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by David Thomas March 23, 2023
Snap quiz – name all the scissor parts you can. Odds are, you came up with blades, maybe handles? You would be batting .500.
Allow us to help, as we present The Ciselier Guide to Scissor Anatomy. We have you covered if you ever want to talk shop with a scissor maker or just up your game at Scrabble or the crossword.
Over the millennia, scissors have come in different designs. Ancient Roman barbers used to dexterously cut hair with two knives snipping together manually, without even a nail or screw to hold them in place. Much earlier designs called for a single piece of bronze bent in a U shape with blades on either side that were flexible enough to be easily pushed together by hand to cut in a spring motion.
For our anatomy lesson here, we will stick to the more modern pivot scissor, where two pieces of hot-forged, hardened carbon steel are attached by a screw and painstakingly crafted to work together as one.
1. Bow: There are two bows, the scissor word for handles, hollowed out to use with your fingers. Traditional scissor artisans will start with the scissor design set in a proprietary dye or mould, then hot forged. The excess steel is cut off and the bow holes are stamped out. At this point, you have a roughed out half of a pair of scissors, which are known as blanks.
Next, there begins a multi-step process of sanding and grinding – called the “bow dressing” – with the two halves paired up to be finished together as a unique “married” couple. There are no plastic parts (which are a cheap method to hide or avoid attention to detail in this area), just solid quality steel that will be able to hold a super sharp blade that can be sharpened in the future to last generations.
MORE: How to make a pair of traditional, artisanal scissors
Bow design must take into account ergonomics for comfort in repetitive use, as well aesthetic design and precise function in the mechanics of cutting. While your finger and thumb in the bows are pushing the two blades up and down, they are also forcing them together from the sides. This is the main reason that right-handed scissors don’t work at all well for left-handed people, because using opposite scissors will actually push the blades apart instead of together.
The bow is really an art and a science. The design offers a sense of the style of an individual maker. When we traveled to the magical, remote Fogo Island Inn and joined some guests for a crab dinner, we immediately recognized the signature elliptical bow on the scissors of the table setting – even though the maker (Pallarès of Solsona, Spain) hadn’t included its stamp on the blade. We looked at each other and acknowledged we had, indeed, become veritable scissor geeks. And the fact our dining neighbour recognized Ciselier Company put a big smile on our faces. Read more about Pallarès, which is famous for its knives as well as scissors.
Bow Esoterica: The bows are sometimes referred to as the “grips” and the surface of the bow is called a “ring flat”. With haircutting scissors, the bows are smaller and usually called the “ring handles” – the finger ring and the thumb ring. The finger ring has a curved addition to the bow (called the tang) where the pinkie finger rests for added control. That finger ring might also have a “bumper” that muffles the sound of the two bows coming together when you close the scissors tightly.
READ: We did a whole story about the plight of lefties living in a world of right-handed scissors
2. Shanks. If you think of the bows as the feet, the shanks are like the legs that connect them to the blades. I can’t think of much else to say about the shanks. With hair scissors, some designs have a “neck” that connects the shanks to the bows, but since I already used the legs and feet analogy, that is just going to mess you up with a neck in the middle.
3. Blades. There is a lot to say about the blades. The outside or backside blade is the dull edge that is never sharpened. The inside blades are the sharp part that does the cutting. The blade is added right near the end of the scissor making process. The two inside blades are the thumb blade and the finger blade.
There are a few objectives at play when making scissors to the desired cutting standard. Sharpness, of course, but also the positioning of the blades and the tension in how they are fastened. This is all about the “curve” and where the highly skilled magic happens.
As master English scissor makers Ernest Wright explain, “The blades of a pair of scissors are curved to match, so that they always make contact regardless of the position they’re in. This way, there’s always an equal amount of pressure to ensure an even and straight cut.”
READ: Learn the history of Ernest Wright and the scissor makers of Sheffield
It’s hard to appreciate just how skilled this work is until you watch over the shoulder of the master finisher – known as a "Nagler" in German, a "Regolatore" in Italian, and, ever so quaintly, a “Puttertogetherer” or "Putter" in English. The Putter hammers and taps to perfectly align a matching pair of blades so that they only touch where their edges cross, creating the cutting surface as they move together.
Near the workbench at scissor shop, you will always find windows with natural light so these masters can eye the curve as they make minute adjustments. This is what makes scissors at least 10 times as challenging as knives to craft. Additionally, the blades are angled precisely at different degrees for different functions, ie: tailor shears versus paper scissors.
Kitchen scissors often carry a few special features, including a serrated blade that holds chicken and meat in place for a clean cut and, sometimes, a semi-circular notch in the bottom blade to hold a bone in place for cutting. The serrated blade can also be held sideways to scrape fish scales. An added bonus is a cracker built into the shanks that can handle a walnut or crab leg, plus an opener on the bow for lids and bottles.
READ: Why you need quality kitchen scissors
4. Nail Hole and Pivot Screw. This is a very under-rated scissor part. The precise spot for the screw to fasten the two parts is included in the dye or mould. After the forging stage, the blanks are “tapped” or drilled at the nail hole, whose location has been set based on the length of the scissor for optimal balance, stability and torque. In mechanical terms, the handles act as levers and the joint is the fulcrum.
The screw can be adjustable or not. And some makers will include a spring inside the screw hole, which some industry insiders would call a cheat. The blades of some kitchen scissors can be easily separated for easy cleaning, as they just snap together. Rivets were commonly used before the 18th century, but screws are standard today. Depending on how often and vigorously the scissors are used, the screws can loosen over time and need to be adjusted.
With tailor and some other kinds of scissors the screw heads or bolts are large and stick out so that when they are resting, the bolt sits on the material but the rest of the scissors are elevated off the table.
READ: Why cutting paper with fabric scissors is a crime
There are several terms that refer to the flat area around the screw, where the blades pass over. The “wing” refers to this flat spot and there is also the “ride” or “halfmoon” as well as the “under” and the “between”.
As far as we can tell, at least a few of these words seem to refer to the same general area, so usage varies. Whatever you want to call it, this is where you will often find a stamp by the maker or the city where it was made (eg, Solingen or Sheffield) or you might even see where each half is numbered to track and get the matching parts together during the assembly process.
5. Point & Tip: The point is where the top of both blades come to rest when the scissors are fully closed. Blunt-tipped scissors are popular for young children and are common for other purposes such as medical scissors to cut sutures. Some styles might have one blade tip blunted and the other sharp-tipped. And the blades themselves might be curved or straight.
SEE: The Ciselier Journal blog for more on makers, history, videos and beautiful scissors.
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