Guns led Rick Afonso to knives – twice. But it was knives that have sustained his fascination, and his love of blades has led to immeasurable hours, dedicated to the art of knifemaking.
The Fish Hoek resident, now a proud member of the Cape Knifemakers Guild, will be in his element at the guild’s upcoming show, this weekend.
Rick is an IT systems engineer working for a large Silicon Valley IT company, by day. He describes the appeal of bladesmithing and knifemaking: “I have always been a technologist – I studied electronic engineering after having been an electronics hobbyist – mainly to build hi-fi equipment and run a mobile disco in high school,” he laughs.
“Everything I have studied over the years was engineering or technology-related and there is or was a creative part of me which was never fulfilled – until knifemaking, which gave me an opportunity to express that creativity, as well as learning and working with a lot of different materials and processes.
“Knifemaking,” he said, “is a combination of art, science and engineering – we work with all different sorts of materials, steels, wood, bone, horn, synthetics, machinery, hand work, heat treatment etc. It is a field where we are always learning and having a lot of fun, making essential tools.”
He said his first exposure to handmade knives began on a trip to a gun show early in his high school years. “For the first time, the knives I saw were not generic factory knives but handmade, with varying designs. Material combinations, blades with patterns in the steel (Damascus), handmade leather sheaths etc. These knives were works of art and I thought that’s something I would like to try one day.”
That desire was shelved for a number of years while he studied, did his national service and later married – although the army did remind him of the yen – and he says his Swiss army knife came in handy regularly.
Rick then got involved in shooting sports, competing in IPSC practical pistol shooting. “During this time I started to work with leather, making holsters, mag pouches and belts skills that would come in handy later.”
In 1996 the Afonsos moved to Cape Town and during a visit to a local gun shop Rick spotted and bought his first knifemaking book: Step by Step Knife making – by David Boye.
“I read that book cover to cover, however, it was many years till I actually took my first step into knifemaking, mistakenly believing that to get started required lots of machinery, belt grinders, power tools etc.”
His breakthrough came in 2011 when he came across a simple tutorial on the internet – “The absolute cheapskate way to make a knife”.
“The reason it took me so long to start was the belief that the craft required lots of expensive machinery. Then I discovered that tutorial which showed that knifemaking can actually be done with minimal expensive machinery. The trade-off is that without the machinery it is a lot slower, more time consuming process.
“Having said that, a modest outlay into two main pieces of equipment is all that is really necessary – a belt grinder and a drill press. If one wants to be a blade smith, then a forge and anvil are important. This notwithstanding – most
knifemakers will accumulate a fairly expensive set of machinery and equipment over time, to enable processes to be speeded up, accuracy to be enhanced.”
He ended up buying a piece of N690 steel from Bohler, and with an old drill press, hacksaw, files and sandpaper, made his first knife. “And that was it, the knifemaking bug had bitten me, hard,” he said.
Since then Rick balances his hobbies of knifemaking, mountain biking, shooting and photography with a full-time job. “I don’t have nearly as much time for knifemaking as I would like but I have managed to make around 20 to 25 knives, have built three grinders and other workshop equipment, and gotten thoroughly involved with the craft.
“I am a member of the Cape Knifemakers Club, and was lucky enough to win the club competition in 2013 with my first attempt at a Bowie knife,” he said.
On the subject of time, it is something one needs for the hobby.
“At this stage I am a hobbyist so I have to fit the knifemaking around my life and job, and this obviously takes longer than if I was doing the knife making on a full time basis like some of my friends or fellow guild members.
“Factoring that into consideration, it really does depend on the type or style of knife and the embellishment to be done.
“Technically to make an absolutely basic knife with the simplest of handle materials and no embellishment could be done within a day and a half, whereas building a high end dagger, with Damascus steel blade, spiral handle and twisted silver wire inlay, and a sheath to match; could take many weeks starting with the making up of the pattern welded Damascus steel.”
He says his favourite knife was probably the first KGSA non-guild members competition knife he made. “It was a beautiful blade with stunning gun blued Damascus bolsters and elephant ivory handles. It is my favourite as it was one of the finest pieces of work I have done so far. Unfortunately I don’t have it any more although I am able to see it whenever I would like, as a good friend of mine bought it for his collection.”
Rick says he would encourage anyone who is interested in knives and knifemaking to visit the show, come and talk to the makers, see first-hand what is possible.
“Come and chat to me if you are interested in learning about the art. The quickest way to get started is to do a one-and-a-half to two-day course where people leave with a hand-made knife of their own and an understanding of the processes, machinery, procedures in-
Rick is busy putting together a course with a couple of good friends early in the new year.
“Knifemaking is a fantastic, creative hobby which can, in time, become a business.
“I have a hobby which keeps me thoroughly entertained and learning continuously, and it can generate income unlike previous hobbies which cost me money.”
* The Cape Knifemakers Guild show takes place tomorrow Friday November 24, between noon and 6pm, and Saturday, November 25, between 10am and 3pm, in the Jansen Hall, Jansen Road, Milnerton. Entry is R25 each or R40 a couple (valid for both days).
For more information about the show, contact Neels Roos on 083 449 0799 or Warwick Meaker on 083 225 2241 or visit http://capeknifemakersguild.com/ and find them on Facebook at