An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery - Part VII


Alexander Lyman Holley


Part VII

Description of the Operations Performed by the English Cutler on a Four Blade, Shell Handled, Congress Knife


Published Saturday, July 20, 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 spoken of the tools and materials, we will now describe the operations performed on the latter, to convert them into a four blade, shell handled, Congress knife. The scales are simply pairs of irregular strips of brass, with bolsters riveted to the ends, around which there is a thin “fash” - as it is termed by Sheffielders, or “burr,” as it is called in this country - or rough edge. The cutler sitting on a stool at his bench, with a short pair of shears first trims off this edge from all his scales then holding them on the right edge from his steady, or anvil, which is convex, draws and bends them to fit the plate, with a hammer. This process is called “ratching.” (Author’s Note here: This word is perhaps a corruption of retching, or wrenching, and like many other Sheffield words, is found in no dictionary of any language.) The scales are next placed one by one with the plate, in the vice, and in a proper position, and the spring or middle hole made, and the inside of each bolster is marked for drilling through the holes in the plate, by a hand “parcer.” This is sometimes called a fiddle bow drill, and consists of a rod of steel with a round point at one extremity, which rolls in the boss of a breast plate strapped round the cutler, and a hardened and tempered cutting part at the other end with flattened sides, commencing at a shoulder, from one-eighth to one-half an inch from its sharp, wedge-shaped point. A stick, as it is called, resembling a fiddle bow, having both ends of a small strap fastened to its either extremity, is moved backward and forward by the cutler’s right hand. This strap passes round a roller fixed to the centre of said rod, and imparts a rotary motion to the drill, which cuts as it turns, both ways. The bolsters are then drilled in like manner, when a pair of scales are put, insides together, on either side of the plate, and a point, (or hardened and tempered steel wire from one to two inches long, snugly fitting the plate holes, and pointed at one extremity) is driven thro’ both mark side bolsters, both ends of the plate, and the corresponding orifices in the opposite bolster, thus making the whole as a solid piece, when they are fastened in a vice, and the scale and bolster edges filed down to the plate by a coarse, then a fine file. Files are cut when soft by a hand chisel, and often by a machine, then hardened and tempered. The sides of the scales are next filed to remove the fash, the ends of the bolsters which the covering is to fit are filed till regular, then the points are driven out, the scales removed, and another pair passed through the same operation, till all fit the same plate and each other. With a drill of very small diameter, the cutler then makes an orifice in each scale end, equally distant from the edges and bolster, through which a rivet is to mass and fasten down the covering. The scales are then “dished,” which consists of striking them with the riveting end of the hammer on the outside, which renders them slightly concave, and better prepared to fit the covering.


The covering is now rough and crooked strips of tortoise shell, which the cutler holds singly over the blaze of a lamp and as they are softened by the heat, he bends them till straight, which form they retain when cold again. The strips are now leveled by filing with a fine rasp, then matched, which consists of filing the end sufficiently, and to such a shape, that both will fit the bolsters, and set evenly to the scale, then drilled by passing the “parcet” through the small orifice in the scale end, and perforating the shell. To match the covering so closely to the scales and bolsters in every place that the point of the thinnest blade may not be placed between them, is a difficult and a very nice operation, and is generally performed on none but fine knives. The shell is scraped till smooth with a shaving knife on the inside, so that if the scale is transparent in any part, the substance under it may appear. A shaving knife is a blade, shaped like a razor, with the edge ground square, that each corner may describe a right angle. The handsomest shells are always placed on the mark side of the knife, and after all are matched with their respective scales they are riveted to them. On each brass scale is a strip of either gold leaf, or Dutch metal, usually the latter, which is copper, brass and bronze leaf, or is sometimes composed of 25 parts gold, 4 parts silver and 7 copper. On this leaf is laid the shell, when the wire is passed through from the inside of the scale, and cut off with nippers or pliers. All are thus served, then riveted by filing the wire end smooth, and beating on a head with a light hammer. This is also a nice operation, as the scales and shell are to be drawn together by the rivet, and the covering must not be cracked, or checked, as is often the case, particularly with pearl, ivory and cocoa.


The metal scales and covering now together called scales, are put up in pairs with points, placed in a vice, the shell is filed down on the edges to the brass, and the middle or spring holes in the shell are drilled. The springs are then straightened and fitted to the plate with a hammer, placed with the plate in a proper position in the vice, marked for drilling by a short hand parcer, and then bored like the bolsters. The cutler next places them inside up in the vice, files the inside with both a coarse and fine half round file, fits the ends to a hardened spring of proper length, and then places them one by one between two plates in a vice, to which he files the backs. They are now leveled on the sides snugly with the aforesaid instrument on a block of wood in which is an upright metal point, fitting the spring hole, and keeping them stationary. The springs must be bent before tempering, else they might not have sufficient power to keep the blades open or shut. This is done either by striking their insides as their ends are elevated or by fastening them between two plates, placing a point through the end plate holes over one end of the spring, and striking the other till bent sufficiently. A dozen or two of the backs are now fastened together by a wire passing round one end and thro the middle holes, heated to a cherry red, or a little above, then immersed in cold water, when they are hard and brittle. They are tempered with oil, or better, with tallow, not by plunging them therein, but by covering them with a thin coat of it and heating them over a slow fire till it is burned off. The cutler can usually ascertain by their appearance, and always by passing a file over them, the degree of hardness, and this is very necessary, for if too soft, they will not be sufficiently elastic to overcome the resistance of the blades, and will permit the latter to rattle and remain in any position in the handle. If the springs are too hard, they will wither break on opening the blade (and nothing vexes a cutler more than to delay his work to fit new springs in place of broken ones), or shut the blades with such force as to break them, or if the blades are heavy, to strike their edges on the inside of the back, or to greatly endanger the nails of the person who opens the knife. Hence, it is important that the springs should be well tempered, and if they are of the proper hardness, they are taken apart and straightened, as they are usually much bent by the heat. The insides, sides and ends are next glazed by holding them on wheels from 9 to 15 inches in diameter, and from 2 to 3 inches in width, which revolved from 600 to 800 times per minute, and are covered with leather, on the circumference of which is glued a coat of emery. These glazers, with other wheels, are fastened by screws. So as to be easily removed, run on points, and are impelled by a strap which passes round a long drum in a cutler’s frame.


This frame can be of any length, and is if single, from 2 ½ to 3 feet high and wide, and supports boxes for the points of the glazer shafts, and a shelf for the knife boards. Each cutler has a coarse glazer, as above described, and one or two fine glazers, which are made from the former, after its first coat has been partially worn off, by covering with with cake emery, a compound of the finest flour emery, tallow and beeswax, and which renders the steel very smooth, though not bright. Emery from Emeri, in the island of Naxos, is a variety of corundum, very compact, generally opaque and excessively hard, and capable of scratching, and wearing gradually away, anything except diamonds. It has no determinate form, but is amorphous, and used when pulverized. Corundum is composed of nearly pure alumina, and is of a red color, and is allied to sapphire. Glazers, when worn out, are dressed, by soaking and scraping off the old glue, and putting on a new coat of emery. The blades, as left by the grinder, are now taken, marked by a hardened fitting tang, and drilled like the springs. An upright metal point, protruding from the mark side of another, or the same fitting tang, is placed in the orifice in the blad tang, both together are screwed into the vice, and with files the blade is reduced to the pattern. The blades are squared, or in the language of a Sheffield cutler, “sqworn” by this operation. Strips of sheet brass, the shape of the knife, are now cut out drilled and filed down between two plates for middle scales, which with the blades, springs and scales, are put up in hafts.


To be continued.


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