Bury St Ed­munds knife­maker Ahren-Paul Main

Bury St Ed­munds knife maker Ahren-Paul Main talks to Tessa Alling­ham. Im­ages: Phil Mor­ley

EADT Suffolk - - Contents -

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.

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