folding knives in Spain and Sheffield

Visiting Trevor Ablett last week reminded me that I never posted pictures of the folding knife makers I visited in Spain last October. There were many similarities and some differences between the two businesses which I would like to discuss at the bottom but first some pictures of the workshop.

This is Antonio Diaz Bermudez of Taramundi a traditional knifemaking town in Asturias. He is heating a bar of high carbon stainless steel in the forge ready to forge a blade.

The blade is forged using a very large hammer held right up by the head. This is going to be a folding grafting knife.

The blade is formed in a single heat, maybe 15 seconds work at most, the blade is nicely tapered to reduce the amount of grinding required and the pointy bit at the end is formed, this will be sharpened and makes the grafting cut.

The blade is cut off and falls into a small heap on the floor, they normally do 6 or 7 knives at a time. This is the perfect size of batch to gain maximum efficiency out of repetition at each stage without getting too bored before moving on to the next bit.

The blade is heated, dropped into this little holder and quenched in oil to harden the steel.

Now a small piece of boxwood is rough shaped for the handle using this glorious little stock knife.

The handle is then turned on a lathe.

And a slot cut for the blade to fit into.
Next a metal collar is formed for the handle, this is a tight push fit over the handle which was turned to a conical shape.
The handle is scorched to add a little character.
And sanded smooth.
Now handle and blade are fitted together, just like the Sheffield knives the pivot point is a metal pin though unlike Sheffield knives they do not have a spring, to keep them in open or closed position, they are what are called friction folders.
 

Drilling the hole for the pivot pin.

At this stage there is quite a bit of handwork to get it so that it opens and closes sweetly.

And finally Antonio gives it a quick rough grind

Before passing it over to Antonio senior who grinds the bevels, first on a big water lubricated wheel, note how it is all done by feel, he does not look at the work.

Then he goes onto a fine belt sander.

A quick coat of varnish finishes the wood nicely.

Then a final honing of the edge.

Nice and sharp.
 
The finished knives.

Like Trevor Ablett they are incredibly efficient using small batch production in a small workshop with low overheads. They had an order for 200 that they were hoping to make over the weekend. So what was different to the situation in Sheffield?

Well first and most obviously here we have a living craft tradition that has been passed down the generations. One of the reasons that make it viable is that their workshop is very much on the tourist trail. Taramundi is well known as a traditional centre of knifemaking (well maybe not as well known as Sheffield) and the council promote it. This is only one of a range of workshops and working museums which form part of a story showing the history and culture of the area. This small workshop has on average 300 visitors a day during the summer. I imagine a proportion of them buy a knife or two as I did so where Trevor sells his knives all at trade price the Antonios sell them mostly retail.

I suspect it is about more than money though, most craftspeople have a great pride in the skills that have taken many years of practice to develop. The commonly recognised figure is that it takes 10,000 hours practice to master a skill, whether it be becoming an excellent footballer, mastering a musical instrument, or making a folding knife. For a young person to put that degree of effort into something they really need to know that there will be a market at the end of the day but it is also important that there is some recognition of the level of excellence that has been achieved. I think this is perhaps one thing which has been lacking in the traditional crafts in the UK. They have been perceived perhaps as a little amateur, maybe regarded simply as manual labour, something that low achievers and opt out folk do. This could hardly be further from the truth. There are many incredibly highly skilled, highly educated, totally dedicated folk working in the traditional crafts in the UK and I believe that the years that they have put into perfecting those skills will soon be recognised.

I have to say that to leave Sheffield and visit this little town in rural Spain and see the pride and professional marketing of its craftspeople made me feel rather sad that cutlery, knives and steel are not even recognised as being part of Sheffield’s cultural heritage let alone supported and promoted. Why is it that it is not possible for a visitor to Sheffield to see a workshop like this?

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2 Responses to folding knives in Spain and Sheffield

  1. Ian and Luis January 23, 2010 at 3:33 pm #

    Hi Robin, we live in Asturias and have first-hand knowledge of the flourishing craft/artisan sector. We undertake cane and rush work and my partner also makes mosaics. We recognise that heritage crafts are valued and are indeed recognised by local councils and officials as being a valuable resource both for the economy and in relation to employment and tourism. We have exhibited at many craft and furniture fairs and are frequently disappointed with the lack of interest or enthusiasm from many of the visitors. So many younger families with children seem not to be that interested in watching or asking questions, if they like the pieces, they want to know how much it is and then cannot understand why it is so much more than something you can buy at Ikea. Many craftsmen and women here will tell you the same story. I applaud your recent efforts with Heritage Crafts and hope that initiatives such as this can enable people to see how valuable these skills really are.

  2. william February 4, 2010 at 12:52 pm #

    Robin-Peter Follansbee turned me on to your work. I'm truly impressed. I'm just not getting into the traditional crafts myself and I hope to be one of those who continues it on for generations to come. Thank you for your work, it's beautiful. Bryan MacIntyre

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