“Knife making is a massively important part of Sheffield’s history but we are an endangered beast"
Michael May is a man living on a knife edge.
He makes knives, they are his passion and he wants to spread the word about his craft.
A modern day little mester, Michael may well be the last pocket knife maker in Sheffield
The 42-year-old contacted us after reading about scissor maker Grace Horne in The Sheffield Weekend. She said knife makers don’t shout enough about their art.
Michael agrees and says the death of Stan Shaw, legendary knife maker who passed away in March aged 94, put the craft on the critical list.
“With Stan passing, the most famous of the makers in Sheffield, there could be a lot of people who now think no-one is doing what he did,” says Michael.
“It’s important that everyone knows that we are still going to continue for as long as I last and I hope that is as long as Stan.
“Knife making is a massively important part of Sheffield’s history but we are an endangered beast. We really need to shout about it, let people know that it is still going on and is not a dead trade.”
So shout, Michael.
“Each knife I make is crafted to the highest standard from carefully chosen materials. They can be made, quite literally, with my blood, sweat, and tears! Since learning my craft, I feel a responsibility to maintain the skills and artistry that made Sheffield famous.”
Michael May Knives is based at Portland Works in Highfield and he is now established enough to have hired an apprentice James Rhodes, 23, which Michael hopes will keep the craft going.
“Made In Sheffield is still a desirable thing and we need to make sure it keeps going,” he adds. “It is difficult to know how, you need to get someone with a genuine interest like James, who knocked on my door and asked to learn. It can’t be just a job, it needs to be a passion. More people like him need to be made aware we are here.”
Born in Lytham, Lancashire, Michael moved to Stocksbridge at six months old so considers himself a Sheffielder. His mum Angie still lives in the house he grew up in.
He went to Deepcar St John’s Junior and Stocksbridge High, his passion at that time was music.
“I played in a brass band from the age of nine and music was what I was dreaming of being involved in.”
Michael played cornet and bass guitar. At 16 he decided to do a Btec national diploma in Popular Music at Barnsley College. It was a rude awakening.
“I realised as much as I loved it, there were people who were far better than I was,” he says.
“I got disillusioned and stopped. I didn’t want to go to university, I was looking for a job and as is traditional in Sheffield someone in my family worked in a cutlery factory.”
His sister Sharon and sister-in-law Terri were at Taylor’s Eye Witness in Milton Street in the city centre. It was 1997 and Michael started in the warehouse of this famous firm, which has been making knives for over 150 years.
“I did every job! It was 2000 when I went in the pen and pocket knife department and I really enjoyed it. I did that for three years before deciding I would go to university.”
He studied History at the University of Sheffield and did a Masters in the subject at Hallam.
“I was thinking about what I wanted to do and realised what made me most happy was making knives.”
So he went back to Taylors in 2007 where he stayed until 2016. A traditional apprenticeship is eight years, Michael didn’t follow this formal process, he just kept learning.
“Back in the day, you would have had someone standing next to you throughout the apprenticeship, showing you how to do it. But there weren’t enough people to do that, the guy who taught me was also a manager.”
He’s talking about Keith Moorby, who became a mentor. “I made mistakes and learnt from that. I made enough mistakes to be proficient!”
He admits it could get under his skin. “It was frustrating at times, Keith would never be happy, would always pick a fault, but that made me want to make something perfect.
“It had to be right, never ‘that will do’ always ‘you can make that better’.
“I’ve kept that going, I always find faults with my work, I’m never 100% happy.”
In 2016 Michael began thinking about setting up on his own.
“Over the years, more and more people would ask me to make a knife for them, impressed by the high level of craftsmanship. I decided to work for myself.”
And then he heard Trevor Ablett was retiring. Trevor worked next door to Taylors and was a much respected name, so Michael approached him and bought some of his tools, enough to set up on his own.
He got a tiny workshop in Portland Works, next door to a room where Def Leppard had rehearsed in their early days.
“It was a box room and I was making pen and pocket knives. It was a brave decision because traditionally we’re not very well paid so it wasn’t going to be easy.
“But I had the support of my wife and she just said go for it!”
He’s talking about Kathryn, a lawyer, and as the couple had no children at that point, Michael took her advice.
Michael’s link with Trevor Ablett meant he was able to use the same customer base and he got welcome support from the Famous Sheffield Shop on Ecclesall Road, which stocked his work.
“Sadly, Trevor died not long after and Sheffield lost one of its characters but he left me a legacy.
Today I still use patterns that Trevor produced along with traditional Sheffield patterns that the city is famous for.
The most expensive he has made is a two-bladed Etrrick knife at£300.
“People say I don’t charge enough, but I’m happy with the price. My average price is £100 and for that you’d get a Barlow, which has been made in Sheffield since the 17th century.”
It also gets mentioned by Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. A real Barlow is clearly something to treasure.
Which is how Michael feels about knives despite the bad press. “I do get that a lot from people,” he says.
“The problem is kitchen knives, they are the big issue with knife crime. Everyone has a kitchen knife and you can buy a set for less than £50 so they are massively accessible.”
He describes his work as a legal carry - you can have it in your pocket legally - but it still gets criticism.
“Comments like ‘you’re enabling knife crime’. I say these are useful tools and until you carry one you don’t realise how useful, from opening boxes, to cutting a label or an apple. There’s a reason we’ve carried pocket knives for thousands of years.”
Michael lives in Millhouses and has a daughter Marnie, three. “I will definitely be teaching her the craft. Whether she wants to do it as a career, who knows, but I will teach her.”