Refurbished Cleavers: Remaking yesterday’s “American Made” for today.
“American made” and “built to last.” These words are more than just catchphrases when it comes to our collection of restored vintage cleavers. At New West KnifeWorks, we value the ancient tradition of knife-making even as we forge new paths of innovation. These vintage pieces were made during the “golden age of steel”, when raw steel was cheap and plentiful. Yet, many of these “diamonds in the rough” are forgotten in grandma’s garage or unappreciated in out of the way flea market stalls. So we don our Indiana Jones hats and hunt them down wherever they may be hidden. Then, they are sent to our Makers for restoration- to give them a new life in the 21st Century. The end result is a living piece of Americana that you can celebrate every day on your cutting board.
The process of restoration requires a combination of technical knowledge and an artful hand. We spent some time in the factory with one of our makers, Jonathan Wessel, so we could share the entire fascinating process with our readers. We were left with an overwhelming sense of pride in what American made meant in the past and what it continues to mean today.
The intricate process of restoration combines sleuthing, science, precision, and respect for the traditions of the past.
To begin, each cleaver is analyzed for how it was made. This particular cleaver is a Foster Bros cleaver that Jonathan dates from the late 1800s to early 1900s. The full-tang is a clue to that time period, as cleavers prior to the late 1800s used a stick-tang.
Foster Bros. Cleaver circa late 1800s - early 1900s.
Jonathan begins work on the cleaver by first sanding down the handle, then popping out the rivets to remove it from the tang.
Disassembly exposes the full tang.
With the handle off, the years of use are shown on the now revealed tang. A buffing wheel is used to remove the aging and rust from the tang.
Buffing the tang.
With the tang cleaned off, a notch was shown where the previous metal sleeve sat on the handle. Jonathan took the cleaver to the grinder to smooth the surface.
Sparks flying off the high carbon steel reveals more about the way this cleaver was made.
During the grinding process, sparks fly off the cleaver’s edge, but not the spine or the tang. This revealed to Jonathan that the cleaver was made with higher carbon steel on the edge of the tool. Using higher carbon steel for the portions of the blade that would be sharpened for use was a common practice, as it saved the cost of materials, without sacrificing the quality of the tool. While grinding this Foster Bros cleaver, the spark pattern suggested that these two metals were not forged together in the typical fashion, but that the higher carbon steel was sandwiched in between the lower carbon steel. At this point in the process, Jonathan said “should we get sciencey? Yeah, let’s get sciencey.” It seems that in a knife factory, when one has the opportunity to get sciencey, one takes it.
To unveil the way this cleaver was constructed, Jonathan brought out ferric chloride, a chemical that reacts more strongly to higher levels of carbon. The reaction causes a temporary discoloration of the steel, exposing the layers present.
The ferric chloride shows what Jonathan suspected during the grinding process. These two steels were not forged together in the typical way he has seen in other antique tools. This higher carbon steel was inserted into the body of the tool, with the body steel sandwiched around the blade steel.
In all the cleavers he’s restored, this was the first time Jonathan saw this method of construction. This process revealed the intended use for the tool, he explained. “This cleaver was made to be passed down for generations. And it was made to be serviced. Tools aren’t made this way anymore. This was made to be used, not just for a lifetime, but many lifetimes.”
Each time a blade is sharpened, a small portion of the material is lost. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, this would have been sharpened by stones, not the high-speed tools of today. By inserting the higher carbon steel on this tool, this blade could be sharpened all the way up to the middle of the body of the cleaver. That means with proper care, this tool could be used for another 200 years even in an industrial setting.
To put this cleaver back to work, a new handle was in order. Jonathan selected a piece of Ironwood from the New West KnifeWorks shop. Ironwood is one of the densest woods on earth. Durable, gorgeous, and perfectly befitting the craftsmanship of a 100+ year-old piece of steel.
With the handle material selected, preparation continues on the steel. The original handle was attached to the steel with two rivets and a metal sleeve. Jonathan affixes the new ironwood handle with industrial-strength epoxy and brass pins.
After cutting the handle, the pinholes are drilled out and the cleaver is ready for assembly. Industrial strength black epoxy is used to help hold the tool together, but also to seal up any gaps between the metal and the wood, ensuring a solid handle surface to stand up to use and washing.
After the handle is pressed on comes a delightful part of the process, and one of Jonathan’s favorites: “fit as many clamps on there as possible.” The epoxy used on this tool was a 24-hour epoxy, and tight clamping helps ensure the fit between the metal and the wood.
Once the epoxy sets, Jonathan will make certain that all the gaps have been filled before shaping the handle.
Finished assembly, ready for shaping.
To finish out the cleaver, the handle is hand-shaped on the belt sander. Jonathan uses a critical eye to attain the right shape, as well as a glass-smooth finish. The New West KnifeWorks shop has varying grits of sandpaper at the ready, and the handle comes along nicely. The excess material of the brass pins comes off on the sander too, so the final product is one perfectly smooth piece. As the handle takes its final shape on the sander, the grain and color variation in the Ironwood really begins to show.
With the handle properly shaped, and smooth as butter, the buffing wheel is used to shine up both the handle, and the blade.
Buffing the Handle.
Of course no cleaver or New West KnifeWorks product would be complete without a thorough sharpening. The blade is sharpened, then buffed to a high mirror shine.
The finishing touches for the cleaver include cleaning, oiling, and sanitizing. This particular cleaver gets a special artistic touch from Jonathan in order to honor the unique high carbon steel insert.
An etching of the high carbon steel with the ferric chloride is the final piece for this Foster Bros. cleaver restoration project. Both sides of the cleaver, as well as both edges, get etched to showcase this unique detail.
The final product is the perfect blend of rugged, antique-steel, and a perfectly smooth, Ironwood handle. It’s hefty enough to cut through most anything, and beautiful enough to proudly display on your kitchen wall. The edge etching showcases the craftsmanship with unique detail. Truly a conversation piece dedicated to the makers of the past, honored by the makers in our own shop. Jonathan was rightfully incredibly proud of the final piece. His pride showed throughout each step. Watching the cleaver come back to life we felt a similar pride in the value and importance of making products that are built to last. We loved being along for the journey of restoring this classic piece for modern use, and look forward to future cleaver restorations coming through the shop.