Cyanide, electrical currents and inanimate frogs - it sounds like the makings of a horror film. But it’s all in a day’s work for Sheffield silver plater Pete Ledger, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers.
THE windy walled yard that leads to Pete Ledger’s workshop belies the products being finished behind its door.
Since 2009, at his Portland Works studio, Pete has been plating luxurious, high-end tableware, cutlery and trophies in silver.
“It’s all I know,” says Pete, from Westfield, who started working as a silver plater when he left school at the age of 16.
Now 50, Pete’s built up a busy business - PML Plating - plating products for some of the city’s leading cutlery manufacturers and other silverware specialists.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“I set up shop after the company I’d worked for all my life - Saynor’s - closed down three years ago.
“I think it was just me who set up as a silver plater afterwards.
“It was hard at first, I used all my savings to establish the business. I had no money coming in for a short while but a lot of money going out.
“Luckily my wife has a permanent job in a bank so we did have that wage to keep us going.”
Having worked in the trade all his life, Pete knew who to buy his equipment from and he knew exactly what he needed - though the tackle in his workshop is far from cutting-edge technology.
His workshop has five huge vats - four-feet deep tubs - of liquid, each filled with rows of spoons, knives and other objects.
“The system I use dates back to about 1850 but it works just as well as any of the modern systems that can cost up to tens of thousands of pounds,” says Pete.
The scientific craft of silver plating started in the 1740s, as Pete explains.
“They used to do it by fusing two metal ingots together,” says Pete. “Then they started to solder it onto the metal object but in the mid 18th-century they discovered electroplating.”
This is the process that Pete uses today. Huge vats of cyanide sit in his back room.
“A low voltage runs through the liquid and the cutlery or whatever it is I’m silver-plating is wired-up carefully, and then the process of electroplating means the silver separates from the cyanide but clings to the object.”
Silver can be added to the cyanide either as a salt-like substance or metal sheets.
The cyanide doesn’t bother him, nor does the electrical current running through it.
“It’s only a low voltage, about eight volts or 40 amps - it’s not dangerous.”
The cost of silver, however, does cause him concerns.
“When I started doing this in 2009, silver was about £8 an ounce - within a year it had shot up to £31 an ounce simply because speculators were investing their money in it.
“These people probably won’t ever see the silver they buy but, by speculating on it, it raises the price.”
That, of course, is bad news for silver platers like Pete. “I didn’t make any money during that period but now it’s about £20 an ounce so it’s a bit better.”
Pete says he had no help from the banks while setting up in business.
“There are so many businesses like mine in Sheffield that receive no help from the banks - in spite of what they say they do to help small businesses.” But that’s an obstacle Pete’s overcome through the camaraderie of Sheffield’s tightly-woven steel and cutlery industry. “We all buy and sell to each other and point business towards each other.”
Among the cutlery firms Pete works with is Chimo Holdings - one of the few remaining cutlery manufacturers in the city - and Carr’s Silverware.
Yet Pete’s output goes way beyond knives and forks.
His office walls are lined with shelves of elaborate tableware, huge engraved silver trays, and bizarre ornaments. Just beside his desk is a box of frogs - life-size realistic renditions - all cast in silver. “We do get some unusual jobs,” he laughs.
Most of Pete’s creations end up in Harrods. “My daughter was in Harrods recently and she even took a picture of one of the cabinets that had some of our stuff in!” he says. But while his shiny creations may gleam in Kensington cabinets, they’re the result of decades’ worth of specialist craftsmanship, practised down a windy yard at Portland Works in Sheffield.
Electroplating is a process in which metal ions in a solution coat an electrode through an electric current. The electrode clings to the metal properties in a solution - which in this case is silver in cyanide - and is transferred to an object, coating it in a thin layer of metal such as silver.
The thicker the layer of silver, the greater the amount of silver required, and the longer it takes to plate.
Pete Ledger has been working as a silver plater for 30 years.
He set up PML Plating in 2009.
Pete’s base at Portland Works is a hub of craftsmanship. Within its units are cabinet makers, musicians, engineers and cutlers as well as silver platers.