Samuel Staniforth started his cutlers business in 1864 primarily as a forger of knife blades to the Sheffield trade which was a substantial industry in the 1860s. He continued in this vein until the 1940s when he begun making and finishing blades right across the board from cook’s knives to butcher’s and slaughterman’s knives and hunting knives.
Staniforth of yesteryear
In the past twenty years under the Smithfield brand they have been making knives for the UK chef’s and butcher’s industries as well as making custom knives to order which has made them like the hidden knife maker.
Back in the World War 2 era the company forged military knives for everything from parachute requirements to survival and close quarter combat including daggers such as the Fairbairn Sykes dagger. They were one of the biggest knife forges in Shefield and would have produced many types of blades for finishing by local companies.
In around 1940 the Osbourne family who were very well known around Shefield purchased the company from the Staniford family and specialised in large machine knives like guillotine blades. Chris came straight from university to work for the Osbournes and has been in the same company for the past eighteen years. When the last Osbourne family member was ready to retire Chris purchased the company and has been running it ever since.
While at university Chris gained a degree in geography and later a masters degree in business. Chris admits he never had an interest in knives and it was pure fate that he ended up in the industry. In the early days Chris met many of the Shefield cutlers as this was a major industry unlike today where they are few and far between. He explained that cutlers only made knives and did not make forks or spoons.
Chris has a staff member that has been thirty two years with the company and has been part of the business moving location on two occasions. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience gained first hand from some of the old genuine cutlers.
The type of knives they produce today are rather more complex with combinations of serrated and wetted or plain edges and they can be made considerably quicker and easier with current technology and machinery. Where it used to take a lot of time and effort to produce one knife now it is very much less time comsuming and a lot less difficult. Knives can now be cut out with water jet or laser or plasma cut out.
A range of Staniforth Knives
Chris can make a one-off knife now at the drop of a hat and this is one area that he can see the company specialising in more and more in the future. There are still a lot of hands on aspects to the knife making process with the grinding and sharpening and handle making.
The custom knife handles for hunting are usually made from natural timbers while most military and trade type knives have moulded handles.
Chris and his knife makers really enjoy and take pride in making presentation type military knives with polished wooden grips and shiny brass rivets etc but the reality is that most military style knives are made more in the covert finish and with moulded handles.
Chris was born in Lanchshire and comes from the wrong side of the pennines but reckons he brings rationality and normality to the area.
Chris does all sorts of repairs to knives and restorations of antique knives as well as making blades for manufacturers of folding knives and repairs to military knives bayonets and hunting knives. If someone finds a relative’s old service knife in bad shape Chris and his team will bring it back to its former glory.
Around one third of the knives Chris makes are for slaughter and skinning purposes and are exported to the US.
When Chris first began work in the company the old boy in charge said to him he would need to spend half his day in a business suit and half the day in overalls on and Chris started at the bottom on a simple press that he claims he couldn’t make to much of a mess of.
Chris learnt how all the machinery worked and the processes of knife making during his early days and his team on the shop floor say he knows just enough to be dangerous.
Chris learnt all about the industry including sales marketing and manufacture and production but states the hand worked jobs require considerable skill and expertise and knowledge to know just how much stock to take off and how to work the edge.
Chris considers the hidden knife maker to be a fitting description as many people may not know their name but will be users of their knives.
The knife industry is so diverse Chris explains as they can make everything from a small potato peeler up to swords, machetes, axes, and everything in between.
Another area that in the past the company was well involved with was the making of scythes and sickles.
Chris explains the basic outline of knife making he starts with strip steel and either presses the shape out or you have a forging made. For an axe you would have a forging made and for knives pressed out and then you work it to remove any burr around the edges. It is then hardened by heat treatment before being put on the grinders and Chris has four types of Berger grinders. Some people still use Siepmann's chemically but Chris finds the Bergers are more versatile.
Chris prefers the high stainless steels and while for military usage they don’t blacken or coat brilliantly you get a great finish for chefs and butchering knives.
The blade area is next finished either with a gloss matt or dull finish or even mirror finish. The next step is to put the handle on and a majority of the handles Chris uses are ABS plastic scales or rosewood / bubinga or a range of hard woods including more exotic woods such as cherrywood.
The process Chris uses to attach the handles are brass compression rivets and this gets a good finish, for military knives you can use the blackened aluminium.
The final phase is putting the cutting edge on and Chris has specific machines to achieve this, which ensures the knife keeps a good edge long term and makes sharpening easy. Chris explains to make a one-off knife for a customer would take around four weeks from start to finish.
He is currently working on military knives for another country that consist of three different types of knife and Tank Todd is working with Chris on this project.
Mass produced knives take considerably more setting up to get the tools set correctly for the specific grinds.
The days of the old cutlers with the belt driven machines where, as the saying went, very few could count to five on one hand because of injuries are thankfully gone and the new safer and faster machinery has made things a lot safer.
Chris has a staff of twenty two and has had this steady number of employees for the past ten years. Chris and his wife both work the business and the three main areas they concentrate on are the catering industry the butchering industry and the more varied hunting fishing and military knives.
Where as in the past knife makers would try and do all aspects of the knife manufacture process from the cutting out to hardening through to moulding of handles, today Chris has changed with the times and sends blades out to the specialists for processes like hardening, chemical blackening and handle moulding. Where as in the years gone by there were tens of knife makers in Shefield today there are only around five.
Chris uses mainly French steel for his knives from a very specialist steel maker in France called BONPERTUIS.
This steel has a very high Molybdenum content in it basically 420 stainless 13 / 14 chrome and the .5 Molybdenum content helps prevent rusting.
The typical level of hardening Chris uses is 54 to 56 and for catering knives 52 to 54. This allows for easier user sharpening over higher levels of hardening that when they loose their edge are very difficult to home sharpening.
The logos and names can be acid etched onto the knife or laser etched on which is a very modern high tech process that produces a great finished product.
There are two ways to put logo’s or text on to knives that Chris uses. The first is a modern version of the acid etch where the logo or name is made out of a stencil then the electro lite as it is called is spread across with an electric charge going through it and it leaves you the logo you want and this is the cheapest and simplest way.
The second method is the laser etching way that is a fantastic way to do it. Modern technology with the laser enables you to personalise knives with one-off individual designs and names.
Chris’s dad was conscripted into the military in late 1944 and served with the Lancashire Fusiliers and then the Parachute Regiment after which he was posted to the Royal Marines.
He then served thirty years with bomb disposal in places like Northern Ireland, Aiden and British Guyana. Chris’s Dad sadly passed away not long after retiring from the military and Chris has his father’s presentation Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger proudly displayed in his office.
Chris has made a wide and varied range of knives including gut hooks and when I visited was making a bright and shiny compact underwater type knife for the movie industry.
Chris has three children and his oldest son works in the factory in the school holidays and at the time I visited one of his school friends was designing and making a knife from scratch in the factory for part of a school project.
Chris’s mother remarried some years ago and her husband’s family are Footprint Ttools which is a big Shefield tool making business that make everything from axes shovels to rakes and a lot more.
Chris’s wifes family were makers of cut throat razors and scythes in the 19th Century using the Bingham brand name.