Although flatware appears to be uncomplicated, visits to several renowned factories made me appreciate the complexity of production methods requiring costly tools and complex dies necessary to mass-produce good quality flatware.
Sterling silver flatware began as artisan production. Although they are few, artisan makers of sterling flatware still work globally. Production begins by hammering an ingot of sterling silver or hand-cutting sterling silver sheet stock. Hammering an ingot of sterling makes metal denser than sheet stock —so the end product is more costly.
Heavy metal dies, some centuries old, are used to strike uniform and articulate patterns in handles and the purity of the metal, date, hallmarks of the maker and even the place of origin are inscribed on each piece.
The mass-production of flatware is global. However, elaborate, costly tools and dies necessary to mass-produce flatware, coupled with the increased cost of labor and of some metals, has forced the closing of established flatware factories in many countries.
Stainless steel is today’s most popular flatware metal, followed by silverplate (electroplated silver over a base metal). Diverse styling is available for traditional or contemporary taste in all metals. Economies of scale make costly technology affordable—relative to the price of the raw material.
Every good quality flatware manufacturer has sequential variations of the following photographs that illustrate some of the production procedures for making stainless steel flatware.
After designs are worked on paper, prototypes of each pattern are created to assess the beauty of the design and to perfect the function and balance of each piece—prior to assigning the pattern to a master die cutter.
In order to assure ‘perfect’ steel production dies that will press articulate pattern details on both the front and back of every piece of flatware, some manufacturers first make resin models for every piece of every pattern.
Flat stock: Outline/Die struck:
Blanks are grade-rolled and cross-rolled to create variations of ‘thick and thin’ for strength and balance as required. Profiles reflect this production principle of quality.
Ungraded flatware will bend with use.
This graded fork—is impossible to bend with use.
From teaspoons to soup spoons to serving spoons, the bowl of a spoon carries both liquids and solid food so it must be sufficiently deep, have a comfortable, controllable handle and no sharp edges to scrape against one’s mouth.
Handles for two-piece knives are made as two-halves, enabling each half to receive a die-struck clean, sharp design. Seams must be invisible so they’re polished away after the two-halves are soldered together. Called hollow, the soldered handles are filled with lead to secure the inserted tang of the blade into the handle—and fused with heat for permanency.
The job of a knife is to cut: how well it cuts depends upon the blade. The solid handle and blade of one-piece knives are made of one durable stainless alloy —but does not hold a sharp cutting edge.
Stainless steel blades are used for all two-piece knives, including sterling and silverplate. Stainless steel two-piece knives are made with one grade of an austenitic (iron-chromium-nickel) stainless steel alloy for the handle and a different grade of austenitic stainless steel for the blade (see blade insertion photo). This certainly cuts better than a one piece knife but austenitic steel blades cannot hold a sharp edge; they cannot be hardened by heat treatment. This is the reason many flatware manufacturers use serrated blades.
Master chefs claim serrated blades rip—rather than cut meat:
nevertheless, many of us use flatware with serrated knives.
Martensitic steel (18/10 alloy with high carbon content—no nickel), has superior edge retention because it can be hardened by heat treating. Martensitic blades do hold a sharp edge— but because of cost, they’re not used by many flatware manufacturers. Martensitic steel is commonly used for medical tools as scalpels, razors and internal clamps.
Exacting engineering procedures assure uniformity of the length of fork tines. Tine tips must be even, polished and not sharp. All edges and flat surfaces—especially edges and walls of each tine —must be smooth and polished.
Edges of every piece of flatware, especially between fork tines, are buffed and polished mechanically and finished by hand.
When you shop, compare similar patterns at different retail prices and be sure you can identify quality differences.
Pat Breen: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY
My next post:
FLATWARE SIZES: LUNCHEON – DINNER – PLACE – CONTINENTAL ?