Given our obsession with knife steel here at Knife Informer you can imagine our delight when the opportunity came to interview Bob Shabala, President of Niagara Specialty Metals (NSM). New York based NSM has been hot rolling sheet for the knife industry now for decades. If your knife blade was made from a CPM alloy or 154-CM the chances are it was from steel rolled and distributed by the team at NSM. Here’s what we learned…
Tell us a bit about Niagara Specialty Metals and how the company has evolved over the years.
The company was founded in 1982 by Barry Hemphill and Lou Valery. The primary market at that time was tool steel for industrial applications. Over the years we have evolved to handle more difficult alloys for the aerospace, nuclear, food processing and electronics industries. Crucible Service Centers were an early customer. We hot rolled their CPM steel and other alloys into sheet and plate and then shipped it to their warehouses or direct to their customers. Conversion processing for them and other mills has been a large part of our business ever since the company started.
When Crucible reorganized in 2009 we became licensed to buy CPM steel and sell to end users and distributors. It was then that we became more widely known to the knife community. Another unique fact about NSM is that we are 100% employee owned. In 2004 Barry Hemphill, then the sole owner of the company, essentially gave the company to the employees. The employees are vital to our success. They are the ones who come up with the ideas for improving processes and even finding new customers. They all have a stake in the success of the company and it shows through their efforts.
Give us a sense of the scale of your Akron facility and what type of machinery you have on site.
We currently have 110,000 square feet of production and storage. Our rolling mill has a cogging stand that is used to hot roll the slabs into plates down to about .5” thick. Sheet gets two separate rollings where we first roll the slabs to an intermediate thickness of about .5” and then cut it into smaller pieces called blanks. We have two finish stands to roll the blanks into sheet.
We have extensive cutting capabilities with several shears, bandsaws, waterjets and a laser. For machining we have a large Timesaver belt grinder and a smaller surface grinder. The Timesaver has two heads and each one uses a 63” x 103” grinding belt. We utilize several hydraulic roller levelers to flatten and even out the stress in our sheets. We have 12 electric annealing furnaces on line. The furnaces all have inside chambers that are about 24 inches tall by 30-72 inches wide and 150 to 180 inches long.
Could you share an overview of the end-to-end process of transforming the billets into finished sheets ready for knife making? What sort of temperatures are involved and how long does the process take?
We cut the slabs into a size that will maximize the yield and safety for handling on the mills. The slabs can weigh anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 pounds and the blocks are normally 200 to 300 pounds. They are cogged at 2,050F to .5 inches thick and cut into blanks for rolling on the sheet mill (a typical blank is .5”t x 27”w x 24”l). They are then annealed and shotblasted to clean the surface of the blank.
Finish rolling temperatures depend on the alloy and they range from 1,400 to 1,900F. After finish rolling the sheets are annealed again. All of our cutlery steels are given a full anneal which means they are slow cooled from the annealing temperature to approximately 300F. The annealing process takes 3 to 6 days depending on the size of the load. They are finish flattened and cut to size after annealing. The next step is sandblasting or belt grinding. They will be re-flattened if needed and packaged for shipping. The total time from when we receive an order to when it ships ranges from 5 to 7 weeks depending on the work in process throughout the plant.
Here’s a short video of the NSM team hot rolling CPM-S35VN…it all happens very fast!
Is everything processed here in the USA or do you work with any overseas partners?
All of the steel we buy for the cutlery industry is melted and manufactured in the USA. All of the above mentioned processes take place in our plant in Akron NY once we take ownership of the steel. About 90 percent of our cutlery business is full sheets or sheared strips. The other 10 percent are knife blanks we waterjet cut for our customers.
Which mills do you work with as your main suppliers of the raw billets?
Crucible Industries, Universal Stainless and Carpenter Technologies.
Give us an idea of some of your top customers. Are they all US based or do you supply overseas too?
We sell to almost all of the major and mid tech manufacturers in the USA. In no particular order the domestic customers are Benchmade, ZT, Spyderco, Leatherman, Ka-Bar, Gerber, Chris Reeves Knives, Rick Hinderer… We also ship steel overseas to Boker, Kizer and a distributor in Asia.
Tell us about the steel grades you are currently working with the most. Which of these are the most popular these days and where do you see trends shifting in the future?
The biggest volume knife steels we sell are 154-CM, 440-C, CPM S30-V and CPM S35-VN. The 440-C we buy is ESR melted which further improves the quality of the steel. The two trends we notice are either high wear resistance or high toughness. CPM S90-V, CPM S110-V and CPM 20CV are becoming more popular for wear resistant applications and CPM 3-V for the toughness applications.
What drives the price up or down for a particular steel grade?
The cost of the slab and the expected yield are the two biggest drivers of price. Alloy content and difficulty in making the slabs have the biggest influence on slab prices. A 25% difference in yield has a dramatic impact on the final price. We may only yield 50% from a grade like CPM S110-V in .125” thick sheet where we would normally expect 75% from other grades.
Are you able to provide customized orders for knifemakers who are looking for specific grades or sizes?
We typically have to roll the product of a small block to produce a custom thickness. We can do this but the customer needs to buy the product of this small block which is usually 120 to 150 pounds. We can cut any width or shape from our inventory. Customers can call for pricing on special widths or provide a DFX file for a quote on knife blanks. We also have several distributors which you can find on our website at www.nsm-ny.com on the authorized distributors page. They carry a large inventory of material for immediate delivery and often a better price that we offer since they buy such large volumes.
Really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us, Bob. All the best for you and the team at NSM…
Images and video courtesy of Matthew Gregory.