One man, one mester

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

Stan Shaw, spring-knife cutler, Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield (October 2017)

My Sheffield’s Heritage tour-group were honoured to be introduced, by Mike, our guide from the Ken Hawley Collection, to Stan Shaw BEM, who at ninety-one is not exactly the last of Sheffield’s little mesters, simply because in his lifetime he has picked up the craft skills of perhaps a dozen of the specialised traditional Sheffield tradesmen.

Technically, he’s a spring-knife cutler:  all his hand-crafted knives have retractable, spring-loaded blades.

Stan tells his own story in a Sheffield Telegraph article dated March 24th 2016 [https://www.sheffieldtelegraph.co.uk/news/life-is-still-at-the-sharp-end-for-expert-sheffield-craftsman-in-his-90th-year-1-7813981]:

“When I got to be 14 years of age I wondered – because I’d never done metalwork or woodwork – what am I going to do for a living?  I went on to Rockingham Street and saw Ibbersons and knocked on the door and said, ‘Can I have a job, Mr Ibberson?’

“I went upstairs to see him, in a little ante-room, and there were all the knives in glass cases.  I said, ‘I want to make them’.  I don’t know why I said it – I’d never used tools in my life – so he sent for his head cutler and said, ‘This lad wants to make knives.  Will you have him?’

“So I started with him the following morning.  I took to it like a duck to water, like it was made for me.”

 Over the decades he gained the expertise to make high-quality, decorative, practical knives that command premium prices, and since he went self-employed in 1987 he has never looked back.

The old hand-craft skills will die with Stan, because he’s consistently declined to take on the paperwork encumbrances that come with apprentices.  He explains in a 2006 interview [http://www.mylearning.org/metalwork-in-sheffield-/p-833] how modern machine-made knives lack the quality he achieves:

“I was taught the proper way with a skilled man.  You’ve got to have somebody teach the proper way and there are a lot of people trying to learn themselves but they can’t.  They try and make as good a job as they can but they’re limited so there is only one way to learn and that is with skilled people who’ve learnt it from his father and his father before him.”

To buy one of Stan’s knives, stamped “Stan Shaw, Sheffield”, you wouldn’t get much change out of £2,000, and you’d have to collect it – wherever in the world you live – because he doesn’t trust them to the post.

And he has a four-year waiting list.

The only clients who don’t have to wait are his grandchildren, to whom he gives knives on their birthdays and Christmas.

No doubt family members, like such other clients as HM Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of York and President George H W Bush, have to hand over a coin in return, to prevent the friendship being cut.

The best available account of Stan’s life and work is a downloadable illustrated booklet Stan Shaw and the Art of the Pocket Knife (2016) by the Sheffield industrial historian Geoffrey Tweedale [http://contrib2.wkfinetools.com/tweedaleG/stanShaw/0_img/TWEEDALE-Stan%20Shaw-(12-12-2016).pdf] – an example of a craftsman in words writing about a craftsman in steel, silver, brass, wood, bone, stag-horn, buffalo-horn, abalone, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl.

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