John Maleham, managing director of Sheffield-based knife-maker A Wright and Son, tells Helena Douglas why he is not worried about competition from Asia, and just how tough it is to find youngsters to work in the trade
A Wright and Son, based in Britain’s cutlery capital Sheffield, has been making high-quality pocket knives and fixed-blade knives for over 60 years.
Today the business, which was set up in 1947 by Arthur Wright, still operates according to the principles of its founder and individually handcrafts a wide range of knives for the hunting, fishing, farming and horticultural markets.
The company, which employs six staff, is keen to maintain the high quality of its products. “To do this we carry out all the knife-making processes in-house,” says John Maleham, who bought the business in the early 1990s and is now its managing director. “This includes blanking out the blades (cutting them from sheet steel using blanking tools and a 50-ton press), hardening and tempering them, assembly, grinding and glazing and the final polishing.
“We manufacture our knife blades from carbon steel as opposed to stainless steel. Although stainless steel doesn’t rust, it blunts quickly and doesn’t give the edge we can get with carbon steel, which can be ground much sharper and is therefore much more useful.”
John, who combines a previous career in engineering with a family tradition of working in the Sheffield cutler business, explains that A Wright and Son focuses on making traditional knives that appeal to traditionalists in the market.
“We don’t make the ‘sexier’ type of knives with pink handles and shiny blades that are often manufactured in China,” he says. “We use the traditional Sheffield knife patterns such as the Lamb’s Foot, named after the shape of the blade from the middle ages, the Sheep’s Foot, a wider, broader knife, and the Ettrick knife, a smaller, straight-bladed knife probably named after a village in Scotland.
“The upside of making the knives we do and selling them to the people we do is that we are not really competing with cheaper products from east Asia, as so many manufacturers are, because we have created our own niche market.”
For shooters and stalkers, the company’s range of bushcraft knives (made popular by Ray Mears) and hunting knives, which makes up about 40 per cent of its business, is probably of most interest, although its beautiful bone-handled steak and carving knives and forks will also appeal to those who want to eat their quarry once they have gralloched, skinned and gutted it.
A Wright and Son sells its products, which can be hand-engraved to add a personal touch, in shooting shops as well as through internet retailers, including its own website, and wholesalers.
Business is good: “We are not mass-producing knives so we can maintain quality, but we do have a good business and sell quantities in the tens of thousands each year. Prices start at around the £23 mark and then go up to the top-of-the-range Senator knife that retails from £60-£100 depending on the material used for the handle. We are probably the only manufacturer making knives in these quantities out of carbon steel, which gives us an advantage as well.”
The handle is what gives each knife its unique appeal and, as John explains, they are all different. “Many of our handles are made from kiln-dried woods such as Indonesian rosewood, or more exotic and expensive woods such as snake wood, which we use for the Senator range.
“For the horn handles, we used naturally shed horn from Indian samba until the export of that was stopped, so now we use antlers from UK farmed deer – we take the whole antler and cut it to size to suit the knife. The horn is solid, whereas Scottish stags’ horns are like an Aero bar in the middle so can’t be worked and aren’t able to take a handle. The nice thing is that each handle, whether it is wood or horn, will be different in texture and colour and therefore gives each knife a unique feel and look.”
To produce knives of this calibre clearly takes a lot of skill. Hence several of the staff at A Wright and Son have been in the cutler trade for quite some time. “They are hugely skilled and knowledgeable,” says John, “which is a great bonus to us. But we have also taken on and are training younger people.
“But finding youngsters to employ these days is tough, as not many of them want to work in manufacturing. This type of work isn’t terribly highly paid and it’s also very hands-on, which not many people want to do. It’s a tricky one as we are busy right now, but we don’t export, so in theory we could expand. Having said that, business is good and we will never want to compromise on the quality of our products for the sake of quantity.”