When Seá* Culhane was 18 and about to be sent to the South West African border with Angola, as part of his National Service, he visited a knife show, in Randburg, where the craftsmen of the SA Knifemakers’ Guild were now displaying their wares to the public.
Culhane badly wanted to buy his own boot knife to take with him, as part of his personal kit, when he deployed on operations. It was not to be, everything was far too expensive, but the seed had been sown.
He returned to civvy street after his compulsory two years and studied for a bit, before signing up for articles with a firm of chartered accountants. None of it was what he wanted to do.
Culhane’s father was, at that time, drum major of the Johannesburg based Transvaal Scottish Regiment and Seá* had drummed in the pipe band from the age of 15, officially joining as a 16-year-old cadet drummer, while still at De la Salle College, in Linden.
Now, having done his initial military service, he was assigned to the Jocks, as they are known, for his part-time military commitments, for the next 10 years. Instead, he opted to join the South African Police, becoming trained as a bomb disposal expert, based at John Vorster Square, in downtown Johannesburg - but not before an old family friend had taken him under his wing and started teaching him about knifemaking.
He left the police, after an eight-year career, as a captain, having moved to the Commercial Crimes division, before going on to command the unit’s Sandton Fraud Branch. Culhane would spend the next 25 years - first as a forensic investigator and then, latterly, as the head of security on a series of gold mines.
He never stopped making knives, perfecting his craft - after selling his very first knife, in 1988.
“Tommy Bundy - my friend, mentor and trainer - had been head of the apprentice programme at the Johannesburg municipality back in the day, he was an engineering genius; there was nothing he couldn’t turn his hand to and find a solution for. He helped me build my first belt grinder, which I still use more than 35 years later.”
“You must remember, in those days there weren’t knife supply shops like there are today, if you wanted something you either had to make it yourself or - if you could afford to - import it from the US.”
Culhane re-joined the Transvaal Scottish on leaving the police, serving as the battalion adjutant and, later, as a major, the second-in-command of the part-time military unit, before finally retiring in 2013. In 1999, his knifemaking took a seismic leap forward when he decided to use his hobby to commemorate the unit’s upcoming centenary, by making a special sgian-dubh, the little black dagger worn in the sock as part of traditional Highland dress in Scotland - and by officers and pipers in Scottish heritage regiments, the world over.
“I had started making sgian-dubhs for some of the members of pipe bands and Caledonian societies I’d met over the years, with their clan badges acid etched on the blades. I thought I’d be lucky to make five centenary models to sell to the Jocks and members of the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association.”
In the end he sold the entire range, all 101 of them, numbered between 1902 and 2002. Not just people with an association to the regiment bought them, but collectors of militaria and knife enthusiasts too.
From there the requests just grew, including for a dirk version of the sgian-dubh, a 12-inch blade with its traditional mini fork and knife in the leather sheath, with art work designed by regimental historian and former books editor of The Star, James Mitchell.
Culhane’s most notable dirk was commissioned from Canada, for presentation to the outgoing Regimental Sergeant Major of the 48th Highlanders, a Scottish Regiment based in Toronto. The dirk is the only knife he doesn’t completely make himself, outsourcing the leather work and nickel plating on the scabbard to a Cape Town-based craftsman.
Two-and-a-half years ago, he took early retirement and turned his passion into a second career - making a wide array of hand-made bespoke knives and cutlery across the spectrum.
His special love remains Scottish military knives in particular and fighting knives in general, and he has produced his own successful versions of the legendary US Marine Corps fighting knife, the Ka-Bar and the iconic Fairburn Sykes commando dagger, which is incorporated today in special forces insignia around the world, including South Africa’s.
He makes each knife by hand, in his Roodepoort workshop, to the west of Johannesburg. Sgian-dubhs take about a week from heating the blade to 1070°C and then quenching it in oil, freezing it overnight and then tempering it at 175°C for an hour. The blades are ground and etched with the designs, before he turns to the handles and, finally, the leather sheaths, all of which he makes himself. Dirks take about six weeks to complete.
His most recent commemorative sgian-dubh is a limited series of 153, the artwork designed once more by Mitchell, to commemorate the centenary of Delville Wood, or more specifically the 153 South African soldiers - who lost their lives serving with the 4 South African Infantry Battalion - who had all been drawn from either SA Scottish regiments or Caledonian Societies, at the start of World War I.
Each of his knives, whether military-inspired or household cutlery, comes with a lifetime guarantee. “I was once asked whose lifetime - mine or the owners? So, I’ve had to amend it to say ‘for life or as long as I am still able to make them’,” he laughs.
Earlier this month, he completed the cycle for the young soldier who once went out to get himself a boot knife, designing a prototype Pro Patria boot knife, commemorating this year’s 30th anniversary of the end of the so-called Bush War, in northern Namibia and southern Angola, and inspired by the campaign medal of the same name.
If the interest on his Facebook page is anything to go by, this could be his most successful model to date.