Darryl Hebbes: Berlin Knifemaker

As a South African emigre who’s lived his last six summers in Berlin, Darryl Hebbes describes himself as a “Knife maker, and computer programmer — in that order.”

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There are several similarities between the two metiers, he says. Tweaking sequences of electrons into haiku-simple lines of code, and the thoughtful, painstaking millennia-old craft of knife making both take careful planning and intense focus. Grinding raw steel into whisper-sharp blades is “in magnitudes far, far more dangerous, though!” he says with a wry chuckle. We spoke on a rarely-sunny and bright Berlin winter last Sunday, and talked about his city, the elemental atomics of steel and wood, and the whimsical personality of objects.

What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?

I went to a knife show in Belgium, and that was the highlight of the week. it’s called the Belgian Knife Society Fair in Gembloux.

What do you do for fun?

I sharpen the house knives [chuckles wickedly]!

What would you do if money were no object?

I would build a home somewhere very sunny and I’d have a nice knife workshop.

Where do you live?

I’m living in Berlin, Germany. The city has a major river running through it and it has numerous canals that were once used for transporting coal. Berlin is basically like a swamp. It’s very sandy and you can’t even build above a certain height because you can’t set foundations through to support that. It’s an ordinance and it’s what the ground will bear. Everything’s an ordinance, when you get right down to it, I guess.

What do you love most that’s unique or special to you about your city?

The city has a history of being creative and supporting creativity. It’s somehow always been a very poor city, and I think that’s always created a type of adversity. It attracted people who had to find a way to do things and go out of their comfort zone. I like that about it; it’s happy with you doing anything, it doesn’t mind.

What’s your favourite season of the year?

Summer. You tend to really feel summer in Europe. You tend to wait for it. Winter’s quite charming too… Global warming winter. It used to snow terribly here, and now it doesn’t snow anymore. It’s all more bearable.

What’s your favourite German word?

‘Zeug’. It’s like ‘thing’ in english, it’s like saying ‘flying thing’, or a ‘drive thing’. An aeroplane is a ‘Flugzeug’, a ‘Feuerzeug’ is a lighter.

3 things to do in Berlin?

Visiting the lakes when it’s summer is one of the really great things to do. I have a local flea market that I rummage through every weekend. I go look for sharp things and old school tools. There’s also an old airport called Templehof, that’s been converted into a public space. I just go out there and look around, walk on the runway. It’s amazing.

Do you have a secret spot that you like to escape to?

I have a studio where I go and do knife stuff, in Schöneweide. The name means ‘beautiful pasture’.

What three essentials would you pack when heading to your city?

  • Dancing shoes! Dancing shoes are very important. A very very big part of Berlin culture is the club scene and with that the dancing.
  • Antacid tablets. The food is quite oily and fatty. Not really spicy, but the sort of food you’ll end up eating here as a tourist is… you’ll need a lot of antacid!
  • A good bicycle lock. Definitely.

What, concisely in your own words, do you do?

I identify as a knife maker, but I program as a hobby. I don’t really see myself as an accomplished knifemaker yet. In knife-making terms, one could say I’m a journeyman smith. I’m not like anywhere near where I would like to be. I’m still on that path, I think.

Why do you do it? Do you have a muse, or a real or imagined audience? Is it for money, just for yourself, or both?

I do it because I need to channel — I have an obsessive nature — and have to channel that energy somehow. And I’ve always been interested in form and shape. I have a creative background, and that somehow speaks to the need to connect to shape and form and the world around me. Using very base elements and very historical elements, somehow that has a whole history and mystery behind it.

What brings you the most joy or satisfaction in the process?

It’s hard to say because almost every part of the process is the most exciting part!

“It’s the process not the product.”

If I had to isolate just one, it’s when I’m removing the steel and there’s a new layer exposed every moment, every move. Almost like when you’re carving wood and you see the different rings.

How would you describe your style?

Danish. I seem to be drawn to the Scandinavian aesthetic — very clean lines and sort of minimal. Very well thought through, in the flow of edges and geometry.

If your work was edible, what would it taste like?

It would taste like iron. If you’re working with metal with a high carbon content it can stink! It’s kind of the smell of rust. Knife making has very metallic smells to it.

What spark gets you excited to start a new knife?

What tends to get me going is the tools. If I go to a hardware store, I’ll come back very inspired. Art exhibitions. I draw lot of inspiration from sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and abstract artist Jean Arp and of course other knife makers.

Most sharp objects can get me inspired. Except broken bottles on the pavement!

What are your favourite materials to work with?

Hardwood is the best. My favourite material is African Blackwood (Grenedil). It’s incredibly solid — it’s almost like steel. Steel is also interesting but it’s a lot more complicated. You can do more quicker with wood. I tend to have a thing for the woods. I think because I’m African at heart and there’s a relationship with the trees somehow.

You’ve mentioned Cal Newport’s concept of “deep thought” and “deliberate practice” on your blog. What do these concepts mean to you?

This is more Zen / metaphysical side of making things. Going deep helps you focus. My mind is sometimes too soupy, thoughts mixed and mushed together — and to go deep into something or to do something repetitively and meditatively, like sharpening knives, it somehow helps me focus on the rest of my life. That’s actually how I got into knife-making, was by collecting razor blades and sharpening knives. It allows me to shut out things and to go to a subconscious level with what I’m doing.

“The subconscious often has better ideas. The two million year-old self has better instincts about sharpening knifes than the modern guy living in Berlin.”

How does knife making differ to computer programming? Is there any crossover between the two disciplines?

They are very similar in process, in that you need to plan it through. If you delete steel from a blade, you can’t undo it! You need to do things very iteratively and tiny movements. It’s also in magnitudes far, far more dangerous. When programming you’re only affecting little pixels, electrons in the computer, that’s the only thing you’re really changing besides exercising your finger muscles. But knife making somehow produces this object that people can use. It’s got this permanence.

What’s your favourite knife that you own?

This knife is made by one of the top knife makers in the world at the moment, Bob Kramer. It’s incredibly well-balanced. The thing about knives is that physiology of your hand connects to the balancing point of the knife and the tip needs to be at a geometric point on the hand somehow, and his knives have that perfectly. It’s like an extension of your hand.

What are you currently working on?

A friend of mine gave me a whole lot of 40 year-old blades without handles and I recently added this cherry wood handle. It’s incredibly light and thin. My wife likes it.

If you had to have only one knife, what would it be?

A Victorinox Excelsior single blade, with the legendary red scales. No other tools in it, just this blade. There’s something amazing in the construction, the engineering. The blade shape has a belly, which is great for spreading things.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Keep failing. As Miles Davis once said:

“Do not fear mistakes — there are none.”

If something is too perfect it becomes boring. I like the Japanese idea that you’ve got to work at something till it’s got personality, it’s got character, it’s got flaws. If there’s a knot or hole in the wood, you don’t fill it with resin to get rid of it, you leave it there so that it is like a scar. I like that old trail boot thinking, something that’s beaten into the shape that works best.

What would you say to somebody starting out in your field?

Always wear protection!

“Form a relationship with the material — where it comes from and how it breathes. Like the way you have to understand yourself before you can make friends.”

Once you understand that, you’ll know how to work it.

What other creative pursuits or hobbies do you enjoy?

Travelling in Africa. Maputo is one of my favourite destinations. I think it’s the people. My wife and I formed lasting friendships there. When I’m there I experience the life through them, and it’s really a lovely culture. There’s also a coast north of St. Lucia, 40km from the Mozambique border. I’ve seen a pregnant leatherback turtle come onto the beach to lay eggs. It’s incredible.

You can read more about Darryl Hebbes on his tumblr page http://bladeabbatical.tumblr.com

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Polaroid mixtapes. Here and there. South Africa and Tanzania mostly.

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