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~ Introduction ~


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~ Wilkinson Sword & The Etched F-S Blade ~

Special Thanks To Robert Wilkinson-Latham For His Invaluable Assistance In Creating This Page

Wilkinson Sword’s long history in fine sword and edged weapon making is well documented and arguably for its time unsurpassed in the area of supplying the very best military swords and knives to sportsmen, officers and fighting men throughout the world.  One of the many characteristics that has helped to cement this enviable reputation was Wilkinson’s desire to proudly mark their blades with ornate and high quality acid etchings.  For many years this has been of great benefit and enjoyment to those who collect and research military swords.  Wilkinson, however, did not confine this highly-skilled and time-consuming addition to just their high quality swords, as many fine knives can also be found with their blades skillfully etched.

Throughout their long history of knife making we can find many fine examples of the etchers’ craft even when studying the Second World War Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.  During its production many F-S knives produced carried two acid etched panels (the F-S & W-S etchings).  Although exceptions have been recorded, these two etched panels were the mainstay on Wilkinson F-S Knives.  This by no means is the end of the story as aside from these two ‘standard’ etchings there were many others, some elaborate and unique and others variations on a theme.  This has given us a wide and fascinating variety of beautiful etchings to study and collect.  On this page we are going to look at the etching process and methods used, but also look closer at some of the differences and a small selection of unique etchings that have been discovered.  If your interest includes those knives with personal etchings then please cheek the dedicated area on this topic - The Etched F-S Fighting Knife Register.

Wilkinson’s long history of blade etching is never more evident when seen on one of their world famous swords.

Acid etching a blade, be it sword or knife, was a skilled and complex process that required patience, a steady hand and a sharp eye for quality.  It is quite astonishing when one contemplates the extra effort made by Wilkinson to etch their F-S Fighting Knives, especially with the shear quantity of knives and the war-time constraints placed upon them at that time.  Nevertheless, many Wilkinson F-S knives are indeed etched and the quality appears to have rarely faulted, a credit to the skilled men and women who played their part during a war-torn Britain.

A circa 1870 Wilkinson-Shakespear hunting knife with beautiful scrolled banner blade etching, a style of which would be revived during WWII for personal etching panels on F-S Fighting Knives.

~ The Etching Process ~


The process begins with warming the etching plate and the etcher had to make sure that the red beeswax mixture in the small metal saucepan was at the right consistency and temperature.  The beeswax mixture was spread on the plate with a pallet knife over the required design, ensuring complete coverage.  The plate area that had been 'waxed' was then scraped with a pallet knife to take any excess off the plate and ensure the wax was still firmly in the sunk design.  The plate was then carefully placed in the 'press’ and a thin ‘cigarette style’ paper  placed over the now waxed area. 

Original Wilkinson etching block for the F-S Fighting Knife.

A Wilkinson craftsman removing the waxed transfer paper from the press.

These transfers were then cut to be either a more manageable size or in the case of the F-S, the two designs (back and front) were cut to individual transfers.  As can be seen there are a number of each panels and if studied closely enough, minute differences can be seen.  These individual transfers were then placed on the blade in the correct place and rubbed over with a ‘bone’ so the wax design was stuck to the blade.  The transfer paper was then wetted and removed, leaving the wax design in place.

A board was then laid down over the etch plate.  The roller of the 'press'  was then moved to the bottom of the etch plate and tightened down evenly.  A lever was then operated to move the bed with etch plate through the rollers and then back.  The board was then removed and the transfers gently peeled off the plate.  The adjacent photograph shows a Wilkinson employee carefully peeling back the paper transfer after going through the press.

Any touching up was done by hand with a fine brush and anti-acid  'stopping'.  Stopping was also applied to all areas of the blade that were to remain 'bright' such as around the transfer, top of the blade and bottom of the tang.  The final process was to paint over the blade parts to be etched with nitric acid using a glass rod with cotton wool-soaked acid on one end.  Above right is a post-war photograph of a worker seen during this process working on commemorative F-S blades, note the rack to his left full of F-S blades!  Once the design had ‘bitten’ after being left a predetermined time, the blade was washed off in cold running water to neutralize any remaining acid.

A Wilkinson master etcher at work on F-S knife blades.

A waxed paper transfer showing F-S etching panels.

~ Standard & Non-Standard Etchings Explained ~


When studying the etchings on Wilkinson F-S knives we can normally place them into two groups:  ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ (or special order).  Standard etching are those panels that we see on most Wilkinson Sword F-S Knives.  Essentially we are talking about the two small etching panels placed on the ricasso of the blade, namely the ‘F-S’ etching and the ‘Wilkinson Sword’ (or W-S) etching.   ‘Non-standard’ etchings are those that were essentially a special order either by an individual who required a ‘unique’ etching to commemorate something very specific and personal to them (their own name, rank, number, etc) or by Wilkinson Sword (or some other organization or person) who produced a small number of specially-etched knives (for example the ‘Tom Beasley’ or ‘Masonic’ knives).  Whichever group we are looking at there are inevitably variations within that particular group.  This is and will always be a huge topic to cover so what follows is a modest study of both types of etchings and is by no means definitive.  I have tried to look at differences and variations in the ‘standard’ etched panels while also looking at a variety of ‘special order’ etchings.

~ The Standard F-S Etching ~


All three patterns of F-S knives normally can be found with etchings on both sides of the blade, although very rarely a knife does turn up with just one etching panel (or none at all).  This is seldom seen and likely no more than an oversight in most cases.  The image shown above is of an original etching transfer paper prior to the individual plates being cut up for application onto the blade.  As we can see there are three different etchings, the simplest being the plate that reads ‘THE F-S FIGHTING KNIFE’.  Although there are two versions of this shown, it appears that just the border is different; the details seem to change little.  In the image at right we can see this standard F-S etching panel clearly.  On this occasion it is applied to a First Pattern knife.

To complete the trio of war-time patterns here is the F-S etching on a Second Pattern (left) and Third Pattern (right).  Unlike the highly polished First Pattern Blade the Second Pattern (at left) is fully blued and has been etched prior to the bluing process.  This has resulted in a very subdued image of the etching details.  The Third Pattern (at right) has a polished blade (although now grey with age.  In comparison this knife has had the etching panel applied after the polishing process resulting in a much more visible rendition.  The latter being much more often encountered.

A Wilkinson First Pattern F-S showing the familiar etching.

A Wilkinson Second Pattern F-S.

A Wilkinson Third Pattern F-S.

~ The Standard Wilkinson Etching ~


Along with the ‘F-S’ etching most knives are found with Wilkinson’s own manufacture’s etching panel, but unlike the F-S it can be found in two distinct versions; ‘long’ and ‘short’.  The most often encountered Wilkinson etching is clearly the ‘short’ version.  This is the classic-crossed sword logo straddled by ‘WILKINSON SWORD Co Ltd LONDON’,.  The images at left show both types before and after application.

The paper etching transfers (left) with the finished etchings finally applied to the blade (right).

The ‘long’ version of the Wilkinson logo etching is almost identical to the previously mentioned ‘short’ example in that it still retains the traditional and now well-known ‘crossed-swords’ along with the company name.  However on this occasion the foliate design that is seen both top and bottom is now ever so slightly more elaborate and more elongated, hence causing the whole etching panel to appear longer.  This ‘long’ version of the W-S etching is not found on First Pattern knives but has been seen on both Second and Third Patterns.

~ Special Order Etchings ~


For the most part the etched scrolls only contained a few brief personal details, sometimes no more than the owner’s initials but on occasion a knife turns up with a treasure trove of information, i.e. ‘name, rank, number’ and on rare occasion even more.  As we know from the 1943 memo there was an internal issue with some etching orders and it appears that some members of staff were perhaps a little too keen in their desire to accommodate customers wishes.

The amount of information required to be etched was somewhat limited by the size and style of the scroll used.  This sometimes presented challenges as this internal memorandum attests to.  Dated March 11th, 1943 from the Works Director, John Wilkinson-Latham (JWL), and addressed to ‘manager and staff Pall Mall’ it goes on to say:

Non-standard etchings can fall into two sub-categories.  The first being those knives with unique etched panels, ‘one offs’ if you will.  These were knives privately ordered by individuals and for whatever reason had a personal etching panel most commonly seen within a ‘scroll’.  This was an option offered by Wilkinson when visiting their showroom at 53a Pall Mall, London.  If time allowed, this service was offered to anyone visiting to privately purchase or pick up an officially issued knife (via the ‘chit’ system).  The cost for this ‘personal’ etching was 1/6 (one shilling and six pence, around $7.60 or £4.75 in today’s currency).  It was possible to specify some details to be etched onto the blade.  Not all of these ‘scrolled banners’ are identical as a few different versions have been noted. 

“Please ensure that when taking etching orders for F.S knives that the wording fits the attached scroll panels. 

Recent incidents of over long wording has forced the works to return the order uncompleted.”

This etching is a lovely example of a standard scroll, this time on a Second Pattern all-nickel (Type 1) knife and reads ‘W.A. de GRAVES’. 

For a comparison on banner styles, another superb example on a similar knife is show at left.  Look closely and you can see a much more elaborate foliate design to the extremities of the banner, on this occasion the details are ‘F. PRATTEN’.  We know that Lieutenant F.R. Pratten served in the 2nd Canadian Tank Brigade, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.

The contents of this personal etching is certainly too much for a normal banner and reads ‘ADRIAN A. JONES, GORGON PENNSYLVANIA.’.  When this knife was first discovered, I wondered if this was an as of yet unrecorded etching banner but with closer examination and after discussing this with Robert Wilkinson-Latham, it  is clear that this panel was created by hand and is unique to this knife.  Perhaps it was time-consuming ‘one-off’ etching like this one that prompted the above memo?

~ The ‘Masonic’ Second Pattern F-S Etching ~


The second category of ‘special order’ etching is made up of the knives that were not unique ‘one-off’ designs, but made in small quantities for a specific purpose or special order.  A good example of this is a two dozen batch of knives ordered by W.E. Fairbairn for him to give as gifts.  These used the much larger than usual etching which was known in house as the ‘Masonic’ etching. 

The original invoice (left) for two dozen special order F-S knives for Fairbairn dated 21st May 1942 - ‘Blade etched full trade mark 2nd warrant as Masonic blades one side only” (right).

It is known that Wilkinson did keep knives on hand as gifts or for presentation purposes to VIP’s.  Interestingly, Wilkinson Sword were also presenting ‘Flak Jackets’ to the flight officers.  Not only were Wilkinson Sword manufacturers of these lifesaving devices but few now remember their pioneering work in this field!  Note the F-S knife in Colonel Growe’s left hand.  It is not known how many of the Masonic F-S were made but it is believed that the likely number would be no more than a few hundred.

This photograph shows Tom Beasley (left) Wilkinson’s ‘Master’ Sword-smith.  He is seen here presenting F-S knives to US officers, in this case a Third Pattern to Colonel Growe c1944.

~ The Tom Beasley Knives ~


Another example of a small order with specialty-etched blades was the so-called ‘Tom Beasley’ knife.  Of early post WWII production these are interesting examples and worthy of mention here.  These knives were produced in 1946 and 1947 and were specifically made to help promote Wilkinson’s ‘Empire Razor’ campaign.  Intended to be very eye catching, their grip was made of ivorine (a faux ivory) and the blade elaborately etched on both sides.  Complete with gilt fitting and a special sheath they certainly fit the bill. 

Master sword-smith Tom Beasley at his forge.

There appears to be three versions of this knife.  The first two differ only in the differences seen to banner  side of the etched blade, the earlier ‘three’ banner (first issue) and the later two banner (second issue).  The latter can also be found with a standard Second Pattern grip giving us the third versions.  The side of the blade that remains consistent carries a large version of the Wilkinson trademark and also a small panel which reads ‘COMMANDO FIGHTING KNIFE WORLD WAR 1939 - 1945’.

The other side had either two or three banners.  The original ‘first issue’ knife was a three-banner knife which read ‘HAND FORGED BY TOM BEASLEY’ (first banner), ‘THE FAMOUS SWORD SMITH’ (second banner), ‘OF STALINGRAD SWORD FAME’ (third banner).  However due to the deteriorating relationship between the West and the U.S.S.R. (which would eventually lead to the Cold War) and with anti-Communist feeling growing within the US and UK, it was decided to recall knives from window displays and re-blade them with just the first two banners, dropping any reference to Stalingrad and by association, the U.S.S.R.  This new two-banner knife was the second issue (1948-49).

A Wilkinson-Tom Beasley F-S complete with correct sheath.

The etching etching panels for the Tom Beasley F-S - note the original three banner etching.

It appears that the idea was not lost on Wilkinson who went on to produced a similar knife for the same purpose but unlike the original Type I of Fairbairn’s knives, decided to use the more standard (for that time) Type III.  The reference to the ‘Full Trade Mark and Warrant as Masonic Blades’ is related to pre-war Masonic swords and daggers that were etched in this way, hence this style of etching and by association this Second Pattern F-S being referred to as ‘Masonic’.

The Etched F-S Blade

A rare Wilkinson Flack-Jacket, along with F-S Fighting Knives these were given out as gifts to visiting VIPs.  It is a little known fact that Wilkinson pioneered bullet proof jackets as far back as WWI.  Courtesy of Trench Rat Militaria.

The F-S Personal Etching RegisterThe_Wilkinson_F-S_Knife_Personal_Etching_Register.html
The Broad ArrowThe_Broad_Arrow_Including_Ministry_Of_Supply_Markings.html
The Very Last Wilkinson F-S KnifeThe_Last_Wilkinson_Fairbairn-Sykes_Fighting_Knife.html
Variations Of The F-S KnifeVariations_Of_The_Fairbairn-Sykes_Fighting_Knife.html
The Wilkinson First Pattern F-SThe_Wilkinson_First_Pattern_Fairbairn-Sykes_Fighting_Knife.html
The Wilkinson Second Pattern F-SThe_Wilkinson_Second_Pattern_Fairbairn-Sykes_Fighting_Knife.html
The Wilkinson Third Pattern F-SThe_Wilkinson_Third_Pattern_Fairbairn-Sykes_Fighting_Knife.html

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