Explore & Learn > The Digital Museum > Fiskars Ironworks 1649-2014 > Cutlery workshop

Cutlery workshop

In March 1829, Johan Jacob von Julin wrote a letter in which he expressed his desire to start metal production at Fiskars. The metalwork done in Eskilstuna and Skultuna, Sweden, served as his model. A young metal worker, Erik Rinman from Eskilstuna, was prepared to move to Finland, and found a metal workshop in Fiskars. He was also ready to bring two workers with him. As per Rinman’s suggestion, the workshop would produce razorblades, knives, scissors and fire steel. Rinman even promised to teach more young workers in his profession. Julin was interested, on the condition that brass production would also continue at the ironworks alongside metalwork.

Rinman accepted Julin’s conditions, and travelled to Finland by Julin’s ship in June 1830. With him were the two promised cutlery apprentices. With them, they had essential materials, such as steel, ebony, turtle shells and ivory. Their luggage also held important tools, as well as models for knives and scissors. The work began in the attic of a barn. As early as the middle of July, Rinman showed their first product, paper scissors, to Julin.

Between 1831 and 1832, a new building was built for the cutlery workshop according to C.L. Engel’s drawings. It was built on the Western bank of the river in Lower Ironworks. The cutlery workshop was a long, one-storey brick building, consisting of six rooms: copper hammer, forge, file and lathe workshop, sharpening and polishing room and brass foundry. The brass foundry was in use until the beginning of the 1860’s. Mortars and candlesticks were made there, and most of the products were sold on the domestic market. The cutlery workshop’s profitability was quite erratic on the first half of the 1830’s. The number of employees rose, however, and in 1836, there were already 17 workers.

At the same time, Rinman got a position as the owner of an ironworks in Sweden, and moved away. In the beginning of the 1840’s, a new head of the cutlery workshop, Eduard Hill from Sheffield, England, came to Fiskars. In Hill’s time, steel products became better and cheaper. Julin thought their products could even compete with English products. Sales in Finland were still bad, however, because the prices were considered too high compared to German products. Sales went up for a while, when wealthy Russians visited the Helsinki coastal area. In 1845, however, the retailer in St. Petersburg sent word that the knives and forks weren’t of the highest quality, and the razors could not compete with English ones. Scissors and penknives, on the other hand, had been received enthusiastically.

Proficient and skilled masters, able to pass on their knowledge to other workers, were hired to the cutlery workshop. Work at the cutlery workshop usually began between the ages eight and ten. The boys served as students for eight years, under the watchful eye of older and more experienced cutlery smiths. Their annual salary was 12 roubles. The work went on from six in the morning until seven in the evening. Breakfast was from eight to nine, dinner from twelve to one, and a coffee break at four in the evening.

Many of the workers at the cutlery workshop suffered from tuberculosis. Those who worked in sharpening and polishing were particularly badly exposed to the disease. The fact that the apprentices washed the workshops at the end of every workday, did not make the situation any better. Sweeping floors lifted dust in the air, and young students had to breathe it in, and since the older men who had already contracted the disease, kept coughing and spitting around their work areas, cleaning was not a very healthy chore.

In 1851, Julin thought it would finally be time to go through with a plan he had had since 1835 to expand the cutlery workshop. Another floor was added to the building, which housed two filing workshops and one storage room. The cutlery workshop’s profitability was still poor, and especially unprofitable were the years 1860-1862.

Hill continued as the head of the cutlery workshop until 1862, when another man from Sheffield, Woodward, took control. Even though the cutlery workshop had still not made profit, it received positive attention. In 1849, the products of the cutlery work received a silver medal at the Moscow exhibition. At another exhibition in Moscow in 1864, the elegance of the products was admired. In 1866 in Stockholm, they received a bronze medal, and in the same year a German catalogue was published.

In 1875, the cutlery workshop got its third leader from Sheffield, when the English J.S.O. Hancock began his work. In the winter of 1876-77, a twelve horsepower turbine was installed to the cutlery workshop to provide power for the blower and small machinery. The turbine replaced the drivetrain at the wood grindery, which until then had been done by hand. In the 1870’s, the workshop got a rival in the Hackman factory which had been founded near Viipuri.  Competition went on abroad as well, no holds barred. Cheap German products, for example, could be stamped with the Fiskars stamp, and then sold in Finland and Russia.

By the end of the 1880’s, the cutlery workshop was doing well, even though some plagiarism still occurred. Until the WWI, the workshop’s sales in Russia were better than in Finland. Its selection at the end of the 19th century was remarkably big. There were hundreds of different sorts of cutlery, 48 knives, 80 pocket knives and 52 different scissors. The cutlery smiths were very careful with their professional secrets. They had their own boxes, where they locked their unfinished projects at the end of their working day.

In the 28th of February 1888, the cutlery workshop burned down. It could continue its operations in two weeks’ time, however, and a new brick building was ready by autumn. Working environment got better, when mechanic ventilation was added. At the same time, copper forging was discontinued at Fiskars, and the cutlery workshop took over the vacated premises. In the following years, the cutlery workshop expanded again, but the beginning of the 1890’s saw a decline in the business. In 1889, the Fiskars shareholder meeting confirmed the installation of electric lightning to the workshops and office of the Lower Ironworks. The cutlery workshop received its own dynamo with a turbine. It produced electricity for 100 lamp bulbs. In 1913, the old-fashioned workshops were modernised with machinery to rationalise production and lower the costs.

In 1914, the WWI began, which led to a decline in the demand for cutlery. The remaining big Russian orders could not be delivered. Work at the cutlery workshop slowed down, and its products were sold at very low prices. In 1915, the workshop received a big order: 300.000 wire cutters for the Wartime Economy Committee of the Russian army. This order employed most of the workers in 1916. In the late autumn of that year, the Committee sent word that they only needed 90.000 wire cutters. This change was due to the fact that Russian’s enemies had started using rough and chilled wire, which could not be cut with the cutters they had ordered. Because of this, the materials and products already ordered had to be scrapped for only a fraction of their value.

The traditional handiwork was attempted to mechanise many times over at the cutlery workshop, but to no avail. Instead, new products and design brought success. The first notable success after the war was a gold medal from the Milano triennial in 1957, when Bertel Gardberg’s cutlery was awarded. The cutlery workshop was still a small player within Fiskars. It did not bring in profits, and its distribution was only about one percent of Fiskars’s net revenue. Today, consumer goods are the core of Fiskars’s business. These were also the products Johan Jacob von Julin in his time wanted to produce to strengthen the ironworks’ economy. Even though Fiskars’s cutlery were of high quality, and the selection was wide, the economy of the cutlery workshop has been poor throughout its hundred year history.

Scissors have been in the cutlery workshop’s selection from the start. They were manufactured by hand, and the process has remained almost unchanged. The manufacture of scissors requires immense skill in handicraft. A new, mechanical way to sharpen scissors had been invented in Germany in the 1960’s. A similar machine was ordered to Fiskars as well, but it proved to be impractical. The idea of mechanised scissors manufacture was given up.

The workers of the cutlery workshop were interested in mechanising their work, however, and began their own experiments. These slowly led to success. The work could be simplified by adopting flat sharpening and replacing the old screws with a rivet. After the “bows” of the scissors could be made out of plastic, their manufacture became highly automatized. High quality stainless steel improved the cutting abilities of the scissors. Smaller costs made it possible to make a product which was also pleasing to the eye. The production of these new scissors was started in Fiskars, but soon the factory grew too small. A completely new scissors factory was built in Billnäs in 1972, which was a big investment. With the scissors, a new, diverse business began to grow, the old cutlery workshop had changed.

Workers in the Cutlery Workshop:

Year 1836 – 17 workers
Year 1857 – 70 workers
1860s – approx. 80 workers
Year 1872 – 85 workers
The turn of the 20th century – 128 workers

Directors of the Cutlery Workshop:

Erik Rinman (Sweden) 1830/1832-1836
H.J. Nummelin (Finland) 1837
Eduard Hill (Sheffield) 1838/ early 1840s -1862
Th. Woodward (Sheffield) 1862-1875
J.S.O. Hancock (Sheffield) 1875-1910
Lars Degerholm (year unknown)

Sources and literature:

Carlson, C. E. Fiskars 350. 1999.
Holmström, Laura. Minnen från Fiskars.  1949.
Klevdal, Nils. Fiskars i dag och för 300 år sedan. 1949.
Matvejew, Irina. Fiskars vår hembygd. 1949.
Nikander, Gabriel. Fiskars bruks historia. 1929.