Barry Gardner teaches how to make beautiful knives.

Story By John Kruger

Greg Varidel stands at a belt grinder, slowly working a layer of black carbon and impurities off a billet of steel to reveal a shiny new surface underneath. Sparks fly as he works the steel along the belt until it gets too hot to hold. Then he dips it in water and there’s a burst of vapour before he starts again.
Greg, who admits he usually does “soft-handed office work” is undertaking a custom knife-making course in an old coach-house in Seppeltsfield, in the Barossa, SA. He works as a community services manager for the Salvation Army in Adelaide.

He says he’s not intimidated by machinery and hand tools, but when he started the course his first job was to draw out the shape of his knife on a blank piece of custom-made steel. Course instructor Barry ‘Baz’ Gardner asked Greg, “Can you draw?” and Greg replied, “I’m not artistic. I can’t sing, I can’t draw and I can’t play a musical instrument.” But he’s now happily grinding away as his knife begins to take shape.

On the other side of the shed, Robert Wallis, a technical writer specialising in software documentation, is hammering out another knife. He first did the course back in November 2014, but he’s been back almost every weekend to help out and continue to learn. Although the work can be physically laborious and hot, Robert finds it cathartic. “It’s something you do to relax,” he says. “You turn something raw into something beautiful. The handles just started out as blocks of wood, but now look at them.”

Baz has been a Barossa resident for 18 years. He’s been a jack-of-all-trades, from house painter to limousine driver. Around the same time he moved to the Barossa he saw some homemade knives at a gun show in Adelaide. “They were better than the ones you can buy and I was intrigued,” he says. “The guy said to come and have a look at how they’re made, and from that point I knew that this is what I’d be doing.” Baz is continually researching metals, forging and different knife styles with Japanese knife- and sword-making skills of particular interest. He’s hoping to secure a Churchill Fellowship to continue his studies, travelling to Sakai in Japan, Thiers in France and Sheffield in England to focus on business models and technical skills.

His residency at Seppeltsfield took place after he was spotted at a local market selling his knives. The CEO of The Jam Factory, Brian Parkes, offered Baz a place at a new location in the Barossa in 2013. The Jam Factory is a not-for-profit organisation bringing different artists, craftspeople and designers together. The Adelaide-based headquarters has been a tourism focal point for years and the new Seppeltsfield location is attracting about 200 visitors a day.

At first, Baz was only producing knives for sale, but a visiting woman asked, “Do you do workshops? I’ll pay you now.” So his first student was a woman who made a knife while her husband was out watching the cycling race Tour Down Under. Now they make a ritual of it, returning to watch the race and make another knife.

Teaching is now Baz’s main source of income, but he admits he still has thousands of knife designs in his head that he wants to make. Baz uses old circular saw blades, metal files and ball bearings, and one local brings in old Jaguar car parts to be melted down. “We recycle as much steel as we can,” he says. “I prefer to use the old steel because it’s got good qualities. One lady had an old .22 rifle handed down from her grandfather. She didn’t want a gun in the house so we made the barrel into a blade and the stock into a handle. She’s still got the gun, but it’s now a knife.”

Chefs are coming from Perth, Sydney, Geraldton, Geelong, and the UK to learn how to make their own knives with Baz. “It’s quite primal,” he says. “We impart a little bit of the old skills. People want to use their hands and create something.” Police officers, priests, fathers and sons, and also quite a few mothers and daughters come and do the course, with about 20 percent of the participants being female.

This story excerpt is from Issue #104

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2016