Forged in Fire – A Story of Steel

Written By: Star Sosa

Recently I watched a documentary on Netflix entitled Happy People by Werner Herzog.  It is a bit out of the ordinary and not what you might expect from the title. It traces a year in the life of people in a remote Siberian village in the vast Taiga. Isolated and self-sufficient, these people live simply, work hard and are incredibly resourceful in their challenging arctic environment. The main subjects are fur trappers and it is inspiring to watch how they live their daily lives. The film gave me a deep respect for the people of that region.

I came across one such person last year while attending the Tucson Gem Show, the largest convocation of gem and mineral traders and collectors in the world. I was initially attracted to his display of Russian handicrafts and woodcarvings, and as I drew closer I was mesmerized by his gorgeous knives.  Andrew Holtzmayer is not from the Siberian Taiga, but he did grow up in Russia. He displays a calm and competent aura not unlike the men in the film. A hunter since childhood, he appreciates the beauty of an effective tool like a well-made knife and how such an essential implement can mean the difference between surviving and thriving. I was delighted with his stories about his experiences and about the techniques involved in the creation of his exceptional knives.

I meet people from around the world at the Tucson Gem Show, which I have attended for over twenty years. It is a wonderful opportunity to learn about many different cultures. When Andrew described the history of his company, Swan Lake Knives, I could envision the many challenges they overcame in the process of getting their forge up and functioning. The company started with the discovery and acquisition of an abandoned forge near the Russian town of Vorsma. This was completely renovated and refitted for the production of their knives. Then they gathered a team of experienced blacksmiths, metal workers, and knife-makers to begin production. Andrew is the senior designer; he and the forge manager, Vladimir, applied their lifetime of knowledge of hunting and tool making to the creation of the most beautiful and functional hunting knives around.  

Andrew told me his primary goals in creating a knife were great field performance and beauty. These details start with the right source forge for the steel. My favorite knives from his collection have blades made of Damascus steel, which has intricate and delicate patterning resulting from the blending of mild and hard steels in hundreds of layers. Nobody really knows exactly how Damascus steel was originally made; that formula is lost to history. It is believed that the name refers to the city of Damascus, the ancient source for the finest swords of the day, but it could also be a derivative of Damask fabric patterns (note that the word Damask is also referring to Damascus). Metalsmiths have been trying the recreate the technique ever since, and the Swan Lake Forge has devised some excellent techniques that replicate the appearance and performance of the famous Damascus swords.

The team at Swan Lake creates blades from welding and forging layers of two types of steel, then folding and forging each billet for 360-520 times. Each blade can have a unique pattern of the folded steel, like a fingerprint. The advantage of this effort is to create “superplastic” steel that is both very hard and tough.  You see, carbon steel is hard, but can be brittle, and the mild steel they use is more flexible, but doesn’t keep a sharp edge for long. The marriage of the two steels transforms them into something greater than the sum of its parts: a steel that can flex as needed while holding a razor sharp edge. In fact, when the metal is polished, the softer steel actually undercuts in minute amounts—this raises tiny micro serrations on the edge of the blade so that it cuts very effectively.  

That said, while Damascus steel has unique properties, what appealed to me the most was its gorgeous patterns. The organic and rhythmic patterns add texture and drama to the finished piece. Many knife makers will apply bluing, etching, or treat it with other chemical surface treatments to increase the contrast, revealing the intricate whorls and ripples. To my eye, these knives are functional works of art. Andrew reinforces that impression with the way he finishes off his knives with hand-sculpted handles made of exotic woods, horn, antlers, tusks, and stone. He has also designed sculpted guards, bolsters, and pommels for the knives drawing from simple Celtic knot patterns to intricate roaring bears, wolves, and fanged snakes. His knives range from beautifully practical with simple, graceful lines to highly collectible art knives shown on museum-quality display stands he builds himself from materials like black walnut burl, wart hog tusk, and moose antler.

Even Andrew’s most practical knives have unique details. The handles are constructed of stacked layers of birch bark and wenge wood, which looks and feels like cork. The guards and pommels are sculpted from lightweight aluminum salvaged from retired aircraft from an abandoned airstrip near the forge in Russia. The birch bark handles are a traditional Scandinavian style, and their beauty belies the useful nature of a knife handle that is always warm (an important detail if you have to remove your glove on a snowy day) and it will not slip from your grasp while you work, which is valuable when dressing out a catch.  

Andrew, himself, is a large part of my fascination with Swan Lake Knives. He recently visited Wilmington to do a trunk show at my jewelry store, and I was able to spend time listening to his many stories and learning more about his craft. On the outside he is a true outdoorsman with a craggy visage and tough, wiry frame. His thick Russian accent and gravelly smoker’s voice make it a challenge to pick up all the words, but he communicates well with a good-natured, no-nonsense personality. His stories are quintessentially Russian, often revealing a pragmatic approach to problem solving, told with a wry sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. Thinking back, I can see a kinship between a man like Andrew and the fur trappers from the documentary, Happy People. Sometimes a simple life, even a challenging simple life, is a path to happiness.

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