Taking on life at the sharp end

Ernest Wright & Sons.Broad Lane,Sheffield....Director Nick Wright
Ernest Wright & Sons.Broad Lane,Sheffield....Director Nick Wright
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We see them every day but there’s much more to the humble pair of scissors than meets the eye, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.

THERE’S a hammer in the workshop of Ernest Wright & Sons that looks like no other.

Its handle is completely sculpted by a human hand, with worn-down wood and dented grooves.

And it’s still used today, to make the same scissors the Sheffield-based company has been making for more than 100 years.

“Isn’t that fabulous?” says company MD Nick Wright. “That’s Cliff’s hammer and he’s been working here 53 years.”

Cliff joined the company, now in Endeavour Works, Broad Lane, in its heyday, when Ernest Wright & Sons was one of the most popular manufacturers of scissors in the world – a time when Sheffield’s scissors industry was huge.

“Go back 40 years and we had 140 competitors. Now there are only two companies in Sheffield manufacturing traditional scissors,” said Nick.

But while the bulk of domestic scissors are now produced in China, Ernest Wright & Sons is still going strong.

And so is Cliff. And his hammer. Clad in blue overalls and peering over the top of his glasses, today Cliff, aged 69, is punching holes in each scissor so it can be fastened to its other half.

But this is only part of the scissor-making process.

This humble, everyday item which many of us take for granted, is actually the result of decades of craftsmanship and complex physics.

The scissors are first cut from a forging as single blades. The single blades then go through the ‘boring’ process, during which the hole through which the screw will go s drilled.

The blades are then hardened up to the hole in a furnace at around 750C and then, after this process, the handles or ‘bows’ are pointed at the top and matched up to the tip of the blades. At this point the scissors – which are still separate blades – are polished in a huge circular machine called the ‘rumbler’ or the ‘vibrator’, where thousands of tiny ceramic beads are spun round, blasting the carbon steel blades and making them smooth. But there’s even more polishing to be done after that, as Nick explains. “We then hand-grind every surface of the scissors, including the insides of the bows.”

And then it’s back to Cliff and his hammer. “Cliff is our ‘putter togetherer’ – that’s what they call it in the industry and it is one of the most challenging parts of making scissors.

“He has to make sure the blades are perfect and if they don’t have the right action he has to hammer them into shape,” said Nick.

The scissors are then de-greased, polished one more time and packaged up and delivered all over the globe.

And despite the fact Cliff has been a ‘putter togetherer’ – among many other things – for decades, he is still striving for perfection.

“I’ve done this all these years and yet I still think ‘that’s not right’. I strive for perfection but I never reach it.”

Nevertheless, Ernest Wright & Sons’ reputation is global and they’ve even been given the Royal seal of approval. Cliff said: “Princess Margaret came one time, she seemed very nice and was very interested in what we do, but we had sniffer dogs at the factory every day in the two weeks leading up to the visit.

“One of them was jumping up and down and going wild over a drawer so we were asked to open it up and it was the secretary’s meat sandwich.”

The workforce at Ernest Wright & Sons spans 60 years.

Ian Chappell has been working alongside Cliff for 44 years, as he explains.

“Nick’s dad took me on a one-month trial and I’m still waiting to hear if I’ve got the job.”

Ian – like Cliff – does everything at Ernest Wright & Sons.

“There are so many different jobs to do here.

“There are so many stages to scissors-making that no day is the same,” says Nick.

“My only concern is that Ian and Cliff are in their late 60s – we need new blood and young people to learn these valuable skills.”

Nick has taken on two young apprentices, Ryan Lamond, 18 and Jamie Boden, 18.

“It’s good to be working in a place where you have something to show for it at the end,” said Ryan.

In the visitor centre and shop attached to the factory, there are cabinets of gleaming nail scissors, kitchen scissors, hobby scissors, office scissors, embroidery scissors and wallpaper scissors.

All of them are sparkling and hot off the press.

The company was founded by Ernest Wright in 1902, a little mester who started working as a borer and hardener but realised he could profit by making complete scissors, rather than working on just two stages of the process.

The firm has remained in the Wright family ever since.

It used to produce all manner of knives, saws and tools but Ernest Wright & Sons now focuses just on scissors.

Nick said: “A friend of mine who’s started a denim company said ‘you do one thing and you do it well’ and I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”

Dashing blades

Scisssor blades do not run parallel to each other, they meet in the centre and the friction caused when they rub against each other enables them to cut effectively.

Such is this action that in the famous Lady Holland’s Memoirs, Sydney Smith writes: ‘Marriage resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated, often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.”