This past October I had the pleasure (along with my 11-year-old daughter) of visiting Solingen, Germany in order to take a tour of the Wusthof factory located there since 1814. (Well, not in the exact same place, of course.) Solingen is not only home base for Wusthof, but one of the knifemaking capitals of the world—nicknamed the “City of Blades.” What does that mean anyway? It means that a whole lot of master knifesmiths have been banging their hammers forging knives over the past 2,000 years in Solingen and vicinity. And although things have died down a bit, you still have the two biggest names in German knifemaking—Wusthof and Henckels—located in the very same town (along with a throng of smaller firms).
Although it would have been fun to compare and contrast, we only had time to tour one knife manufacturer—Wusthof. Those who follow KitchenKnifeGuru will be aware that I’ve been featuring Wusthof a bit this past year, so it was highly serendippitous this Germany trip popped into our lives.
Trains, Planes. . .no, Just Trains
Our German home base was Frankfurt, 215 kilometers (134 miles) southeast of Solingen. So it behooved us to take advantage of the speed and convenience of the German rail system—one of the finest in the world—to get there and back fast. I came fully equipped with a German rail pass which gave me five days of going anywhere in Deutchland my heart desired (plus, hypothetically, some cities in neighboring lands) in the period of 30 days. And my 11-year-old daughter could travel free! Sweeeeeet! Off we went. . .
Believe it or not, the train trip itself ended up being just about as exciting as the factory tour, so please forgive me if I indulge in some more travelogue. The Germain train system often offers several levels of trains you can take for any given trip. We took an ICE train—the fastest, most deluxe, clocking in at 178 mph—which got us to Solingen in 1 1/2 hours, including a quick stop in neighboring Cologne (or, as the Germans write, Koln). The ride was quiet and smooth, the seats comfy with plenty of leg room, and it felt like we were halfway into the future.
On the way there, we zoomed through a snow storm (remember, this was mid October). Quite dramatic. Makes you wonder what winters are like. . .
Not knowing the language—other than watching old WW2 movies as a kid, ha-ha—it was trickier than I thought taking a train trip in a foreign land—especially one with a quick connection (we missed it). This does not exclude the fact the Germans we met were helpful and could speak a little, to a lot of, English. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally saw that blue “Solingen Hbf” sign. (Hbf stands for “Hauptbahnhof” or “Main/Central Station” in German.)
Alexander, our Wusthof host, met us at the train in a white Audi station wagon (all those German cars, lucky ducks). As he drove us to the factory (factories, actually, about 10 minutes apart), he explained that although Wusthof generates millions of dollars/Euors in sales, distributes to countries all around the world, and produces roughly 2 million knives a year, it’s still a relatively small operation. (The opposite of Henckels, their major competitor, across town.) Wusthof is able to accomplish what they do through intensive automation and economizing in everything they do. They are also very green—later on we would learn that all the water used in the plants is processed and recycled. Impressive (especially if you saw how grungy some of the water gets).
Below, a shot of Alexander and myself before we enter the hallowed temple of Wusthof. (Alexander also happens to be head of marketing for Europe and Asia—you see what we mean by small?) This moment reminds me of my one, big disappointment. Wusthof requested that in order to protect their intellectual property, we not take any photos inside the factories. What? They had warned us in advance, thank goodness, back in the States before we left. But it was still hard not to mourn missing the chance to shoot a photo montage of KitchenKnifeGuru cavorting through the factory playfully engaged with whatever caught his eye. Uh-uh, not going to happen. Ah, well. . .
So what follows is not a detailed, step-by-step chronicle of the journey of a Wusthof knife from raw steel to packaged product. (There are over 40 steps for a forged knife.) It is more a whimsical overview, including things that stood out to us as significant, funny, or maybe even touching, on our knifemaking tour. And the pics are shots culled from promotion photos and video clips Alexander gave me on a flash drive in compensation for not being able to do my own shutter-clicking :)
Inside the Temple Wusthof
When we first stepped inside, guess who else was there to greet us? Mr. and Mrs. Wusthof themselves, the seventh generation descendants and owners!
. . .NOT! (Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist an excuse to show this snappy photo of them.) OK, seriously now. . .
Alexander explained the basic steel comes into the factory in two formats—on sheets and in rolls. (Yes, rolls! That’s what the guy below is doing his inventory check on—rolls of future knives.) The rolled steel is flattened and cut into knife-sized rectangular plates. Then both (sheets and plates) are laser-cut into rough, knife-shaped blanks.
As we ambled through the next phases of production, weaving through equipment and machinery canopied by a 20-ft ceiling, I became more and more aware of a low ratio of human bodies to the amount of industrial space. Where was everybody? Alexander cheerfully explained that there were over 100 robots working in this factory. These robots were not clunky, Tin-Man type of robots that could walk and talk and recite Shakespeare, but they were robots, nonetheless. All painted caution orange and bolted into place in their caged-in workstations. No heads or legs—basically large, one-armed torsos. But they could be programmed to do very sophisticated tasks.
In every cage there’s a robot. . .humbly working away.
Since the 1980s, Wusthof had gradually phased in automation in such a manner that they still had the same amount of workers (roughly 300)—but the worker’s duties had changed. Instead of humans doing the highly-skilled manual labor, robots were doing it—under human supervision. Wild.
And, boy, were many of our robot friends agile and precise. Swinging their single arms up and down and around into perfect position and pirouetting like super-charged modern dancers.
Turn on the Heat
A little further down the line came one of the most important, and fascinating, manufacturing processes in knifemaking—heat treatment. Alexander described how it’s a two-part process and similar to a person taking a sauna at a spa. First, the knife is quickly heated up to around 2,000 degrees. (The sauna.) Then, it’s shock-cooled—suddenly brought back down to room temperature. (A cold shower, or roll in the snow.) And, finally, it’s gently warmed up again in a 350-degree oven and removed to gradually cool down to normal. (A warm bath and chill out.)
Every quality knife (Wusthof or no) must be heat treated to make the steel harder and tougher. If you just do the first, super-hot oven and quick cooldown (called “quenching”), and not the second (called “anealing”), the steel will be hard but brittle. It will be prone to chip, crack, or even break under stress. So a high-quality knife definitely needs both.
Below: Look into the yellow-orange of the tempering oven (which runs about the size of a large panel truck). You can see silhouettes of knives that have just been loaded down into the hearth.
Fresh baked (er, tempered) steel, coming out!
Pull-back shot: To the right, the tempering oven; in the middle, (with a green frame) the conveyor belt that carries the blades to; left, the quenching station. (Note: The belt is tinted orange from time-lapse photography of the red-hot knives moving.)
Getting closer to quenching. . .
In the old days, the red-hot knives might have been simply, who knows, quenched in tubs of water—but today it’s much more sophisticated. Each knife-in-the-making gets loaded into its own small casket made of copper (an excellent conductor) that has ice-cold water circulating through it to keep it cold enough to quick-cool the metal.
Each copper casket rides on a large, green merry-go-round that quickly spins the knives around from the tempering station to the annealing oven for their final warm bath. Ahhhh.
Below: Future santoku knives after heat treatment resting up before they continue their journey.
The Daily Grind (and Polish)
Next, the blades got ground down and polished. They weren’t sharp enough to cut a cucumber yet—final sharpening was one of the very last steps.
The grinding/polishing station was quite a spectacle with three robots all whirling around grabbing knives, flipping them this way and that as they ground and polished at a steady, relentless pace. And, as Alexander informed us, our robot buddies were even programmed to take time out to recalibrate themselves. (No coffee breaks though.)
Handle with Care
“What? You don’t like the look of those handles? [See below.] Roger, the robot, and his pals will clean ‘em right up for you.” More high-speed flipping around of knives as a new gang of robots worked with more grinders and finishing wheels. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have sworn they were showing off.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of robotics, the machines get to sharpen the knives—using Wusthof’s proprietary PEtec sharpening system.
Final Check and Prep
At the end of the tour, Alexander gave us the obligatory chance to shop at the Wusthof outlet store on the premises. But, funny enough, it was a tenth of the size of the one in Norwalk, CT at the U.S. corporate headquarters. I guess he wasn’t just being complementary when he’d told us the U.S. was by far their largest single market. And I don’t think the German prices were as discounted either. Glad I wasn’t bargain hunting :)
After a full afternoon of viewing cutting edge (ha-ha) technology at work, we were ready for a change. So on the way back to Frankfurt, at the recommendation of a train ticket clerk when we first booked the trip, we stopped off in Cologne to see the cathedral. The clerk had mentioned it was just a hop and a skip from the train station. Gee, do you think so? (Below, a shot from inside the train station.)
You haven’t lived until you’ve had the chance to breath the air inside a European cathedral (IMHO).
This beauty was started in 1248, halted in 1473, restarted in the 19th century, and not officially finished until 1880. It’s the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe.
Time for hot cocoa and some doodling. . .
Thanks for coming along!