Blenheim Grove is not, as the name may suggest, a bucolic part of the Oxfordshire estate and family seat of the Duke of Marlborough. It is a short, slightly scruffy street in Peckham, south east London, and as you drive down it, the platforms of Peckham Rye station above and to your right, cut-price MOT garages and breakers’ yards interspersed with psychedelic graffiti and crude posters advertising “mobile phone accessories wholesale cash and carry”, you might question whether you’d been led horribly astray in your search for a world-class craft business. Surely, this is one of those satnav nightmares you hear so much about?
Absolutely not. Pull into the right railway arch and you’ll find the home of Blenheim Forge, an artisan knifemaking business producing world-class chef knives using specially imported steel and traditional Japanese methods. The workshop used to house a traditional blacksmith, and it remains resolutely functional. Outside, undercover, are the forges, 100-year-old hammer presses and a huge wet grinding stone; inside acid baths, smaller grinding wheels and carpentry benches jostle for space, all overlooked by a 30ft kayak hanging from the ceiling.
The knives, at a glance, don’t shine out from the working grime as you might expect because they’re made from layers of folded metal (Japanese carbon steel at the centre, with varying amounts of iron and nickel on top) that give them the dark, rippling grain only possible with a traditionally hand-made knife.
James Ross-Harris, one of the founders, says: “At first, people’s reaction is ‘What? £300 for a knife?’ but it’s getting easier to explain now. It’s a growing field. Buying a knife can be intimidating; even owning one can be intimidating, but we’re trying to show people you’re not going to ruin it by using it.” The business, which has 200-300 blades on the go at any one time, with each one taking up to three months to finish, has attracted high-profile customers. Moving to what looks like a draftsman’s cabinet, he pulls out a drawer to reveal 25 knives wrapped in newspaper, each unique. The set has been ordered by the chefs for Lucky Cat, Gordon Ramsay’s Japanese restaurant that recently opened on Grosvenor Square in Mayfair. They include a knife for chopping soba noodles that looks something like a cross between a handsaw and a cleaver, and a 30in tuna sword that looks, frankly, like something the Met Police would take a keen interest in.
Blenheim Forge is one of a number of young, modern craft businesses turning the traditional way of doing things on its head. That can be about something as simple as location, but it’s also representative of what’s really important today: a picture-perfect setting has given way to an active Instagram account, where places for Blenheim Forge’s regular knife-sharpening classes are advertised, among plenty of delectable images of food.
That’s not to say all of Britain’s craft pioneers are plying their trades under railway arches. Working in a small rural farm unit 15 miles north of Brighton provides a satisfyingly tranquil environment for brothers Robert and Gavin Paisley, the software-engineers-turned-architectural-modellers behind Chisel & Mouse, a globally successful idea whose name refers directly to its blending of the old and new.
“We were software developers before,” says Robert Paisley, “and we could see that 3D printers were going to be quite a big change. My brother has always been a very big architecture fan and model maker, but the original idea was to replace the aerial photograph of somebody’s house with a 3D-printed model. And so we set about trying to do that and worked out that the finish wasn’t quite there with 3D printing. It needed a hand-finished touch.”
The modelling business wasn’t the brothers’ first business idea — they toyed with launching a healthy kebab shop or making gin — and it’s far from the most obvious. But the models have become incredibly popular, both with homeowners and corporate customers. That’s largely down to their fine detail, which is where handwork still remains essential. From a CAD drawing, a 3D model is printed, from which a silicone mould is made, then the real model is moulded in plaster, which is hand-sanded and occasionally decorated with acid-etched brass for fine detail.
When asked where the business is heading, Paisley is frank in his assessment that it needs a “hero product” — something that is recognisably Chisel & Mouse rather than any imitator. Currently, the company is probably best-known for its faithful reproductions of cityscapes, which are typically wall-mounted, but can be turned into tabletops or hung as installations. These present their own suite of challenges, the foremost of which actually has nothing to do with handcraft, as Robert explains.
We worked out that the finish wasn't quite there with 3D printing. It needed a hand-finished touch
“Collecting the satellite data in the way that we need it is quite a sensitive job. There’s an awful lot of satellite data out there where the height hasn’t been collected correctly, or the roof lines haven’t been collected. We’ve only managed to find two providers and their main source of income is selling to government agencies. They were very surprised at being approached by us. Even then, a lot of their data was collected in 2009 and 2011. With somewhere like London, we have a lot of work to do to fill in the gaps. There are places like Amsterdam or Paris where very little has changed in a given area and in America they’re a lot freer with this data, and a lot more people have collected it. But we still have the same task of making sure that everything is there.”
The modern craftsperson will sell online around the world and use social media to engage with a far wider demographic than decades ago. But regional history and a sense of place is still hugely important, so it’s no surprise to find an appreciation of Chisel & Mouse’s loving approach to geography and architecture among its fellow artisans. When I mention them to Tom Broughton, his eyes light up. Broughton is the founder of Cubitts, a London-based eyewear company that is merging old and new techniques to revolutionise the world of bespoke glasses. Broughton is obsessed with the golden era of spectacle-making, which clustered around Clerkenwell between 1900 and 1930. His original shop and workshop (there are now seven shops in London) on Caledonian Road is full of antique optometry paraphernalia and maps of the area.
Like the Paisley Brothers, Broughton left a corporate lifestyle to pursue something more fulfilling and found himself learning traditional methods from a master of his craft: Lawrence Jenkins, a spectacle maker in New Cross who agreed to take Broughton and his head of product on as apprentices. “It really began when I was a teen and needed glasses and got really interested in the firm as a product. I spent my first paycheck on a pair of Cutler and Gross glasses, which I still have. Then I spent 10 years floating around corporate jobs, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I did the glasses thing’. Then eventually I did it — but meeting Jenkins was pure chance. We used to go down to his workshop in New Cross and learn how to make spectacles: how to measure properly and how to cut and shape them.”
Where Cubitts diverges from being merely another maker of appealing products with a familiar yen for industry nostalgia is Broughton’s insistence that what he offers can be improved by technology without compromising the craft appeal at the heart of the business.
I spent my first paycheck on a pair of Cutler and Gross glasses, which I still have
In 2017, Broughton applied for an innovation grant via the Future Fashion Factory programme and used the money to fund a head-scanner — effectively a dome-shaped camera rig capable of capturing an accurate 3D image of your head, from which his team could take precise measurements for bespoke frames. Work has now continued to version 2.0 of the scanner, which can now work via the single camera of an iPad, making it quicker and easier. Cheaper too — Cubitts’ bespoke frames start at around £750, compared with the four-figure sums that other bespoke brands fetch. Once measured up, a customer will have various appointments to choose the frame shape, style and colour (the iPad can also display every possible style on your head using augmented reality). Then a rough prototype will be 3D printed and tested for fit before the real thing is made by hand in Cubitts’ workshop, where sheets of acetate are cut, trimmed, heat-curved and polished before taking shape as pairs of glasses.
For Cubitts, connecting people with London’s history of glasses-making (the very first glasses were invented in Soho in 1727 when optician Edward Scarlet added a pair of arms to pince-nez lenses) is an engaging idea, but for other craft businesses, the question of where they work is almost as important as what they make.
110 miles north-east, Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is home to a revival in the artisan trades that gave it its name (100 years ago it employed 30,000 people and was the world’s largest jewellery-making hub), but simultaneously facing constant pressure from property developers to bring apartments, hotels and shopping complexes to the picturesque streets.
Heavily involved with the campaign to keep the Jewellery Quarter alive is Struthers, a husband-and-wife watchmaker comprising Craig (master watchmaker) and Rebecca Struthers (antiquarian horologist and Britain’s only Horology PhD). They specialise in restoration, rescuing pocket watches from the bullion trade and returning them to their former glory. Here, “modern” technology can mean the use of 20th-century lathes and wire erosion machines to cut precision parts, but working in conjunction with the surrounding silversmiths, metalworkers and jewellers in the Quarter has brought Struthers into contact with other helpful methods.
“We only make watches in precious metals,” explains Craig. “When we’re working up a new case, it would be very expensive to do in silver or gold. So we work with a jewellery company that uses 3-D printing for its castings — we can send in a two-dimensional idea and the case and it can print it off for us to test. That means we can roughly mock-up a watch case for size and design and a client can actually put it on their wrist and get a rough idea of how it’s going to work.
“Another example is with some of the silversmiths here. On vintage and antiquated wedding rings, the claws that hold the diamond in normally wear away, and usually the best-case scenario is that you’d make a whole new claw to refit the diamond. But in some cases you can use laser welding to repair it. And some of them have taken casting and laser welding to a whole new area, with very intricate detailed forms, making tiny dioramas — whole scenes a few centimetres across. If you were to put a traditional soldering flame on something that small, the whole thing would melt,” Craig explains.
“As a result, laser welding has become useful for us, too, in repairing watch mainsprings. They’re not made as much as they used to be, so some of the sizes are quite rare now and sometimes you might find the right height and thickness, but the length is too long. We reduce the length and then laser-weld the hooking back on the end so you’ve got the right size mainspring. Then you can shorten it and laser weld the steel back together at the end.”
The new at the service of the old; the computerised, automated and connected world meshing perfectly with that of feel and finish, expert judgement and inherited expertise. It’s reassuring to find such thriving craft businesses in modern Britain — and a timely reminder that often, the best way is neither the old ideas or the new school, but a careful balance of both.