Before we explore the processes behind the design and manufacturing of kitchen knives, it's worth explaining why we've chosen to focus on Robert Welch as a business and their Signature knife range in particular.
Robert Welch makes for a great case study because, despite the company's long-standing role as a leading British design house, their foray into kitchen knives was their first under their own brand name and it was the first knife range designed by the company for over 30 years. In fact, the time between the designing of the ubiquitous Kitchen Devils Professional range and the Signature range meant that the management of Robert Welch had long-since passed down a generation to Robert's children.
The company is also interesting for its approach to product development. Whilst they don't manufacture housewares themselves, preferring to source specialist manufacturers, and are best-known for the beautiful simplicity of their designs, they are deeply rooted in an engineering ethos that sees every aspect of the development process being assessed and re-assessed.
Let's now consider the design process. It might seem easy to design a range of products for a category like kitchen knives. After all, their design and construction has evolved incrementally over Centuries and just about every variation on the theme has been tried. But therein lies the problem - how do you create a truly distinctive and incrementally superior product in such a category?
For Robert Welch's son, Rupert, this meant getting back to the essentials of what makes a great kitchen knife. This comes down to haptics, ergonomics, aesthetics and, ultimately, performance. With this in mind, drawings and 3D models form the basis of the work undertaken by the design team. However, this is just a process and doesn't deal with the inspiration necessary for great design.
For this, the Company's breakthrough cam in their evaluation of the comparative merits of the two great World knife-making traditions, namely the Anglo-German tradition and the Japanese tradition. In each case, these are based on the respective culinary styles of the two regions, so European knives are centred on the rough dice method of chopping that requires long, weighty and well-balanced blades and Japanese knives are focused on precise slicing that favours lightweight, shorter fine-edged kitchen knives.
As a result, the Signature knives are very unusual in that they combine fine Japanese style edges and bolsterless design with greater heft and traditional European blade patterns. In fact, many of the actual blade patterns are almost in a heritage style, given that there is a Sheffield pattern carving knife that wouldn't look out-of-place on a Georgian-era table, a total of four cook's knives and a ham slicer.
The traditional touch continues into the blade steel, where Robert Welch decided against using steel from the Far East, where the knives are manufactured, and opted instead for 1.4116 grade steel from Germany. This is the same grade used by the top knife makers in Solingen and is a very rare find in a blade made in the Far East. Normally, this wouldn't be terribly durable with a fine edge, but the company enlisted the help of world-renowned CATRA, the Sheffield-based knife research institute. This resulted in a special taper-grind being introduced that allows the slightly softer German steel to retain its edge for longer.
The final piece of Robert Welch's development jigsaw was, very unusually, to seek out specialist kitchen knife retailers in the UK, such as our own Cooks & Kitchens, and inculcate their thoughts and recommendations into the design of the individual knives and the range as a whole.
This might seem like an awful lot of work for any company to undertake, but it's paid off for Robert Welch. Consider that they attempted to enter a saturated product category with decades of tradition and assumptions behind it. To be successful, they had to come up with something genuinely innovative, but recognisable, and by finding an effective marriage between two diverse knifemaking traditions, they created something with aesthetic appeal and outstanding performance.