'Little mesters' of the future find a home at Sheffield firm with 140 years of history

We're exploring a place where Sheffield's industrial heritage meets the new. Trays filled with gleaming pewter hipflasks are piled up in corners ready for dispatch, a craftsman is spinning handmade metal bowls at lightning speed in a workshop that looks unchanged since the 1940s - but just a few metres away, work of a very different sort is being produced.

Wednesday, 11th October 2017, 6:49 pm
Updated Monday, 11th December 2017, 10:58 pm
Joe Doldon, The Thrifty Maker

A hat-maker is busily plying her trade, minimalist pottery is being produced and a joiner can be found knocking up attractive lamps and decorative items with bits of old picture frames.

Welcome to Pinder Brothers, a company run by seven successive generations of the same family over the past 140 years. Down the decades the firm has made silver-plated cutlery, candelabra and church ornaments, and today exports sought-after flasks, tankards and silverplated goods from Sheaf Plate Works on Arundel Street, its home since 1939.

Lyndsay Thomas with her cake toppers

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The business was officially founded in 1877 but can trace its origins further back to John Pinder, the family's first 'little mester' who was active in the late 1700s as a fireiron-maker. Now, in an enterprising move, bosses are finding room for John's modern-day equivalents by opening up unused space to creative types at Sheaf Studios, a complex of affordable units at Arundel Street.

Tenants operate independently, and aren't beholden to Pinder's in any way. They manufacture and market their goods themselves, have 24-hour access to the building and can come and go as they please.

"We're still building up little mesters, carrying the tradition on in different trades," says Michael Pinder, head of sales and production, who is son of the present managing director David Pinder.

"It's perhaps not quite in the traditional Sheffield steel industry, but it's still creative, artisan work. There are a lot of similarities."

Spinner Paul Carnall working on a pewter quaich. Picture: Marie Caley

There are 14 studios in the warren-like, three-storey building. Rents are inexpensive, starting from £120 per month, spaces cover 100 sq ft up to 370 sq ft and all but one of the workshops are occupied. The new occupiers are co-existing very happily alongside the veteran Pinder metalworkers, all self-employed.

"It's not affected the business at all, everything's just carried on," says Michael.

Lyndsay Thomas, who makes sugar paste cake decorations through her company The Cake Topper Ltd, has had a workshop at Sheaf Studios for six months, and is poised to move into a bigger room on the upper floor.

"It's a city centre base so you can move around quite easily," she says. "It's a safe environment."

Ray Deakin working on a gallon Pewter Flask. Picture: Marie Caley

The 37-year-old mother-of-three juggles her craft with a job teaching children that have been excluded from mainstream schools, and previously worked from a studio in Longley. Initially Lyndsay baked cakes but moved into toppers as they were easier to produce and 'less time-consuming'.

"January is my biggest month because a lot of people get engaged over Christmas," she says, pointing out a batch of decorative wedding flowers.

Meanwhile Joe Doldon, 31, is nearing the end of his first year running his business The Thrifty Maker from Sheaf Studios. The fine art graduate, who has a background in sculpture and moved to Sheffield in 2012, is focusing on making 'saleable' items with some success.

He switches on a lamp made with fibreglass insulation inside the glazed shade, which creates a smoky effect, explaining that he's able to gather unwanted odds and ends through working part-time at a picture framers - hence the 'thrifty' name.

Michael Pinder outside Pinder Bros Ltd on Arundel Street. The company is celebrating its 140th anniversary. Picture: Marie Caley

"I make things with the materials I can scavenge," says Joe, who appreciates being alongside other makers in different fields.

"It's a really nice community."

Michael says Pinder Brothers has no plans to move, and he wants tenants to feel secure.

"People can invest in settling here. Going ahead with Brexit we need more making in this country. Each time a space gets filled it improves the building."

There are around 15 manufacturing staff in the different Pinder departments, including 'one or two younger people' but no apprentices.

"That's an area of concern," admits Michael.

Lyndsay Thomas with her cake toppers

"Some people these days don't want to get their hands dirty. And there's the money as well - sometimes we train them up and then they go off to earn higher pay."

But, looking on the bright side, the Christmas rush is getting under way.

"We're in quite a busy period now," says Michael. "Hipflasks are a very good present. We make thousands of them every year. We used to always make more tankards, but last year I think was the first time we sold more flasks."

A 'gallon flask' for an upmarket London shop is even being assembled which can hold, as the name suggests, a gallon of spirits. Steak knives and forks with stag antler handles are also on the order book, bound for America.

"It just naturally comes off the stag in the autumn," says Michael carefully. "We don't cut their heads off or anything."

His job involves a lot of travelling to generate sales - trips to Estonia and Hong Kong are some of his recent journeys - and Pinder Brothers' global outlook means it isn't a member of the Made in Sheffield mark.

"We're members of quite a few different organisations, we can't do everything unfortunately. A lot of what we do is national and international, so we tend to be in other bodies. We've been so busy doing the bigger markets, we haven't done that much locally. But the studios are definitely local, which is great."

Could Pinder Brothers still be here in another 140 years?

"You never know," says Michael.

"It would be nice. Adapting to change is the secret. And the studios are only just starting - we've got a few ideas moving ahead."

Spinner Paul Carnall working on a pewter quaich. Picture: Marie Caley
Ray Deakin working on a gallon Pewter Flask. Picture: Marie Caley
Michael Pinder outside Pinder Bros Ltd on Arundel Street. The company is celebrating its 140th anniversary. Picture: Marie Caley