Embers, sweat and steel
The ancient art of knife forging: two men from Aschau in Chiemgau keep it alive. All of their Damascus steel knives are unique, each one a masterpiece.
The scene: anvil; mechanical hammer with a leather transmission; lathe. In the open hearth a crackling fire; coal glowing like an orange sunrise; soot stuck to the walls; tables piled with tortoiseshells, antlers, precious woods.
The protagonists: a man with a coffee cup in hand, another with a hand-rolled cigarette; one wearing glasses, the other a ponytail. We explore the realm of Florian Pichler and Luca Distler. The friends bring a medieval trade back to life in their historical workshop at the feet of Schloss Hohenaschau – forging Damascus knives.
The „knife factory“ was born in the basement of Luca Distler’s parents’ house where the two first belaboured heated steel in 2004. A rather unusual hobby to say the least, yet the metal smith and dental technician were interested in the approach to the material. And their skilful hands obeyed much like women at the sight of George Clooney. So in 2009, they dared to leap for independence. At the time, many thought the Damascus duo to be brave if not crazy. Today they receive orders from all over Europe. Customers wait patiently for up to three months or even make a personal appearance to pick up their knives and learn about the intricacies of production. Interestingly enough, the building itself has been standing since 1808 and was previously used as a farriery.
The Damascus concept is understood as an awakening of often erroneous associations. You might think of Arabian Nights swordplay in the Arabian city of Damascus. In fact, Florian Pichler explains that the word is derived from the Arabic „damas“ which means „flowing“ or „aqueous.“ Its decorative, seemingly organic pattern has made composite steel welding so famous. How do these individual patterns develop? They’re caused by many convolutions and the number of iron layers. They give each blade an individual surface that even laymen recognise as exceptional. Do they manufacture knives that are better for use or decoration? „It maintains balance. But we still don’t make that distinction. We produce neither ugly utility knives nor useless decorative knives. Ultimately, our customers purchase these products for luxury, not use value,“ admits Florian Pichler.
For all the nonchalance they exude in their slightly dishevelled work clothes, you can sense their professionalism and self-recognised expertise. „We do not want to serve the entire market,“ emphasises Florian Pichler, for example. „We are among the best. Our workshop will therefore never produce a knife of suboptimal quality at a cheaper price.“ That’s something the customers would know; more importantly, they would appreciate it! And how do you become so skilled that people line up to buy a knife of 450 euros without batting an eye? „Knife forging is an extinct profession. You can’t learn it as an apprentice. You master your skill by doing it,“ replied Luca Distler. Forge, forge, forge!
He heats a steel blank to well over 1,000 degrees, folds it over, hammers the work piece with all his might so the layers compound, lets it melt again, folds it over, hammers away… it’s an arduous procedure lasting up to five hours amounting to hundreds of layers of steel which form the raw material for the blade. Again under hellish temperatures, only then may it be properly shaped. Next, Florian Pichler takes over the fine tuning. He first straightens the blade, then hardens it, fits it with an ornate handle (made of materials such as wood, mother-of-pearl, giraffe bones or fossil ivory – all legally procured, of course) and gives it its proverbial sharpness only at the very end. The effort is well worth it: connoisseurs can immediately tell if it’s from Aschau. Regardless of whether it’s a hunting and outdoor knife, a chef’s knife or „just“ a decorative knife.
Luca Distler and Florian Pichler
83229 Aschau im Chiemgau
Alle Fotos: „Messer-Werk“