W.R. Case and Sons celebrates 125 years of making knives

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Mike DuBois designed and built a special, 15-inch version of the Case Trapper knife for the 125th anniversary of the brand.

Mr. DuBois, 60, of Foster, McKean County, has been with the company for 40 years, designing knives and traveling to shows where he polishes and repairs the knives for collectors.

On Wednesday, he took the knife he built — an oversized copy of the 4⅛-inch Trapper knife the company sells — and set it in a permanent exhibit in the Zippo/​Case Museum in Bradford, McKean County, the home of both Case knives and Zippo lighters.

The placing of the knife was attended by the company’s owner, the CEO and employees with more than 25 years of service with Case.

But the bigger hoopla, which included about 2,000 of the brand’s 19,000 collectors, was held July 18 and 19 with the sale of special anniversary knives.

It’s an anniversary that might never have happened if Zippo Manufacturing Co., which makes both Case knives and Zippo lighters, had not had a commitment to the town of Bradford.

The company is owned by George Duke, the 60-year-old grandson of George Blaisdell, who invented the Zippo windproof lighter in 1932.

Mr. Blaisdell wasn’t just some inventor with a workshop over an auto garage; he was also a marketing genius. He named the lighter Zippo because he liked the way it sounded, and he gave free lighters to bus drivers because he knew they would travel the country with them.

But World War II was the company’s breakout moment. The lighter became an icon during the war when the production was turned to equipping GIs with lighters. When those men returned home, they saved the lighter they had carried and went out and bought new ones.

For the first 61 years of the Zippo company, Case knives were manufactured less than two miles away by another company.

The knife company was started in 1889 by John Russell Case, who named the company W.R. Case and Sons, after his father, William Russell Case.

Case also became an iconic brand that turned its production to the war effort during World War II. It later provided knives for the Moon launches.

The Case family sold the company in 1972 to American Brands, which made MasterLocks and Titleist golf clubs. The company, and the quality of the knives, struggled.

By 1993, the company had gone through two strikes and workers had been laid off once. Zippo stepped in and bought both the brand and the neighboring factory.

If the company had been owned by a family other than the Blaisdells, neither lighters nor knives would be made in Bradford anymore.

Mr. Duke has been working for Zippo since 1977. Now the sole owner of the company, he said he was approached over and over again through the 1980s to move his manufacturing plant to Asia.

Asian manufacturers tried to entice him, offering him low costs for labor and materials and the promise that profits would soar.

Back then the Zippo company was owned by both of Mr. Blaisdell’s daughters and their children. The family agreed not to move the company.

There were good reasons, Mr. Duke said. “First, you’re turning your back on the community that embraced you.”

And then there are the brand considerations.

“I strongly believe for a brand that is strong, to ever make a move like that, the brand will suffer,” Mr. Duke said. “The artisans, our employees, are from Bradford. They are the people who build our products and they know how to build them very well.”

Gregory Booth, company CEO, agrees and said Americans are realizing that, “When we go looking for a better price, it comes at a price.”

That price, he explained, includes the loss of American jobs and lower-quality products.

In Bradford, Case employs 300 people. Zippo has a staff of 625 in Bradford with another 40 people in Europe and 16 in China.

The town itself was built because of an oil boom and quickly grew to about 20,000. Now, with Zippo Manufacturing, the largest employer, the town is still home to the Bradford campus of the University of Pittsburgh and the population is just above 8,000.

Zippo’s lighters and Case knives bring in combined revenues of $250 million a year. While they are both made in Bradford, they have very different distribution systems.

Zippo lighters are sold in 160 countries. As smoking rates have fallen in the U.S., sales have expanded overseas.

Case, on the other hand, is almost exclusively sold in the U.S. and only through approved distributors, not from Case directly.

The 1 million Case knives produced every year are still built, shaped, buffed and sharpened by hand. The steel is from West Chester, Ohio-based AK Steel.

The workers shape the finished knives using grinders and sharpen them on sanding belts that spin at 1,700 revolutions per minute. That sharpening is all done by a worker who holds a knife at a precise angle against the sanding belt and then holds that exact same angle to buff out any burrs on the edges. And it is all done without a guide.

The handles, too, are ground into shape and polished so smooth that the nail that holds the knife together is invisible.

When Mr. Duke called the workers artisans, it wasn’t just lip service.

Robin Walker, 60, of Lafayette, McKean County, who engraves and etches blades, has been building knives for Case for 41 years. (She has been married for 40 years, which she said caused a friend to note, “You’re no quitter.”)

With 125 years behind it, the company is in the middle of a $10 million renovation of the Case factory to increase the efficiency where three shifts of workers a day turn out more than a million knives every year.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.

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