Cutlers’ craft was not very popular in the past, due to its low profits. Cutlers undertook the fabrication and repair of knives, but they also made saws, pocketknives, pruners, olive tree saws, etc. Usually, they were apprentices next to craft masters for some years, while they were learning the art, and then they started their own shop - workshop.
Cutlers travelled all around the villages and sold their knives. They were not organised in guilds, and each craftsman had his own workshop. Often, they also made custom-made saws, knives, pruners, and other tools and signed them. When it was time for the delivery, they went to the coffee shop or the square of each settlement or village and told the crier to “announce” that the products were ready.
It should be noted that apart from their domestic and rural use, knives decorated the belts of almost all young braves (palikaria) until the dictatorship of 1936, when the bearing of arms was strictly forbidden, and they “competed” for the most beautiful knife. A famous knife craftsman in Lesvos was Vagianas.
For the blade making, (after the early 20th century) cutlers used steel from leaf springs, which first they separated, burnt in the forge (steeled) then hit with the adze and whetted, to give them the desirable shape and sharpness.
In the past, instead of grindstones they had “sharpeners”, with which they whetted the blade. First, the grindstone was foot-powered and later on hand-powered, while the bellow they used in the forge was made of animal skin and wooden board.
As the steel cooled down during the whetting, they put it again in the forge to be heated and soften so that it could be easily worked. As soon as the blade obtained the desirable edge, they dipped it in the forge until it “became red” (it was heated) and then in cold water to harden, to “steel”. With its abrupt contraction and expansion by the hot to the cold water, the blade was cleared from the black stains that might have and became white. Then they placed it over the fire (not in the forge) to start warming. It changed colours and from white it turned to ash grey and then darker until it became dark mauve. For the proper colouring of the blade, it was important to use chestnut charcoal in the forge.
As cutlers said, in order for the blade to be sharp it should “start” thick at its base and become thinner towards its peak. More precisely, the suitable thickness of the blade edge should start at two and a half millimetres and end at zero. This procedure was called “mouth opening”. In the last phase of the edge making they used a technique called “honing” (ladakoma).
The knife handles were usually made of calf and bull horns, but some were made of olive wood which was a strong material with a better aesthetic result. In the past, cutlers found horns in the waste of butchers or abattoirs and “worked them” with the saw. They also used a type of chisel with which they hit the wood or the horn to make a hole at the handle of the knife. For the respective hole at the blade, they pierced the steel with a “punch” (zoumbas).
In the case of olive wood handle, they used fresh wood, which they boiled to extract all of its juices. In this way, the wooden handle was protected from moths and cracking. As soon as the wood went dry, they gave it the desirable shape.
After making the handle they usually decorated it. There was a competition among cutlers for the best decoration (ploumisma). On the knife, they wrote verses or drew patterns (stars) of silver, copper etc. Each cutler wrote his own verses, which were usually conceived by people sitting at the coffee shops:
Death, in your deep darkness,
please tell me,
will these wounds be healed
when meeting Hades?
Knife don’t leave your sheath
to harm me.
Just leave it to stand for
my own right.
The decoration procedure was hard and time-consuming, though not well paid. This is why it became gradually extinct. First they spread wax on the blade. As soon as it dried, they inscribed the verses or patterns. Then, they poured nitric acid on it and a bit of salt. The salt held the nitric acid not to run from the blade. They left it approximately ten minutes “to become strong”. The wax served as a protective agent for the blade except of the inscribed parts that were not covered by wax, where the nitric acid and the salt penetrated forming the verses. Then, they washed the blade with water to remove the nitric acid and heated it again for the wax to melt and be removed. Finally, they wiped the blade and the engraved verses appeared.
Today, the cutler’s craft tends to become extinct. The time-consuming procedure and the labour required for the fabrication of a hand made knife, as well as the development of low-cost mass production of knives do not favour its survival.
- Interview with Ch. Stavros [cutler] in Agiassos, Lesvos, 25/08/2004