An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery - Part IX


Alexander Lyman Holley


Part IX

View of a Cutlery Establishment Ten Years Hence. Silver Back and Other Knives. Silver. Tin. Gold. Covering.


Published Saturday, August 17th, 1850 in the American Railroad Journal


Note: I've hand-typed the below words from the original publication as the text, at times, is difficult to decipher and has proven impossible to perform OCR on.


Perhaps there is no more showy, brilliant and beautiful work of art in the world, than a fine, well proportioned, well made knife. In a gold watch, all is yellow metal; a steam engine, though complex, is heavy and large, and usually exhibits the same material, if not an uniformity of color; but a knife, with the graceful lines of its parts, with its scales reflecting from every point the figure of its richly worked springs, the backs radiant with milled and burnished silver, or gold, the highly polished and massive bolsters, the brilliant shield and rivet heads contrasting with the gold, the get and the crimson of its shell, the delicacy and the regular concavity of its glittering pen blades, the splendor, the perfect and nicely proportioned figure, and the fine and even edge of the pockets, which seem to be almost unable to restrain themselves from severing everything in their reach; all these are some of the exquisitely beautiful spectacles, which none but a cutler’s eye can sufficiently admire, and no one except the cutler and the whittler can fully appreciate. There is almost as much expression in a perfect knife as in a painting or a face. To an experienced eye, every line, every indentation, and every prominence, go to make up and exhibit the character of the article. Fashion and taste, however, have laced up some patterns, till their proportions are distorted, and they are fit for no practical purposes.

Let us now look at some other substances which are used in the manufacture of knives. The middle scales of many jack knives are made from sheet tin, instead of plain sheet iron. Tin, a metal which has long been known, was probably used as early as the time of Moses, and was generally obtained by the ancients from Spain and Britain. It is not abundant in all countries, but is found in Malacca, Chili, Mexico, Galicia, Portugal, Saxony and Bohemia, and in the greatest quantities in Cornwall, England. The most abundant ore of tin is its peroxide, called “tin stone,” and the other called “bell metal ore,” is the double sulphuret of tin and copper, and is extremely rare. The purest tin is found in grains, in the alluvial soil, and called stream tin, though the ore more generally occurs in veins, and is reduced by grinding, washing and roasting in reverberatory furnaces, then by mixing with charcoal and a flux of limestone.

The heat is kept up from eight to ten hours, which causes some of its impurities to combine with the lime and to escape in scoria, while the tin is cast in clay moulds. The tin is then fused and runs off, while the heavier part of the drop remains. Wet charcoal is plunged into the tin while in fusion, which causes the remaining impurities to rise to the top. The ores usually contain oxides of iron and manganese. Iron sheets will be covered with a thin coating of tin, if dipped therein while in fusion, and in this state they are used for knife scales.


Tin in its pure state is very white and brilliant, though it is partially tarnished by the action of the atmosphere. It has a slight taste, and smell when rubbed, and its hardness is intermediate between gold and lead. Its ductility and tenacity are inferior to most metals, though it is highly malleable. A tin wire of thirty-seven thousands of an inch in diameter, will hardly sustain 37 lbs. Its specific gravity is 7-2, its point of fusion is 442 degrees Fahr., and its equivalent is 58.


Silver, as before shown, is quite extensively used in fine knife making, and is a metal which was known to the ancients, and is found in large quantities in South America, as well as in other countries. It is reduced from its sulphurets, and is found in its native state. It is white, malleable, ductile and tenacious. Its specific gravity is 10-5, and its equivalent 110.


Gold is the most valuable and longest known of the metals. Its specific gravity is 19-3, its equivalent 200, and it may be beaten till only one 280 thousands of an inch in thickness. A grain of gold may be drawn out into a wire 500 feet in length. Gold is always found in a metallic state, either with or without other metals, hence there is no such thing as an ore of gold.


Ivory, used extensively for covering, is the material of the tusk of the male elephant. It is less brittle, but more compact, hard and white, and receives a much finer polish than bone. It consists of about 24 per cent. of animal matter, similar to bone, 66 phosphate, and some traces of carbonate of lime. India and Ceylon produce the greatest quantities of ivory, though this is considered inferior to that of Africa in closeness of texture and in color. Yellow ivory is used only for the most common purposes, while that which is slightly blue is highly valuable. The average weight of tusks is about 60 lbs., tho’ “scrap ivory” which comb and table knife makers leave, is generally used for pen and pocket knives. No European or American artist has as yet succeeded in cutting and working ivory as well as the Chinese, though ivory articles are more successfully manufactured at Dieppe than at any other European town.


Mother of pearl, a substance extensively used, and highly valued as covering, consists of the shells which surround pearls, and are composed of the carbonate of lime. They are found on the coasts of Ceylon, Coromandel, and the Bahrein islands, in the Gulf of Persia, the West Indies, and in the South sea. They are excessively hard, and cannot be softened, therefore work very hard, and are very liable to crack. Cutlers receive an additional price for working pearl, and converting it into knife handles, on this account. Stag horns are much used for covering, and are preferred by many to smooth handles. These horns are used by the stag as weapons, are called antlers, consist of bone, and during formation are surrounded with a hairy and vascular covering, which when the horn is fully grown cracks and is rubbed off by the animal.


Scales for knife handles are cut from the outside of the horns, and polished by a brush. They can be made straight by bending them while hot. Buffalo horns are used for similar purposes, and are either jet black, or variegated with grey and white. They are sawn into straight strips of proper size when sufficiently solid and thick, but when otherwise they are pressed into shape while heated. Ox horns are occasionally converted into the scales for cheap knives, either by pressing them in moulds till they are properly shaped, or by sawing them into straight flat strips. They are sometimes transparent, and are placed over printed verses and mottos, or gold leaf. “Horn partakes of the chemical nature of the cartilaginous part of the bone,” and consists chiefly of albumen with some phosphate of lime and a little gelatine. German silver, brass, iron, life oak, and some West Indian and South American woods are also much in use for knife handles, and any wood can be used, provided it is sufficiently hard and compact to receive a rotten-stone polish.


To be continued.


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