John Hounslow-Robinson

posted on: Saturday, 14 June 2014

John Hounslow-Robinson at his boiling forge

My theory is that if you are exceptional at something, people will always find you no matter where in the world you are. Case in point is John Hounslow-Robinson, an artisan blade smith who lives in a rustic cottage on the edge of wilderness in Southern Tasmania. 

John's cottage in Southern Tasmania and the boat he plans to repair by hand

The brilliant 'fire bath' John created to bathe al fresco, complete with rubber ducky

Tom Hounslow holding the new knife he made that was identical to his dad's

John's cottage features exposed wooden beams and white clouds of smoke wind out through the chimney into the cold air above it. It's a place where the grass outside never needs mowing because there are a dozen rock wallabies that come down the valley to graze on it every night, and where Eastern quoll and the occasional Tasmanian Devil wander into view and platypus swim in the stream nearby.

But despite the remote location, some of the world's most amazing chefs have tracked him down to request his knives, passing on the secret address among those who revere the highest blade quality. In particular, Tetsuya Wakuda has become a big fan and great friend who has a collection of around 50 of John's knives. That's pretty exceptional. 'Tets is great,' John says enthusiastically. 'He's a real knife nut!'

I'm no knife aficionado, but I do know extraordinary person when I meet one. And to be honest, what I most admire is that he is just a cool guy. When I emailed to see if I could come around to his workshop on my recent visit to Tasmania, his response was: 'Hi Phoebe, sounds kool. Have a knife day!' Too brilliant!

Not only did John teach himself how to create knives, he does so using salvaged material: damascus steel from cars for the blade and all manner of foraged bits and pieces for the handles - antlers dropped in the forest, an 100-year-old rosewood fence post - to make knives that are light, precise and last a lifetime. The merging of art, problem solving, design and recycling is absolute genius. When I mention his method of knife making reminds me of the wand-maker Ollivander in the Harry Potter books, he says he doesn't know the character, but leans in conspirationally: 'I have made a few wands though! I made one for Maria Lurighi from MONA!'

John's youngest son Tom has followed in his footsteps. Do I want to visit Tom? Absolutely! John whips out his phone: 'Hey man, I've got a food blogger here - want to do an interview? ... Cool man.' After drawing me a map for the drive to Blackman's Bay in the Huon Valley, I'm setting off to Tom's with a bounty of wild leatherwood honey (gifted to me) and a string of garlic (gifted to Tom).

And Tom's place is spectactular. Set next to a vineyard, overlooking an expansive bay perfect for fishing salmon and oysters, I am struck by how different their work spaces are. One is chaotic, rugged and wild while the other is ordered, beautiful and airy. But despite the differences in setting, Tom and John are freakishly similar in their creations. 'I decided to start work on a different shape of knife as an experiment one week,' Tom tells me. 'Then dad showed me a new knife he had made. We lay them on top of each other and they were almost identical.' It's not surprising that their style is synchronised, because Tom subconsciously learned the art from watching his dad. 'I made my first knife when I was eight from a rusty nail!' he laughs.

And while it appears that interest in the Hounslow's talents is rapidly snowballing, with film crews and journalists from around the globe making the trek to Southern Tasmania, John in particular is keen to maintain a chill lifestyle. He would much rather trade his wares for good cheese, wine or a side of venison - rather than concentrate on the bottom line. Top of his list is his friend Peter Althaus' Domaine A wines. 'I'd rather drink Domaine A than Dom,' he proclaims 'And - it's half the price!'

While the future holds the launch of The Cutler's Gallery online store and a new video, John is also pretty keen on repairing the wood panels on a boat he's just bought. 'I'm 66 and it's getting a bit harder to see well,' he said. 'I might just send all the work to Tom and go fishing!'

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