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Woodturners have a Heart of Steel, and it came from Sheffield

May 16, 2013

I had an amazing day on May 10 as I visited the heart of turner’s tool making, Sheffield, England.  For hundreds of years and still today, Sheffield is where good tools come from.

As far back as 1386 AD, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale of the Canterbury Tales tells of the miller, “There was no man who dared to touch him for fear of peril! And in his hose he carried a Sheffield knife as well.”

By 1600 Sheffield was the center of cutlery production in England. In the 1740s Benjamin Huntsman invented a crucible steel process for making better quality of steel, which was made obsolete in 1856 by Henry Bessemer‘s invention of the Bessemer converter.  In 1912 Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in Sheffield and this year they are celebrating a century of stainless cutlery.  I visited a 150-year old factory called the Portland Works to visit Andy Cole, who showed me the original die for cutting out the very first stainless knives ever made, right there in his shop 100 years ago.

Crown tools factory croppedSo, on a trip to Europe I visited the Crown Handtools factory, where the turning tools that I sell are made.  I learned that Sheffield still is the place where most of the high quality turning tools are made, even though most of the cutlery factories are closed now.  The major turning tool companies, Crown, Sorby, and Henry Taylor are all located there.  Why? Because they have the combination of suppliers that they need: steel suppliers, skilled forging tool-smiths like Andy Cole, heat treaters, including cryogenics, and other tools of the trade.  But even more because they have the skilled workers who know how to make the right shaped tools with the longest lasting edges.

Brian Gandy with finished tools croppedBrian Gandy was my host, the 2nd generation owner of Crown Handtools, assisted by his son Edward and daughter Charlotte.  Their factory is crowded with the people and specialized machines to make the tools.  My photos show these processes and the skilled craftsmen who do the work.  I was amazed at the amount of handwork in every tool. In the small batches they work with there are no CNC machines.  I saw a huge machine grinding flats on 20 tools at a time.  A machinist ran 3 milling machines at a time milling the flutes in bowl gouges.  But most of all, there is a lot of work by hand on 4 stages of a bowl gougesmaller grinders and sanders.  Quality control was very tight.

Here I show a photo of 4 stages in the life of a bowl gouge.  The bottom one is a gouge blank, a rod of high speed tool.  The next shows the rod after a flute has been milled into it with the milling machine.  Next it is sent to the heat treatment sub-contractor, where it is carefully tempered in a vat of chemical salts and returns with a stained finish.  Finally, the hand work begins to finish the bowl to look as nice as it does when it arrives at the store and the turners shop.

Andy Cole with shaped tangI really enjoyed that Charlotte Gandy took me to the old Portland Works factory district to see Andy Cole at work.  When there is need for forging- shaping metal softened in the hot forge and hammered under a trip hammer- Andy takes over.  It was great to see his skill and to hear the history of his shop and of his trade.

Crown Tools ships all over the world, even to China, and like other Sheffield tool makers, is known for quality tools.  I am more convinced than ever that it is worth it to buy genuine Crown tools from Sheffield.

For many more photos of the Crown factory and the process of making turning tools, click on this link to my Picasa photo file.

  1. Great to see Portland Works getting a mention. After recent threats to it’s existence the Works is now owned by a community group of 500 people – many of them local to Sheffield – who will ensure that Andy has a place to forge tools, and twenty other traditional workshops and studios keep up their great work. See our website for a lot more about Portland Works, Sheffield UK

  2. I would love to spend lots more time at the Portland Works. Andy was an incredible talent and I can see t here are many more like him. Thanks for responding.

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