilege. At the mass market end are the kitchen knives most people buy (or get given as wedding presents) and which many chefs use and then throw away when these mass-produced knives run out of sharpness.
Finding a market right in the middle are Savernake Knives who can complete a bespoke knife in a few days. They style themselves as twenty-first century artisans and want to make your perfect kitchen knife - not just anybody's, but yours. They do not do hunting knives, only knives for the kitchen and they come in at £150 and upwards.
Both Laurie Timpson and Philip Shaw have spent many years working abroad - both felt the need to return to the UK and both moved back to live in Wiltshire. Laurie's time in Africa included six years with the HALO Trust - the charity making war torn lands safe especially as regards clearing landmines. It was famously supported by Princess Diana, then by Angelina Jolie and now by Prince Harry.
Philip spent most the last ten years working overseas for Adam Smith International supporting British Government projects. He was most recently leading projects in East Africa and Pakistan and now lives in Great Bedwyn. Laurie lives off-grid in Savernake Forest with his wife and their baby.
After two years spent seeking advice, learning and assembling an amazing range of sophisticated machinery, Savernake Knives had a soft launch just before Christmas.
As their 2017 begins they are launching a period of hard work and marketing to the region's large community of professional chefs and also to keen and committed amateur chefs: "We're offering something unique for them - designing knives to a chef's or cook's own specification to millimetre accuracy, at a reasonable price and in a matter of days."
They both enjoy making knives: "We enjoy our work. We just love making them - we're fascinated by them. They've become a bit of an obsession."
"To do it as we do it", they tell Marlborough.News - almost in unison, "is remarkably complex." Laurie is master of the blades: "Central to what we do is the quality of our steel." And Philip is master of the handles: "We make ergonomic and long lasting handles - for what are very high quality tools."
The process starts with the design - using a top-end 3-D computer programme. The design is then transferred to the computer controlled Haas milling machine, which can produce nine blades in a working day cutting three blades from each piece of steel as it is held on a magnetic chuck.
The milling process can be adjusted down to micron level. (A micron is a millionth of a metre - so, no, you don't get much carrot in a micron thin slice - it was just a figure of speech!)
Each blade is then heated in their furnace to about 1,000 C and then tempered in liquid nitrogen taking it down to nearly 200 C below and giving the blade flexibility as well as strength. There is then a further stage with the blades spending a couple of hours in a tempering oven at 175 C.
After that it is submitted to various forms of abrasive finishing, sharpening and polishing gear to produce the finished hollow ground blade.
For the wooden handles they choose mainly spalted beech and olive. Spalted beech is wood from a beech tree that has been attacked by fungi which leave unique markings and coloration right through the wood.
This wood is stabilised with resin and then baked - giving the wood a heaviness and also a surface that is good for cleanliness and hygiene. This process does make shaping the handle quite hard labour.
Laurie Timpson and Philip Shaw have plans for the future development of Savernake Knives. They hope to be able to employ one or more young local workers and to give older people who are still anxious to work, the ability to undertake at home some of the labour intensive but somewhat repetitive finishing processes for the knives.
They have taken an immense amount of trouble to source not just the best materials to work with, but also the best machines to help them do the work. Take a look at their website designed by Silverless the Marlborough design studio.
It shows an admirable transparency in what they are doing and their gratitude to all those who have inspired them and supplied their workshops.
And to think that at one time they had decided their future lay in producing axes.
Most photos by Niels van Gijn of Silverless. Click on photos to enlarge them.