“I CAME over to Dublin from Ghana for what was meant to be six months, to help my friends set up a restaurant and plan a menu, then I blinked and found five years had gone by.”
Sam Gleeson is reflecting on the road that has led him to Ennistymon and how he has come to set up a knife making business that last week won him a prestigious national craft award with a €10,000 bursary.
Using metal and woodworking techniques, and using found and reclaimed materials, even washed-up ocean plastics, he creates beautiful, distinctive knives for culinary use.
The plan now is to open a teaching facility in Ennistymon to share his bladesmith craft with others and Sam plans to use his bursary to attend a forge-welding course in the US and take his own skills to the next level.
“Reclaimed wood and plastic goes in the handles,” he says, “but what I’m becoming known for is making my own laminated steel, using things like architectural salvage and farm salvage – so old plough harrows, wrought-iron cartwheel rims, anchor chains, whiskey barrel rims.
“That is made into a sandwich with high-quality German or Japanese steel that gives the cutting edge and the other steels are squished together to make intricate patterns.”
It’s a long road without a turn however and Sam has followed a winding path to reach north Clare.
The Fumbally Cafe, one of the capital’s most hip restaurants, is the place in Dublin Sam referred to. Ghana had been the most recent stop in a life of travel that had also involved working in kitchens since he was 15.
Craft had been part of his life since childhood though, and having kicked things off in the Fumbally kitchen, he began making bespoke furniture for restaurants with a friend.
Soon, the furniture making took over to the point he was doing that five days a week and was only in the restaurant on Saturdays. It wasn’t until six years ago that he made his first knife.
That came about through the influence of Fingal Ferguson, a scion of the west Cork family famous for their Gubeen cheese.
“We would have cooked with him a lot over the years, so, after a food event we were working at one evening he said to me, ‘I’m going to get you in the workshop, I know you’ll like making knives, come and have a play’.
“That was six years ago and he sent me away with a rough knife I’d made under his guidance and a few bits of metal to play around with.
“We were back down eight months later and I made another knife and he sent me away with a few more bits and it sort of steam-rolled from there. So it’s down to Fingal really.”
Despite the freedom and independence that let him travel the globe, Sam has still found his life shaped by big events outside his control.
The death of his father being one. The Covid-19 pandemic being another. They each played a part in bringing him to Ennistymon and making knives, but not before he had undertaken another venture.
“I had been living on a tropical beach in Ghana and being in Dublin, well, I’m not a city person, I needed to get out of there, move west, get back to the sea and get back surfing,” he says.
“My wife’s family is from down here and at that point my dad had died and left me some money, so we put a bid on a house and managed to get it.”
His wife Niamh is also a chef and together they had a restaurant called Little Fox, which like many has unfortunately had to shut down due to the pandemic.
“We were very lucky moving here, we were friends with the people at Moyhill Farm and had been introduced to a lot of people down here.
“I surf a lot, so by the time we moved here I knew a lot of people, we were lucky to slip into a very open community and feel a part of that straight away and it’s grown and grown.
“Having Little Fox cemented that, we had an amazing explosion of people coming through the door, friends and people from far and wide to support that.”
The pandemic put the brakes on the restaurant, but other factors in Sam’s life were leading him in a different direction, not least having young children.
“We were beginning to raise a family and the time needed to make the kind of furniture I was making was definitely more than 9-5 Monday to Friday, it was a lot of hours working on a lot of fine detail stuff.
“With the knife making on the other hand, I can dip in and out of it a bit more and work around family time. Sometimes I’m in the workshop late, some days I’m in there early, I might do half a day and spend the rest with the kids, I might to a Saturday.
“You can find a job one hour long or ten hours long making a knife and you can fit it around family life.”
Knife making school
The couple had their second baby in October and are focusing on family life for now. Sam meanwhile is in the midst of the last round of Leader funding application and trying to set up Ireland’s first knife making school.
“The RDS Craft award money is geared towards my professional development and getting equipment for the workshop and the Leader and Clare LEO are helping with the push to renovate my workshop and get more equipment and if all goes to plan the knife school will be opening up this time next year.”
His work is commission-based and knives can take anywhere from 15 hours to a week depending on the level of intricacy and what’s going into the knife, so he’s working through a waiting list.
One commission at the moment from the US dovetails perfectly with his approach to the craft, incorporating materials of historical value to his client.
“He has given me two decommissioned gun barrels from his grandfather’s hunting rifles, metal from his brother’s farm, a big slab of wood from his great grandfather’s barn. All of those stories are specific to him.
“He wanted to celebrate the arrival of his baby and saw this as the most fitting way to mark this, so we’re working on something that will last his lifetime and hopefully his kid’s as well.”
Sam was found by that client through his Instagram profile and the platform is a powerful way of promoting his craft.
The pandemic has also had an influence, he believes, on the growing way that people are appreciating handmade craft and Instagram is helping with that.
If his Leader funding application is successful he will be launching a crowdfunding event this summer for the knife school and will be doing a collaboration with 10 knife makers from around the world.
“We will be forging some really special steel specific to Ireland and here in Clare. Each of the 10 will finish knives, we’ll auction them and hopefully raise €20,000 for the knife school.”
Following that he plans to do a course in pattern welding in the Centre of Metal Arts in Pennsylvania, which he says is probably the world’s leading fine art metalwork teaching facility.
Beautiful and distinctive his knives may be, with gorgeous patterns from the laminated steel, but they are not meant as ornaments, says Sam.
“I’m very much about making knives for people to use every day, I don’t want people sticking them on the wall.
“It’s a tool, it’s one thing most of the world uses every day to feed themselves, to feed their family and I very much want people to afford something that will last their lifetime, a quality knife, not some €10 Ikea knife that goes blunt after six months and sits in a drawer.
“I want something people will look after and cherish and enjoy and if they go down the route of laminated steel, I can make something meaningful.”
– By Kevin Corbett