Interview: Achim Wirtz

Interview: Achim Wirtz

There are countless superlatives we can use to describe Achim Wirtz and his work. The simplest however, may be the best - a steel master. Not merely as an approving judge of the samples of cloth sheet in say, Rembrandt’s painting, but a true expert in the complexity of the metal.

Text and pictures Bas Martens
Achim Wirtz.

The English expression: "Mind over matter", certainly applies to the German blacksmith and knife maker Achim Wirtz (born 1961). During regular working hours he is a part-time policy officer at the municipality of Würselen, near Aachen. The rest of the time he works with steel, at all levels: scientific metallurgy, historically, as a blacksmith and steel trader, knife maker, and as a board member of the Belgian Knife Society. His damask steel is known worldwide, and yet he is always discovering something new.
Where does such an interest come from? With Achim we suspect a ‘steel-gene’, but that has not yet been demonstrated. So, let's just keep to what he has to say about it.
Achim's father had an interest in weapons. He read the German Waffen Journal and during Achim's childhood the family often went to Liège. Where his mother and sister would visit the flea market, his father and he would visit the weapons museum. "I was seven years old and I saw a shotgun with damask barrels. I said to my father: ‘that is beautifully engraved!’ My father explained to me then that it was not engraved, but damask steel. In the museum you had a separate showcase in which all steps are demonstrated. Then I understood. I was totally fascinated. For most people, steel is something rigid - and yet, you can shape it into something so beautiful."
The top is a hunting knife with a blade of 1.2695 and a handle of
stabilized chestnut burl. The lower knife has a damast blade, a bolster
of Shibuichi and a Sambar grip.
The fascination for damask remained. "When I was 19 I received my first pay cheque. I went to Aachen, to an Asian shop. I always wanted to have a Damask knife, and they had a Malaysian Keris. I bought it for 550 Mark, my entire salary".
Achim began collecting knives in his early teens. Later, he would start other hobbies like motorcycling. He also built dragonflies for 10 years, according to the classical Japanese or Korean examples. Both gave him a particular insight into art and crafts.
The idea to make knives himself somehow never materialized - until 1995. A colleague with an interest in weapons had a brother, who was a member of an association in Cologne with a small hobby forge. Did Achim feel like forging? Of course. Achim bought a hammer and an old file at the flea market, and head out to the forge with the intention to craft a knife. The forgers laughed their pants off. Forging a knife? That was impossible!
Undeterred by nay-sayers he began anyway. If you were to tell Achim that something is impossible, or, make the mistake of telling him: "you can’t", he would start nonetheless. A knife had to be forged, at all costs. But even for him, the start was difficult. "I started like everyone else, with a fat and badly grinded blade. Really good grinding without conductor or aid, was the most difficult to learn. I learned to forge in a couple of months, but free-handed grinding with a belt grinder cost me 7 years to master".
Left: A Leuku or Sami knife. The blade is made of ladder damask, the bolster and end cap are made of
bronze and the handle is of curly birch wood.
Right: The left knife has a blade of torsion damask, shibuichi bolster and stag handle. The right knife has a blade of torque damask, a bronze bolster and a stag handle.

Three tracks
His development as a blacksmith and knife maker has progressed along three paths, Achim explains. They have everything to do with, more or less, casual encounters.
The first track was the collaboration with Andreas Güldenberg and Timm Bredohl. Timm is the son of Manfred Bredohl, one of Europe's most famous ornamental metal workers and founder of the Vulkan Schmiede in Aachen, which houses the International Teaching Center for Metal Design. Andreas learned the trade from Bredohl who also happened to be the son of Achim's immediate superior. Andreas and Achim met at precise moment that Achim had forged a nice Damask knife. It resulted in Achim being permitted to join the company of Andrew and Timm in forging. The cooperation still exists, as an excellent symbiosis. Achim doesn’t interfere with the professional work of Güldenberg and Bredohl, nor accept any assignments in their field. Güldenberg and Bredohl do almost exclusively metal construction. Their big forge is mainly used for training. Achim helps and ensures everything works.
The second path was through university. At the Aachen craft market Achim met a man who asked if he could make a special blade. That man was Matthias Zwissler, a foundry engineer at Aachen University. Thanks to that contact, Achim received more metallurgical opportunities and could carry out his first tests with Wootz.
Two Higonokami's (Japanese pocket knives). The top one is made of titanium and mosaic damask.
The bottomone has a steel grip and a blade with different damask motifs on each side, water and fire.
Left: The fire motif on the damask blade of the Higonokami. 

In 2001, Zwissler left the University of Aachen for the Technical University in Duisburg. That provided a lot of interesting opportunities, because Duisburg housed a 150-ton press and large ovens. Achim also met Norbert 'Perry' Bahls, who had worked with people from the steel industry for almost forty years. It was, according to Achim, "a bit like the promised land".
One day Bahls, Zwissler and Achim were working on an experiment to forge damask steel in Duisburg, and a female student passed by the three men. She made some comments and they recognised she knew exactly what she was talking about. “Oh, they were still looking for such and such a piece of steel” she said and then told them that she would arrange it. To everyone's amazement, she returned a few days later with a trunk full of materials. This shouldn’t have surprised them, because the student was Katja Lohmann- Hütte. She is one of the present directors of the Friedr. Lohmann GmbH steelworks at Witten-Herbede on the Ruhr.
That meeting offered Achim new opportunities again. In 2003, at Lohmann he forged his first major damask package of weighing approximately 80 kilos, with all the problems it entailed. Achim: "Making such a large package is difficult. With an open fire it takes a long time to heat it inside too and in the meantime the Borax evaporates. Then we submerged the plates in Borax first and then forged it. That worked well. The forging itself was done with a 1500 kilo air hammer that was still at Lohmann then".
The forging activities at Lohmann's led to a bold new plan: to forge the biggest damask package ever. That meant it should be more than two thousand kilos. Achim Wirtz, Norbert Bahls and Matthias Zwissler finally made a damask packet of 2250 kg, upon which 1850 kg of raw material remained. A chunk thereof is located at Lohmann, another at the Deutsches Klingenmuseum in Solingen, and the rest was divided.
Making steel is hard work. This traditional Tatara oven on the premises
of the company Lohmann, was used to make a large steel kera of
Tamahagane. The oven was fed day and night with iron ore and coal.
The man in the foreground is Achim Wirtz. (Photo Achim Wirtz)

And then there's the third path. Achim calls it the administrative branch, and it comes down to sharing knowledge and skills. It is an essential part for him. He was vice president of the International Society for Damaszenerforschung (International Society for the Research of Damask) and worked together with the former director of the Klingenmuseum, Dr. Barbara Grotkamp-Schepers. Achim still works with the museum, particularly in an advisory capacity for a forge. He has been vice-president of the Belgian Knife Society since 2002, and has helped organise conferences on damask steel. He gets questions from around the world, and from metallurgical scientists, which he tries to answer to the best of his considerable ability. For his expertise in science, he doesn’t ask for money but the research results - because that's exciting.
A replica of a knife that is supposed to have been the hunting knife of
emperor Charles the Great. The handle is stag and copper. Achim
made the damast blade using X-ray shots of the original, with exactly
the same damask motif.

Thus, we conclude the development of Achim Wirtz in a nutshell. However, there is of course a lot more to say. As a smith and knife maker, he puts forward clear ideas. For example, on forging and stock-removal he says:
"There is the eternal battle that forged knives are better than knives made with stock-removal. But a forged knife is also stock-removal; in the end you must shape it with a file. And the material for a stock-removal knife is also forged".
"The advantage of forging for me is the much greater freedom in design. It fascinates me to work with metal as if it were clay. That continues with damask. It becomes much more complicated, but it also has many more possibilities. You process multiple materials together. And you are partially blind, because the result is visible only after etching. "
I ask him for the qualities of his damask steel.
"Damask has never been made because of its properties. Damask is a decorative technique. Damask is about the pattern. But all the more important is to keep an eye on the properties. If it's just about beauty, it becomes an object that looks like a knife, but isn’t. I do not want that, because I'm also a knife maker. So, you need to look at what steel you put in for the right features, which are also compatible with heat treatment".
Three kitchen knives. The top is of tungsten damask and Wengé wood.
The middle is of torsion damask with walrus ivory and Rio rosewood.
The lower knife has a blade of wave damast with African Blackwood
and flamed birchwood.
A Langsax made after a specimen from the 7th century. The blade is
made of torque and refined steel, the bolster and end cap are made of
silver and the handle is made of bog oak.
"What fascinates me is that you are always learning new things, and at the same time going back in time. According to the Americans, Bill Moran invented damask around 1970. Sure. When I started, I knew there was already beautiful damask in the 19th century. The French say that the most complex damask was made by the Merovingians. [A dynasty of French kings from the 5th to the 8th century]. But then have a look at this".
Achim takes one of the books by Jørgen Ilkjær on the archaeological excavations in the Danish Illerup river valley. Parts 11 and 12 of the series are about swords. Around the 3rd century, there was a huge battle in Illerup and the weapons and equipment of the vanquished party were thrown into a lake. The lake is gone, but since the nineteen fifties there have been excavations in the area. Eventually more than 15,000 objects were retrieved, including dozens of swords and daggers. Some of these swords have incredibly complicated damask patterns. Achim shows some examples: "I still do not know how they made it".
When asked about his style Achim has to think. "I find that difficult to answer. Knives have existed for so long, it's hard to imagine anything new. Most of what we make are copies. But I must surely have my own style, because people say they recognize my knives".
"I always try to avoid doing the same thing again. But there are things that keep fascinating me. Like many people, I have a soft spot for a certain epoch. In my case that is everything that was made in the first thousand years of our era. But I also love the Scandinavian style. I've never been on holiday there, but I find the shape of a Puukko very appealing. I also like what the Japanese are making. They have so much patience. "
"My fulfilment is in making knives, not in selling them. When it's ready, I'm not interested in it anymore. I once tried a sort of mid-tech, a series of small fixed blades, but that did not work. I also work too chaotically. I'm always busy with ten, twelve knives. The time they take varies a lot.  Sometimes it's fast, sometimes not at all. Look [he shows the blade of a Shamshir, standing on his workbench] this has been here for a few years. The blade is ready, but I do not know when I will finish the rest. Maybe never".
Left: A hunting knife with a blade of stainless damask, bolster from of a piece 'Renneisen' from the year 1324, which came from the door of the Aachen cathedral, and a handle of elk antlers.
Right:Two Viking knives, respectively of damask and ball bearing steel.
King class
"Kitchen knives are the king class for me. A good kitchen knife is the hardest thing to make. Every idiot can make a thick hunting knife, but a kitchen knife is tall, long and thin. These are difficult parameters and it is difficult in the heat treatment. Kitchen knives must also work all the time, every day. You cannot afford to make mistakes. They must also be ergonomically good. A knife maker that can make a good kitchen knife can do anything."
Meanwhile, Achim is well-stocked. He has enough steel and handle materials to last him a lifetime. But that has a reason:
"A piece of wood I can shape any way I want. With materials like stag it’s different. You want a certain size and a certain model. Then you have to have a choice. That does not work if you have only three pieces of stag. I recently had a friend visiting, who wanted to make a Randall No. 1. He needed a piece of stag of a certain shape and size for that. We searched for a few hours, and then he found it".

Two pieces of raw 'Renneisen', a forged flat piece of Renneisen, a moulded piece of steel and the finished blade, forged after an example from Illerup.
Right: The ‘Aachener Klenkes’ (a hand with raised little finger) is the symbol of Aachen. Achim made this key hanger in a limited edition for the Aachener Klenkes committee. They are sold and the revenue goes to support for disabled children. The Klenkes is made of wire-eroded mosaic damast.