For more than 30 years Cemal Altunkaynak has been making high quality knives by hand in our manufactory and is now responsible for large parts of the production. The experienced knifemaker gives unique insights behind the scenes of Boker, explains his complex work and talks about his career and life.
What motivated you to learn the profession of a knifemaker and what was your motivation to start an apprenticeship at Boker over 30 years ago?
After I finished school I was 16 years old and wanted to start an apprenticeship. Since my youth I have been very interested in knives and even then I always had one in my pocket. Solingen was and is known worldwide as a city of blades, so there was no reason for me to look around outside Solingen. After a short search I came across Boker, applied immediately and soon after that I signed my apprenticeship contract.
In which department did you start your apprenticeship and what was your career at Boker like?
I started my apprenticeship in the assembly department. Similar to today, I went to the training workshop for six months and then back to Boker, where I could put a lot of what I had learned into practice. Even then I was already quite eager to learn and wanted to learn new things in addition to my actual tasks, for example how to adjust the machines in our department perfectly. During the vacation period I regularly replaced my master craftsman and thus broadened my horizon. My diligence definitely paid off, because after a few years I was promoted to foreman and later to department manager. But you never stop learning and so even today new things are always being added. Over the years, I have taken on more and more responsibility, so that today I am not only responsible for the razor department, but also for the hand polishing and vibratory grinding, the etching department and the final inspection.
At the beginning of my apprenticeship I never imagined that I would work here for more than 30 years. My plan was actually to move back to Turkey with my parents after a few years. Although I have lived in Germany since I was six years old, Turkey has always been my home. A few months quickly turned into ten years, and suddenly I had my 25th anniversary here at Boker. In the meantime, the factory has become part of my home country and I hope to stay here until I retire. Maybe I'll be drawn back to Turkey after all
Today you are responsible for numerous production departments and employees. What does a typical working day look like with these diverse activities?
I start at six in the morning. On a typical working day, I first get an overview of all open jobs and check the status of each one. In "my departments" we not only manufacture knives, but also the necessary components such as blanks, springs, jaws and much more. In addition, we build samples and prototypes of new products.
Often the work is done by itself, where does something get stuck or where are there problems with a machine or material. That's where I am in demand. Production steps, such as forging or hardening, are usually done outside the company. Here, too, it is my job to keep an eye on the progress of the work and to meet the deadlines.
We work in parallel on a wide variety of products, such as pocket knives, fixed knives or razors, all of which can also be in different work stages. There is therefore no typical working day for me, every day something new is on the agenda. I plan what needs to be done every day, but usually something comes up and has to be improvised. Actually I finish work at 15:30 pm, but I often did little things like paperwork after that. Because I simply don't always get around to that during operation.
When do you talk about a successful working day?
When all deadlines have been met and the planned jobs have been completed without any problems, I go home happy.
Can you estimate how many active orders are processed in your departments every day?
Of course, it always depends very much on the quantities to be produced, which vary greatly depending on the type of order. We usually manufacture knives in batches of 30 to 100 pieces, while orders for smaller components such as jaws or springs can quickly reach up to 2,000 pieces. I would estimate that we work on an average of five to ten orders a day.
Which of your skills are particularly difficult to learn and require particular care and experience?
In any case, the uniform and consistent machining of components for high volume production. For the first part to look the same as the last, you need a lot of concentration and sensitivity over a long period of time. In contrast to automated industrial production, where it is all about set-up costs and quantity effects, a small number of pieces is easier for us hand plasters. The manual grinding and polishing of blades is also very demanding. This requires a lot of experience and especially a lot of feeling.
And what do you particularly enjoy?
I must honestly say that I actually enjoy everything. I like getting up every morning and coming to work. I often have stress and one or two problems during the day, but that doesn't prevent me from starting the new day the next morning with a lot of energy and motivation.
What can outsiders imagine by the term "Pliesten"?
"Pliesten" is the fine grinding of the blades or individual parts by hand. After the individual blades have been punched or lasered and the surface has been ground, they come to us in the hand plating shop. Here they are then hand polished, i.e. finely ground, taking into account the tolerances and the function of the respective component. The surface finish and the blue polishing are also included. "Blaupliesten" is a traditional Solingen process step for which a Scotch disc is used. The entire surface of the blade is treated with it. You can immediately recognize such blades by their bluish to rainbow color. It is still considered the highest level of the Solingen grinding craft.
What is the physical and mental strain at work?
I would say that the physical predominates. Fortunately, however, I have work colleagues who always give me full support and give me a lot of strength. I always try to make sure that I don't let myself get too stressed mentally and prefer to take some time to catch my breath so that the next day can also be a sensible one.
As the patron of quality and final inspection, you have high standards for your work and the products. How critical are you in this context with yourself and your colleagues?
The quality is really the most important thing for me and every knife should ultimately be made in such a way that I would buy it myself. Therefore it is very important that my colleagues and I all have a common idea of quality. In addition to fair treatment of my employees and colleagues, I must not lose sight of the productivity of my departments.
Today, as a department head and instructor, you yourself are responsible for numerous trainees. What do you particularly like about working with younger colleagues?
I always enjoy working with young people and especially our young "Knife Nuts" often bring along their own ideas and conceptions. I was myself once in your situation and can put myself in their shoes very well. I'm very happy that I can pass on this old craft to them, because at some point I won't be here anymore either. One of my protégés was recently honored by the German President as Germany's best apprentice in his field, so I was naturally very proud of him. Also in my private life I often deal with younger people and like to pass on my knowledge, be it in soccer or in a dance group.
How do you like to spend your free time?
Most important for me is of course my family, I have two daughters aged eleven and twelve. I also like to dance, music is almost the only thing that is more important to me. Since my childhood I have been playing Saz (Bağlama) and early on I used to make music together with friends every weekend in our rehearsal room and sing in Turkish. Also in the world of music there is always something new to learn, it has become a kind of balance for me. At some point I also started performing at events and parties, which I enjoy tremendously. Music is my second life for me.
Do you also have a personal relation to knives?
Yes, I definitely do. I like to go to trade fairs not only professionally but also privately and get inspired. To be honest, I can rarely completely ignore my profession and even when it comes to the competition I look very closely at the workmanship and things that could perhaps be optimized. And of course I always have a knife at hand, otherwise I would really miss something.
Do you have a favorite knife?
Of course! The Boker Scout was the first knife I mounted here during my apprenticeship and it still means a lot to me today. Meanwhile the Scout is also available in countless variations and even sizes. I also like the classic Barlow very much, it is really handy and can easily be carried in your pocket all day long.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not left Boker unaffected. How do you experience the significant restrictions in operation and administration?
Health comes first, which is why we are currently working in a strict shift system. We always keep to the distance rule and of course wear protective masks during work. The whole world is affected and we don't know what else is in store for us.
The production of forged razors requires decades of experience. What does one of the last experts in this craft, which is almost extinct worldwide, use to shave?
I myself shave with different razors, depending on how much time I have. If time is tight, I use a simple electric razor. I use classic razors when I have a little more time. Especially in the beginning you are very careful with them, but you learn quickly and become more confident. I prefer to shave with my Boker King Cutter 5/8 inch.
Do you have concrete goals for the next years?
Actually I don't have any concrete goals. The most important thing for me is to stay healthy and to be able to pass on my knowledge to young colleagues here until my retirement.