The human edge

We are told that the chill, deep caverns know as the Sterkfontein Caves today, were once inhabited by primitive ape-men as far back as 4 million years ago. Later, Australopithecus sheltered there. Such prehumans teetered on the brink of survival because

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Right. A unique one-of-a-kind Damascus sword crafted by the Harveys. It was commissioned by a client as a family heirloom. The meticulous attention to detail is astonishing.

We are told that the chill, deep caverns know as the Sterkfontein Caves today, were once inhabited by primitive ape-men as far back as 4 million years ago. Later, Australopithecus sheltered there. Such prehumans teetered on the brink of survival because their world teamed with dangerous predators, while they had no weapons and lacked the physical strength to fight them off. Humans as a species arrived about seven hundred millennia ago and then everything changed. The narrow cave entrance must have become a busy, noisy workshop with the arrival of the Stone Age. The crack of one rock upon another must have become a familiar sound, echoing through the labyrinth of passages and out over the open grassveld surrounding the ancient shelter.

Such people were apparently our distant ancestors who had mastered the art of turning silica-rich rock into a wide variety of effective stone tools. Most of the tools were flint knives that literally gave humans the edge over their ancient rivals, who were extinct by then. Knife and tool-making technology enabled humans to scavenge, hunt and defend themselves more effectively than their predecessors. The knowledge of and tool-making skills spread to all human populations. Stone tools have been found on all continents except Antarctica. Despite physical weakness, tools turned humans into the planet’s dominant species. We owe our place in the world to knives. Some Stone Age knives were extremely effective especially those made from obsidian or volcanic glass, which is 70% pure silica, formed when lava cools too rapidly for crystals to form. This could happen if lava flowed into water. A flake of obsidian has an edge 500 times sharper than a surgical-steel scalpel and in modern medicine obsidian is used for cardiac and optical surgery.

At around 4 000BC metal replaced stone as the material for tool-making. It was discovered that if copper and tin were melted together it produced bronze, which was hard enough to make swords, knives and other weapons – the Bronze Age was born. Although an important period in the history of civilisation, the Bronze didn’t last long and was followed in about 1 200BC by the Iron Age, which started simultaneously in India, West Africa and Anatolia. It’s notable that no Iron Age culture ever existed in the Americas or Australia, until it was introduced by Europeans. During the Iron Age, hematite, or iron ore was common. It melts at a much higher temperature than required to make bronze, which made it initially very difficult to produce and more valuable than gold. Although wrought iron was weaker than bronze and more prone to corrosion, people switched to making knives and other weapons from it because it could easily be re-sharpened, whereas bronze needed reforging. If carbon is added to and dissolved in molten iron, the iron becomes harder and forms steel, which is a bit more brittle than iron. If more than 2,14% carbon is added, it becomes cast iron. By carefully controlling the amount of carbon, various types of steel can be produced.
These mixes were first tried in India long before the Renaissance.

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A knife for everyone

For centuries most knives were custom-made by those who needed them. It was not until about the 1800s that knife designs were standardised. From then on large scale knife production began in factories situated in regions such as Sheffield in the UK and Solingen in Germany. The craft of custom-making knives became less common. In 1913 Harry Brearley of Sheffield added chromium to an iron-carbon alloy to produce gun barrels less prone to corrosion. He came up with what we call stainless steel, of which at least 150 grades are recognised, depending on the amount of chromium. Today most commercial knives are made of stainless steel.

Interested in knives from early childhood, I was fascinated by Tarzan’s huge Bowie knife which made all the difference between him and the apes that he lived with. Back then one could only buy rather boring factory knives. It was only in the 1970s that the interest in custom-handmade knives revived, and it became big business making a considerable dent in the commercial market. SA has produced some outstanding knifemakers who have marketed their products both locally and overseas. The international knife-buying public became choosy and factories were forced to follow the trends set by the custom-made market. Today some commercially made knives are better made than some of the custom-made knives of just a few years ago. These days bladesmiths who craft custom-made knives have become artists who pay meticulous attention to detail, to stay ahead of the pack.

SA’s own blade specialists

Some time ago, while on a trout fishing excursion in Belfast, I met two of SA’s most outstanding knife-making artists. Their names are Heather and Kevin Harvey and they run a knife-making studio and school, called Heaven Forge, from their rustic home. The workshop oozes an old-world rural atmosphere in downtown Belfast. Both are highly skilled people. Not only is Kevin a qualified mechanical engineer, but Heather trained in the US to become SA’s first female farrier and blacksmith. The couple’s skill is so obvious it’s not surprising that they were both awarded Master Bladesmith status by the prestigious American Bladesmith Society. Heather became the second lady ever to achieve this title. No less remarkable is her uncanny skill at forging her own high quality Damascus steel. In an age-old sword-making technique that hails from the time of the crusaders, thin layers of different types of steel are hammer-forged together to produce an exceptional, durable and beautiful blade.

Their range of knives covers a whole spectrum, but Kevin specialises in high-art, collector’s knives while Heather loves forging Damascus knives. Often they combine their skill. Heather makes the steel and blades and Kevin puts together the other parts of the knife. They rarely accept orders, preferring to make knives by their own inspiration and putting them up for sale once complete. They do however have a “wish list” where a potential customer can describe their desire and if or when such an item is created, such a customer is informed and given the option to buy it. Heavin Forge is a fascinating place to visit and watch the two master craftspeople in action. It’s also a training facility where the public can attend a three-day knifemaking course. While there you also have the option of horse-riding or trout fishing, the Harvey’s other two passions. Unfortunately, the government’s proposed amendments to the Dangerous Weapons Act may force skilled people such as the Harveys to leave the country for destinations where their talents are appreciated. We, as sportspeople would be the losers. Get a copy of the proposed Act and react. – Abré J Steyn (083 235 4822). Contact Kevin or Heather on (013) 253 0914 or e-mail [email protected].