Bury St Edmunds knifemaker Ahren-Paul Main
Bury St Edmunds knife maker Ahren-Paul Main talks to Tessa Allingham. Images: Phil Morley
IN Ahren-Paul Main’s workshop, a shed at the end of a garden in Bury St Edmunds, is an old carpenter’s bench. Cuts and grooves hint at years of creativity. There are splatters and drips of paint – green, white, black – and circles gouged deep into its sides where drill bits have been tested. An old clamp is fixed to one side, but the surface is barely visible under a veil of woody dust, and the random paraphernalia of a keen woodworker – pliers, Stanley knives, pencils, chisels, planes and saws. Elsewhere, shelves are filled with planks of seasoning wood. More, including some stunningly grained spalted beech, is propped against the walls. Perched on a bench drill is an old felt bowler hat, a dust-mask incongruously slung round its rim.
“I always wear a hat of some sort when I’m working, and I particularly like this one,” Ahren-Paul says. It’s largely for practical purposes. “To keep the dust out of what hair I have left!” He may have cropped locks on top, but his rust-red Grizzly Adams beard channels American lumberjack to a T.
This workshop, behind his bungalow, is where Ahren-Paul spends a lot of his spare time, and the bench was his grandfather’s. It has immense sentimental value, a piece of furniture that he will never part with.
“I have so many memories of woodworking with my grandfather,” Ahren-Paul says. “He was a carpenter and, after my parents split when I was little, I spent a lot of time with him. I remember winding up that clamp when I was five or six, getting him to make me aeroplanes out of wood, I remember spending time with him at his workplace – before any health and safety rules – bugging him to make me something, jumping on the heaps of sand and climbing on the sawhorses. He really was my inspiration.”
Those early experiences gave Ahren-Paul a love of all things wood, as well as a work ethic that has never left him. “I couldn’t wait to leave school and start a job. I now work long hours as a supervisor for a local steel company. Woodworking is something I fit around that. I feel guilty if I’m not busy with something.”
He has quite a portfolio. There are carved wooden pipes, short and stubby or long and fine, that wouldn’t be out of place in the fantastical world of wizards. Wind chimes made from delicate obsidian needles suspended from gnarly lengths of wood, that ring delicately when touched. And chopping boards made from beautifully-grained, shaped and smoothed pieces of storm-damaged trees or fallen branches.
What Ahren-Paul has enjoyed making most of all for the past three years, however, is bread knives – Appalachian bow saw bread knives, to be accurate. They are beautiful objects, balanced, smooth to hold, substantial. They slice easily with a sawing action through bread, fruit, vegetables and hard cheese. Each one is unique, made from wood – holly, sycamore, oak among other types – that Ahren-Paul buys from wood
sales at Ickworth Park, or from Ben Loughrill, a chainsaw sculptor based near Harleston, who carved the wolf howling to the moon on Bury St Edmunds’ Southgate roundabout.
“Ben has an old mobile planking machine, and buys up fallen trees round Suffolk, so I’ll go over there twice a year and buy what I need. I love the idea of breathing new life into old timber, giving it a fresh use.” He might use beech for its pinkish-brown colour, oak for an open-grained finish, or holly for smoothly-pale lightness.
The wood arrives planked and Ahren-Paul seasons it for a year in his workshop. When it’s dry enough, he uses a template to cut blanks – for every ten right-handed knives he’ll make a couple of left-handed ones – which he then roughs out with a spokeshave, before handfinishing them with ever-finer grades of sandpaper. He then screws on the scallop-edged blade, under tension so that it remains taut. The blade is made from very thin, fearsomely sharp tempered carbon steel, which never needs sharpening and is capable of cutting the thinnest slice through even the squishiest piece of bread, or hardest piece of cheese.
“I then do my favourite bit, which is waxing the wood to seal it and liberate the beauty of the grain. I make sure everyone who buys one knows never to wash the knife, to just wipe it clean and smear oil over the metal parts to prevent rusting.” A coating of Spoon Butter, a concoction of oil and beeswax that Ahren-Paul makes and sells in attractive tins, keeps the wood in tip-top condition, the oil soaking into the wood, the beeswax sealing it in.
He is hopeful that a move to bigger premises, a barn on a nearby arable farm, will signal the next stage in the development of his hobby-business, one that he will continue to fit around his job at AJN Steelstock in Kentford.
“I like simple things in life, I don’t need much, but I would like more space for my woodwork. The barn was once used for drying garlic grown on the farm, so the business will be called Garlic Tun after the Anglo Saxon word for ‘homestead’.”
Ahren-Paul will be selling his knives at the Ickworth Wood and Craft Fair, Ickworth House, October 8-9.