Classic European and Japanese knives, made in the Waikato
Peter Hohenberger named the first knife he made, Victoria. It was a classic European all-rounder, a chef’s knife suitable for almost everything and, most importantly, it was the perfect size and weight for his “rather large paws”.
Victoria (the name felt right) was developed after Hohenberger was dissatisfied with a Swiss-made kitchen knife he had bought. He and his wife, Rossi Walter-Hohenberger, are keen cooks, enjoying Japanese, Moroccan, French, and Mediterranean food, and they are fussy about their knives. So when the Swiss knife wasn’t up to the job, Hohenberger thought, “I could do better”.
That was three years ago. Now, in the modest-but-meticulous workshop at the bottom of his Raglan garden, Hohenberger makes chefs’ knives of great beauty, in classic European and Japanese designs, at a rate of about one a week.
“That’s about 50 [knives] a year, it is a hobby,” he says. “I love cooking and I love knives, and I have collected them all my life.”
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Knife-making is one more skill developed by the multi-talented Hohenberger, who trained as an electrician in his native Germany, then later moved into the electronics industry. In New Zealand, he ran motorcycle tours for German tourists and, in 1994, he and Rossi settled at Moonlight Bay, Raglan, where they enjoy a number of artistic interests and glorious coastal views.
Hohenberger’s artisan brand is Elven Blades, inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies, and the elf Legolas, whose swords were the work of a New Zealand swordsmith. “They were beautifully made with steel, brass, and beautiful handles. I wanted to make something similar.”
He has developed five European knife templates, in different weights and lengths, and five in his Japanese series. The biggest knife is a long-bladed Japanese instrument designed for sashimi, and the smallest is a kiridashi, a handy paring knife.
They are lined up on a table in the studio of his Raglan home, the blades painstakingly fashioned from high-quality Damascus steel, and each is fitted with a solid brass bolster, where the blade meets the wooden handle.
Hohenberger mostly uses native timber for the handles, and recently a friend, who is a fencer, gave him an ancient tōtara fence post that will be a useful source of wood.
Elven Blades come with unexpected extras: a handcrafted wooden saya (the Japanese word for scabbard), which Hohenberger makes for each knife, and a small heart insignia on each blade.
“Everything I do, I do with my heart. The knives are a labour of love.”
On this visit, there is also a charming knife-making lesson, Hohenberger-style, and for this we head to the workshop to learn new terms and techniques.
Elven Blades, he says, have full tang handles, meaning the blade and handle are a single piece of steel, and the steel handle is sandwiched between two pieces of wood. The full tang provides greater strength. It is unbreakable, says the maker, who dislikes knives where the steel ends at the handle and is glued into the wood.
His knives begin with a single bar, or billet, of Damascus steel, hand-forged in Pakistan, and known for its uniquely tough yet flexible qualities and distinctive feathery patterns. Hohenberger cuts the knife template with an angle grinder, then there are hours of grinding on different machines, and by hand, until he is satisfied with his work.
The blade is hand-polished for a mirror shine, then placed in an acid bath to restore the distinctive Damascus steel feather or wild twist pattern that has been lost in the grinding. It is polished again, and sharpened, then there is further work on the bolster, handle and scabbard. For some knives, he makes presentation boxes from off-cuts of wood.
Elven Blades are sold through Hohenberger’s Facebook page and by word of mouth. They are priced at $500-$600, complete with bespoke scabbard.
He reiterates that this is a hobby, and it has given him great satisfaction from the beginning. Oddly enough, he doesn’t use his own knives in the kitchen, and one of his four daughters, who all live in Germany, has the first Victoria he made.
“It’s a piece of art. I love making them and selling them, and I love the feedback. It makes me very happy.”