An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery - Part VI


Alexander Lyman Holley


Part VI


Cutlers. Ware-rooms. Material Makers. Brass-Table of Proportions. Copper. Zinc. German Silver. Bolsters. Scales. Cutler’s Tools and Implements. Materials for a Four Blade Shell Handled Congress Knife.


Published Saturday, June 29, 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.


Having described the ancient methods of making spring and other knives, and given their history from 1297 to the present time, a period of 553 years, we will look at the business of the cutlery, or as now termed handlemaker, which was the original trade, and from which preceded the three separate trades of forging, grinding and material making, the forest two of which have been described (see chapters III and IV,) and the latter will be looked into in connection with handle making.


Knife factors are furnished with a material or ware room, and a finishing and packing room, in addition to the apartments occupied by forgers, grinders, cutlers, etc . We first come to the present English method of making a fine, four blade, tortoise shell handled, Congress knife. The blades are taken from the ware room, in the same state as left by the grinder, usually still covered with lime. They are of course partially bright on the face, but dark on the tang’s side, and rough on the edges. The springs are taken as left by the spring forger, rough and imperfectly fitted. The scales, bolsters, shield and shell, are as left by the material maker, and the wire in pieces of several yards length. The material maker forms the middle and side scales of brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc. A species of light colored gun metal, called brass, is an alloy of copper and tin, and is often used for mechanical purposes, tools and implements, because harder than copper and zinc, and from the analysis of ancient brass, we find it also to be copper and tin, hard in proportion to the quantity of the latter contained. The elasticity of this metal renders it well adapted to the making of bells.

Pinchback is copper with a very small proportion of zinc, and is frequently “got off” for gold, on to the inexperienced and vertant. The alloy of copper, tin and zinc is a chemical compound, therefore we have laws and rules for uniting it in the best proportions. The weight of one atom of copper is 8, of tin 7.25, and of zinc 4. The following table exhibits the proportions of the color, etc.


One method of making brass is by cementing sheets of copper and zinc by charcoal. The present English method is by melting together copper in round masses, or in bars, with calamine, which is a native oxide or ore of zinc, a native carburet of zinc after combining with oxide of iron, which make it of a reddish color, and it usually contains more or less lead. The calamine is powdered and separated by washing, then heated on the hearth of a reverberatory furnace, which expels the volatile matter, usually water and carbonic acid. The remainder is oxide of zinc, and a small portion of carbon, which the heat cannot wholly remove and some earthy substances. The proportions are nearly equal weights of copper and calamine, and one tenth of their weight of pulverised charcoal, which are together put into a crucible capable of containing 100 lbs. Of brass when completed, but when charged, holding copper 663, calamine 63, and charcoal 13, which is covered with clay, sand, etc., to keep it free from the air. The fire is continued from 12 to 20 hours, when the refuse is poured off, the refuse metal cast into ingots, then usually remelted and cast, to render it better and finer, when it is rolled, drawn, or made into castings for use.


Brass is often made by melting together small pieces of cast copper and zinc, which is made into ingots, then rolled into sheets, slitted, and drawn into wire. For knife scales, sheet brass is used which is not annealed, but stuff and hard. Corinthian brass, famous in antiquity, was an alloy of gold, silver and copper. Lucius Nummius, 146 years before Christ, captured and burned the city of Corinth, and the violence of the conflagration formed, from the abundance of metals in its course, a solid sea of this alloy in the streets and low places. German chemists make copper of a gold color, by exposing it to the fumes of zinc. The comparative stiffness of this ally permits it to be cut by saws and files, turned and worked much easier than iron. The metal anciently called brass is the copper of modern times, and the Colossus at Rhodes, and other so-called brazen fabrics, were formed entirely of the last named metal. Copper (from Cuprum, a corruption of Cyprium, the island of Cyprus, whence it was formerly brought) was known at a very remote period, and before iron was used this was the chief material for domestic implements and utensils, and weapons of war. The ancients, though they used great quantities of this metal, consumed little compared with the modern nations.


The combining volume of copper is 64, its specific gravity 8-584 after fusion, and 8-953 after it is rolled. Its temperature at the point of fusion, is 23548 Fahr. In its pure state it is very brilliant metal, of fine red color, and essentially different from every other metal, except titanium. One cubic foot of belted copper weighs 545 lbs., one of native metal 600 lbs., and one of copper medals 620 lbs. A wire of copper, .078 of an inch in diameter, will sustain 302 lbs. Avoir’. A bar of cast copper, one fourth of an inch thick, requires 1192 lbs. To break it, but a bar of hammered copper, of the same dimensions, will sustain 2112 lbs. It is very ductile, and highly malleable, and called by turners and copper workers “stringy,” and “sticky.” It is not an uncommon mineral, and is obtained in Sweden, in arborescent groups, and is found beautifully crystalized. There is in the cabinet of Adjuda, near Lisbon, a piece of the latter, weighing 2617 lbs. In Cornwall, England, and in one of the Faroe Islands beautiful specimens are obtained, with zeolite, imbedded in amigdaloidal trap. The various sulphurets of copper, are the most abundant of its ores, and of these the most so, is copper pyrites, containing copper, sulphur and iron, and of a fine yellow color. The malachite, red ore and others, are usually associated with these in very small quantities.


To obtain the pure metal, these ores are roasted in a furnace with connected flues, in which the volatilised sulphur is collected, then fused, which occasions a combination of the oxide of iron in the copper ore with the quantity of silica, which is usually present, but if not, is supplied, while the iron not melting so easily as copper, is left in the scoria.

The product of this operation is called “coarse metal.” This is again roasted at a low heat, which dissipates the remaining sulphur, and oxidizes the remaining iron. After the second fusion a compound remains, containing 60 percent copper, and is called “coarse copper,” which is exposed to the action of air which passes through the furnace, and the heat is gradually raised to the melting point, and continued from 12 to 24 hours, when it is cast into pigs, and termed “blistered copper.” This, covered with charcoal, is often again roasted, to free it from the remaining impurities, and melted and cast till it becomes fine and ductile, and even then it may be alloyed with other easily fused metals, which are not volatile. Hence, the copper of commerce is not perfectly pure, but usually contains lead, and a very little antimony. Copper extracted from its carbonates is purer than that reduced from sulphurets, and a solution of the sulphate is purer than either, the precipitate formed from immersing iron in the solution, being afterwards fused. If the heat is increased above the point of melting, the copper evaporates in a thin invisible smoke, and while in fusion, the color of the surface is a rich bluish green. When exposed to air or moisture, it very gradually becomes covered with a green rust, which may be noticed on the sheets often enclosing the hulls of ships, and when heated red hot, it absorbs oxygen, and is superficially converted into a black oxide, which is the basis of the principal salts of copper, and consists of coper 32, and oxygen 8. It is detected when in very small quantities by the bluish color exhibited, by adding ammonia, and by brown precipitate, with ferrocinte of potash.


Copper mines are wrought in many countries, but those of Sweden are said to produce the purest copper in the market. The richest English mines are those of Cornwall, which are veins, traversing the primary rocks of that country. This copper is smelted in Swanses, on account of the scarcity of coal about the mines. The mines of Lake Superior are every extensive and productive. (sentence omitted due to inability to decipher text.) Zinc was first discovered in 1520, is first mentioned by Paracelsus, and is often called spelter. It is also termed a semi-metal, (remainder of sentence omitted due to inability to decipher text.) These ores are roasted, mixed with a carbonaceous flux, and placed in a crucible, or earthen vessel, from the bottom of which passes an iron tube, thro’ which the vapor of the zinc is distilled downward, and condensed by water contained in a vessel outside the furnace, at the other end of the tube. At first this vapor emits a brown blaze, and contains arsenic, and often cadmium, but is collected when the blaze is blue. Its color, when cast into ingots, is a light lustrous blue, its texture lamellar and crystalline, its specific gravity 6.896, and after hammering 7.1908. At the common temperature of the air it is tough, and scarcely malleable, when heated to from 212 to 230 degrees, it is ductile and tractable under the hammer, thus exhibiting properties which are remarkable, considering its texture, at 500 degrees is brittle, and may be pounded fine in a mortar, and fuses at about 700 degrees, before it is red hot. After it is once superficially covered with a black oxide, it resists the farther action of moisture, but occasions the rapid evolution of hydrogen gas when under water, if a little acid is present, or the zinc is impure, which causes it to be such a powerful generator of electricity, and so valuable in the voltaic pile. It is used in the curious art of transferring printing called xincography, is combustible for a short time at a moderate heat, but on account of the interference of the oxide which is formed, can only be burned up at a white heat when the vapor burns with a very intense white flame, and yields pompholix; a flocculent oxide, which floats in the air, and is often called philosopher’s wool or nihil album.


To return to our knife: the scales are formed from sheets of brass by cutting it across the grain, into pieces as long as the knife, “slitting” these pieces with shears furnished with gauges, so that the grain may run lengthwise of the knife, both ends of each strip are perforated by a hand punch and hammer, on a block of lead or wood, and are then ready for the bolsters. These are cast from German silver, which is an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, and is probably much the same as the chinese “packfong,” or white copper, though the latter is said by Dr. Fife to be a compound of iron, copper, zinc, and nickel. Dr. Feuchtwanger, who first introduced and manufactured German silver in this country, “Composed the alloy of one part of nickel one of spelter, and three of copper,” and this well made is worth from $1.25 to $1.50 per pound, and prepared from pure metals will not tarnish, but is equal to sterling silver in whiteness. The refractory nature of nickel, and the difficulty of obtaining it free from arsenic, iron and cobalt, often make the silver ofa yellowish color. The Doctor, however, disowns all fellowship with this yellow compound, which returns the manufacturer a good profit when sold for best German silver, at 75 cents per pound. It is sometimes an alloy of 7 parts zinc, 2-5 copper, and 6-5 nickel, and then more nearly resembles “packfong,” if not the same material. Upwards of 50,000 lbs. Of this compound is annually made in America, for which the nickel is imported from Europe, as there are but three localities of nickel in this country; an ore from Chatham, CT., yields about three per cent., and one from LaMotte, Ma., ten percent nickel, and it has lately come among the copper mines of Lake Superior. These ingredients are not easily made and only unite when quite pure, and subjected to intense heat. The zinc, which is of a volatile nature, is not placed in the crucible till the other metals are well mixed. The compound is cast into ingots, rolled, or slitted and drawn into wire.


In 1836, Dr. Teuchtwanger petitioned Congress for permission to issue German silver cents, to the amount of $30,000 as a substitute for copper currency. The proportion was strongly advocated by Messrs. Adams and Benton, and met approbation of Mr. Van Buren, the President, and the members of Congress; but the director of the Mint said the U.S. government had the exclusive right of coinage, and that it required much skill to analyse German silver: so the proposition of course “fell through.”


Bolsters are cast from this metal, in molds of sand, connected together in strips containing from four to twelve, but on account of the difficulty of properly melting and keeping it in a liquid state, but few can be cast in one piece, as it soon clogs, runs slowly and makes imperfect castings. A short thick pin is formed on the flat side of each bolster. The strips are filed on the edge which meets the covering, till even and straight, and then cut apart by a chisel. The hole of the scale end, is slipped over the pin of the bolster (which lies on an anvil) and this pin is partially riveted over the brass by a stroke of the hammer. When all the scales are supplied with bolsters, they are taken to another anvil, the bolsters laid separately in a steel boss (which is a small anvil with an indented surface), and hammered till the brass and silver are driven together as a solid piece, the pin completely riveted down over the scale, and the shape of the bolster perfected. In this state they are taken by the cutler. The middle scales are of brass, and the same as the side scales before the ends are perforated.


The shield is cut from very thin sheets of German or common silver by a “die,” - a mortice in a steel plate on which the metal is laid, and a “punch,” which fits, and when pressed downard, carries the shield before it through the mortice.


The shell is the scale of a testaceous animal commonly called the tortoise, belonging to the genus testudo. All cheloman reptiles are distinguished by the peculiar armature, consisting of the upper and lower buckler united at the edges, and permitting only the head and tail to appear externally. The upper-shell is called the carapace, and formed by eight pairs of ribs united by toothed sutures, and having bo0ny plates adhering to the annular portion of the dorsal vertebrae, and so connected as to be motionless. The lower shell is called the plastron, and generally composed of nine portions, which answer for the sternum. There are many peculiarities in the structure of this animal, and Baron Cuvier says regarding it, “un animal retourne.” The chelonians respire by the play of the mouth, have no teeth, and but very limited powers of locomotion, and move with a slow awkward gait. They are very tenacious of life, will live without food for years, and walk about for several weeks without any head. The most common of European tortoises is the Greek tortoise, which lives on fruits and insects and sleeps thro’ the winter. The scales are granulated in the centre, striated on the margin, and spotted with a rich black, or dark red, and a transparent bright yellow. One has been known to reach the good old age of 120 years, when it died of neglect. The scales of this animal are taken off in sheets, and in this state they are imported. The sheets are sawn up into strips by the material maker, and are then ready for the cutler. Wire of any size is made by drawing strips of metal through a circular hole in a steel plate. These are materials, and must be made up into knives by patterns, which consist of a steel “plate,” shaped and drilled like the intended knife, a “fitting tang,” shaped and drilled as the blade tang should be, and a “fitting spring,” the end alone of which is the pattern. All these are hardened so as not to waste by a file. The materials are placed on a board, say 24 inches by 5 inches, with sides one half an inch high, which is termed the “knife board,” and on which the work is kept and carried about.


The cutler’s “side,” as he terms it, is a bench from 5 to 6 feet long, and from 18 to 24 inches wide. A portion of the bench, 2 feet in length, is raised from 6 to 10 inches above the main bench, on the left end of which is a vise. A steel faced anvil, called a “steady,” 4 inches high and 2x2 inches on the face, is set in the lower bench some 6 inches from the vice. The front surface of the steady projects one half of an inch over the body, and has in it a mortice and a small circular hole. The hammers usually number 3, the largest of which weighs about 8 oz., the second 3 or 4 oz., and the smallest 1.5 to 2 oz.’ and those weighing only ½ oz. are occasionally used. The other tools and mode of operation will be described in the next chapter.


To be continued


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