Standing at his forge, Luca Distler studies the glowing, 1,200-degree embers intently. Sparks fly, hot slag spits across the workshop. Distler thrusts a pair of tongs bearing a “parcel” of steel weighing 2.5 kilograms into the flames. From this raw mass, the smith will craft his knives. Fire welding is conducted over glowing coals and requires smiths to first produce the material from which a product is formed. Distler’s knives are forged from a special alloy, the nature of which he declines to divulge, comprising three different types of steel.
The parcel – a stack of five layers of steel – must now be heated evenly. As the steel begins to glow, the forge hisses and snarls. Then, Distler folds the hot layers together, as if closing a book. And again. And again. Gripping a heavy hammer in the other hand, he strikes the layered steel several times. Then folds it again before striking it anew. Layer upon layer of steel is forced upon the last as Distler toils in the heat, striking and folding the mass again and again to form a blank of 320 layers of finest Damascus steel. And the secret to its quality? Tradition. Layering the steel lends the blades both strength and their striking patterning. Each knife is distinctive. Each has its own character.
Knife making is hard work. “It’s akin to lifting weights all day – heavy, glowing dumb balls,” says Distler. “I’m exhausted by nightfall.” And the knives are far from finished. These raw blanks must be forged again and their blades shaped. This is followed by grinding, smoothing, and polishing. The steel must be treated with acid to bring out the pattern. And the surface buffed until it is smoother than a mirror. The grips are carved from desert ironwood and water buffalo horn, or formed from bog oak and ancient mammoth ivory recovered from the Russian permafrost. When all this is done, the blades are engraved and adorned with silver rivets and mother-of-pearl inlays. Occasionally customers approach Distler and his partner Florian Pichler with special requests, and the knife-makers have in the past fashioned custom grips decorated with leopard heads or nudes.
Some knives are made in two days, on others the two perfectionists might work for up to 300 hours. It is a passion that borders on the insane. But perhaps that’s what it takes to make a knife that is both breathtakingly beautiful and so sharp that you could quite literally split hairs with its blade.