Words by Hannah Tapping
Knives created to last a lifetime combine the precision of technology with the beauty of a handcrafted masterpiece. In conversation with Savernake Knives’ co-founder, Devon-born Philip Shaw.
Philip Shaw grew up just outside Ottery St Mary, moving away to Kenya after leaving school. “I very much loved my Devon upbringing, but I had an adventurous spirit and with family based in Kenya, I joined them to begin work in the safari industry,” explains Philip. I ponder then, how one goes from living in Africa to setting up a luxury, bespoke knife company in the UK? “Africa actually plays a big part in the story,” continues Philip, “because this is where I met Laurie Timpson, my fellow Savernake founder who had left the army to work for The HALO Trust clearing landmines in Mozambique, Afghanistan and Cambodia. We both found ourselves managing businesses for companies in East Africa at the same time and had often talked about doing something together on our return to the UK. Laurie moved back before I did and, while I was working in Pakistan at that point, I was to-ing fro-ing back to England, desperately trying to return permanently. On my monthly visits, we would meet in Wiltshire and start tinkering away on projects.
“I eventually moved from Pakistan to living in a small village in Wiltshire, as that’s where Laurie had settled. While it was a big decision, it was actually a very easy one to make because we both knew we wanted to start a business and it was something that we had always strongly believed in. We had experience of working in some very difficult parts of the world, such as South Sudan and Mozambique, and so were no strangers to having to work things out for ourselves.”
Laurie had started by making some axes and then the pair’s thoughts turned to bespoke knives as a business idea. They initially looked at having them made for them but could find no-one who could do it. “We began teaching ourselves traditional forging methods and learned how to make knives using carbon steel,” says Philip, “but we didn’t want to use carbon, we wanted to use stainless. At every point we didn’t want to compromise, we wanted to use the best materials and the best processes possible. That’s how Savernake was born.”
Philip and Laurie rented two little barns in a farmyard and did all the work themselves for the first year: “As we started to progress we brought on our first employee (who’s still with us today) and then employed somebody to help us with the product manufacturing side, as we had come to realise that making a bespoke knife is actually incredibly intricate work. The machinery we needed was the same used in making Formula One engine parts, as the knife-making process involves similar detailed CNC milling and precision cutting allowing us to make any shape or form. We invested in such a machine and it really proved the concept. We could design something unique and then repeat the process over and over again. As we started to progress we did use a lot of machinery but then, and now, everything is hand finished, and it really did all start in a shed!”
In the early days, Philip and Laurie approached the chef in their local pub and said “what do you look for in a knife?” They then made him a knife for free in return for feedback on its use. Since then, they have given knives in kind to many top chefs and leading outdoorsmen and have been very proud of the resulting endorsements.
While there are traditionally certain knives for certain jobs, Savernake’s quest has always been to design an all-rounder. “We believe you don’t need to have a knife rack full of knives, but as the shape and style of a knife is a very personal choice our core range needed to be carefully designed.” The company’s top seller is the eponymous Savernake Knife, a blade Philip and Laurie wanted to put their company name to as they were so proud of the design. This is closely followed by the Classic, of which Philip says “if you ever get someone to draw a sketch of a knife, this is what it would look like”.
“We wanted to make very lightweight, very thin knives and so all our blades are hollow ground. If you go from the edge of the blade up to the ridge, it’s a taper. We scoop out the side of the metal, to make it as light and as thin as possible, so you’re always working with the thinnest edge of the knife. However, put that to one side and what you’re really left with is what do people want? Yes, they want something that looks beautiful in the kitchen, but also a tool that actually does a good job; a knife that feels comfortable but where there is also the ability to be able to choose any part of it. We set ourselves something of a challenge but feel we have risen to it well.” A Savernake knife comes from one of three categories. Bespoke, which is akin to having a pair of shoes made on Savile Row. “For this we will make a prototype model to test for the shape and feel in the hand. We’ll then make a fully functioning knife for approval before we go on to make the final product. The custom side is where we have a select number of designs that can be personalised with a choice of style and size of handle. That level of choice may still be quite daunting for some and so that’s why we’ve introduced the DNA retail range. We’ve taken everything we’ve learned and put it into a knife that you can buy off the shelf.”
“We started at the bespoke level because nobody was doing it. I guess it’s quite an important point about Savernake, that while there are artisans with forges who can make a beautiful knife, it’s very hard to replicate and scale when you‘re limited by resource and equipment.” To establish the brand, Philip and Laurie had much to consider including material, efficiency, feel, shape and weight in order to make the business a success. They knew they couldn’t survive as a business being completely bespoke; it had to be scalable but without compromise in terms of design and quality.
Savernake Knives are sold online as well as in Fortnum and Masons, Cookshops across the country and independent retailers across the south west, including Darts Farm, Topsham and Heart, Smoke and Soal near Holsworthy. “Our website is always evolving as we really wanted to be able to create a process where you can go online and take the time to choose and pick your handles and colour or, if you prefer, within a couple of clicks can have a DNA range knife delivered within three to four days. We have come a long way in the last year in terms of having a product we can retail through stockists and as a consequence, see a very exciting year ahead,” adds Philip.
“While I stepped back a little from the day-to-day just before lockdown, Laurie is still very much hands on, living off-grid in the Savernake Forest (from whence the company took its name) with his family.” The company has grown to having 12 people on the manufacturing side and continues to evolve; whether that be researching handle materials, designing new knives and ranges or creating exciting collaborations, Savernake Knives strives to always be at the cutting edge.