What's new

How did they make scales in the 19th century?

I have now restored about two handfuls of 19th Sheffield straights and made a few pairs of scales, and I am amazed by the workmanship of the original horn scales on these razors. The original scales are thin and flawlessly shaped, and the surfaces facing the blades on some are even concave. Shaping these things (the scales) takes me a long time, and requires great concentration and patience - and that's using a belt sander and plenty of sandpaper.

Does anyone know anything about how these guys made these things and what tools they used back then?

I assume they had grinding wheels - perhaps shaped specifically for making scales. Did they even have sandpaper back then?
 
Presses

Check Oregonknifeclub - Horns, Bones, Tusks, Antlers and Hooves by Jim Taylor

HAFT SCALE PRESSING HOW WAS IT DONE?

The Victorian horn pressers had been taught the rudiments of pressing by the men of the previous century. They improved mightily on the somewhat bare and uncultured work of their forefathers to such an extent that horn was far and away the most popular hafting material, certainly for cutlery of every description. A study of the methods employed gives a delightful insight into the inbred desire to achieve a perfect product.

In the earliest days of course, the haft was produced from raw horn by hand; smoothed as neatly as possible and pinned roughly onto the handle end of the blade. Pressing horn must not be confused with such basics. Wilmot Taylor, in his book mentioned earlier, gives his own tried and tested method of procedure. I quote: "Firstly the warming of the piece of horn, ensuring pliability and elasticity; then the shaping of the piece with a short-bladed knife until something like the approximate shape of the hooked steel die waiting to receive it is attained: the horn piece is then placed in the die, and both are subjected to heavy pressure in a hand-screwedvice and allowed to remain till cool, when, on being taken from the die, the horn will be found to have attained its exact modeling. Naturally, the more wonderful the cut ornamentation of the die the more elaborate the result of the finished article. As to when this process was first used no guess can be attempted. Enquiries of the oldest workman prove that they never knew, neither did their fathers, nor grandfathers. Of the idea that the process was the product of local brains there remains little doubt."

Wilmot put this process into plain words, but this scribe must confess to a still considerable ignorance of the full picture. Time was obviously not of the essence, and there is little wonder that such time consuming practices were doomed to failure. A new process was allegedly discovered in German, whereby the horn was ground up to a powder and, together with some foreign matter, was turned into a pulp, thus allowing for any solid shape to be reproduced; but wait, if dropped this new "horn" split and broke, and no wonder! The destruction of its greatest asset had taken place, it no longer retained its fibrous nature, and as such could only be classified as a composition. Hydraulic presses became fashionable of course and the tedious and slow, simple pressing operations became things of the past. You must admit though, these new fangled ways do not produce as good an article.

The hours or work expected of the men employed in the horn pressing trade were long and ill paid in the mid 19th Century, for it was not unusual to find men at work as early as 7:00 AM and the same men would not be expected to complete a day's work until 8 or 9 PM. A seventy hour working week was common in all branches of the cutlery trades and such exertions would be rewarded with the princely sum of twenty-five shillings or so (less than ten dollars) back then.
 
I have now restored about two handfuls of 19th Sheffield straights and made a few pairs of scales, and I am amazed by the workmanship of the original horn scales on these razors. The original scales are thin and flawlessly shaped, and the surfaces facing the blades on some are even concave. Shaping these things (the scales) takes me a long time, and requires great concentration and patience - and that's using a belt sander and plenty of sandpaper.

Does anyone know anything about how these guys made these things and what tools they used back then?

I assume they had grinding wheels - perhaps shaped specifically for making scales. Did they even have sandpaper back then?
Mostly hand tools, files, scrapers, coping saws, etc. Sandpaper goes back to ancient China but the modern variation of it was created by John Oakey in the 1830's. They would have had various wheels glued with emery, grease based compounds such as tripoli, rouge and so on. Labor was cheap back then so it was economical at the time to have lots of people employed in basic handwork, many would be young girls and boys. I know in the Sheffield cutlery trade a lot of polishing was done by women who wrapped themselves in heavy brown paper to protect their clothes and skin from the dust. I came across a kind of government audit of the cutlery trade one time about health and conditions sometime about the mid 1800's, at one company the average life expectancy of a grinder was 28 years old. Joseph Rodgers was specifically mentioned as being much healthier, the average life expectancy of a grinder there was 40.
 
@global_dev, Am I correct to assume that presses were only used to press letters, patterns and artwork into the horn, and not to make the basic shape?

I ask because I assume that the basic shape can only be made by cutting/sawing and grinding. As a boy, I toured the Ithaca Gun Company factory and remember seeing wooden shotgun stocks being "cut" by a large industrial machine. I assume the machine was some kind of mechanical router. This goes back about 50 years, but I remember a piece of wood going into the machine and out popping a fully shaped stock. Seemed almost magical.

@thp001, I assumed that part of the answer is labor was cheap.

If I was going to make 100 pair of scales, I would try to build/customize some tools. For example, I would want a grinder or plane to first flatten and thin the blanks down to just over 3 mm in thickness. I bought one of these 4-in-1 rasps but have still not used it. If I could find a way to hold the blank in a vise and then make a 2-handed rasp that was curved, you could use one side of the rasp to shape the top (not blade facing) side of the scale and the other side of the rasp to shape the bottom (blade facing) side of the scale. For sanding, a small orbital palm sander with a soft bed should also save a lot of time.


1633566505468.png
 
I grabbed this and posted it a while back. It also refers to pressing horn, but you'd still cut the blanks more or less to shape. The picture shows a guy cutting ivory to shape with a belt driven circular saw.

Presumably whatever the material it would still be further shaped with a file and buffed on a wheel of some sort.
scan0007.jpg
 
@global_dev, Am I correct to assume that presses were only used to press letters, patterns and artwork into the horn, and not to make the basic shape?

I ask because I assume that the basic shape can only be made by cutting/sawing and grinding. As a boy, I toured the Ithaca Gun Company factory and remember seeing wooden shotgun stocks being "cut" by a large industrial machine. I assume the machine was some kind of mechanical router. This goes back about 50 years, but I remember a piece of wood going into the machine and out popping a fully shaped stock. Seemed almost magical.

that passage i posted talks about cutting it to a close shape after some heating before pressing. the posted page by DarthScandy above says a similar thing in the horn handle section.
 
A sharp handsaw and scraper are incredibly fast and efficient. You can hand scrape a pair of scales in minutes to a smooth finish with a flat scraper, if you ground a curved one specific to a scale profile you would not need sandpaper. Horn scrapes easily and quickly.

Water powered large grinding wheels were made of wood with squares of seal skin glued on end around the wheel and abrasives powder glued to the end of the leather edge, these were used to grind razors and polish to a mirror “black” polish. Something similar could have been use to grind and polish horn scales.

Take a look at a Frank Klaus video of him cutting dovetails by hand. Yea, back in the day, even though labor was cheap they were efficient.

Dovetails for Drawers – the European Way
 
“When you say scraper, do you mean a spoke shaver?”


No, a cabinet card scraper, a small sheet of steel. I have also used sharpened putty knives, small carbon steel knives, and small cheese knives that look more like a small chisel. Just sharpen at 90 degrees to put a burr on the edge.

You can buy card scrapers with curves cut into them or make your own from an old saw and file to shape or modify a card scraper, they are not expensive.

A scraped wood finish is smoother than sandpaper because the fibers are cut off
 
Sandpaper has been around since the 1300s, belt drive machinery goes back to years BC . Powdered abrasives like emery and red rouge are ancient also. Emery cloth came later, early 1800s I think. Early on, sandstone wheels were used to shape and rough polish objects. There were lots of possibilities for a production line; scraping, heat treating, burnishing, polishing on cloth or leather wheels, etc. 1700s-1800s were not 'primitive' times.

My first set of scales were ugly and took forever to make and assemble. If I made scales today, it would probably take me 30-40 minutes and they'd look a lot better. A bunch of time is 'lost' setting up for each stage, I don't have the 'right' tools but I make do with what's on hand; but each stage requires breakdown and setup time. I would assume that a production line in a mid 1800s factory could knock out a set of scales in a fraction of that time.
 
I bought a $10 Bahco cabinet scraper, and used my 4-in-1 rasp and cabinet scraper to rough out the domed tops on a pair of scales this evening. Took minutes instead of hours. Game changer! The scraper is amazing. Leaves a smooth finish - like this guy does in this video.


To think that I had never heard the words "cabinet" and "scraper" in the same sentence a month ago. The stuff I learn on B&B :)!
 
Top Bottom