The Last Sheffield Sawmaker
During its heyday, there were nearly 70 sawmakers in Sheffield, England. Today there is only one. Beyond saws, hundreds of shops produced a variety of woodworking tools for every trade but as with other industrial cities, the times have been cruel to Sheffield. All is not lost however. The city is fighting back, going through a renaissance where old factory buildings are re-purposed as apartments, stores and restaurants. As the city works to redefine itself, one firm, Thomas Flinn & Co., continues to make handsaws in the Sheffield tradition.
Founded in 1923 by Thomas Flinn, the present company has been in the Ellis family since 1936 when Frank Ellis bought the business from Flinn after apprenticing and working there since he was 14. Frank’s son, Frank Phillip Ellis, joined his father in the business as did Frank Phillip’s eldest son, Christian, and daughter, Katie. This is truly a family owned and operated enterprise.
Upon arriving at this modest factory, I was cheerily greeted by Christian who quickly admitted that they don’t get many visitors and don’t give many tours. I thanked him for taking the time to show me around and talk about how handsaws and backsaws are made, the industry in general, and their product lines.
My tour began in the woodshop where raw boards of English elm, American black walnut, and beech are turned into a variety of handle types. The closest thing to automation in the entire factory is a small CNC router that is used to rough out the handles. Prior to acquiring this tool, each handle was cut out individually on a bandsaw, which is still used to cut the intricate details found on their open- handled backsaws. Once roughed out, each handle is refined–one by one–at a variety of stations bringing it closer to its final form before hand sanding.
I noticed a small box containing a jumble of handles and offcuts. Chris pointed to these as rejects. “We have no quality control department that pulls saws randomly from the production line for inspection,” Chris chuckled. Frankly there’s not really a production line. Each saw is made individually and inspected throughout the process. If a defect is noticed, it is discarded regardless of its stage of finish. This is part of the beauty of Thomas Flinn & Co. saws. Each saw, regardless of grade, is made one at a time by hand. To maintain efficiency and keep down the cost of the final product, some parts are made in batches, cutting out handles or saw plates for example, but each saw is assembled and finished individually. Higher-end saws such as those of the Pax 1776 line, are hand sharpened, have handles that are shaped and sanded by hand and they’re given a hand-rubbed oil finish. Holding one of these saws is almost a sensual experience.
From the woodshop we moved into the metal shop where a variety of industrial machines line the walls. Most of the machinery – presses, shears and the like – dates to when Thomas Flinn ran the shop in the 1920s and ’30s. Moving from machine to machine, Chris demonstrated how they stamp out two saw plates from a single width of steel, and punch holes for attaching the handle. Next the saw plate is off to be taper-ground, toothed, sharpened and set. Thomas Flinn & Co. uses machines to make their saws, but the process is not mechanized. A craftsman makes each saw one at a time.
Backsaw sawplates are cut from coil stock. In a room filled with saw toothing and filing apparatus, an entire coil of steel is toothed and sharpened on mechanical saw filer.
Blades are then cut to length and sorted. We then returned to the main section of the metalworking shop and stopped at a hydraulic press that is used to fold a piece of brass bar stock that will become the saw’s back. The width of the bar stock is aesthetically determined by the width of the sawplate. Chris is quite proud that their saws not only feel (and cut) well but look good, too. Stepping into another part of the metal shop, Chris gave the sawplate a quick pass over a grinding wheel to remove any burrs, then deftly drove the sawplate into the back with a special purpose mallet.
Handles are determined by grade, as is the finish and type of saw nut. High-end saws in the Pax 1776 line get English elm handles, solid brass saw nuts, and a hand-rubbed Danish oil finish. Lower- and mid-range saws, such as the Lynx and Roberts & Lee lines, are handled with either walnut or beech, have brass plated saw nuts and a spray- applied finish. Still individually made and worked by hand, the lower- and mid-range saws have less hand finishing. Chris pointed out that differentiating saws by materials and degree of hand finish is a way to keep the cost down while still producing a high quality handsaw at a price that is affordable to the average woodworker. Let me reiterate, regardless of grade, all Thomas Flinn & Co. saws are made in the same way and are of high quality. The difference comes in the details and the feel of the saw in your hand.
Part of the beauty of Thomas Flinn saws is that each saw is made to order. As a result, customization is relatively easy. Chris stated that he prefers it this way. He prefers to make “one of” pieces for individual customers rather than batches of saws, although the latter is a more reliable source of income. From what I could tell, only one saw component is outsourced, the turned handle on the company’s gentleman’s saw. At one time the handles were turned in house, but better and more consistent results were found by turning to a woodturning shop a few doors down the street.”We’re not woodturners” Chris said,”we’re sawmakers.”
Staying local is part of Thomas Flinn & Co. efforts to promote Sheffield tools and tool manufacturing. Originally the company sold only wholesale. Then one day it received a call from a man who wanted to buy a saw. Not wanting to turn the man away, he and Chris settled on a fair price and Thomas Flinn & Co.’s retail business was born. It turned to the internet and sales grew. The retail web site, The World of Woodworking (http://www.flinn-garlick-saws.co.uk/acatalog/index.html) is a virtual celebration of Sheffield toolmakers and their products. In addition to Thomas Flinn & Co.’s saws and other tools such as scrapers, one can find tools made by Robert Sorby, Crown, Clifton (Clico Sheffield Tooling) and Ray Iles to mention a few.
Perhaps most surprising to me was that this humble factory, barely 2,000 square meters and filled to capacity, makes nearly every wooden-handled saw in England. Thomas Flinn & Co. is the United Kingdom’s only premium saw manufacturer. Next time you visit your favorite tool seller and contemplate the Pax 1776, Garlick (Lynx), Roberts & Lee, Jesse Lane and William Reaves, handsaws remember that each one was individually made in this factory by one of four men who loves making saws.