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by David Thomas May 21, 2022
The nine stages in making traditional craft scissorsCraft, handmade scissors are much more expensive than the mass-produced pair you can get at the drugstore. Are they worth it? In a word, yes. Here's why.
The reason that craft or heritage scissors cost more has to do with the quality of what they are made of as well as how they are manufactured.
Of course, those factors wouldn’t be important if, in the end, the scissors didn’t actually work better and last longer. A traditional, handmade pair of scissors is made from high-quality, carbon steel, with a custom mix of added ingredients and hardening processes that creates the hardness required to make the sharpest blades possible. It’s the same process used with top-quality knives and even Samurai swords.
Almost all of the manufacturing is done by hand, which also adds costs. Once forged, a handmade pair of scissors will be subject to numerous stages of cutting, grinding, sanding and then painstakingly marrying together of the two blades. Scissor makers are highly skilled artisans of a heritage craft product.
None of these processes or skilled labour are happening with mass-produced scissors. These are just stamped (not forged) on a cookie cutter assembly line from cheap stainless steel, and they usually tear material instead of actually cutting.
Let’s take a closer look at the nine major stages in making scissors the way traditional artisans have been doing it for centuries.
If a manufacturer is doing things the old way, it’s carbon steel. Carbon steel allows the entire scissor from blade to handle to be made from one continuous piece of steel. Carbon steel is made from iron, contains about 1% carbon and is often plated with nickel or chromium to prevent rusting.
Stainless steel is the other option and it’s effective against some rusting or staining. Stainless steel is made from iron, contains about 1% carbon and 10% chromium and is lighter.
In both options, there are dozens of different levels of desired hardness in the steel and it takes a complicated recipe and sharp attention to details to get it right. Just like cooking.
In its rawest form, scissors begin as blanks. Historically that would have been carbon steel poured into a mold or dye. Initially, the shape is rough, without any detail. Today’s artisanal scissors are mostly made with a “hot drop” forge where they are stamped into a similar rough and dirty outline.
Watch: A Cut Above takes you inside the scissor workshops at William Whiteley in Sheffield
The drop pressure also serves to harden the steel. (A cold forge process is also sometimes used, and is also effective.) A drilling mark is included for alignment for punching out the holes of a matching pair and marking where the pivot screw will be drilled.
Some makers still forge their own blanks but many moved on after the Second World War to import their blanks and concentrate their handiwork on the processes that follow. In modern factories, the cost of building a new forge is prohibitive.
If a manufacturer doesn’t forge its own blanks, there are many places to find a maker of high-quality carbon steel. There is no single leader in this market. English manufacturers may import them from Italy, and Italian makers might import them from Germany or France.
Now it’s time to trim the steel to the outline of the particular style of scissor and punch out the finger holes, or “bows”. The bows are fitted over a “beaked” or pointed anvil and hammered into the precise shape. The blade end, when red hot, gets hammered into the right shape for sharpening. Each of the two pieces will be worked on together as a pair to be “married” for precision.
The blanks are then “tapped”, which is when the screw or rivet holes are drilled. This ensures the marriage will be a lasting one.
Next, it’s time to work on the surfaces. A machine is used to take the first layer of metal off and then it’s time to get more attention by skilled hands with sanding. It requires close attention on all parts of the scissors but particular skill is directed at the Bow Dressing, which is perfecting the shaping of the bow, or handle. This is where your hand meets the scissor, and it has to be just right.
Hardening may be done earlier, before the grinding, or done several times. Regardless, the steel is still too soft to be able to hold a super sharp edge. Likely, only the blade end of the scissor will be hardened, not the bows. They are heated up the screw hole then quenched in cold water or oil, then tempered or reheated so that they aren’t brittle. Particular techniques of salt or vacuum hardening can also be used.
Time to clean up again, the scissors are hardened but they are also blackened and messy. In earlier days, there was an assembling line of “buffer girls” who started with a rough buff and passed it onto the next for a fine polish.
These days it’s a vibratory “rumbler” machine, which has abrasive material like ceramic chips, which act together with acids, polishing paste and water over a few hours to get the scissors looking zippy again with a fine finish.
From there it’s off for delicate grinding to get the edges perfect and then we are ready for the painstaking process of putting everything together just right. These are not cookie-cutter machine-made scissors; they are works of art.
So you take the two halves and screw ‘em together and you’re done, right? Nope. Time for the glory work, for the person they call the “Putter”. The blades have to come together perfectly and cut consistently along the entire length of the blade. From heel to point, as scissor people say.
There is a lot of delicate smithing work to bend the scissors together just right to ensure even cutting. People tend to be amazed when they learn that even those who are good at this kind of thing take five or more years to learn how to do it extremely well. Skills gap in coding or fintech? We have a major skills gap in “putting”.
Watch: Why do craft scissors cost more? See a ‘putter’ in action at Ernest Wright in Sheffield
If they are not on already, the final blades are finished now and the screw is sealed. The two halves are now officially a single married pair and ready for a final polishing.
Coatings vary from chrome plating to Teflon and other materials. (We recommend gold if you really want to make a statement.) One company, William Whiteley of Sheffield, even coats a model in titanium-nitride ceramic to give an extra bit of cutting flourish.
Painting is sometimes done. The process is often called japanning and involves painting the handles by dipping them into special primers and paint before being baked on.
Ciselier is a great place to start shopping!
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