Straight Outta Sheffield

Speaking of Sheffield steel…

On one of the knife-maker’s groups on facebook, a 13 year-old kid from New Zealand posted a picture of a knife that he made. Some of the less experienced makers made some disparaging comments about how awkward it looked, but a few of us who love Japanese blade designs and industrial processes recognized it for a work of genius. This is the young fellow’s knife:

It’s half of a wool shear, fitted with a handle.

When I was a kid in the summers in the south of France, I used to watch them shear the sheep with these things. Every couple of sheep, the cutter would pass a water stone along the edges to touch it back up to razor sharp. I remember the stones were long and oblate, and they carried them in a wooden water-filled scabbard that hung from their belt. The blades’d flicker in the sunlight and the sound and the smell was … well, it was memorable, anyway. And the sheep would eventually trot away looking bare and slightly ridiculous. I remember when they switched to electric shears, which were a bit faster and used quick-change blades. Mainly, they took less skill.

The metal in the shears is very hard, almost glasslike, high carbon. The New Zealander’s shear clearly shows the Sheffield marking.

When I saw his “prison shiv” knife I remembered that I had a pair of shears, myself. One of the tips was broken off about 1″ down, so I didn’t see any problem recycling it. Since I’ve got slightly better gear than the master from New Zealand, I was able to re-shape the edge a bit and did a fancier handle. Artistically, I’d say his effort was more sincere than mine. But my polish is better. I win!

The wood is a piece of “curly” red oak that has grain that is interlocked and runs in two directions. It’s from a chunk of wood I got on Ebay in the late 90s – I’ve never seen grain like that before. I capped it with some purple heart to bring out the color of the steel, then I hit the steel with a buffer for a long time and sharpened it.

It doesn’t cut very well – the blade geometry isn’t designed for a knife – look how straight the cut-line is! But, well, it seemed like a good investment of an hour or two.

Take a moment to appreciate the simple beauty of the design of the scissors: it’s a single piece of steel that’s stamped out, presumably with a great big die. Then the piece that forms the handle is curved, and then the blades are folded perpendicular to the handle. These were easy to mass produce and I imagine that, in the heyday of the wool industry, before the electric clippers came along, they were made by the ton.

My parents doubtless have pictures of them shearing the sheep in the Aveyron in the 1960s, but I’m not going to pester them to search through their picture archive. When I was a child, my mom was always carrying around a 35mm Pentax, and recording the vanishing world – when we first visited there, the technology level was mostly early 18th century.

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If left unshorn too long, sheep can explode. True fact.

I found that picture doing a few image searches to see if I could find pictures of a factory manufacturing the shears. I did not find any.

Here is a transitional form between the electric shear and the manual shear:

One of the things I love is the way machines evolve. I have mentioned before the Musée Des Arts Et Métiers in Paris (science and technology) – a place I used to haunt for days at a stretch, when I was a kid. Basically, my Paris routine consisted of walking across town between Les Invalides and Arts Et Métiers with a stop at La Flore En L’isle for croissants and hot chocolate – in either direction, or both. Anyhow – the museum used to do a wonderful thing: they would pick some industrial process and present room after room of miniature models of the process as it evolved. So, it might be railway brakes one time, or sheep shearing another. I used to sit and look at each version and try to figure out how the people who designed it came up with the ideas.


  1. jazzlet says

    I’ve a friend who is a shepherd among other things and can shear with one of the old hand held clippers, though he only does it at shows. Got some pictures of him doing it. They still make them, although most are used for clipping topiary these days, and you can get little ones for snipping thread ends off when you are sewing.

  2. John Morales says

    Looks like a half-shear with some wood stuck on the handle.

    I don’t get why anyone is impressed.

  3. kestrel says

    The picture of the unshorn sheep is horrific. Now I’ll have nightmares about the poor thing…

    I used to shear sheep and alpacas (and goats etc.) so I can really appreciate this knife, and actually find both of them really great. Those shears are made really well and hold an edge. I used electric shears and always wanted what they call a “one drop rig” which is where you have a motor hanging overhead and a “drop” with a flex shaft running the shears. Kinda. They are lighter to shear with but really expensive… so I made do with what I could get. But it’s physically demanding work and I had to give it up. I did shear with the type you’ve got there, that you cut in half to make your knife, but was able to do a more exacting job with my electric shears… although I preferred to use goat combs as compared to sheep combs. The point with any shearing is to try and avoid second cuts and of course not nick the animal.

  4. komarov says

    Not knowing the scale (which your knife provides) I wondered if the first knife might be a sort of “artisanal” meat cleaver. At least, if it had the same rough dimensions it would have made a nicer-looking version of one.

  5. sillybill says

    “the way machines evolve”
    Back before I settled into CNC machines as a specialty, I used to fix the electronic controls on all sorts of equipment – sheet and webfed printing presses, textile and plastic extruders, knitting machines. I would spend hours (a few minutes at a time, I wasn’t a complete slacker) just looking at the machines and wondering how the hell mere humans could come up with this stuff. The answer of course was they didn’t. It was all just one little thing, then one more little thing. Year after year. The textile equipment was particularly interesting because I knew the primitive beginnings, and all the guts are mostly exposed so you can see all the peices moving and get dizzy trying to follow it all from beginning to end – wheee!

    Did you make your own rivets?

  6. says

    The textile equipment was particularly interesting because I knew the primitive beginnings, and all the guts are mostly exposed so you can see all the peices moving and get dizzy trying to follow it all from beginning to end – wheee!

    The evolution of rope-braiding machines and Wardwell looms is wonderful. [stderr] And it seems that every industrial machine goes through a similar process. We just don’t see it, if we’re working with the machines. And if we’re consumers of the machine’s output, we don’t see it, either.

    When I was a kid in the south of France, the threshing machine they used was a cutter-bar with a platform on the back, pulled by oxen, while the people on the platform raked the grain into sheaves. A few years later, it was a Ford 8N tractor doing the pulling. A few years after that it was a cutter bar and a rake and a baler. Then it was a combine.

    One of the satisfying things about getting older, to me, is seeing that evolution. I’ve seen several areas of technology go from early 18th century to 21st century, and others go from late 19th century to vanishing. It’s really interesting.

    With respect to the steel and coal jobs: nobody seems to complain that farmers have “lost their jobs” thanks to combines. But when the combines originally came to the Aveyron, there was grumbling that they did so much work so fast that the farmers might not have jobs any more. That grumbling ended when the farmers realized that there’s always nasty sweaty work for a farmer to do. The machines just meant that they could keep sheep and grow wheat, or whatever.

    Did you make your own rivets?

    They are leatherworkers’ rivets that I had in my leatherwork supplies box; I just cut them off and roughed them up and then peened them down a bit.

  7. says

    The point with any shearing is to try and avoid second cuts and of course not nick the animal.

    I sheared my dogs, one summer and wound up taking a chunk out of Jake, who just looked at me mournfully and didn’t even make a sound.

  8. says

    John Morales@#4:
    Looks like a half-shear with some wood stuck on the handle.
    I don’t get why anyone is impressed.

    That’s what it is, so that’s why it looks like that. It’s OK that you don’t like it. Different strokes and all that.