Toolmaker still going strong after 191 years: ‘It’s important to keep traditions alive’

When it was announced by Sheffield Council that the next phase of its £500 million city centre redevelopment scheme was to be called 'Kangaroo Works' in a nod to a historic metalworking firm's old factory, the news came as a surprise to the company that once occupied the site.

"We had no idea," says Robert Walton, sales and marketing director of Robert Sorby, which dates back to the early 19th century and is still going strong, laying claim to being 'the world's premier manufacturer of specialist woodworking tools'.

Dale Murat making a tool at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Dale Murat making a tool at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Not that the company is unhappy about the situation - it is always nice to be mentioned, even if things have moved on from the days when the Kangaroo brand appeared on products made at the now-demolished factory at the junction of Wellington Street and Trafalgar Street.

The animal trademark came about, Walton explains, because of a 'very big association with Australia'.

"The clippers they used to shear sheep with were so popular they used to call them Sorbys, it became a generic name," he says. "We still sell a load of stuff to Australia, but we don't do sheep-shearing stuff anymore."

The land where Kangaroo Works used to stand has been sold to investors who are putting up a block of luxury apartments, while Robert Sorby operates from its present-day base on Athol Road, Woodseats.

Wood turning tools made at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Wood turning tools made at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Where once the firm's catalogue featured axes, scythes and knives, now its stock-in-trade is tools for woodturning - a skilled pastime that involves transforming rough pieces of wood into finely-crafted objects ranging from cups and bowls to pepper grinders and curtain pole finials. Every year thousands of boxes packed with items such as chisels, scrapers, lathe chucks and sharpening devices leave the gates bound for customers across the world, from America to the Far East. 

"It's still quite a strong industry, and growing," Walton says. "We actually sell tools to China now. It's perceived to be quite the opposite. This is old Sheffield stuff, this - how Sheffield made its name." 

Forty-six staff work for Robert Sorby in the factory and at the firm's shop just outside Doncaster - eight of those at Athol Road are apprentices in their late teens and early 20s, signalling managing director Phil Proctor’s desire to train a fresh batch of toolmakers.

Turnover has doubled over the past decade, driven by a boom in craft hobbies.

Paul Fletcher operating a CNC machine at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Paul Fletcher operating a CNC machine at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

"A lot of our customers are males who are retired," says Walton. "Woodturning isn't the cheapest of hobbies - you've got to buy a lathe. But that demographic is changing, there are more women coming into it and certainly younger people as well."

He has a theory as to why sales have increased.

"It could be a reaction, maybe, to the focus these days on computers. Everything is online and you press a button or flick a switch - this is very hands-on. And it's all types of craft, from painting to making shoes and leather bags - woodworking is riding on the back of that, really."

Robert Sorby was a descendent of Robert Soresby, who in 1624 was Sheffield's first Master Cutler. He registered his company as Robert Sorby and Sons on Union Street in 1828, meaning it is one of the oldest surviving companies of any type in the city. The firm settled at Kangaroo Works in the 1890s, as ownership passed through successive generations of the family. The last Sorby was involved around a century ago and the move to Athol Road happened in 1985. The lintel from Kangaroo Works' entrance - bearing a distinctive carved marsupial - is kept at Kelham Island Museum.

Steel rods at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Steel rods at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Today the company is part of the Spear & Jackson Group - another well-known Sheffield name - but controls its own affairs.

"All Robert Sorby tools are made here," Walton stresses.

Tools are formed from steel, which generally arrives at the factory in the form of bars before going into computer-controlled machines for fluting, which cuts the necessary shapes. Then pieces are polished, finished and sharpened.

"It works from the bottom of the factory, up to the top and out through the door," Walton says, demonstrating how the production line functions. "We invest quite a lot in new machinery."

Nearly all of the steel is sourced from Europe, while handles are turned and shaped out of American ash - the same wood used for baseball bats.

"The properties of ash are very good in terms of holding the tool, you don't get as much vibration," says Walton. On the wall of his office is an enormous map of the US, covered in small stickers pinpointing the locations of stockists.

Robert Walton with a wood turning tool made at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

Robert Walton with a wood turning tool made at Robert Sorby. Picture: Andrew Roe

"We sell loads to America, it's our second-biggest market outside the UK. You're probably looking at about 100 outlets in America, maybe a bit more."

Most of the sales staff are masters in woodturning and travel the world showing others how the activity is done.

"Japan are a big woodturning community these days, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia... it's easier to say where we're not. To be honest, we could probably do with bigger premises because we've grown so quickly over the last eight years."

Walton says it is 'important to keep Sheffield traditions, and the toolmaking industry, alive and well.'

"We lost a lot of manufacturing in the 80s and 90s. There was a move towards service industry, but at the end of the day a country's got to manufacture something."