The last time I was entrusted with power tools, I blew up a spot welder.
So you can understand why the night before my arrival at Barrytown Knifemaking, my nerves got the better of me. My nightmares of industrial education classes were so intense that I fell out of bed.
Now, bleary-eyed, my fears seem to be coming true. Within 30 minutes of my arrival, I'm expected to pound a piece of red hot steel on an anvil. Into what shape? I'm not entirely sure. My forearms aching with the exertion, I begin to wonder why I didn't just pop down to Briscoe's instead.
Most of my co-participants, however, have travelled to Barrytown — a small settlement south of Punakaiki — just for this workshop, hosted in the backyard of Steven and Robyn Martin.
"I found a brochure in a parking lot six years ago and it's been on my radar ever since," one guy tells me. One woman says she used to work in a high-end knife store. ("The $170 fee is what you'd pay for a good knife," she reasons.) Another admits that it's his second time making a knife. ("Have you seen the TripAdvisor reviews for this place?" he enthuses.)
Knifemaking in Barrytown, West Coast
Barrytown Knifemaking has international tourists to thank for its reputation. Before Covid-19, they made up most of its clientele; the 28,000 knives made here over the past 16 years can be found in 108 countries.
The typical attendee profile is evident in Steven's instructions; he jokes that he knows German and tells us to hit the forged metal "guddenhard".
Yet, the Martins say they've been busier than they were pre-pandemic. Unlike international tourists, who likely end up here on a whim, New Zealanders arrive with intention. Their skill levels range from shouldn't-be-trusted-with-sharp-objects (that's me) to experienced carpenters.
It's not the only place along the West Coast where hands-on attractions once geared towards an overseas market are being embraced by domestic travellers.
Carve your own pounamu in Hokitika
At Hokitika's Bonz N Stonz carving studio, Steve Gwaliasi says the only thing that's changed is the nationality of customers coming through his doors. In his half-day workshops, visitors design and carve their own greenstone. Whereas the knifemaking is structured and foolproof, I'm put to the test in Gwaliasi's studio. He believes firmly in mentorship, not hand-holding — which is problematic because my first iteration of a silver fern looks like a 4-year-old's drawing of a Christmas tree. Yet, against all odds, I walk away four hours later with a delicately carved pounamu.
"My job is to give people confidence. They lead; I follow them," he explains.
Confidence, I'm beginning to understand, is nearly as important as know-how.
Back in the Martins' backyard, the day passes quickly, each step in the process punctuated by Steven's dark sense of humour.
"If you don't shine your knives, they'll get stains and you won't be able to get the DNA out," he instructs. We're a captive audience — after all, making sharp pointy objects in the bush attracts a particular crowd.
By early afternoon, I'm using a sander with ease, carving finger grips into a handle made of rimu reclaimed from the Seaview Mental Asylum.
Steven inspects my handiwork, nodding in approval.
That night, I go home with a knife that would put anything at Briscoe's to shame — and with all 10 of my fingers still intact.
Barrytown Knifemaking's full-day workshop is hosted two days per week, typically on Wednesdays and Saturdays. All safety equipment and materials are provided, along with lunch for $170.
Bonz N Stonz half-day carving sessions, suitable for ages 8 and up, start at $100 for paua and bone or $190 for greenstone. Jade is supplied, but you can choose to bring in your own stone, paua shell or bone. It's best to book a few days in advance and to arrive with a design in mind.
New Zealand holidays for makers
From the ubiquitous sourdough loaves that filled our social feeds during lockdown, to the more recent mask-making endeavours, maker culture is thriving across the country.
Feeling inspired? Here are three places that you can try your hand at an unusual trade.
Try glassblowing in Whanganui
Get ready to feel the heat. At New Zealand Glassworks, the country's national centre for art glass, you can make your own paperweight in a 30-minute workshop. The one-on-one sessions ($115) for ages 15 and up are hosted each Saturday, but sell out fast. You'll need to stay overnight in Whanganui, as your finished product needs to cool in the kiln overnight.
Try tī kōuka weaving in Christchurch
Housed in the Arts Centre, Rekindle is devoted to resourcefulness, which is reflected in its beginner-level one-day and weekend classes. Using tī kōuka (cabbage tree) leaves, you can learn to weave a basket ($40), make a broom ($82) or even just tie a simple rope ($13). Other Resourcefulness Skills Workshops include spoon-carving and making felt slippers. Visit its website to see a full list of upcoming sessions.
Try stone sculpting in Upper Hutt
Want to channel your inner Michelangelo? Keno Sculpture is where you can learn to carve Ōamaru whitestone in as little as four hours ($150). The studio has five designs to choose from, but if you're got something special in mind, it also hosts two-day workshops for $350.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com