On Monday, Anna and I visited the Robert Sorby workshop to meet with the managing director and learn more about what goes on in their factory.
Since the first site visit I have been interested in this workshop as it is one of the few spaces around Little London Road where what might be termed as conventional ‘making’ takes place. Although the workshop appears pretty unassuming and unwelcoming (barbed wire, lack of windows etc.) from the outside, I was intrigued by the fact that beautiful handmade wood turning tools which are sold all over the world are produced here.
We were introduced to a few employees of the company, one of whom (John, pictured above), has worked there since the age of 15. It was hard to count the number of people employed there but I would estimate there were about 20 on the shop floor itself (and all were men). Philip Proctor, the managing director, said that everyone who worked there lived in Sheffield, and about one third actually walk to work.
Philip also spoke to us about how they struggle to attract and keep apprentices. He believed this was down to the attitude that many people have towards work, and recounted a few stories of apprentices who had failed to turn up to interviews, or walked out of the workshop halfway through a shift with no explanation. In his view, this is because many of these people came from families where they were the 3rd generation not working, and although they try to ‘break the mould’ by earning a living, the pressures of their family ultimately lead them to return to not working. Also, he suggested another reason that few young people are attracted to this type of work is that they are so reliant on computers, they lack many of the skills and knowledge needed to work with their hands, or do not see it as a job one would aspire to do.
Philip demonstrated some of the processes that they use to make the tools, such as the hand polishing of each handle and different CNC machines which shape the metal elements. He explained that many of the tools produced by Robert Sorby were designed and prototyped by himself and others at the factory. He also showed us a new tool that was being developed, explaining each element of the tool and why it was important (it was interesting to note that a few of these elements were purely used to improve the aesthetic quality).
As we were leaving, we asked a few final questions about the building. Despite the barbed wire and high wall, Philip said there had only been one break in in about 30 years, and even this was most likely a target break in. He also said that he believed the building was formerly a coach or bus garage, as there had been a diesel tank in one of the outbuildings when they moved in.