Heritage Crafts

Hand grinding

The shaping and sharpening of blades by grinding on a grindstone.
Craft category
Metal, Stone
Historic area of significance
Area practiced currently
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
Current No. of trainees


Grinding is the craft of shaping, sharpening and polishing blades on a grindstone. Grinding was a subsidiary stage in the making of cutlery and other bladed tools. Once the item had been forged to the required pattern, the blade would be passed to a grinder for shaping and sharpening, before a handle was fitted.

Sheffield was the centre of the cutlery industry in the UK, and historically grinders were self-employed and rented a work space. In the late-eighteenth century there were roughly 1800 grinders working in Sheffield, specialising in particular items depending on the size of the wheel required, which could vary in diameter from two inches to six feet. There are two types of grinding: wet grinding where the stone ran through water (saws, files, sickles, table knives, edge tools and scythes) and dry grinding (forks, needles, brace bits and spindles). Some items were both wet and dry ground (scissors and razors) (M.P. Johnson). Dry grinding was much quicker than wet grinding, but created far more dust. Grinding was a dangerous job – there was the risk that the wheel might explode, and the fine dust from the grinding would get into the lungs. In the mid-nineteenth century, wet grinders rarely reached 45 years old, and dry grinders rarely reached 35 years old (Paul Allen, 2013).

Today, there is only one self-employed/’jobbing’ hand grinder left – Brian Alcock – who rents a workshop in Sheffield and grinds for other people. However, various firms also employ in-house grinders and most knife makers need to be able to grind. Most people grind on machines where possible, but there are some things that can only be done by hand. Many companies employ hand grinders, e.g. hand grinding is necessary to give a 12-inch palette knife its malleability; e.g. pocket knives are machine ground on a swage and hand ground from then on.


  • Wet grinding – traditionally used for saws, files, sickles, table knives, edge tools and scythes
  • Dry grinding – traditionally used for forks, needles, brace bits and spindles
Some items were both wet and dry ground, such as scissors and razors.


  • Spring hammer forging
  • Buffing

Issues affecting the viability

  • Possible shortage of octagon-carbon steel – only one rolling mill capable of supplying, but it needs 40-50,000kg orders to make it viable. As a result, businesses are currently importing Italian material.

Support organisations


Training organisations


Craftspeople currently known

Using grinding wheels:

  • Brian Alcock – the last self-employed/jobbing hand grinder, Sheffield
  • Peter Gribben – part time grinder at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, Sheffield
  • Zak – training with Brian Alcock

Crafts businesses that employ two or more makers:

Other information

  • There is a difference between grinding on a wheel and on a linisher which is what the majority of knife makers grind on. The grinding wheel requires great skill, while the llinisher or belt sander is a tool that can be bought for £1,000 (professional versions) and there is little or no maintenance, just lots and lots of replacement belts.
  • Number of skilled craftspeople: Today, there is only one self-employed/’jobbing’ hand grinder. However, various firms also employ in-house grinders (perhaps 6 or 7 in Sheffield) and most knife makers need to be able to grind.
  • Total number of craftspeople: A. Wright & Son of Sheffield manufactures knives, folding knives and swords and does hand grinding in-house. They have a workforce of ten people – five older people, and five younger people whom they train from scratch, and everyone does a bit of everything.


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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