SKILLED: A knifeman-cum-top maker impresses with the beauty of his creations
KUALA LUMPUR: OMAR Mohamad had his first encounter with knife making when he was 13 years old. The experience didn't spark any stirrings and he moved on.
For the next 40 years, he focused his attention on other pursuits. Then in 2004, the blade interest that had lay dormant for so many decades suddenly surfaced.
He rekindled his affair with knife making with unfettered enthusiasm. All those years, Omar was attached to the Johor Customs.
But his professional career is nearing its end. In fact, Omar remarked in a soft whisper that his retirement is around the corner.
"I have assessed my new hobby and have come to realise that I can make a living from it," said Omar. His knowledge of various types of steel for making sharpened blades was impressive.
He shed light on high carbon steel like the SK-5 and SK-9 and elaborated on their properties. Being a bladesman who only recently embarked on a wide learning curve of forging blades, Omar showed he also has a reservoir of knowledge on the various species of tropical hardwoods that are popular among knife makers in Malaysia.
The grey-haired, moustachioed Customs officer, who wears an easy smile for all those who came to his table at the recent Aidilfitri Craft Promotion at Kompleks Kraf Kuala Lumpur, had more than 26 blades on display.
The sheaths and handles of his blades were made from different types of wood found in Malaysia. He had expertly shaped and cured the sheaths and handles and then lacquered them to a shine.
Omar said his new additions for this craft promotion were blades that were innocuous-looking at first glance. Particularly captivating were several knives encased in a highly sought-after black wood called penawar hitam.
"Over in Sabah, this kind of wood is called kayu malam."
Some people, he added, believed that penawar hitam had medicinal properties. Perhaps that accounted for its higher than normal price.
Each knife from handle to the tip of the sheath measures 28cm. The blade alone is 15cm. At a glance, the black wood looked like a single piece and did not give an outward appearance of being a knife.
It was sleek, polished and smooth to the touch. It also has a remarkably comfortable feel in one's hands.
Omar said the blade material was harder than normal. He had used it for cutting meat and the blade stayed sharp without any retouching even after six months.
Omar also brought along several boxes of tops.
The traditional kampung game of playing tops may eventually prove to be a winner for Omar because it is an item that appeals to mothers with children and it is more affordable.
The tops are priced from RM10 to RM25, depending on the size. I couldn't resist buying one because it brought back memories of my top-playing days when we used to "attack" each other's tops.
But Omar's tops are pretty safe because the blunt metal tips have been ground to a smooth surface. The Johor bladesmith's tops are not like those bulky Kelantan tops, some of which have been known to spin non-stop for about one and a half hours.
"I can make about 60 tops a day," said Omar. "If there is an urgent bulk order, I can produce 1,000 tops within 24 hours," he said.
Of course, the mass production of wooden tops can only be achieved with the aid of a machine.
Right now, Omar has a fine reputation of being the top and knifeman in Johor Customs. Apparently, word of his artisan skills has reached the far corners of his department.
He has set up a company called Nouvo Craft Enterprise. His business card carries a quotation which states "we create iron with great strength and brings many benefits" (Al Hadid: 25).
His business is not confined to just blades and tops. He also takes pride in selling his pengikat aiskrim. It is a device that helps tie those aiskrim potong in plastic that some of us know so well.
In fact, I had mistaken the photocopied illustrations of how to tie an ice cream in plastic for something that may have a tactical purpose.
Omar, who hails from Kampung Kastam Larkin, Johor Baru, has aptly described himself as "Master of the Sheath" in his calling card. As someone who is now the proud owner of one of his beautiful creations, I can safely say that description is quite accurate.
Knife collectors who are always on the lookout for aspiring talented bladesmen will probably hear more of Omar in the years to come.
With eight years of knife-making under his belt, this amiable master craftsman is poised to scale the heights of his chosen path post-retirement. Omar is definitely custom-made for his future role.