Written by John Williams
Willie Van Niekerk’s understanding and knowledge of knives can be traced right back to his early childhood, to the southern part of the Kalahari Desert, where he grew up as a farm boy. In the African bush, he says, you use a knife six, seven, eight times a day, and it becomes a part of you. You rely on a knife; without one, you are stranded.
When he was sixteen, as part of the school curriculum, he decided to go on a survival course. He remembers it clearly. “When we arrived at the farmhouse, the first thing we were told to do was drop off our backpacks at the rondavel a traditional circular African outbuilding with a thatched roof and walk around to the back, where we were each given an apron, a hammer, and a piece of flat bar. There was an open coke fire and a line of workstations along this old railway line that was to act as an anvil. We were told, ‘today, we’re going to teach you how to make a knife’.”
As he started to make his knife, something came to mind that his father had told him – ‘if you attempt something in life, try your best and make your first shot your best shot.’ “And I did,” he smiles. “I really tried hard to make that knife a good knife, and I still have that knife today.”
After they’d finished making their knives, the boys were told to empty out their backpacks and hand over all the other knives and tools they’d brought with them to the camp. They were then told that the knife that they’d made that day would be the only knife that they were allowed to use for the next three weeks. “I could see the disappointment on the faces of the guys who’d decided not to make a good job of their knives. My knife became the most used knife during those three weeks. No joke,” he grins.
When he left school, Willie joined the military. “When you’re in a survival situation, your number one tool is your knife,” he says. “I quickly learnt that the standard issue knives we were given weren’t the best, so I made my own, and started making tactical knives for all the other guys, too.”
Fast-forward thirty odd years, and we find Willie living in more sedate surroundings, in leafy Westmere, with his partner Angela; his day job, working five days on, five days off, as an avionics engineer, allowing him to really dedicate time to pursuing his passion for making knives.
“Before I met Angela, I hadn’t made many knives for the kitchen or domestic use. They’d mostly been for either survival or hunting,” he says. “My mind set has since changed from combative to compassionate, and I now want to make knives that can be used in a more ‘friendly’ environment – I can thank Angela for that.”
Willie crafts his knives out of a small, simple workshop in his back yard. He also has a small outdoor furnace, just big enough to accommodate short blades less than 8 inches long. It’s ‘old school’. This is no robotic production-line process. Here, every knife is individually drawn out by hand, cut to shape, and ground, tempered and polished into a unique piece of art. “No one knife is exactly the same,” he says.
One of the unique directions Willie has taken his designs is in the choice of material he offers for the handles. In addition to the usual array of native timbers, he uses Kirinite, a durable acrylic resin, most commonly used for tenpin bowling balls, that comes in a myriad dazzling colours and psychedelic patterns. Willie gives the credit for the idea of making the knives more colourful and fun to Angela, who wanted to break the mould of what a kitchen knife ‘should’ look like. It’s also a point of difference to what’s on offer in specialist kitchen shops and department stores.
“For me it’s about individuality. I can custom-make a knife for your needs that fits your hand – be you left-handed or right-handed – and you can choose the colour and material the handle is made from – whether it’s a native New Zealand timber, antler, bone, steel, or Kirinite that comes in over 40 different colours.”
Looks, colours and shapes are all well and good, but a knife will ultimately be judged by its performance – and its blade.
What Makes a Good Knife?
“At the end of the day, the make and break of any knife is its edge. You’re buying the edge of that knife,” says Willie. “The only sharp thing on a knife should be the apex of the blade. The handle must feel comfortable in your hand and fit your hand perfectly.”
“It must also be balanced,” he says, placing the bolster of the knife he’s holding on his outstretched index finger. It waivers to and fro momentarily, before coming to rest in perfect equilibrium.
Where the balance does differ is when you have cleaver – when you need a ‘bit of grunt’, as Willie puts it. But he says he always rounds the tip of the cleaver blade slightly, so that you can rock the knife when you’re slicing garlic, chilli or herbs.
“I always design my knives with a deep cut-away at the heel end of the blade, so that your fingers will never feel uncomfortably close to the cutting edge. And our knives are built for strength with a full tang, meaning that they are made from one solid piece, from the tip of the blade to the butt of the handle, with the two handle pieces pinned on to the tang, one on either side.”
Willie’s favourite knife is his modern take on the traditional Japanese Santoku – a multi-purpose kitchen knife with a wide blade. “Once you start using it, it will very quickly become your go-to knife in any circumstance. Because of its wide blade, you can do an incredible amount of work very quickly, using it to scoop up what you’ve just chopped.”
“The profile of the edge of the blade is authentic to the traditional Santoku design. I’ve just made it heavier and adjusted the handle so that it’s still perfectly balanced,” he goes onto explain. “And because of the quality of the steel it’s made from, it can hold an incredible edge.”
Caring For Your Knives
“Always hand wash your knives, and never ever put a good knife in a dishwasher,” warns Willie. Why? “First of all, the cleaning tablets are very aggressive and if you have an ultra-fine edge on your knife, the chemicals in the tablet will attack it. That’s number one. Number two, you have all kinds of things swinging and moving and banging around in there, which is not good for your knives. And then, there’s the tremendous heat and cooling down, which again is no good for the knives.”
Knives should be stored individually in a wooden knife block, a wooden insert in a drawer, in a knife roll, or on a magnetic rail on the kitchen wall – never thrown together in a drawer. Firstly there’s the damage it will cause to the blade. Secondly, it can be hazardous when going to retrieve a knife from the drawer. Also, don’t use a knife on a stone or stainless steel bench, or a glass cutting board. Always use wooden, plastic or teflon chopping boards.
“If you follow these simple steps, for everyday use in the kitchen, your knife should last a year before it needs to be properly re-sharpened,” says Willie. “Because the steel I make my knives from is so hard, I recommend using a ceramic rod for maintenance sharpening, not a normal steel.” He goes onto say that you should give your knife a quick few strokes using the ceramic rod when you feel it is losing its sharpness – at an angle of approximately 15 degrees on both sides, not using a lot of force, just lightly, to maintain the edge.
Willie has generously agreed to donate one of his custom-designed kitchen knives to one lucky Ray White Damerell Group subscriber. Simply like our page and share this post and you will be in the draw to win a superb new kitchen knife.