Oom Bok’s pocket knife legacy

For 70 years, Bok van Niekerk has been crafting knives of exceptional quality and character. Mike Burgess visited him recently in the southern Free State town of Zastron to discover why every pocket knife he creates differs from every other that passes through his creative hands.

Oom Bok’s pocket knife legacy
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“There aren’t two knives that are the same,’’ says 82-year-old ‘Oom Bok’ van Niekerk. “If a person buys a knife from me, then there mustn’t be another one like it in the world.’’ The pocket knives on Oom Bok’s dinner table, which he sells for R1 500 apiece, are indeed very different in shape and size. Their handles are constructed from a remarkable range of materials – from bone and horn to hippo hide and prickly pear leaf – and are superbly complemented by his handcrafted stainless steel blades.

“We knife-crafters reckon we make a better knife than the factories; they temper blades only once – we use three processes,’’
he says. “A handcrafted blade is harder and it keeps its cutting edge for longer.’’

A childhood passion rekindled
Oom Bok crafted his first knife on the family farm Rosslands in the Colesberg district of the Northern Cape in 1944. “I really wanted to have a knife,’’ he recalls.

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The Second World War had led to the collapse of imports – especially of steel – into the country, and there simply were no new knives to buy. In addition, Oom Bok admits that he coveted his father Ben’s small pocket knife. “So I got an old, thin, flat file, and, with an old grinder that I turned by hand, I made my first knife.”

The young Bok clearly had an innate knack for knife-making: soon after the completion of this first knife, his neighbour, Daan van der Berg, bought it. Bok then promptly produced a replacement knife for himself, and continued to craft knives right into adulthood whenever a suitable piece of metal presented itself.

By the 1970s, however, his stone crushing and coal distribution business, which supplied most of southern Lesotho and northern Transkei, had reduced his leisure time and hence his ability to produce knives. This situation changed in the early 1990s, when Oom Bok’s five-year-old grandson Niel asked him to craft a bone-handled pocket knife for him. It proved to be the catalyst Oom Bok needed to make up for lost time.

Oom Bok van Niekerk in his knife-crafting workshop in the southern Free State town of Zastron.

“He asked me to make a knife for him, and I told him that I couldn’t. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer!” he recalls.

Oom Bok made a knife for his grandson, and then went on to consistently produce hundreds more in the next two decades.
In fact, his production has intensified with age and today Oom Bok produces a knife a week from his workshop.

Previously the home’s sunroom and garage, the workshop is now cluttered with machinery (much of which was built by him), freezers, a kiln, long sandpaper belts, tools of various sizes and shapes, steel, wood, bone and horn. It is obvious that Oom Bok is thoroughly at home here.

He is quick to mention that he appreciates Niel’s role in rekindling his childhood passion. It is for this reason that every knife he produces is first carefully acid-etched with the brand name ‘Boni’ – a combination of the first two letters of the the names Bok and Niel.

Quality steel
Oom Bok sources his steel from Knife Machines, Tools and Supplies in Pretoria along with an array of other materials including screws, pivot pins and titanium liner-lock liners. His favourite steel includes German (Böhler) and Swedish (Sandvik). Raw steel is pliable and knife patterns are cut, shaped and sharpened in preparation for a tempering process.

This begins with the blade being fired in a small kiln at a temperature of 1 070°C for 10 minutes before being subjected to a temperature of -40°C for a day. At this stage, the blade will have morphed from a ‘soft’ steel into a hard brittle version: if dropped, it will shatter like glass.

Next, it is heated at 200°C for 30 minutes to become a super-hard and durable stainless steel blade that is then polished and filed to perfection before being set in its handle. The finished Boni blades are impressively varied, and defined by a broad horizontal groove. Besides the groove’s aesthetic appeal, it also has a practical purpose: it ensures an effective grip when pulling the blade from the handle.

The knives are also equipped with simple and effective titanium liner locks to ensure easy, safe storage of the blade in the handle.

Unique handles
“We take a little bit of effort with the handle,’’ says Oom Bok. This is an understatement. The materials used to build the intricate handles on the titanium plates are often searched for in the Free State veld. Horn has always been an important material for Oom Bok, who is still a keen hunter and has over the years collected as many horns as hunting stories. His favourite

Horn remains gemsbok

and springbok, and he also uses warthog tusks extensively. Previously he sourced bone from local butchers and abattoirs, but later has begun sourcing various types of bone from private game reserves and veterinarians. Giraffe bone is his favourite.

“This is the best,’’ he says. “Apparently, most of the animal’s weight is on its front legs, so this bone has the greatest density.’’
Elephant ivory, which he sources from ivory ornaments given to him, remains an important material for strikingly white knife handles, while hippo hide handles are treated with shellac to ensure rock-hard stability and zero-moisture retention.

Oom Bok uses significant amounts of wood not only for his knife handles, but for crafting of neat wooden boxes to house the knives. His favourite varieties include exotic peach, beefwood and cedar, as well as indigenous wild plum and wild olive. Other unique materials include Venus ear shell (set and stabilised between horn), whale tooth and even dried prickly pear leaves, which are stabilised using coloured fibreglass.

Once a Boni knife is eventually rounded off with an intricate handle, it then undergoes its most arduous test yet: winning the approval of Oom Bok’s wife, Thora. “She is quality control,” he chuckles.

Sources: www.kmts.co.za.

Phone Bok van Niekerk on 051 673 1042 or 082 550 2022