Terve! Can you tell a bit about yourself?

My name is Cay Leppälä, I’m 45 years-old, married, three daughters. I was born in the region of Kymenlaakso, near the city of Kouvola. I’ve lived there all my life, in different places but in the same area: Lapinjärvi, Elimäki, Lahti, Kausala. I’m a country boy, always in the countryside, with short visits to the city.

What’s your background?

My father was a sort of carpenter. He had a business making furniture and stuff like that, but it went bankrupt during the depression of the 90s. I was a teenager back then. While working in the factory I tried vocational school, supposedly to learn to be a car mechanic, but after a week I said ‘heck this’ and left and went back to the factory, until the closedown. After that my mother and I ran flea markets in Kouvola and Lahti. Then my mother had ALS and after few years passed away. After a while I closed the flea markets and moved on to work in carpentry on a factory, just like my father did.

Where was your father during all that?

He had a… drinking problem, and that affected everything he did. He quit drinking twenty years ago, thankfully, but he had retired already and was not capable of much.

Any brothers or sisters?

Three. I have two older half-brothers and a younger brother. My little brother was working for me at the flea market, but he was really young back then. So yeah, after working as a carpenter for five years I went to install kitchens in apartment buildings, on building sites. I got stuck doing that for fifteen years. I had gotten married, my kids were little, the money was good, and it was easy for me to do. Until a year ago, when I decided to go back to my roots and open a new company on my own again. I’ve been crafting knives, shooting professional photography, and installing kitchens from time to time. (laughs)

Where does the interest in knives come from?

I’ve been always interested in knives, I’ve collected them since I was twenty or so. I was into salmon fishing, and the puukko (the traditional Finnish knife) is great for gutting fish. Then we bought our off-grid ranch and I needed axes and other tools to work, so I collected old or broken ones my neighbors and friends didn’t want anymore (rusty, missing a handle) and restoring them.

But how did you end up crafting knives?

It was totally unplanned. The idea was to learn blacksmithing, so I could build hinges or other metal things that I needed. I’ve always done things with my hands, and if I don’t know how to do something I read about it or look at some video in YouTube, then try it out. Normally it’s not that hard to learn. And then at some point I thought “what the heck, I’m crafting knives!” I wasn’t planning to do that, but somehow I got there. (laughs)

I guess you had to learn a new approach?

Yeah, of course. I watched a lot of videos on YouTube, which is a good place to learn new things. Especially because Finnish knife-makers are sort of, um, restrained; they don’t share that much. But Americans or Brits share quite a lot. You listen to a podcast or a YouTube video and you get a lot of valuable information and techniques.

Did you actively contact other Finns for advice?

Eh, no, I’m not that type of guy. And there are not that many people in the countryside to ask anyway, and distances are long. Also, Finnish guys are all about the puukko, they’re not interested in kitchen knives, which is a new thing over here. There’s just a few blade smiths doing this at the moment.

I feel a certain personality and style in your designs. Are you creatively satisfied when you finish a knife?

I guess so. I’m not happy like “this knife here is the best!” It’s more like “this one is a little better than my last one”.

Nothing wrong with that. It develops, like any art form.

Yeah. I always try to improve the design and the finishing.

What’s the process like? Where do you get the raw materials?

It depends. Sometimes I can start with old recycled metal, but mainly I’m buying the material because it’s so much easier to work with. If you start with a chunk of mysterious metal, like a rusty saw or something like that, you don’t know the heat rate that you need to use on it. You may start the process and then realize it won’t work. That’s why the steel I know about for sure is much better, more predictable. I order 3 – 7 mm thick slabs from Finland, the UK or Sweden. I normally cut them around the size I think I’m going to need, and then I forge it into shape. Once I got the general form I want, I grind it, finish it, and grind it all over again. After that I make the handles out of wood blocks, put everything together, and ship it.

Your knives manage to look rough and sophisticated at the same time.

I just do what looks good to me. I could go the easier route and do stock removal knives. Do you know what that is?

I have to admit I do not.

You take a plank of steel and grind it in the shape of the blade. You don’t heat it and shape it in any way. The only heating happens in the hardening process, called quenching. Somebody may get angry about this analogy but, if you watch hockey, ‘SM Liiga’ would be forging, and stock removal would be ‘Ykkösdivari’. Stock removal is less work and easier to do, but I prefer to forge the blades into shape, it adds a certain unfinished roughness to them.

The blades of your knives are made of “carbon steel”. What is that?

It’s steel that can be heat-treated and hardened. You heat it to around 800 C and then you sink it in oil to harden it.

800 degrees! Sounds pretty hot.

Not really. When I do forge-welding, which is to meld many layers of steel together, I need to heat the forge up to 1200 C.

Do you ever do this?

Yeah. But it’s a lot of work and time consuming! (laughs)

Where did you get the forge? Did you build it?

I bought it on Ebay. It’s from Poland, or Lithuania, I think. Soon I’m getting a new electric heat-treating oven, so I can step up my game again, use other types of materials. For the heat treatment of stainless steel, for example, you need to maintain the temperature consistently above 1000 C for half an hour before you can quench or harden the material. With my current forge it’s not possible to keep the temperature steady for so long.

So you’ll get rid of the old one?

I’ll keep it to continue forging the carbon steel blades. People like them a lot, I think they’re going to be my main thing.

Do carbon steel blades need any special care?

Yeah, they’re different from stainless-steel blades. You can’t put them in the dishwasher, for example. You must hand-wash and dry them right after use, or they will rust. I think it’s a good thing to spend more time building a connection with your tools, keeping them clean, dry, and sharp. It’s painful to see people throw away cheap knives just because they get dull.

How do you sharpen a knife? With a whetstone?

Whetstones are a bit messy. I prefer ceramic stones.

Are the knives keeping the wolves away?

(laughs) Not entirely. I’ve lived on the knives for a few months last year, but I still need to install kitchens from time to time to feed my family. But it’s true that I’m tired of doing that. I’ve been doing it for so long I just play some audiobooks, do the work and take the money. And that’s not the way I want to live anymore.

The rat-race, as they call it.

Yeah. But it’s a hard decision to get out of it if you have a mortgage and a family to feed every month.

I think it’s a very courageous thing to do.

Maybe. I’ve got a bad habit of becoming addicted to whatever I’m doing. But perhaps for the knife-making it’s not bad.

How does you family react to your blacksmithing?

My wife’s sort of okay with it. She’s happy that I do something other than the kitchen installations. I guess she sees I’m happier when I’m doing my own thing. But sometimes the addiction kicks in and I notice it’s 9 PM and I’ve been doing it all day. Then I hear “get back in the house already!”

What about your daughters? Are they interested?

Sort of. I’ve been teaching them how to properly use knives and axes since they were little. It’s like with staircases: at first it’s terrifying, but when they get used to them there’s no danger anymore.

When did you decide “I’m going to build a knife and sell it”?

Maybe a year ago, but it didn’t go that way. I was already making them for fun, and a couple of people offered to buy them. And then more people.

So it was all word of mouth?

And Instagram. I’ve been selling to Sweden, the US, all from exposure on IG.

Is it complicated to ship a knife over the post?

In Finland it isn’t. But when I post to the US I have to include a description “Kitchen Knife”. And overseas shipping can also be expensive. For example, sending a big chef knife to Sweden costs about 20 euros, and it can take up to a week.

Good feedback so far?

Yeah. I find it curious that people are excited while they dream and plan to buy the knife, but after they get it I don’t hear from them. If I make a point of asking they reply “oh, yeah, I forgot to say it’s great!” but rarely do they get back on their own to say “thanks, I’m loving the knife!” Maybe the dreaming and the buying is more exciting than the owning?

How do customers choose what the knife will look like?

They can look through my IG to pick one base design, and choose custom handles, colors, etc. Sometimes I also invent new designs for fun, and put them out there on Instagram to see if there’s interest.

Money-wise, are you getting compensated for such handiwork?

Sort of, yeah. But it’s true I should rethink my prices. It takes me more than six hours of hard work to make one knife. If I make five at the same time it takes a bit less, but it still is a lot of work.

I think it’s a great time to offer custom goods, made by hand by a human being.

In the past, Finnish people had many skills, but now less and less. I think we should all go back to learning handicrafts.

Where are you going with this? Will you take an apprentice someday?

I haven’t thought about that. The first thing would be to get an income from it. After that, we’ll see. I don’t know if it will start feeling like work one day!

And then? Japanese katanas!

(laughs) Maybe. There’s so much stuff to learn. Long blades are harder to make because they twist and bend easily when you’re hardening and quenching them, and you need a long forge with an even tempering temperature. I don’t even know if there would be a market for something like that. But for now, everybody needs a good kitchen knife.

You can follow Cay on Instagram and YouTube.