Road Trip 2011: In a tiny village in central Switzerland, every single official Swiss Army Knife is made using time-honored techniques--and a lot of pride. CNET got a look behind the scenes.
IBACH, Switzerland--It's hard not to smile when you're in a large room filled with dozens and dozens of bins of the many individual parts that go into Swiss Army Knives.
As part of Road Trip 2011, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman got to visit the factory here in this small town in central Switzerland where Victorinox has been making the world-famous knives since 1891--even before it adopted that name.
Today, the company turns out millions of the knives a year, in about 350 different models. And all are made in Ibach.
Here, we see a bin of the tweezers that go in just about every one of those models.
This is one of the original models of Swiss Army Knife, from 1891. Made by the company's founder, Karl Elsener, it was a commission to the Swiss government to make knives for every one of the country's soldiers. Though it didn't have the now-famous logo, and Elsener's company wasn't yet called Victorinox--that would come years later, in honor of his mother, Victoria, and because of the French word "inox," which means stainless steel--the knife is recognizable as the predecessor of what nearly everyone has today. The Swiss government still purchases a knife for all its soldiers from the company, and there have been just eight different models since 1891 for the Swiss military, with the most recent being released in 2008.
Elsener wanted to make an official Swiss Army Knife for officers as well, and began producing them. But the Swiss government decided that officers would still have the soldier's knife they got when they joined the Army and decided not to give Elsener the contract. Still, the company produced officer's knives for years, and this is one from 1931.
This wheel feeds strips of aluminum into a stamping machine in order to make the dividers that go between the different tools in a Swiss Army Knife. The dividers are aluminum in order to save weight, but the tools are generally made from stainless steel.
With these five knives, you can see the long history of Swiss Army Knives played out. They include the original official soldier's knife from 1891 in the lower right; the latest model, from 2008, in the upper right; a previous model, from 1968, in the upper left; an officer's knife, from 1931, in the upper right; and a more recent version of one of the standard, red knives in the center.
CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman parked the Audi RS5 he is driving on Road Trip 2011 across the street from the Victorinox factory in Ibach, Switzerland, with two of the region's mountains in the background.
Here, a worker puts spindles of small standard Swiss Army Knife blades on a conveyor in order to put them through a furnace that will subject them to temperatures of 1,050 degrees Celsius in order to harden the stainless steel, making it possible for the blades to last for decades rather than begin to fall apart nearly immediately.
After being stamped, many of these Swiss Army Knife leather tools still have small pieces of metal that haven't fallen out. So the tools are put on a machine that shakes them violently, a process that ejects the small pieces.
After being stamped, the blades are still rough. So they are placed in these machines, along with artificial ceramic stones and some water, where they are polished for between five and eight hours, after which the tops of the blades come out smooth.
Here, we see a line of handles that are taken by workers and put, along with the body of a Swiss Army Knife, into a pressing machine. The handles are then pressed on to the body and out comes a completed knife--except for the tweezers, toothpick, and keyring.
Here, we see the boxes containing tweezers and toothpicks that two workers have set up in front of their stations. They will rapidly add the two pieces to the nearly-completed Swiss Army Knives coming their way.
Victorinox offers a valuable service to customers of its Swiss Army Knives: For a small fee, the company will replace almost any of the knives it has made over the years. This is one from 1931 whose main blade spring needed to be fixed.