This sepia photograph of a
Sheffield hand forger – apparently at the leading pocket-knife
firm of George Wostenholm & Son – is undated. But it is
certainly pre-1914 and may be even earlier (perhaps from the
1890s). The photo is mounted on a small card and measures only
about 10cm square. Nevertheless, one can see clearly into the
forger’s workshop with its open hearth, array of tongs, forging
block, and anvil. The forger himself holds a hammer with a
wooden handle that has been worn to shape by years of use.
The posed stance, with the forger
seeming to gaze wistfully through the unglazed window, only
tells part of the story. Forgers at work never stood still or
sat down. They were too busy working the bellows, moving blades
in and out of the fire, and repeatedly hammering and
Hand forging was strenuous –
indeed, it was one of the most arduous jobs in the Sheffield
trades – though many forgers seem to have thrived on the work.
Before the First World War, some
600 hand forgers were employed in the table blade, pen and
pocket blade, and scissors trades. They were an essential link
in the chain of production that transformed
lump of carbon steel into a polished and finished item of
A collection of old crucible carbon
steel blades is shown here. They are blackened from the forge,
though a few have been roughly glazed later to reveal the marks.
They have a characteristic tail at the end of the blade, where
the ‘mood’ (or forged blank) has been severed by the forger from
the steel rod.
By his skilful shaping of the
steel, a forger could not only save the next worker down line –
the grinder – much effort, but he also ensured the quality of
the finished product.
Best-quality work was always hand
forged. A contemporary remarked: ‘as every practical man knows …
the finest properties of a blade consist in its elasticity and
evenness, accompanied with a proper level from back to edge, and
as the more a blade is hammered the more elastic and uniform in
temper it becomes, it naturally follows that the blade which has
been subjected to the most hammering and the greatest care in
shaping is by far the best’ (Sheffield
Independent, 23 March 1886).
Under the forger’s hammer, crucible
steel became like dough. The constant kneading improved its
quality and allowed the steel to be shaped into blades and
For much of the nineteenth century,
machine production of blades was not an option. Until specialist
tool and alloy steels appeared, no steel was sufficiently tough
for punching out blades directly from sheet. Hand forging may
have been labour intensive, but it was highly flexible.
Production ‘runs’ could be long or
short and any type of blade (or tool) could be fashioned in a
matter of minutes. Even the parts for a knife – the backsprings,
inner linings and scales – were hand forged.
For a factory owner, mechanising
forging – in other words, tooling up to produce such a variety
of output – was simply not feasible.
For these reasons, hand-forged
cutlery (table and pocket-knives, razors, and scissors) remained
a firm fixture in Sheffield trade catalogues.