An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery - Part VIII


Alexander Lyman Holley


Part VIII

Present Yankee Method of Making a Four-blade Congress and a Common Jack Knife. Fly Press. Dies, Punches and Other Machines


Published Saturday, August 3rd, 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.


The grinder having taken the knives as left in the last part, glazes, laps, and polishes the faces, swages and backs of all their blades on wheels before described. Before the steel is polished, care is taken to remove all cake emery and tallow which may remain in the nail mark, for any grit or oily substance would destroy the effect of the crocus.

When the grinder has completed his work on the knives, they are returned to the finishing room and honed. The best hones used in Sheffield are found in Germany, though a superior but very scarce article of the kind is made from the greenstone found among the ancient pavements of London, and good hones are also found in the United States. The stone is from one to two feet long, and from one to two inches wide, to which oil is applied. The blade is held not with its face on the hone, for in this case the polish would be removed, but with the face slightly elevated, so that the edges may be velled by the stone. The finisher usually tests the whittling powers of his blade, by drawing it across and cutting into the skin of the palm of his hand. The knives are now brushed on the joints with fine lime, thoroughly cleaned and wiped without and within - particularly the blades and the springs, which would rust by the slightest moisture - with shammy skin, when they are entirely finished. The grinder’s work is perfect when the steel is evenly polished, and no scratches and marks appear, and when the blades are not bent and softened by too much heat.

Let us now look at the present Yankee method of making the same knife, and show the improvements and changes which Yankee go-ahead-a-tive-ness have already wrought. The scales are made by cutting them from sheet brass by a machine consisting of shears and gauges; the holes for the bolster pins are made by either a hand screw press - which consists of a fixed nut and fixed die or circular hole, and a punch which corresponds with the die, and is moved vertically by the screw - or by a press which dispenses with the power gained by the screw, and it is worked by either steam or water. The bolsters are cast and fasten to the scale ends as before described. The material maker then by a single operation, which with the aid of machinery is accomplished in an instant, dispenses with trimming the scale ends, marking the bolsters, and drilling the small holes for the covering. The machine used is a fly press, consisting of a balance wheel which rolls on, not with the shaft, and to which the motive power is applied, also a die and punch, and the apparatus to move the latter. The die consists of a mortise shaped like the pattern of the the knife in which a plate containing orifices corresponding with those in the scale, and indentations similar to the bolsters is supported by a spring. The punch consists of a plate shaped like the knife, with steel pins projecting from its lower surface and fitting the orifices in that plate which moves in the die, and is fastened to a carriage which moves vertically. A moveable step below the machine, when pressed down by the foot of the operator, will cause a pin to connect the flywheel to the shaft, and thus move the carriage and punch. The circular motion of the shaft is converted into the vertical motion of the carriage by a crank, or eccentric wheel, with or without the apparatus, called by Arnot the seventh mechanical power. By placing the scale as just left on the die, and pressing down the step, the carriage will descend, the bolsters and scale will be trimmed by the edges of the die and punch, the pin holes will be made by the points projecting from the latter, and the bolsters will be marked for drilling by two short points at either end of the punch. In this state the scales are taken by the cutler, and the bolsters bored as fast as they can be laid on the carriage of a machine, which consists of a drill standing vertically, and moved round from 1000 to 15000 times per minute by a belt from a drum in the rear. The scales are then dished, and the covering prepared, matched, and put on as before described. The springs are taken from the material maker, who by a single operation by the aid of the dies and punches of the press, dispenses with the entire work of the spring forger, with marking the spring, and with the greater part of the filing necessary to fit it in the old way. They are then bevelled, and the fash is removed by a drop-which is a weight falling from a certain height on an anvil or boss-and drilled like the bolsters, by machinery. They are now almost perfect, and ready to harden, but are filed on the inside, and then between two plates, bent, hardened and tempered.

Before the idea was suggested of marking the spring at the same time it was cut out by the press, they were marked by striking them as they lay on a steel plate, furnished with gauges, and an upright pin. The blades are cut from sheet cast steel by the press, dies and punches, with a blunt joint, but perfect tang, and the cutting part forged by hand, as described in Part III, thus they are squared and marked by one operation. They are then drilled by machinery, fitted and dressed as before described. The spring holes in the covering are drilled in a like manner, and the knives put together and finished by the old English method. This is not the manner in which all, or the greater part of fine knives are now made in America, as the machinery is not yet perfected, or universally employed. As long as such materials as pearl and shell are used for fine knives no very great improvement can be expected, as yet, and the labor saving machines must be perfected first, on jack knives and coarser work.

We will now look at the present method of making straight common jack knives, called flat backs in America, which, though not as highly finished as fine knives, are made expressly for, and adapted to hard service. The blades are cut out by a method described in Part III, hardened and tempered, and ground as blades usually are (see Part IV) and are then ready for the handle maker.

The iron scales and bolsters used for jack knives, and made in a solid piece, are usually in England forged from nail rods by a scale forger, who heats a portion of the rod, strikes the bolster in a boss on one end, and flattens enough for a scale, which is finished in two heats. This is a long and slow process, but still resorted to by some manufacturers who think forged scales are superior to others, because they are more tenacious and harder. As long as scales made cheaper are good enough, and answer every purpose, though not equal to forged, it is as well to sue them as any. They are made solid, however, perfectly and in great quantities by machines, which consist of two iron rollers, similar to those of iron rolling mills, one of which is turned smooth and even on the surface, while around the circumference of the other are screwed bosses equally distant from each other. These rollers revolve with the same velocity, and red hot rods being passed in at one side, come out at the other a long string of scales and bolsters, which are cut apart by machinery. Another machine consists of a shaft, in the centre of which is a raised bolster boss, which meets a raised plain boss on the other shaft which revolves at the same speed, and will make a scale and a bolster at each revolution. Solid scales have been made by a drop, furnished with bosses, and in other ways, but neither of these methods have as yet been brought to perfection, though one will certainly answer every purpose eventually.

The majority of iron scales are probably made of two pieces. The bolster is struck by a hand hammer or by a drop, in a boss, and cut off by a shears formed from two chisels, which operation is very speedily performed. A pin is also formed by the boss, which projects about an eighth of an inch from the bolster. The scales are very easily cut from sheet iron, and are finished with the bolster, like brass scales, as described in chapter VI. The scales, after either of these operations, are of course differently shaped, and do not fit the plate, bu t the edges are cut off by a die and punch of the fly press, and not till within a few months the blade rivet hole has been marked, and the four other holes made by the same die and punch, as fast as they can be laid on and taken off, as before described. By comparing these operations with those of the English cutlers a few years ago, we find a very decided improvement, for which we are certainly indebted to Yankee ingenuity and contrivance.


The bolster holes are now drilled by machines, nearly as fast as they can be taken up and laid down, and till recently all the scale holes were drilled, by laying it on a wood boss, and placing the plate over it for a gauge. They are now put up in points, the edges more perfectly fitted to the plate by a file, and the outsides are already regular and fitted for the covering. The springs are cut out, and marked by the press, then drilled by machines, filed inside, and on the ends, bent, tempered and glazed on the end and inside, as before described. The covering is fitted and put on an unusual, trimmed, by a circular saw, filed down to the metal scale, and coarse and fine glassed on the front edge. The blade tangs are then glazed and burnished on the edges and the whole is riveted together. The backs are then ground, sometimes on the Wickersly, but usually on the Nova Scotia stone, after which they are glazed, then polished on an emery wheel with charcoal and boulder, (see Part VII.) The knives are then hafted and buffed as before described, when the grinder glazes the blades, after which they are honed and cleaned ready for packing. A machine has been recently put in operation, in one of the manufactories of Connecticut, which fits the covering to the bolsters, and consists of gauges, a moveable carriage, and a burr wheel similar to a circular file, and is used chiefly for jack knives.

Burr wheels are occasionally used to fit the edges of the covering to the scale. Numerous machines are in contemplation, and some in the process of building, which it is hoped will dispense with a great portion of the manual labor, now performed on jack knives. Many little jobs, as they are considered formerly accomplished by hand, will be finished in less than one quarter of the time now occupied, and many of these little jobs will be dispensed with entirely. English operatives, although more careful and perhaps more skilful at present than Americans, perform the most difficult operations by hand and by steady and long continued manual labor, produce most beautifully wrought and finished fabrics, but obviously never indulge the idea that this may be accomplished by an easier and shorter method; while the Yankee workman is not content to go through the same tedious routine of slow manipulation day after day, but “toils and studies to perfect a machine, which will do his work twice as speedily, while he puts on the steam, and studies to drive it a little faster. The perseverance and inventions of the latter are indispensable in these days of improvement,” while the thoroughness and skill of the former, though commendable, does not keep pace with the vicissitudes of the times. The people must have pocket knives, and they will have them cheaper than they can be made by hand in this country, cheap in proportion to other goods and manufacturer must live, consequently he must employ machines to operate for him much faster and cheaper than workmen can labor.


To be continued...


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