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The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom

  A Day at the Sheffield Cutlery Works - Cutlery, Razors and Handles - The Penny Magazine, 04/1844 1 of 5  


A table-knife is perhaps the most important of the different articles of cutlery— not from its quality, for a razor is more highly finished; not from its intricacy, for a clasp-knife has more detail about it - but from the large extent to which the use has risen. Every house in England, except the very humblest, has as many table-knives in it as there are inmates; and most houses have a great many more.

When we consider, too, that table-knives, as well as other articles, have the art of wearing away, and that the industry and the brick dust of the housemaid greatly hasten this process; and when we look abroad to notice the avidity which all rude nations exhibit to gain possession of an English knife - we shall be prepared to regard this as a very extensive branch of Sheffield manufacture.

There is in most of the operations on steel goods a series of processes pretty constant in their general character. The forging, the hardening, the tempering, the grinding, the sharpening, the polishing - all form steps in most of the series, and bearing a certain resemblance in their general character.

A table-knife, for instance, is forged out of a piece of steel of higher or lower quality according to the price at which it is to be sold. The very commonest are probably not steel at all, being simply bar iron; the next quality may be common steel, the next shear-steel, and the highest of all cast-steel.  But whatever be the material, a length of bar is cut off, sufficient for one blade, and forged into shape.

All the Sheffield forges are pretty much alike. They consist of a forge-fire kindled by bellows; and have a large block of stone or wood, serving as a bench, and provided with small steel anvils, stitheys, bosses, hammers, and other instruments necessary to the operation.  

The piece of steel is heated in the fire, placed on an anvil and hammered into form; being turned over and about in every direction, and the workman regulating his blows according to the form which he wishes to produce, reducing the thickness from one end to the other, and from one edge to the other. 

But this relates to the blade only; the “tang,” or part which goes into the handle, is a separate part.  To make this tang, the rudely formed blade is welded to a rod of iron, about half an inch square; and a sufficient length of this iron is cut off to form the tang, and also the “shoulder,” or the projecting part between the tang and the blade.  The end of the iron is heated and forged so as to be reduced in size sufficient to form the tang; and the shoulder is next brought into shape by hammering it in a kind of die or stamp called a “swage.”  

The tang and the bolster being made, the whole is heated a second time, and the proper form and dimensions given to it.  The blade is then heated red-hot, and plunged perpendicularly into cold water, by which a sudden hardening is affected; and a gradual healing afterwards to a certain point gives the “temper” or degree of elasticity best fitted for the purpose to which table-knives are to be applied.

When the knives are thus far prepared, they are carried to the grinding wheels, here the blade is ground all over on a large revolving stone; whereby the surface is brought level, the edges made straight, or at least regular, the point rounded or tapered as the case may be, and the edge sharpened.

The grindstones made use of for grinding table-knives are between three and four feet in diameter, and about six inches broad upon the face.  They are formed of a species of sandstone, and revolve with great rapidity, without at the same time greatly heating the articles being ground.  The knives are ground first upon this stone, and afterwards upon one of finer texture called the “whitening stone.”

Here it maybe well to notice the customary arrangements at Sheffield respecting the grinding of steel goods.  As the town is dotted here and there with “Tilts” so is it likewise with “Wheels;” and in the one case as well as in the other the name is an abbreviation well known among the townsmen.   

A “wheel” is a building fitted up with a large number of grindstones, each hired at a weekly or yearly rental, by a grinder, who grinds some kinds or other of cutlery for other persons.  Before the introduction of steam-power, the grinding wheels were in most cases situated by the side of a fall in one or other of the rivers of Sheffield, so as to obtain the action of a water-wheel; and these little structures often presented a picturesque appearance.

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