Honing his craft as a knife maker

Today we begin a new series by KATE RYAN, called ‘Me And My Craft’, featuring interviews with a new generation of crafts people, resurrecting traditional skills associated with food and drink. Here we feature knife maker Fingal Ferguson of Gubeen Cheese fame
Honing his craft as a knife maker
Fingal Ferguson, Gubeen, knife maker, at his home and his workshop in West Cork. Picture: Emma Jervis Photography

FINGAL Ferguson is a contender for Ireland’s busiest person. Farmer, butcher, charcuterer, husband and father to four energetic children and, in what can laughably be referred to as his “free time”, one of Ireland’s foremost knife makers.

Where some kids pretend to be Rambo, He-Man or a soldier victorious in battle, sword in hand, knife between teeth, Fingal had an altogether different introduction to knives and one that he freely admits happened too early!

“I inherited a box of knives from my uncle who passed away a long time ago in India, collected on his travels around the world. It was a completely random selection: a wonderfully dodgy flick knife, a stiletto knife, even a head-cutting-off kinda piece.

“Each of the knives were very different but each one served a purpose. They had been a tool to somebody and were unique depending on culture and regional identity.

“I was given them too young, throwing them at trees and busting a few. As I got older I tried to fix them, started looking after and appreciating them.

“One day I asked myself a simple question — how do I sharpen a knife? Anyone can put an edge on a knife, but to get a blade so sharp it can cut super fine slices of sashimi with one stroke of a blade — how can I do that?”

Growing up on Gubbeen, Fingal was surrounded by the pioneering community of food producers and craftspeople in West Cork. One such person is Rory Conner, one of Ireland’s few full time knife makers, based in Ballylickey.

“I began dabbling in butchery and started to understand the connection between knives and food. Years later, I had an opportunity to make a knife with Rory, a friend of the family I’ve known all my life. Mum (Gianna Ferguson) would have always gone to him for really special presents and specially commissioned knives for our cheese, things like that.

“Rory learned his knife craft from Bob Lovelace in the US, an incredible fact he never talks enough about. I’m like a second generation Bob Lovelace knife maker: I learned from Rory, Rory learned from Bob — it’s special.

“Rory was extraordinarily generous with his time. We went through the process of grinding a blade, heat treating and putting the handle on it. In between this process of making the knife with Rory I was doing as much research as possible, just reading and watching, learning all the time.

“It took a while for me to transition into the purer form of knife making: buying the steels, shaping, grinding and heat treating them, mainly because my day job was full on.

“I was part of Gubbeen: the farm, the cheese, creating the smokehouse and curing the meats and becoming a butcher — all of that took precedence. So I never really thought that I would become a knife maker. I guess I just thought it would be a really great skill to have on the side, something I wanted to do, enjoyed and seemed to be pretty good at!”

Fingal identified most of all with chef knives. Growing up in the food world, he had developed an instinctive appreciation for what makes a good chef’s knife.

“All the people I truly love are connected with food. I began making knives for friends as wedding presents and special gifts. I still wasn’t selling them, but this was the point where I started to really become a knife maker.”

John Joe Bowens has a forge not 10 minutes from Gubbeen, “probably one of the best equipped forges in Ireland,” says Fingal, who watched John Joe work with the steel and obsess over the forging process.

“I’d arrive at the forge with my steels and use his kiln for heat treating and quenching, then bring the blades back to the workshop at Gubbeen to finish them off.

“Years ago, John Joe and I went for a weekend workshop with Owen Bush in the UK, he makes axes and swords out of Damascus steel, and we learned about forging from him. From Rory Conner I learned about stock removal; creating the bevels of the blade, grinding, heat treating. I owe a lot to Rory, John Joe and Owen for their time in sharing their knowledge with me.”

I ask Fingal if he considered his knife making a craft or an obsession?

“I think you need to become a little bit obsessed for it to become a craft. Some parts of knife making are easy, but becoming consistent in your craft — that’s the difficult part. Master that, and you can call yourself a craftsman.”

It takes Fingal 15 hours to make a knife, from conceptualising it, making the blank, grinding, time in the kiln, heat treating, quenching, tempering, back to the grinders and buffing it for hours. After that comes the handle: what material to use, bolts, etc — selecting materials that can stand the test of time. But knives are never commissioned. Instead, Fingal makes a knife that he personally feels is good enough with the materials he has to hand.

“I always said I wouldn’t do commissions — it would weigh too heavily with my soul: will they or won’t they like it, what sort of thing do they like, have I done something wrong, am I’m gonna have to start all over again? Whereas if I am making a knife, almost as if for myself, I can decide ‘I like that, I like where that’s gone, I’m gonna stop now’.

The waiting list for a Fingal Ferguson knife is the stuff of legends running at somewhere north of five years — a rough guess as completing the knives is dependent on that precious spare time of his.

“I can’t make enough at the moment so I’m just working through the list. I’ve been making knives for about 10 years, but they have only really been shining for the past five and I’ve really had to put my head down for the past couple of years when the celebrity chefs started using the knives!”

Fingal flinches at the thought of name-dropping, but of course things will always go stratospheric when the likes of world-renowned Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann declares Fingal Ferguson to be the best knife maker in the world right now.

So, how does Fingal identify himself? Is he a butcher, a charcuterer or is he a knife maker?

“I think it’s easier to say ‘I’m from Gubbeen’. The knives are an emotional crutch, I call it my knife therapy. It’s me in here making something. I grew up in the food world, knives are just something I happen to be good at. If I were given an ultimatum to close the smokehouse and be a full time knife maker, or never make a knife again both would be heartbreaking. The smokehouse and the knife making go hand in hand, but being able to do something unique with the knives has helped them to stand out.”

See www.fingalfergusonknives.com

Next week: Kate Ryan talks to Andrew Collins, Artist at Fead Design.

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