Will Ferraby is the founder and world class craftsman behind Ferraby Knives, I caught up with him to talk about his early interest in knives, how he started the business and what the future holds.
What’s your background, what kind of kid were you?
Quite sporty, always enjoyed running and football. I was probably quite cheeky.
Were you particularly entrepreneurial?
God no, I’m not particularly entrepreneurial now (laughs). I was bored a lot of the time in school, I didn’t have that much interest in a lot of the stuff. I used to spend a lot of time designing knives in my book. This was before high school, I made my first knife when I was nine. My father and grand-father were both inventors and makers so I had a lot of support. My family actually started making knives professionally in 1860, though I have only recently found that out. Mostly it was me though, It wasn’t really something that was suggested to me. I’ve just always been fantastically passionate about knives. And still am. Its not grown, its still exactly the same as I when I was nine.
“I made my first knife when I was nine.”
Tell me about that first knife.
Oh it was made out of a bit of mild steel from my dad’s workshop, I would make them out of all sorts. Bits of old fence, a pair of shears. Any old bits and bobs I could get my hands on to practice on. I would sit there on the bench grinder in the dark with the sparks flying off, the hum of the grinder. I always found it very therapeutic.
So how did you get started as a business?
I trained in environmental conservation, and I used to work as a wildlife surveyor and an environmental educator so I used to do a lot of woodland skills and survival skills. I’d been doing that for a while but I found that my personality type didn’t really suit working for someone else or being on a computer too much. I longed just to have a workshop because that’s where I’ve always felt at home. I didn’t really know I could make world class knives at that stage but I quit my job and I thought ‘I’m going to make myself a couple of knives’ because I needed them anyway and then I just went for it.
I remember thinking, I haven’t necessarily got the skills, but not a single part of me doubted that I could make the best knives in the world. I just knew it would take a few years to practice. I was exceptionally poor for a long time, I worked ridiculously hard. The way I learned mostly was trial and error, working 16 hour days down in the workshop until I couldn’t stand or see anymore. That was for about three years, it was very very hard work.
“I found that my personality type didn’t really suit working for someone else or being on a computer too much.”
To get setup I spent a very small amount of money and did everything on the cheap, and tried to make up for lack of experience with effort. Therefore built up the experience. There is really only one way to be good at something. I am an exceptionally good knife maker today just because I spent so many hours doing it. I would not want to do it again because most of it was not enjoyable, it was massively frustrating and it was mentally hard work as well. Every knife I would have to redo about twelve times to get a zero grind on it. No one else really does a zero grind. All my grey hairs are owed to that era.
It was so difficult to find a workshop, its even worse now. It was a mate of a mate who knew of a place near his studio and it was a derelict knife factory, with one other person in there. It was a little rabbit warren. So I got it for a very cheap rent because there was a massive hole in the roof. I’m still there. Just about fixed the hole.
I was spending so much time making them that I had no time to go out and sell them. I think the key to selling is to invest in getting your product out there, spend money on a good camera and get your photos out there. I’ve realised now looking back that I am a perfectionist and there is nothing actually positive about being a perfectionist at all.
Can you remember the first knife you sold?
I can’t really remember, the ones that stand out are the ones I sold to friends or friends of friends because I think of them every time I see them. One of the best things about those early sales is I got such wonderful feedback from them. People were just so kind and wrote me really long reviews, like a two page review about all the things they liked about it. And that really buoyed me up, I was really happy with that.
What set your knives apart from others?
I guess, the basic thing is the sharpness. My knives are in a different world of sharpness to knives you can buy anywhere else. So I’ll spend a while getting the shape right and just getting that edge sharpened, I work it on the stone for a while and then I polish the edge. You can’t get any sharper, but it does take a while to do and a lot of skill. Handle materials I think are very important. Also the fact that every one is different and they are all works of art.
I spend at least 45 minutes sitting with each knife designing the materials and how they fit together. I have various boxes of different components, most of which I make myself by bending metal and setting things in resin. I’ll set those in a little pile and I’ll try and work out what will go well together. I literally just stand there looking at it for a while, working out whether it feels right. If I’m happy with that I’ll finish it off. I don’t think anyone else would spend that much time doing it.
“Sometimes I will only need to sell 10 knives in a month, so I only need to reach 10 people.”
How did you manage to get the name out about your knives?
Lord knows. We’re living in the internet age now and basically the reason my knives are doing so well at the moment is that people get so excited about a sale. People seem to really enjoy trying to get hold of one. It’s very difficult to get one so when people have managed to buy one they are extremely pleased with themselves. The fact that you can’t just buy one adds to it.
Initially when I was trying to make knives I was trying to make them as good as the best production knives. In some ways I was inhibited by that. Once I broke out of that I realised that the knives I wanted to make were art knives and they weren’t inhibited by anything. Most of them will be the only one that has ever existed and I won’t repeat them.
You’re on social media, has that been a fruitful way of getting the word out for your business?
I don’t know about Instagram, its all just a bit of pain in the arse isn’t it. Because I spend so long working, its my evenings where I have to do things like that and it just takes up so much time.
Sometimes I will only need to sell 10 knives in a month, so I only need to reach 10 people.
Social media has been great though, a lot of people like to interact and chat about different things, asking me questions and that’s quite nice. Though it does take up a lot of time it is something I enjoy. I don’t think any business nowadays could exist outside of the internet. I know most of the traditional Sheffield knife makers, and there is a good reason they’ve all gone down because the ones that are left still don’t have websites. They rely on doing things in the traditional way and you can’t do that anymore.
“I’m not keen on producing lots of knives, I want the steel to last as long as it can.”
You recently bought one of the last stockpiles of Sheffield Steel.
Yes, its stopped being made now. I think four or five years ago it stopped being made so I bought loads of it. But its not going to last long. After that I’ve no idea what I’ll do. I haven’t got a plan (laughs). I’m not keen on producing lots of knives, I want the steel to last as long as it can.
Do you work alone?
I have an assistant, part of the reason is to pass the skills on. Business wise it is much more efficient to have two people working on it, my assistant can help with the less skilled stuff and I can direct and train. It does take a long time to train up but I’m always looking a long way into the future, I’m a long term planner. I just really enjoy working with someone else in the workshop, it can be quite lonely otherwise. My assistant is fantastic, she is a professional jeweller by trade and she does that part time. She, as an artist, is someone I can bounce ideas off and have a good laugh while we’re doing it so its wonderful. I wish I’d had one earlier.
I think its really important to give people a chance, and its good for me to delegate too otherwise I can get too bogged down in my own perfectionism. It has helped me to let certain things go a bit. Its more than twice as good working with someone else, definitely more fun.
How did you know they were right for the business?
I already knew her, she is the best life model in Sheffield. I’m a very keen life drawer and she’s been doing that for about five years, I’ve known her for about 4 years so we’d already clicked. I just sent her a message to see if she knew of another jeweller who would be interested and she said “yes, Me!”.
“I’m just designing a folding knife at the moment and I think I should be able to get that done in under a year”
What is the future for Ferraby Knives?
Effectively I am designer/maker. A little bit like my Dad and my Grandad, I am a bit of an inventor. I’ve always got quite a lot of side projects on. I’m just designing a folding knife at the moment and I think I should be able to get that done in under a year. I’ll work it out so that I can do a run of about a hundred. The thing about a folding knife is its all about getting the mechanism to work perfectly. So thats quite exciting.
There’s always other types of knife but I’ve got quite a strong love for outdoor stuff still. I still dabble with wood carving in the summertime. I’ll carry on pushing it with the kitchen knives, trying new things.
“I would love to give some advice and help out with other people starting their careers”
What is your biggest regret?
I didn’t have any support at all and I would have liked Sheffield to have somehow supported me more. Even a little recognition now would be nice. There isn’t any kind of help or support for people like me in Sheffield.
I’d like to see more knife makers starting out, I’d love to have some competition, that would make me very happy. I’d love to bounce ideas off other knife makers more. There are a couple but I’d like to see some young people getting into it. I’d like to see them properly supported and given help by Sheffield. It is very difficult to do it and unless you’re an obsessed nutcase you don’t stand a very good chance.
I would love to give some advice and help out with other people starting their careers, that would make me very happy. Sheffield doesn’t really seem to be investing at all. It is very hard for businesses in the North. Yes there are things like business loans but a loan isn’t what you need most of the time. What’s really useful is really good business advice. I’m talking about up to date advice, for things like how to use social media in a way that isn’t ten years out of date.