Could this be the best time in history to be a knife maker? Custom knife maker, Stuart Mitchell, reflects on the history of knife making and his personal journey into a trade that is his passion.
The Cutting Edge – one of man’s oldest tools and one that we all use every day. The Oldowan tools (the earliest evidences of the human fossil record) tell us that cutting edges were in use over two-and-a-half-million years ago. Of course they have evolved over time, both in terms of materials and methods. Essentially though, these are the same basic tools, doing the same everyday tasks. Today every culture around the world has it’s own, sometimes unique, version of a knife. Such is it’s importance that many have a religious or spiritual significance attached. They have also carved their way into superstition the world over, I mean we all know that we should never gift a knife, right?
Hailing from Sheffield and from a family who traded in my city’s once world-revered trade, I have never not been around knives and people who make them. My earliest memories are not of being forced to drink warm milk in school, they are of being in our fourth-floor, Stag Works, Pat Mitchell (Cutlers) workshop. The youngest of five children, with four sisters, it was always a given with the family that I was going to take over that workshop someday. So much so that it never even crossed my mind to doubt it. Because of this, I think, my desire to be around knives – and it is a desire – is different to many. I’m not saying better or worse, just different. My love of making knives today is not one that has developed from a hobby, knives have always been my life, my job.
My ethos is very much moulded by that of my father before me, to place good, honest, working tools into the hands of the folk who need/want them to work with tools that can be relied upon: dependable, strong and sharp.
Today knives come in a plethora of shapes and sizes, you will find a knife that is created to specialise in any given task. Take a look at the vast range of kitchen blades created by some of the Japanese masters, a mind boggling selection, all designed for quite specific duties. Now, of course, some blades are far more suited to certain tasks, but for me there is a bit more to it. I think the pair of hands and the techniques behind them, that will be using the knife need adding to the equation. I remember many years ago standing behind the table at one of the many game fairs that my folks attended with their wares. Back then each of their knives had a generic name – you know the ones, The Stalker, Field & Stream, Outdoorsman, to name a few. The thing I remember was the conversations these names evoked: Man A would argue that The Stalker was better suited to a different task, Man B however adamant the The Stalker was perfect, Man C would use the Field & Stream as his perfect stalking knife. All wanted different knives because they were different, they used them differently, they used them in a way that they had learned or been taught to, a way that suited them. I am not suggesting that certain blade shapes don’t lend themselves better to some tasks, of course they do. I did stop giving the knives that I make usage-specific names a long time ago though.
What is very important for me is what the knife is made from. The phrase ‘fit for purpose’ springs to mind, but also words from earlier, much earlier, my childhood, dependable, strong and sharp. As a maker of man’s oldest tool it is a little ironic that the most valuable one in my workshop today is one of his most recent – the internet. Without it I simply would not be around today making the knives that I do. As well as the obvious godsends of marketing, communication and information, it plays a huge part in supply as it enables us to source materials from every corner of the world. The internet has truly revolutionised the custom knife scene in the UK. Personally speaking it has enabled me to locate the supply of materials required to transform a business born of the cutlery trade into one supplying modern and current custom knives. It has also afforded me the essential asset of being able to keep a watchful eye on the rest of the world. It truly is a window to the knife world, guiding me through further developing the skills I learned at my fathers knee.
I am now more able to place those good and honest working tools into the hands of the folk who need them. Modern day materials and techniques have, or can, make today’s knives more fit for purpose: steels that are comfortable in damp environments, high performance handle materials that look as good as they perform, even natural materials that are strengthened beyond what nature originally decreed.
I know things will continue to evolve but in my opinion these are glory days for knives, for knife makers and knife buyers and users. I feel it a great privilege to be part of it and especially whilst utilising the skills I learned as a boy. I look forward to sharing more with you in the future.