A little push from the movie Kill Bill and an infatuation with Japanese katana helped push Tomislav Sokač, a cinematographer from Koprivnica, to follow his family business and become one of the Croatia’s best bladesmiths.
We caught up with one of the few handmade culinary knife craftsmen in Croatia.
Tomislav, you are a schooled cinematographer, holding a diploma from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art. How did you find yourself in the world of bladesmithing?
Well, first of all I would like to think of myself as a metal worker who had a detour into filmmaking. Since steel fabrication is the family business, that material was present in my life from my birth. As a rebellious child I didn’t want to work what my father does and was always unhappy that he chose to work with steel and not with wood, which I thought as a much cleaner and warmer material.
The first introduction to bladesmithing was through the movie Kill Bill, where a scene when the protagonist comes to a Japanese swordsmith to order a katana was so enthralling that I decided to make a katana, which I learned was very hard to do, so I abandoned that idea, but my love of movies stayed so my life went in that direction. When I was pretty unhappy with my filmmaking career and talked about it with my friend he said to me “Why don’t you make knives?”. After that question a rabbit hole opened and I fell into it, so here I am making knives.
How did you learn the trade? Who are your role models?
Since the first thing that I wanted to make was a katana, I bought a book from a Japanese bladesmith, Yoshindo Yoshihara. So the first influence was him, and I have read that book many times, and is my go to source when I need inspiration or a reminder for high attention to details that is needed if you want to be a great craftsman. The other thing that I learned from that book is that if you want to make a katana the traditional way, you got to make it from tamahagane steel, which means that you got to make it yourself which presented a new set of problems that drove me further from the idea.
After I realised that I can make something more useful than a katana, something like a kitchen knife, my role models became people like Jean-José Tritz and Jannis Scholz who are kitchen knife makers, but also many other, mainly European knife makers that I drew inspiration from.
So the combination of books, looking at other people work, reading online forums and watching YouTube videos was a good start to learning the craft, but the most important thing is to start making and learn from mistakes.
Can you describe an average working day in your workshop Breg?
A day in my workshop is a combination of loud noises from the machinery used in production, sometimes cursing and crying, other times singing and cheering. When you are a self-employed craftsman the highs are very high and the lows can be very low. But I love the process, when I’m tired of forging I can hardly wait to start grinding the forged blanks, then I get tired of that and can wait to start on the handle. When the knife is completed I’m happy and can wait to start forging again so the cycle starts again.
Which materials do you use and where do you source them?
The material I use for the blade part is low alloy high carbon tool steel usually laminated between two layers of mild steel. Sometimes I use some old iron that I find for that outside layer, so a knife can be a combination of new and old and have a story behind it. I like to use local wood for the handle, but I have made handles from exotic woods also. I don’t like synthetic materials, but if a project was in a need of using that I would do it, primarily because of aesthetical or functional reasons, but I try to avoid it.
I buy steel from Germany or Austria, and wood is given to me from a woodworker friend. I’ve got some wood that was dug out of the lake near my town, and is probably a few hundred years old. That kind of material is very special to me.
How long does it take to make one knife and what would the advantages be of using a handmade knife as opposed to a mass produced one?
I can make a knife in a few hours to a couple of days. If you take a piece of steel and cut the knife out of it you can make it pretty quickly opposed to forging it, and that is called stock removal knife making. But if you are going to make it from a pattern welded steel sometimes it takes two days just to forge the material for the knife. Now, the knife you forge is not in any way superior to the knife you cut out of the steel bar, and if you don’t know what you are doing you can even ruin the steel by forging it. The process is very important to me, and there is something that is not possible or economical to make from stock removal so I forge my knives.
I think the mass produced knife can be very good, but the price of it can’t be low if you want to make a quality product. Very cheap knives are a big problem, they are usually made from low quality steel and plastics, they get blunt very quickly, the handle falls apart and they end up on the ever growing thrash piles of bad products.
What you get with a knife from a craftsman is a product that is made in a sustainable way, you know the person who made it, and there are many different makers out there, so you can chose from different styles. The care we take when making one knife at a time makes in my opinion a better product, and the heart and soul of a maker is captured in that object.
Your knives have very nice nice stripes and patterns on their blades. What is that?
The stripes and patterns that you see on my knives are a product of laminating different types of steel. With a technique called forge welding, two types of steel where you take one steel that has more nickel in it and the other with more manganese you can get different patterns by forging it and that is called pattern welded steel or a more popular term damascus steel. When you finish forging you etch the steel where the nickel steel stays bright and the manganese steel darkness. There are endless possibilities of patterns with that technique, and is usually an indicator of forging skill of the bladesmith.
We see many pro chefs nowadays prefer to work with carbon steel knives. Why is that?
I like to make my knives from carbon steel and not stainless. That means if you leave your knife wet it will rust. But if you take care of it, it will develop a beautiful patina that will change from time and make the steel look like it’s alive. Some pro chefs like to use that type of steel because of its sharpeability, that it can get very sharp easily on the sharpening stones. There are stainless steels now that can hold a edge longer than carbon steels, but they can be expensive and hard to grind and sharpen. Another thing I don’t like about them is that they seem soulless to me and maybe that is childish of me, but I like to see the patina on steel, and is my opinion that if you buy an expensive stainless steel knife you will still wipe it dry and not leave it wet in the sink, as you would the carbon steel knife.
What would your advice be to a customer in search of a nice piece of knife? How should they select the right one?
People always think that they got to have a set of knives, while that is great to have if you are proficient of using all of them every day, I think that an average home cook needs two knives. A chef knife and a smaller petty or a paring knife. When my customers do not consume meat I suggest they take a vegetable knife Nakiri instead of chef knife.
I always suggest to people that the first purchase should be a chef knife or nakiri and then during the usage they can see what would be nice to have for a second knife. Maybe you saw that you need a slicer for tuna or meat and then maybe buy that. I like to have repeat customers, in that way they build a relationship with a maker.
Many people do not know that knives require care. How to properly maintain a knife?
I look at a knife as a tool, so if you want your tool to perform great you got to take care of it. I think that is important for a human being to have a certain discipline in their lives, and that is another reason I like carbon steel knives. While everything in our lives becomes faster and easier to consume, from fast food to fast fashion, there is importance in small things, small rituals. Food must not come in a pill, you got to take your produce, prepare it with love and care and feed your family or friends with it. And in that process the knife is very important, learn to sharpen it yourself and after you finish preparing the food, wipe it dry and store it with care and it will be your faithful companion for decades of use.
Is interest for handmade knives growing?
The interest for handmade high quality knives is growing, people are learning to cook and the internet gave them a chance to explore what there is on the market, and it gives us makers opportunity to sell our products around the globe. Now there is a lot of men starting to cook for their families, while in the past the women were responsible for that, and men like to have good tools and they like to buy a beautiful artisanal knife. I would like that more women start to buy nice knives for themselves, and not as a gift for their husband or a friend.
As to my knowledge there is only 3-4 kitchen knife makers in Croatia and the interest for that kind of work is growing. But we are not in competition in any way, the community of knife makers is open for sharing knowledge because if there is even only one million people in the world who want to buy a handmade knife I don’t wan’t to be the one who makes a million knives.
Where can people buy your knives? What is the price range?
The price for my knife is from around 280 euros for a chef knife and it can get higher considering the materials or the complexity of the build. If anyone is interested in buying my knives, you can put an order for it or follow me on my social networks like Instagram and see when I have something to sell, sends me a message to place an order, and I will send it anywhere in the world. I hope to have my web shop functional soon so people can go there and buy the knives I have in stock.