The Sheffield knife-maker who is helping keep a Steel City tradition alive

Sheffield’s relationship to steel goes back centuries and is so ingrained in the city’s history and culture that it’s known as the Steel City.

Numerous iconic global landmarks, such as New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, were built with steel forged in the city.

However, while Sheffield was once a world leader in this field, shipping steel, knives and cutlery to countries across the world, its production began to decline in the 1970s and 80s due to increasing international competition. As a result some of the prestige attached to the city’s steel production also declined.

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However, there’s a Sheffield man, Michael May, who is working hard to keep that tradition alive and restore that reputation. Making hand-crafted knives in his own workshop in Portland Works, his methods and approach mirror those from the time when the city was filled with little mesters workshops.

heffield knife maker Michael May follows in the footsteps of the city’s “little mester” cutlers. (James Hardisty).

“The name ‘Made in Sheffield’ should be a quality hallmark,” he says. “I’m hoping when my knives are going across the world and it says Made in Sheffield on them that it will make people remember the stuff that we used to do in the city and that it’s still as good as what we were doing all those years ago.”

However, May wasn’t destined for the trade. Initially he went to music college and afterwards was on the lookout for some work. His sister-in-law worked at Taylor’s Eye Witness, a company that has been making knives in Sheffield for over 150 years, and May took a job there.

“I was doing various things around the factory and then ended up doing the pocket knives,” he recalls. Even though he enjoyed it and his manager felt he had a natural aptitude for the craft, May left to go to university. “I hadn’t realised how much I enjoyed making things until I went to university and I wasn’t doing it anymore,” he says. “That’s when I realised making knives is probably what I want to do.”

He began to work under Keith Moorby, to whom he says he owes his sharp eye for detail and high standards. “He was a fantastic knife maker,” he says.

Michae at his workshop in Sheffield’s Portland Works. (James Hardisty).

"He frustrated me at the time because I always thought I’d done well and he would just pick out all the faults with it. But it made me a better knife maker. Now I’m working on my own I realise how important it is to get everything as right as it can be. You don’t just say ‘that will do’, you try and make yourself better every time. Looking back, I wouldn’t be doing what I do without his advice.”

For the last five years May has been working independently. Although his time at university has ended up intertwining with his current work. For it was through studying history that he gained a love of Sheffield’s heritage and its role in the production and manufacture of knives.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m that passionate about it,” he says. “Because I feel this city was famous throughout the world for its knife making and its cutlery. I know that not many people are doing it today, so I feel that now I’ve learned how to do the job I want to keep it going and try to tell as many people as possible that it is still going on.”

May has seen an increased appetite for good quality, hand-crafted knives made independently – something he attributes to changing attitudes.

He makes a variety of knives from kitchen to pocket and also does bespoke orders.

“People have got tired of the throwaway buy cheap, buy twice model,” he says. “Especially with the pandemic people have looked at supporting independent businesses. I’ve definitely noticed that. People have been getting in touch wanting to buy knives just to help support the business during the time. It’s been really nice.”

However, May is also keen to avoid flowering up the language of what it is he does. Artisan he is not. “Artisan is just a middle class person doing what was once a working class person’s job and charging three times the price for it,” he says.

“It does annoy me, adding the word ‘artisan’ to so many things that just don’t need it.”

That’s not to say that May is rigidly stuck to old ways of doing things. His aim is to pay tribute to the history of the craft in the city while also progressing it. “I do knives with turquoise in there,” he says of one of his favourite designs.

“That was the first knife I made to really give that feeling of knowing it was one of mine. I love doing the ones with turquoise as they’re quite striking and they look beautiful when they are all polished up. It’s something quite different but traditional at the same time.”

He’s proud to be part of the city’s industrial story. “We’ve got hundreds of years of history of knife making in Sheffield and Keith told me that you don’t need to mess around trying to do something different when you’ve got all this history. It’s tried and tested and people still want that. So I’m trying to do traditional and something different at the same time.”

May makes all kinds of knives, from kitchen and pocket to bespoke orders. “If it’s got an edge to it, I’ll have a go,” he says. Customers also send him in special types of wood and material to use to make their knives unique.

“I often get sent bits of wood to use for knives that might be from a tree in their garden,” he says. “A few people from Wales have sent me some Welsh oak and stuff like that. I’ve just done one with tweed. I get asked to do all sorts.”

Running all aspects of the business himself, he says there’s no such thing as a typical day in the life of a contemporary knife maker. “There’s lots of different aspects to knife making because I do all my own grinding and treating,” he says.

“It’s different all the time even though I could be doing the same patterns because it’s all natural materials. Plus, there’s the packing and posting, all the admin stuff, the emails and the website as well. It’s different everyday.”

It could take him anywhere from a few hours to a day and a half to make a single knife and while most of his customers are in the UK, his knives are also going out to Europe, the US and Australia.

However, despite the increased demand for his work, May remains something of a perfectionist, always striving to improve. “I’ve never been completely 100 per cent happy with anything I’ve made,” he says. “I think it will always be like that. I’m trying to improve all the time, I’m always learning and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”

As for the future of knife making in the city, May is already looking to share his skills with the next generation. “I’ve got a young lad starting with me who is learning the trade,” he says.

“At first it was all about just making knives but now I’ve started my fifth year on my own I’m thinking, I wonder how far I can take this if it starts getting bigger. Maybe I could take on staff and then train more people. So we’ll see how far I can take it. I know that no matter what, I’ll always want to make knives.”