Iceland 3/9/2019 - 3/17/2019
Saturday, March 16, 2019 - Knife Making WorkshopWhile planning our Iceland trip, we found a great web site called Creative Iceland, which sets tourists up with local experts / artisans for various creative endeavors. We really liked the sound of the "Viking Knife Making Workshop" in a suburb of Reykjavik, where you spend 6 hours with a master craftsman carving and shaping a knife handle from wood and animal horn and sewing a leather sheath for it. What a great way to get into the local culture, and to have a truly unique souvenir to take home! So we had inquired about availability and booked a private workshop for our last full day in Iceland.
The hotel had booked a taxi for us last night, and it was set to arrive at 9:10 a.m. to pick us up. After breakfast, the taxi arrived a few minutes early. We had a pleasant ride ~25 minutes out of the city to Knifemaker Palli's home in Mosfellsbær.
We met Palli and he invited us into the basement workshop. We were immediately inundated with the smell of woodworking, a smell which brings us back to our childhood with our fathers, who each loved carpentry and had woodshops of their own. The smell of sawdust mingling with oil-based stain. There were display cases showcasing Palli's beautiful knife creations, and paintings by friends and family adorned the walls.
There were tools and materials filling all available spaces: a bandsaw, grinders, sandpaper, clamps, animal horns, wood, leather, and knife blades. It looked chaotic to an outsider, but Craig suspected that Palli knows exactly where anything is at any given time, and Palli confirmed this.
Palli led us into the back room of the workshop, where there was a large work bench with vises along the perimeter. We each put on an apron and Palli directed our attention to a selection of "blanks" to choose from. These were knife blades embedded in blocks of wood with animal horn hilts and butts. These are materials that have been available since Viking times, and we would be using hand tools to shape the knife handles, and sewing sheaths out of cowhide. Our finished products would be timeless souvenirs, hence the marketing of this as a "Viking Knife Making Workshop."
All of the blanks had the potential to be beautiful. We made sure to choose different wood so that we would be able to easily tell our knives apart. Craig chose mountain ash with a reindeer horn hilt and sheep horn butt. It had a very interesting multi-colored grain. I chose walnut with reindeer horn hilt and butt. I don't usually gravitate toward dark wood, and I think that is why I chose it; trying to branch out a bit.
Palli demonstrated how to fit the knives into a vise (using leather as protective padding to prevent damage to the wood) and use a rasp to shape the handle. At first, we ground down the corners, and eventually contoured the rest of the handle as well. Soon the seams where the horn was attached to the wood with epoxy were surprisingly smooth.
Palli offered us a short coffee break, so the three of us went to the outer workshop and enjoyed a cup of coffee and some delicious pastry while chatting about Palli's workshop. We told him how our fathers had each had dedicated workshops throughout our childhoods, and what pleasant memories it evoked. We explained that though our fathers were talented craftsmen, neither of us regularly engages in any kind of handiwork these days, though we are no strangers to the tools and materials. Palli said that it is not uncommon for these skills to get lost between generations. He offers these workshops to try to keep the skills alive.
After finishing a cup of coffee, we went back to the workbench to continue shaping our handles. Palli made sure that the contours were correct, and helped out here and there to keep everything straight and even.
Once the shape was correct (after about 2 hours), we used five progressively finer grit sandpapers (starting with 80 and ending with 400) to smooth everything out.
Before we knew it, it was noon and time for lunch. Palli closed up the workshop and we went upstairs to his home. As he opened the front door the cat brushed past us in its eagerness to go outside. Palli's home is like a gallery; there were interesting things to look at everywhere. Much of the furniture had been custom made by Palli himself (hello desk with many tiny drawers, can I take you home with me?) He had many collectibles on display in custom-made built-ins, such that the whole feel of the place was still Nordic minimalist. We were envious of this, as we also have many collectibles in our home, but feel like they often come off looking like clutter. There were bright bold paintings on the walls, framed insect specimens, tribal masks, and miniature figurines. We had plenty to look at while he prepared a traditional lunch for us.
Proving the versatility of skyr, Palli said that he likes to pour some cream on top. He showed us how he likes to prepare it, and we followed suit. It was very good; cream is always a pleasant addition to food! We also had two types of Icelandic bread, cheese, and smoked meat and trout. It was delicious. We enjoyed chatting with the personable Palli while we ate. As we got to know one another, we realized that we have a lot in common, including an interest in helping children in the developing world.
After lunch, we had a cup of coffee. Palli told us that when he had first bought this house, it was a disaster. He basically rebuilt the entire thing himself except for the ceilings / roof. Childhood polio has left him with mobility issues with his left arm, so he has trouble working over his head. Friends had helped him to perform those tasks. He showed us photos of the house before and during construction. It is quite a transformation! The location of the house is gorgeous as well. The back deck overlooks a waterfall, and Palli told us that he has set up lights so that they can enjoy the waterfall at night as well. In the time that he has lived here, what used to be farmland behind the house has been developed into apartment buildings as Reykjavik sprawls further to the northwest.
Before returning to the workshop, we took a bathroom break. Palli's bathroom is no different than the rest of the house, lots of artwork and natural history specimens on display. As we exited the front door of the house, the cat once again brushed past us, eager now to get inside. Palli directed our attention to an old computer monitor and keyboard attached to a pole like a scarecrow on in the field across the street from his house. "That's my internet cafe," he deadpanned.
We got settled in the workshop again and resumed the sanding process.
Palli's 3-year-old German shepherd Nora returned home from a hike with the neighbors, and visited us in the shop. She was very well behaved and friendly. She came to see me, licked my hand, and sat down on my feet, leaning against me as I sanded my knife handle. What a sweet dog! During the course of the day, he would give her verbal commands in a very soft voice, and she would always respond immediately.
Once the handles were completely smooth, it was time to make the sheaths. He showed us one of his knives and demonstrated the way that it "locks" into the sheath tightly, with a snapping sound.
Palli put a string down the center of each of our knives, then wrapped the knife in masking tape. He then used the string as a pull tab to tear the masking tape in half. What was left was a custom pattern which fit each knife's contours perfectly. The thickness of the masking tape would allow just enough space to slide the knife in and out.
Palli traced the pattern onto thick cow hide, and cut it out with a razorblade at a 45 degree angle so that it would fit together at the seams without being too bulky.
He then used a stitch groover made of a cow bone to score the leather, and he used an overstitch wheel to mark where we would sew. Craig and I then used a small awl to punch holes where the wheel had marked the leather.
We soaked the leather in water and then threaded a piece of line with a needle on each end. Palli taught us how to sew through the awl holes to stitch the leather together. Each needle would go through each hole, and you would pull the line tightly in between each stitch.
With Craig's MS, he had been wondering how much of the knifemaking process he would be able to do. He actually did quite well with the rasping and sanding. But after hours of woodwork, his arms and hands were tired, and he lacked the dexterity to do the sewing. Palli was more than happy to help out, being sympathetic to mobility impairments because he himself has one. He sewed Craig's sheath while I sewed mine. (This is one of the reasons that we booked a private workshop. If Craig required additional assistance from Palli, he didn't want to feel like he was shortchanging others in the group. This worked out perfectly.) Palli then attached leather belt loops to each of the sheaths.
When we were done with the sheaths, Palli wrapped the knives in plastic wrap to protect them from the damp leather, and put the knives into the sheaths. He told us not to remove the knives from the sheaths for 24 hours, to give the leather a chance to dry into the proper shape.
He also gave us instructions for how to finish things off when we get home: soak each knife handle in a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine, and then wax it with beeswax to give it a nice finish. We will also need to grease the leather sheath to make it nice and shiny.
It was an incredible day. Palli is a master craftsman and we are so lucky to have been able to learn from him. It is very satisfying to have such a beautiful souvenir that we created ourselves! Also, we really enjoyed the opportunity to spend the day with Palli. We think that the best way to learn about a place is to connect with people on a one-on-one basis. We are grateful to Palli for opening his home to us, showing us such hospitality, and sharing his craft. We highly recommend this workshop.
Palli also provides multi-day workshops, where participants are able to assemble the "blank" themselves, choosing wood and hilt and butt material, inserting the blade, epoxying everything together, etc. And of course, his workshop is also a knife shop where he sells his own creations.
[On our flight home from Reykjavik, I was thumbing through the Icelandair Stopover in-flight magazine when I noticed a familiar face smiling up at me!]
Palli called a taxi for us, and we left his place at around 3:45 p.m. When we arrived back at the hotel, I posted to Facebook and Instagram, and then we started to pack for our trip home tomorrow. The helpful front desk staff made a Flybus reservation for our airport transfer tomorrow.
We had made an online reservation for dinner at Messinn for 6:30 p.m.. My friend Julia had come to Iceland a couple of weeks ago, and when I asked for recommendations, this was the restaurant that she said we needed to go to. And when our guide Sölvi was giving recommendations of good places to eat near our hotel, he also mentioned it. We had tried to go last night, but without a reservation on a Friday night it was hopeless.
The restaurant was right next to Bus Stop #3, only about a two minute walk from the hotel. It is small and intimate, decorated with nautical antiques. Our table was next to an actual porthole which gave a glimpse into the kitchen.
Craig got a Viking Stout and I had a Moscow mule. We started with a bread basket and Craig had cream of lobster soup with cognac. We each got a "fish pan," a literal frying pan containing fish, potatoes, a special sauce, and salad.
Two sizzling frying pans were brought to our table and placed on fish-shaped slate trivets. There was a potholder on the pan's handle for burn protection. Mine was fillet of cod in a sauce of chili, curry, leek, apples, mango chutney, white wine, cream, and parmesan. Craig had Atlantic wolf fish with mushrooms, bell peppers, grapes, cream cheese, black pepper, white wine, and cream. Small round potatoes and salad greens were also served in the same pan.
It was so delicious...a unique flavor combination that we wouldn't have expected. We really enjoyed it. After finishing our main course, we decided to share a dessert. The description "Chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and whipped cream" hardly did it justice. It was like the fudgiest brownie ever, and so Instagrammable, artfully presented on a colorful plate!
We left the small storefront dining room to use the restroom, and noticed that there was another small dining room in back, which had table configurations to serve larger parties. The restrooms were designated as gender neutral via brass plaques depicting a little boy urinating into a pot and a little girl sitting on a chamber pot. That Icelandic humor again! Love it!
The food and ambiance at Messinn were lovely. We are grateful to Julia and Sölvi for the recommendation. It was the perfect meal to celebrate our final night in Iceland.
We wanted to visit the Smokin' Puffin one more time before the end of the trip. It was Saturday night, but still early by Reykjavik standards. Drinking is certainly not cheap in this city, so locals tend to get a head start at home before heading out to the bars. Craig and I each had a Brennivin shot. Craig ordered a Krombacher beer (a happy hour special), and I had a Moscow mule.
The only other customers in the bar approached us and asked if we were staying at the Konsulat. They thought that they recognized us from breakfast. They introduced themselves as Julia and Tim, originally from Wisconsin and now living in Georgia. They were in Reykjavik for 3 weeks doing electrical autoclave work, staying at the Konsulat. We started to chat and Julia immediately interrupted herself, apologizing for inviting themselves over. We told her not to be ridiculous; they were more than welcome to join us. We chatted about Iceland, travel, work, motorcycles (they are Harley enthusiasts who will be heading across the US to the Sturgis motorcycle rally this coming summer).
At around 11 o'clock, we all decided that we should be on our way, despite the bartender's best efforts to get us to go upstairs for karaoke (she sings a mean Whitney Houston, I'll give her that!) We love the location of the Konsulat hotel, as it is a very short walk from the restaurants and bars of the 101 district.
It was a lovely last evening of an amazing trip!
Palli at his Knifemaking Workshop
Before: Steph's knife (top), Craig's knife (bottom)
Craig uses a rasp to shape his knife handle
Steph's knife and sheath
Finished knives and sheaths
Seafood dinner at Messinn
See all photos from March 16