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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale

  Skills of the Sheffield Hand Forger by Geoffrey Tweedale

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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 manipulating them.

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 a lump of carbon steel into a polished and finished item of cutlery.

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 tools.

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.

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Sheaf Works of
Wm. Greaves & Sons

Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers

2nd Edition

Sheaf Works of Wm. Greaves & Sons, was built in the 1820s to supply the American demand for tools and cutlery (such as razors and Bowie knives). This firm is one of hundreds profiled and illustrated in Tweedale's Directory.

Find more in the Directory.

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