A cut above: the 12-year-old knifemaker

Knifemaker Leila Haddad, 12, handcrafts knives for some of Australia's top chefs.
Knifemaker Leila Haddad, 12, handcrafts knives for some of Australia's top chefs.  Photo: Jay Cronan

There are different ways to make a knife, but generally there is steel to forge, a blade to grind, heat and shine, and a handle to fit. It requires skill, precision and strength.

Google images of "knife maker" and you're met with burly, beardy men. It's not a craft you'd expect a 12-year-old to have mastered – but some 12-year-olds are different. Meet Leila Haddad.

When she was five she learnt to operate a steel press. Standing on a barrel, she'd lower the 30-tonne press at her father Karim's command, squashing steel heated to 1200C to make a layered Damascus blade.

Haddad in her father's workshop.
Haddad in her father's workshop.  Photo: Jay Cronan

"You have all your layers of steel and you weld it together, and then you squash it, so all the steel sticks together," explains Leila.

At six, she made a knife with help from Karim, a bladesmith for 20 years. She was 10 when she made her first knife from start to finish – a small hunting knife with an antler handle, sold to a well-known collector.

"He [a knife collector] came in [to the Australian Knifemakers Guild knife show in Melbourne] and I said 'this was made by my 10-year-old, she wants to buy a bike with the money,"  Karim says. "He yelled across the room to his wife: 'Bring me my wallet!'"

Haddad's handiwork.
Haddad's handiwork. Photo: Jay Cronan

The articulate, dry-humoured Year 7 student has now made about 30 knives, including her most recent, a mini cleaver with a black Cerakote finish and a black walnut handle. It is a beautiful object.

Growing up at the Tharwa Valley Forge bladesmithing school in a tiny town near Canberra, Leila was a toddler on a mission.

"I didn't encourage it at all – she crawled in," Karim recalls. "I remember her as a young toddler sliding in with her nappy covered in soot. It's really important to me that kids are free to … do what they're interested in doing, and she was just fascinated from an early age."

Advertisement

But it's rare that a passing interest becomes a fully fledged passion and then a nationally recognised, sought-after skill – and rarer still for all that to transpire in just six years.

"Her order book is bigger than mine at the moment,"  Karim says. "She normally has about four or five on the waiting list."

Her customers include Ben Shewry, owner and chef of Melbourne's Attica. "Leila's knives are designed to be something you use every day of your life," Shewry says. "Aesthetically, they're beautiful, but they're hard-wearing and they're practical."

Knifemaking may seem an unusual schoolgirl pursuit, but Leila sees it as an opportunity to create something worthwhile.

"The end result is amazing – to go 'Wow, I've done this'," she says. "And I like to know that other people will use it and find it useful.

"If you buy a $15 knife from the supermarket, yes it's only $15, but it's going to last you about six months. Whereas the ones that we design and make, if they're looked after right, then they will last 100 years or more. But we haven't tested that yet," she jokes.

When you're talking about a child making knives, it's natural to wonder about the safety of it all.

"It's not dangerous unless you're silly with it," Leila says. "If you be safe and sensible … if you do the right things and follow the steps, then it's not dangerous."

Of all Leila's qualities, her matter-of-fact nature and self-reliance stand out most.

"Just before she went to pre-school she decided to make her own lunch, and since then I've never made her lunch," Karim says. "I think this morning she cooked a salmon pasta, put it in a box … and off she goes."

Leila loves to cook (yes, her own knives get a run) and play piano – when she's not at water polo training – and it was her motivation to create that earned her a place as one of 20 speakers at last year's WAW Gathering, masterminded by Shewry.

An acronym for "what a wonderful world", the WAW Gathering is designed to inspire people in the food community and beyond.

Leila spoke to an audience of about 400 about the importance of making things and the stories around those things.

"Think of how many hands have touched a knife, young and old. Think of how many Sunday roasts it's carved up. Think of how many fingers it has sliced, accidentally," she quipped during her 10-minute talk.  

"The reaction after she spoke, it was a thunderous applause," Shewry says. "I would say that was one of the top two or three speeches on the day."

Shewry, who stocks his restaurant with artisan wares, believes the person behind a product is just as important.

He met Leila in early 2014 when he and his team travelled to Tharwa Valley Forge to make a collection of knives.

"I was really drawn towards Leila's personality, and her commitment to the craft was really strong," he says.  

Shewry also bought a hunting knife from Leila, a prized possession he keeps in his sock drawer.

"I could relate to [Leila's family] in the way they support each other and the way they support a passion – no matter how unusual that might be," he says.

While some 12-year-olds are entertaining themselves with Katy Perry film clips, Leila is ogling $10,000 Japanese knives.

"At the moment I make lots of different knives," she says. "Sometimes other stuff gets in the way and I don't work on a knife for a couple of weeks but I do try to do it pretty often."

Most weekends she helps Karim teach, and she also teaches the new junior blacksmithing course during school holidays. "It's just nice to share knowledge with other people," she says.

Leila is a regular at knife shows around the country, where she'll take eight to 10 knives and often sell out.

"She's got one fella she has an ongoing rivalry with, and we try to put them next to each other whenever we can because Leila outsells him all the time, and he gets really wound up about it," laughs Karim.

She has rather a knack for making an impression. A knifemaker she knew, who has since  died, once sent her a box of special handle materials he'd collected.  

"He was quite sick at the time and he wasn't going to last much longer, but he was really keen that she would go on and make some knives with some of those things," Karim says.

And while Leila's long-term dreams are for now undreamt – "I don't really even know what I'm doing tomorrow," she jokes – she plans to do just that: to continue making things and honing her craft.

"To get it perfectly right at every step, that's the challenging bit," she says. "Dad says to be really good at something you need to forge 100 knives."

Here's to the next 70, then.   

tharwavalleyforge.com

Follow Leila on Instagram: @leilasknives

Correction: The original version of this story stated Leila Haddad made her first knife at age 9. She was 10. This has been amended above.