At Victorinox, making Swiss Army Knives (photos)

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.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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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.

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The original

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.

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At the base of the main blade of this original soldier's Swiss Army Knife, you can see that prior to being named Victorinox, Karl Elsener's company took his family name.

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Officer's knife

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.

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Box of Handyman knives

At the Victorinox factory in Ibach, a box of finished Handyman model Swiss Army Knives await being moved off the floor.

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Rake for blades

As blades for various models of Victorinox knives come off a stamping machine, they can be pulled from a bin using this rake so that workers don't cut their hands.

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Aluminum feeder wheel

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.

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Stamping tools

Stamping tools are used to make the more than 800 individual items that can go into a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife.

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History of Swiss Army Knives

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.

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In the stock room, there are dozens of bins of parts for Swiss Army Knives. This is a bin of keyrings.

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RS5 at Victorinox

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.

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Feeding sheets into the stamping machine

A worker at the Victorinox factory feeds sheets of stainless steel into a stamping machine in order to make knife blades.

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Small blades into the fire

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.

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Shaking out leather tool

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.

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Smoothing rough blades

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.

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A look at a bin of Swiss Army Knife corkscrews.

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Here we see a bin of Swiss Army Knife toothpicks.

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Row of half-scissors

These are long stacked rows of blades that will become Swiss Army Knife scissors.

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Many scissors

Here we see boxes that have long spindles of completed scissors. They will next be taken onto the assembly floor and added to Swiss Army Knives.

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Small blades

Here we see many stacks of small Swiss Army Knife blades.

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Carousels of handles

These are many stacks of carousels of Swiss Army Knife handles in several different colors, including the standard red and blue.

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Close-up of red handles

Here we see a close-up of several carousels of red Swiss Army Knife handles.

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Bodies waiting for handles

Here we see a box of Swiss Army Knives that are complete except for one thing: they haven't had their handles pressed onto them yet.

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Handles for pressing

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.

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Knife making station

Here, a Victorinox employee sits at her work station, making Swiss Army Knives by repeatedly and rapidly taking individual parts from the many boxes in front of her and putting them together.

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Making a Swiss Army Knife

Here, a worker makes a Swiss Army Knife.

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Pressing handles

Here, we see a worker pressing handles onto Swiss Army Knife bodies.

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Ready to add tweezers and toothpicks

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.

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Adding toothpicks

Here, a worker adds a toothpick to a Swiss Army Knife.

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Spindle of blades

Victorinox publicist Urs Wyss shows a spindle of standard Swiss Army Knife blades.

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Here we see long rows of Swiss Army Knife pliers.

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This is a box of aluminum dividers that is used to lock the big blade of a Swiss Army Knife in place when opened.

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Main blades

These are the main blades used in the current model of the official soldier's Swiss Army Knife.

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Unsharpened blades

This is a bin of unsharpened Swiss Army Knife blades.

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Old knife for repair

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.

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Because of the popularity of Victorinox's Swiss Army Knives, there is a nearly endless number of fake models produced, mainly in China. This is a box of some of them.

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Spool of small red handles

This is a spool of handles for small red Swiss Army Knives.

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Inspection station

Here, a worker rapidly inspects every tool on a Swiss Army Knife. She uses a cloth to protect her hand, and a special pick for quickly opening each tool.

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Hoof cleaner

This is the hoof cleaner for the Swiss Army Knife Equestrian model. There are more than 350 different models of Victorinox knives.

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