WHO I AM
WHAT I DO
My first memories of knifemaking go back to my childhood in the 1970's, when my parents worked side by side in their fourth floor workshop in Stag Works here in Sheffield. I spent many an hour there after school and at weekends, just trying to keep out of trouble.
In 1980 when I was 10, my father picked me up from school and took me across town to show me a new workshop. The family business, Pat Mitchell (Cutlers), named after my mum, was moving next door, which is just as well as the machinery was moved on barrows. A friend of my dad had just bought a place called Portland Works and we were set to get a workshop in there, dropping a few flights of stairs too, first floor this time.
Although my memories go back to Stag Works, being part of the move and now in fresh surroundings triggered something in me and I felt more a part of the family business. I earned pocket money on a Saturday morning by 'knocking on' work for my dad to haft and finish the following week; knocking on is fitting the handles and hafting is shaping them. My apprenticeship at my father's knee had started without me even knowing it.
I started full time employment with my mum and dad at 15, straight into the trade. There was much to learn but thinking back now I was learning each aspect of the trade from forging through grinding and finishing, each little section that historically different pairs of hands would have undertook. I suppose it's testament to my father's teaching skills that I didn't ever realise it at the time. I learned a great deal but don't ever remember him teaching me a thing.
So that was me - family in the cutlery trade and I was brought up in it, I did not know what a custom knife was or how good the rest of the world was becoming. I was a young man from Sheffield, we were still the best in the world weren't we? How wrong could you be?
We were doing mostly 'cutlery trade wares', the products that all the 'little mester' type outworkers were working on. Butchers' knives, scrapers, the leather and stag Bowie type knives we all had as kids. Change was on the way though and we, my dad and I, designed a range of outdoor knives and branded and marketed them as our own – we called them 'Benchmade' knives. It wasn't the done thing back then for outworkers such as us to have our own name on the product, I'm sure thinking back now that must have raised a few hackles.
What I now call Custom knives were unknown to me, but these Benchmade knives were a step on the way. They were not perfect as we were still of the Sheffield way of things, but they were about getting good quality hand-made knives to the masses, which was my dad's ethos. These were the people who used them in the field, so they were sold mainly through Country and Game Fairs direct to the user and the odd gun shop and they offered good value.
For my parents the game fairs were as much about the craic as anything, sales were never tremendous but the fairs are an important part of this story because there I saw other knife makers, not many and always the same ones, but I remember looking at their knives and seeing something different. I now know exactly what this difference was - the standards, what we today call the fit and the finish. A couple of these makers had already started their journeys towards creating as perfect a knife as they could and I was still stuck in the Sheffield trap, and I use the word trap there in the nicest possible way.
At this point we can jump forward to 1996 when I lost my dad and after some thought decided to carry on with the business. With the confidence of a young man I thought, I can build this business up, make it bigger. The Benchmade knives were kicked into touch, being time consuming and maybe stuck in the middle ground between cheap and not so, never good earning work. I almost stopped making knives and concentrated on blade work, Scimitar and Khunja blades through London jewellers bound for the Middle East, all manner of blades for Wilkinson Sword, Dirks, Swords and Commando, Sgian blades by the thousand stamped Glasgow, Scotland and eventually being shipped all over the world, we were very busy and five strong in my little workshop at this time.
But by 2004 I was office bound half of the time and I was taking on work I didn't want just to keep the other four pairs of hands busy. I eventually realised that although around knives and blades, which I loved, this genre of work was not where I wanted to be, I was sick of the sight of sharp and shiny things yet I thought back to those Benchmade knives.
I downsized over a period of time and the lads moved on to other things until eventually I locked the doors and Pat Mitchell (Cutlers) was closed with no plans to reopen, the workshop mothballed. I left knifemaking for a while and did other things, working with a mate but it didn't work out and I soon found myself back in my mothballed workshop. I needed work to do, I needed orders and customers.
What I had now though was one of the most important and powerful tools in my workshop today, the internet, my window on the World. Using the web I looked around and saw the standards the hand made knife world was now working to and I saw that while I'd been supplying the Arabs with their swords, things had romped on. I looked at the US and SA custom makers and saw work of a jaw dropping standard, again I'll refer to it as fit and finish, some of the standards were truly amazing, inspiring. That is exactly what it did for me, they inspired me, showed me precisely where I wanted to be in the world market place.
The Benchmade knives came back to mind. I foraged around the workshop and found the materials to make one, then what, sell it to who? I did what we are all doing now, I used my new found tool and of course eBay was a new option. I listed it and it sold, so I made another, same again. From that time the Benchmade began to evolve, my father had set the skill into place and I am a firm believer that the ground in the trade gives me an edge. My skills needed a hone but I now knew what I wanted to do with them. I wanted to learn more and add to them, I still do, I want to be the best maker of knives I can possibly be.
And I'll tell you what is nice, I am still in that Portland Works workshop today and from it a short flight of stairs leads me to a flat roof from where I can still see that fourth floor Stag Works workshop...
Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield, United Kingdom, S2 4SJ