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In a Tudor-style cottage on the banks of Germany’s Wupper River, Engelbert Schmitz is dressed like a marionette, wearing hand-carved wooden shoes and wooden shin guards, and brandishing a knife in a room full of rickety pulleys and gears. He places the blade between his knees and leans toward a rapidly spinning grindstone. “Many people died doing this,” he says. “Making knives in this way was not a safe profession.”
No kidding. Here at Balkhauser Kotten, a knife-making museum at the edge of the town of Solingen, historians like Schmitz demonstrate the lengths to which craftsmen in the 1300s went to create the best knives, swords and daggers in Europe.
Solingen is still famed for knife-making, although its production methods have gotten much safer. Over the past 300 years, dozens of knife manufacturers have set up shop here, including such eminent firms as Wüsthof, Böker and Zwilling J.A. Henckels, earning Solingen the nickname “City of Blades.” Most of the grinding and assembly is now completed by machine, but there are still some tasks that only knife-makers perform.
“While sharpening, there’s no way to check that the blade is at the correct angle, so the feel for the knife has to be just right,” says Kristian Muhlert, head of quality management at Zwilling J.A. Henckels. “Not many people learn to do it anymore.”
But knife sharpener Filippo Frenna seems to be just the guy: Laughing, he shaves a chunk of hair from his arm to show the bite of a blade he’s completed. He hands the knife to Muhlert, who carries it to a laser reflector to check that the edge’s angles are exactly 15 degrees on each side. Frenna looks unconcerned. “It’s perfect,” Muhlert says. —JACQUELINE DETWILER
ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI