Branxton's Craig Maher carving a reputation around the world for custom blades

Craftsman by night: Bladesmith Craig Maher in his Branxton shed.
Craftsman by night: Bladesmith Craig Maher in his Branxton shed.

It’s an amazing feeling to be able to see and to hold an idea in your hands that once existed only in your head; to smell and to taste, or, to read and to feel something that you alone created.

Something that was forged from mere figment and thought into something tactile and real, with a form and function all its own. Something that didn’t exist exactly as is, until you made it so. Creativity is addictive. Indeed, it can be a drug; a double-edged sword, or knife, as the case may be.

“One of my favourite parts of the process is watching the steel move under the hammer,” says Hunter Valley cutler Craig Maher.

“I love watching the hot metal shape and be shaped, knowing that I’m the one moving it on the anvil.

“To see it come together at the end, when it’s finally finished and you can see it, touch it and hold it is a great feeling,” he says.

Maher is an engineer by day and bladesmith by night.

In a shed out the back of his Branxton home, Maher creates aesthetically beautiful knives of form and function, by hand, using natural materials he sources internationally, and from Australia. Knifemaking is Maher’s creative outlet.

“Engineering is very different to knife making,” Maher says, standing in his shed surrounded by tools. “In here, I can be more creative and hands on. I can switch off from the world, hammer out some hot steel and just indulge my creativity.”

Part of the process: Craig Maher's gas forge heating a blade in his Branxton shed. Pictures: Simone De Peak

Part of the process: Craig Maher's gas forge heating a blade in his Branxton shed. Pictures: Simone De Peak

In his shed, Maher has everything he needs for professional bladesmithing. In one corner sits a small cylinder with an arched doorway cut into it. It looks like a cross between a pizza oven and the Death Star (it’s a repurposed gas bottle laid on its side).

This is the forge he built himself to heat the steel up to around 500 degrees Centigrade before he can beat it into shape on the anvil nearby. It roars like a jet engine as it burns.

“I’ll start with a piece of selected steel, heat it up in the forge, and form the basic blade shape,” Maher says.

“From there, I’ll trace a profile of the knife from a master template and continue forging, checking for thickness and straightness. Once I’m happy, I’ll do some rough grinds, some hardening and tempering, before the final grind and some hand sanding.

“Then it’s just a matter of fitting the handle, cleaning and polishing. The last thing I do is sharpening.”

Maher uses a variety of steel materials, including a special type of product commonly known as San Mai, which refers to a knife or blade that has hard steel forming the blade’s edge with an iron or stainless steel cladding laid over the top.

From metal to knife: The stages of making a Craig Maher knife.

From metal to knife: The stages of making a Craig Maher knife.

He uses a composite of artisan Japanese steel called Takefu with a Damascus cladding. Damascus steel is identifiable by its distinctly beautiful patterning, achieved by layering different steels folded and forge-welded together. The patterns are often evocative of the movement of clouds, the flow of water, a rugged coastline, or lines on a topographic map.

“Damascus is shorthand for patterned welded steel. They fold it and fold it, layer upon layer, like compressing a piece of timber, to produce these unique patterns,” Maher says.

Each knife Maher makes is custom made. It can take anywhere between five to six hours to craft just one steak knife, and up to15 hours for a custom chef’s knife, depending on the complexity.

“We live in such a mass produced world. I think what I’m trying to do is come back to the handmade, the craftsman way of doing things,” Maher says.

“I always aim to make something that looks good, that looks attractive, and be something that someone wants to pick up. But, more importantly, it’s got to be functional and useful. It has to be tactile.”

Aesthetics, form and function are what drew chef Frank Fawkner of EXP. Restaurant to Maher and his knives. “We aim to use local artisans where ever possible and Craig’s knives are next level,” says Fawkner. “The quality of his knives is second to none, and just the whole aesthetic is beautiful and really fits with what we’re trying to achieve.”

Maher takes orders for custom knives from people all over the world.

More and more people are now contacting Maher and ordering their own custom knives having seen photos of his work on social media.

“I get contacted from people all around the world. I’ve sent knives to France and to America and Canada,” says Maher.

“It’s humbling to know that someone can see something you’ve made and wants to buy it, own it and use it… Then, to have someone tell you how much they love the knife that you’ve made especially for them is a really great feeling and awesome part of the whole creative process.”

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