Meet the artisan: Tobias Ford
PUBLISHED: 10:08 30 May 2017
Sarah Lucy Brown
Tessa Allingham watches Suffolk knife-maker Tobias Ford at work. Photographs: Sarah Lucy Brown
It doesn’t take much to coax the gleaming new Becma forge into life. The flick of a lighter on dry kindling, a few cautious nudges as the flame catches, a tweak of the air flow, and the first fragile flicker of flame becomes a confident, crackling roar, spreading through the anthracite coal, heating the shiny black fuel towards a ferocious 1,400°C.
Only when the flames properly lick and leap does Tobias Ford pull the Uvex goggles down from his beanie to cover his eyes, bend closer to the forge, start to tend the fire carefully, moving the fuel around with a makeshift poker. It’s not long before he decides to fashion a better tool, and starts to heat a length of steel deep in the flames till it throbs white hot.
Using long tongs he lays the now malleable steel tip on the anvil where he brings his hammer, ringing, down onto the glowing metal. Sparks fly. The chiming sound of metal on metal reverberates. He repeats the process time and again. It’s faintly hypnotic to watch the weight of the hammer fall heavily and spring back lightly. It’s a nostalgic sound, one that you can imagine being the soundtrack to village life until not that long ago. Back into the fire the steel goes to heat up and soften, then back he takes it to the anvil for more hammering, shaping, forming.
Then there it is, a perfectly-formed tool with a 90-degree bend about a quarter of the way down that makes it ideal for scraping, scooping, raking the hot coals. Tobias pushes the goggles from his face – they leave a groove round his cheeks – and smiles. Rake in one hand, long tongs in the other, he is up and running, ready to make knives.
The forge is in a studio space, safely metal-lined, in one of the yards of White House Farm, Great Glemham.
This is Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s home and the location for the annual Alde Valley Spring Festival and its autumn counterpart, !Cornucopia! that runs for four creative weeks until May 20. The festival is a celebration of rural arts, crafts, food and enterprise, and over the past eight years has drawn increasingly large numbers of visitors keen to capture a flavour of this part of east Suffolk.
It’s where Tobias has been working during the festival, making his beautiful knives, forging blades from carbon steel (“that’s the fun bit!”), then fashioning handles, often using offcuts of wood he is given or that he picks up here and there. He makes small paring knives, longer chef’s knives, fearsome cleavers, sometimes working with a customer to create a bespoke knife that will fit their own hand like a glove.
“I love making for a particular person,” he says, carefully unfolding the coarse linen wrapped around a fine, ladylike knife he’s made for actress Diana Quick. At the other end of the spectrum he’s made a serious blade for Aldeburgh butcher Gerard King, a knife capable of being pulled swiftly through a carcass.
“I’ll get a feel for a person by talking with them. I can tell a lot about how they’ll hold a knife and what shape will work best from how they hold other objects.” Even the biggest and bladiest of Tobias’ knives has an elegance, however, an exquisitely balanced coming together of form and function. It goes without saying that the blades are strong and, being made of carbon rather than stainless steel, take and hold a razor-sharp edge.
Some are riveted; lengths of brass punched through the handle to fix in place the tang, the continuation of the blade that extends between the two pieces of handle wood. The handles are smoothly polished, maybe from deep, dark bog oak, pale boxwood, swirlingly-patterned reddish cocabolo, or super-smooth pink ivory, and they feel – as all the best tools do – like an easy extension of the hand.
“Knives are primal, essential, simple, the first tool there ever was,” says Tobias. “I’m really drawn to them, and I love using reclaimed stuff when I can.” He points to an old circular saw propped in the corner of the workshop out of which he plans to fashion several blades, chalking out a template before cutting and fine-tuning the design.
“That comes quite easily to me, I can see the shape in my head, and I trust my eye and my instinct.”
Tobias came to knife-making a bit by accident, however. His creativity finds its main outlet sculpting life-size human forms – mostly male – in steel at his Butley Mills studio near Woodbridge.
“Jason invited me to have a residency during the 2015 festival as a sculptor, and it was while there that I started playing around making knives in the old forge. I realised nobody was making anything like this in East Anglia, and Jason encouraged me to keep going.
“It makes sense. As a sculptor I’m constantly using tools, and the best ones are always an extension of your own hand. There is such a difference between a well-designed and well-made knife and an ordinary one. My knives are meant to be used, they are utilitarian, I love the ergonomics of them, their functionality, the problem-solving aspect. It’s simple and elegant.”
It goes without saying, he adds, that a sharp blade is far safer than a blunt one. I question this, indicating the considerable bandage that seems to be holding his left thumb together. It’s a minor flesh wound, he jokes. It looks more than that to me, and he admits to having cut it on a sharp blade. It all started aged five with Blu-Tack.
“I made swans first, I loved the S shape of their head and neck and body, their elegance. Mum has kept so many of my pieces! At school I sketched all the time – still do – and I was encouraged. At university it was the same, always drawing. There’s a lot of paper in my life, I’ve got sketches everywhere, on the dashboard of my van, all over the house. I really should organise them all!”
He studied contemporary applied arts at Hereford College of Arts and learnt blacksmithing from fellow students on the side (it’s the only college in the UK to teach that skill). He loved it, and his ability developed such that over just a few years – Tobias is just 25 – he has been able, literally, to forge a career, selling works at exhibitions or online, and taking on commissions.
He’ll take inspiration from the strength of male ballet dancers, putting himself in the pose to be sculpted (his kung fu and yoga practice helps enormously with this), the better to understand the strain on the muscles and to convey that in the curves of the steel.
“My style is quite rough and ready, ambiguous sometimes,” he says, “but your brain fills in the gaps. Everyone fills the gaps differently which is what makes people’s reactions so fascinating.” He will also often root the feet flat on the ground, attracted to the idea of a gravitational pull downwards, a connectedness. He’ll work with music always.
“I have my headphones in the whole time – I’ll listen to Radiohead for the rhythm or dance music to pump me up, and I’ll choose a slow song for more detailed work, sanding maybe. That way there will be no accidents, it’ll all be calm!”
Will he pass his talent on, I wonder? He’d love to have an apprentice one day, yes, or teach and or offer short courses and knife-making workshops. Let’s hope he does, and that the chime of hammer on anvil will ring again, if not in every Suffolk village, then at least in Great Glemham.
See more of Tobias’ work at: www.tobiasfordsculpture.com
Or at the Alde Valley Spring Festival: www.aldevalleyspringfestival.co.uk until 21 May.