“Welcome to my humble beginnings,” Tobi Bockholt says, motioning toward his modest workspace at Ashmore Arts in Torquay.
The German-born craftsman smiles warmly as he steps into a shipping container brimming with the tools of his trade as a knifemaker.
His workspace measures six metres by two-and-a-half metres and is dwarfed by the much larger blacksmith workshop next door.
It might be compact but the container has proven an ideal fit as a place to hone his skills and create custom kitchen knives which are now in demand around Australia and the world.
Tobi found his passion for knives through a growing interest in cooking, preserving and baking.
“I really got into cooking over the last 10 years and the knives I had at home just didn’t cut it,” he explains.
“I was looking for knives that would do what I wanted them to do but I couldn’t find them.
“I started restoring old vintage knives I found on eBay and elsewhere – knives that were 80 years old and needed a new handle and a regrind.
“Then I had friends who would say ‘that is interesting, could you make me one?’ and I would restore one for them.”
He was hooked and, after learning the art of bladesmithing from Ballarat-based knife maker Adam Parker, Tobi began making his own bespoke knives.
Fast forward to today and he sells his hand-crafted wares to both home cooks and professional chefs, with about 30 per cent of sales coming from the US and Europe.
He has also attracted an Instagram following of almost 10,000.
Tobi was a language teacher but spent last year working as a maker and officially resigned from his teaching job this month to focus on his business, Metal Monkey Knives.
“I started making knives as a sideline and it developed into something that had its own dynamic which is great,” he says.
“I think many other makers would agree that 2020 was a pretty good year for us because all of a sudden people who would spend a lot of
money on travel got more into gardening, renovating and cooking.”
Tobi says television shows such as MasterChef have also changed the way people go about equipping their kitchen.
“It has got people cooking and with that comes a demand for better tools.”
Tobi insists using a tailor-made knife is a much different experience to using a mass-produced knife which often comes in a large set where only a couple are regularly used.
A custom knife is made to last and considers the customer’s height, length of handspan and preference for the size and weight of a knife.
“They take the knife in their hand and it comes alive because it fits and, all of a sudden, they wonder ‘what have I been using all this time?’,” he says.
“It’s incredible the difference it makes, not just to the enjoyment of the process, but even the taste of the food is different because the texture is different.
“If you are cutting through a carrot and the surface is polished because the blade was so sharp, rather than torn, it seals in more flavour.”
Tobi says a standard knife takes between 15 to 25 hours to make, with a further day added when creating a pattern-welded blade where layers of steel are forged-welded and manipulated to create a decorative effect.
“It is like art – they have a very organic flow to them – almost like growth rings in a tree or the oil film on water,” he says of the technique.
Tobi uses carbon steel for his blades and Australian timbers for his hand-crafted handles.
“I like to work with timber because they are light and you are playing with grains and colours,” he says.
“My favourite is ancient redgum which is about 5000 years old … it is really beautiful because it is predominantly black but you still see the grain structure of the redgum in it.
“It’s just very, very old and has a story to tell.”
Tobi happily shares his knowledge via two-day weekend workshops where anyone aged over 16 can learn to forge, grind, treat and finish their own knife.
The workshops (for a maximum of two people) cost $800 and tend to book out quickly, with eager students flying from as far afield as Western Australia to learn the art of knifemaking.
Tobi’s own love of working with his hands stems back to his childhood in Europe where he vividly remembers pressing his face against the window of the gun shop to peer in at all the knives.
“My family lives in a house that my grandfather built so there was always something that needed extending, repairing and so on,” he recalls.
“I’ve always made stuff and I really enjoy getting out of my head and just getting lost in the manual task – it’s a great way to clear your head.
“It also feels great knowing that my knives will stay with customers and their families for generations to come.”
To discover more about Tobi Bockholt’s work follow @metalmonkeyknives on Instagram. For inquiries about
the two-day knifemaking workshop and to sign up to his regular newsletter you can visit the website www.metalmonkeyknives.com.au