Henning Wilkinson: Magician Of South Africa Knifemaking


Acclaimed, Talented Knifemaker Henning Wilkinson Is Making Beautiful Knives And Living A Life Worth Emulating.

I’ve been in the blade-making business right at 50 years. I’ve met and befriended hundreds of bladesmiths and knifemakers. I have a long history of designing and making knives and other edged tools in carbon steel and mosaic damascus. I have pioneered many of the modern techniques used in the production of these blades. The techniques are now in their third generation.

The newer smiths and makers — especially in the damascus end of the business — do things with steel and design that border on magical. Some of these modern magicians have been in the business only a few years. I feel very privileged to have met some of them and spent shop time with a few more. One is Henning Wilkinson.

I started following his social media posts a few years ago. Even then, the level of his work was nothing short of astounding. His blade designs and mosaic patterning are all well thought out and extraordinary. He and I began corresponding on social media and developed a friendship through our mutual interest in damascus blades. 

His blade designs and fitting of all the design parts is in my opinion some of the best on the planet. As a result, I wanted to see his methods firsthand. Meanwhile, Henning also had great interest in my methods of forging and pattern development. So began the plan to spend time in the shop.

We agreed I should go to South Africa and teach a couple of classes. The trip coincided with the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa Show. It was great fun meeting new friends and visiting with many old ones half a world away. The classes were a great success and I learned much, including that braai* has no equal and biltong+ is better than jerky. (I had to throw that in for my South African friends).

Henning is a deeply religious man who lives his faith as best he can in all he does. His knifemaking skills are a showcase of that dedication. He is an advanced martial artist and very skilled with firearms. Some of his techniques and skills come from a trained gunsmith background, and are a lot of what drove me to fly halfway around the world to see those handwork skills with my own eyes. I was not disappointed. I asked Henning to send me his biography to help with this story.

Henning Wilkinson: In His Own Words

wilkinson sword
Damascus, ivory and gold engraving help highlight Henning’s dagger with a Renaissance flavor.

I was born Jan. 13, 1978, in the little town of Brakpan, South Africa. My dad was a blue-collar worker who started his working life at 16 doing an apprenticeship as a tool-and-die maker. He was always busy on weekends doing all sorts of jobs, from building concrete mixers to doing electrical work — pretty much anything you could think of. He now owns his own wood furnisher business. 

Growing up, using machines and tools for whatever reason was never a problem for me. My father believed that to work with your hands from an early age would give you a head start and an advantage in life.

My mother was always busy with something to generate extra cash. I remember from a very early age her making clothing as a seamstress, from wedding dresses to underwear. Even my wife had the privilege of having her wedding dress made by her mother-in-law. My mom was always carting all the kids around from one sports event to another. Both my parents supported us however they could, and still do.

My first recollection of Christ was growing up in a home where He was loved and honored. I can remember as a young child walking into my parents’ room in the early hours of the morning and finding them both on their knees praying. This has remained my foundation for every decision and my way of living.

I joined the family business in woodworking where I learned a great deal in all different fields, from electrical to mechanical, as we did all our own repairs and maintenance on the machines in the factory. I started my apprenticeship as a gunsmith in 1998. I learned a lot about the fine finishing and fittings of different materials to one another.

I started making knives in 2000 while doing my gunsmithing apprenticeship. I fell in love with a knife called the Commander made by Ernest Emerson, which at that stage I couldn’t afford (it would have been three months’ salary for me back then). Having a father who taught me whatever you cannot afford you can make yourself, I jumped to the task not knowing what I was getting myself into.

During the process I met a good friend, Carel Smith, who guided and still guides me in everything knifemaking related. Carel invited me to the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa Show and my eyes were opened to the possibility of real knifemaking. 

After I built a folder, Carel invited me to forge a blade and make some damascus. I was immediately hooked, captivated by the process of forging damascus, spending the first couple of years building and perfecting machines to make my own. In 2006 I was admitted into the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa, being only the second person to forge blades to be so honored.

Right from the start I attempted to make a better knife than the one before. I would not settle for anything other than my absolute best effort on every piece, from fit and finish to heat treatment and into the smallest detail, always trying to push my limit.

Then everything changed.

In 2012 I walked away from knifemaking as I believed I could not provide for my family the way the world told me to. I took on a job in the oil and petroleum trade as an underground utility surveyor. I thought I had it made. However, after a couple of years I was in a deeper hole than when I started—physically, emotionally and pretty much every way thinkable.

God slowly decided to drag me back into what I was made to do.

In late 2018 I decided to carry on as a full-time knifemaker. It was a leap of faith and the most rewarding decision of my life. Being able to do what you love can only be described as a massive blessing.

I am a Christian and I believe that God forms every piece through my hands, which is why I have a 9k-gold cross as a maker’s mark. My aim is to craft each piece in praise to God, and to make it so it will set itself apart and stand out as the best knife in any collection.

Picture In Steel

Wilkinson forging
Henning (left) and Schwarzer (second from left) hammer hot steel while interested observers observe in the two friends’ forging class in South Africa.

On June 15, 2018, I did a Facebook video on how to grind a false edge. I received a comment from a gentleman whose work changed the way I looked at knifemaking. I used to think that because I could make damascus and drill a couple of holes, my knives were good. However, a “picture painted in steel” of a bird hunter with his rifle and his dog# made me realize that this could be far more—it could be an art that would leave people in awe of what can be done. The gentleman is Steve Schwarzer, whom I am now lucky enough to have as a close friend.

In 2019 I was able to exhibit at the BLADE Show, and was immediately accepted into the family of worldwide knifemakers. This has left me inspired to inspire those whom I see as my peers.

Shortly after BLADE Show 2019, Steve visited me in South Africa. We had the privilege of spending time together and learning from each other. It was a massive honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him during a damascus course we hosted together.

During the visit I learned the definition of what a true master is. It is not a stamp on a knife or an award certificate. It is someone who never stops in striving to learn every intricacy of his or her art, perfecting every part no matter how big or small it might be, staying humble in the process and never assuming his or her own greatness. 

Among a thousand lessons learned during Steve’s visit, for me this was the most important. The second lesson is that we will only have this journey called life once, and the decisions we make will be the determining outcome of that journey. I have never laughed as hard in my life during Steve’s two-week visit. His friendship and guidance are an invaluable blessing to me. It is an honor to call him my friend.

To me, knifemaking is a way of life, constantly trying to perfect and add new aspects to the knives I make. Through the fashioning of these pieces I continue to learn more about myself as God wants me to be. Knifemaking has given me the freedom to be a father to my two children and a husband to my four wives (my loving wife and the best three dogs ever).

One of the memories I will always cherish is one of my son as a small child standing on a tin in front of a lathe machining some steel. He has recently started making knives and this next journey together as father and son working in the shop together is another great blessing for me.

I specialize in art knives and high-end exclusive pieces, from folding knives to swords, using only the best end materials. Bringing 20 years of knifemaking experience and a lot of passion to each piece, I am proud to be a 100 % sole authorship maker. I am a member of the Knifemakers Guild of Southern Africa and the American Bladesmith Society. I hope you can see the passion in my work and will enjoy every moment you spend with it.

*Braai is South African barbecue

+Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat that originated in Southern African countries.

#The “picture painted in steel” was Steve Schwarzer’s groundbreaking scene of hunter with rifle and dog done in mosaic damascus in the early 1990s that set the world of knives on its ear.

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