The Macabre Beauty Of Iceland’s Signature Knives

Whale teeth, sheep horns, horse hooves, and petrified trees are some of the ‘special ingredients’ that make these knives the stuff of legend.

skulls in a knife workshop
The entryway to the workshop of Iceland’s only professional knifemaker is littered with oddities

It was my last night in Iceland when I found Páll Kristjánsson’s little shop of horrors wonders. Simply named “Workshop,” the unremarkable building on the outskirts of Reykjavik belies a place of pure mastery and beauty.

knife with whale tooth handle
A blade made from an old, algae-stained whale tooth, sheep horn, and 1095 steel

For 30 years, Kristjánsson (nicknamed Palli) and his apprentice-turned-wife, Soffía Sigurðardóttir, fashion blades befit for Vikings. They combine intricate Damascus steel with unique handles made from bizarre treasures.

whale teeth to be made into knife handles
Palli Kristjánsson shows off whale teeth he will make into knife handles someday

Each knife has some combination of hand-picked materials from the island, including antlers, hooves, bones, and even 16 million-year-old fossilized wood.

hoof knife
Goat hoof knife handle

Their work is so uniquely, well, Icelandic, that the pair is now a featured attraction in pamphlets and must-see lists for tourists.

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Knifemaker, Palli Kristjánsson

There are no fancy signs for the husband-and-wife shop. In fact, there is no official name for the business other than “Knifemaker.”

human skull in a knife shop in iceland
A look around the shop reveals plenty of macabre treasures

But their work is world-renowned and has sold for as much as $10,000 for a single knife. Palli mans the pocket knives and traditional outdoors blades, while Soffia has developed her hand (and market) for one-of-a-kind kitchen knives.

Etched butcher knives
Soffía Sigurðardóttir has specializes in kitchen knives

Icelanders pitch in to the ma-and-pa cause by dropping off unusual items the pair might one day use. A collection of washed up baleens from dead whales, a host of found skulls, a barrel filled with an assortment of horns, and a smattering of crustacean claws retrieved from seafood restaurants litter the shop.

bucket full of sheep horns
A literal bucket of miscellaneous horns dropped off at the shop

Everything is handmade here and no two blades are exactly the same. You can buy off the shelf or place a custom order online. Be aware: If you try calling the shop, don’t be surprised if you get no answer; the two still use a rotary landline.

crab claw knives
Tiny knives made from crab claws salvaged from a seafood restaurants

And for every knife, there is a custom-made sheath. Leather from cow, sheep, seal, or fish is perfectly fit to its mated blade.

Labor Of Love And Time

Iceland knife maker
From top to bottom: ($1,000); Damascus-steel blade, whale tooth, ebony, horse hoof ($750); Stainless-steel blade, horse hoof, 8,000-year-old oak, whale tooth, reindeer horn ($575)

Palli might modify or sharpen the blades, but most of the metalwork comes from outside Iceland. The couple uses Damascus steel or stainless blades from Scandinavia and Denmark.

Damascus steel blade
Kristjánsson imports the blades and metal he uses. Unique banding and mottled patterns characterize Damascus steel

If you have a chance to visit, Palli will even show you his locked case of intricate, shapely knives that are not for sale. These, he told me in heavily accented English, he discovers as he goes.

knife maker

An aggressive-looking Damascus blade with an ivory-colored Eagle’s head carved from a whale tooth is his favorite. And it is never going to leave that case.

bald eagle knife handle carved from whale tooth
Palli’s favorite knife is not for sale. An etched, Damascus-steel blade joined to a bald-eagle handle carved from whale tooth

Each knife will take five hours to five days, but that’s spread out over weeks of work. Custom orders ship out four to eight weeks after they are placed.

left-handed blade made of whale tooth
Palli shows off a left-handed-curved blade with whale tooth and ebony haft

Because a single knife will range from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand, it may not be the most practical investment. But it’s hard to resist the sheer beauty and craft of these remarkable blades.

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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie – from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it’s outside, it’s worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.

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