A tour of the forge

Wishing you a truly successful new year!

This morning I fought my way out of my futon, and into winter. It was three degrees. Inside. The pipes were frozen. No water. They keep telling me “Aren’t you tough?! It’s much colder in Canada!“. “Yeah, but we have heating in our insulated houses,” I always reply. One morning a few years ago I woke up and the glass of water on my desk had formed a nice cap of ice.

As an ice breaker (I know, cheap pun), let us have a look at the work environment of japanese swordsmiths. I’m including several pictures of my own smithy. My case is a little peculiar in that I’m renting a century-old village blacksmith house. It has been left untouched — and rotting — for the past fifty years or so, except for the forge furnace, which was refitted for swordsmithing.

The oldest plate found dates back to 1907.

The 2011 New Year plate… lacks practice ;-

Every village blacksmith in Japan maintains the tradition of making a plate in which are inserted miniature versions of their main products at New Year, and on which the date is inscribed. The oldest I could find is dated 1907. The present owner, my landlord, has never actually forged for he established a modern style ironworks shop next door instead of taking over his father’s business, much like most japanese blacksmith families of their generation.He never quit making the New Year lucky charm, though, and when I come back from the year-end holidays, there I find the new plate on the wall. It’s interesting to look at the evolution from one plate to another: his father and grand-father were far better than him!

Basically we use three set-ups. There are two forges and an additional room for “cold” work, such as filing, grinding, etc. In Japanese, a smithy is called kajiya. The actual forge is called hodo, while the adjacent workshop is called shiage-ba.

Many smiths, including myself, make do with only one forge. The main difference between the two types is their depth and the height of the side tuyère. The preparation of the raw traditional steel requires much higher temperatures and a deeper charcoal mound. The deep forge makes it more difficult to heat small objects, and the sword themselves from the moment they are elongated. The second forge, much shallower, has its tuyère right at ground level, so long bars like swords can easily be heated for forging and quenching.

The shiage-ba is where we spend at least half the time spent making a sword. Every swordsmith has a different set-up, but the work stations are always similar, and so are the tools. There’s the sen-dai, a sword clamping workbench, the togidai, a waterproofed work surface on which both swordsmiths and sword polishers grind and polish swords on waterstones, and several specialty tools such as a carver’s vise, workbenches and anvils.

Sen-dai – A clamping bench to work on swords.

Togidai – The polishing bench.

Carvers' vise – Useful to perform engravings or some repairs on swords.

Mei-kiri kanashiki – Simple anvil used for mei-kiri, chiseling the signature.

All right! Gotta go… The local wood mill asked me to make them two types of bark peelers, like because I’ve been studying sword making for a few years I can make any tool ;-)

Catch you next week. I’ll be posting updates on sheet metal patterns for the blades I’m about to start making.


5 responses to “A tour of the forge”

  1. Hans Gustafsson Avatar

    Hello! Nice to read and to look at your working-place. I will follow your work with shortswords.

  2. Athanasios Koumantos Avatar

    Pierre thank you very much.
    It is really valuable to find out about all those little details. A picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes some critical words are missing, and you are filling them right in, just like the details of the two types of forge.
    One question, do Japanese swordsmiths use only flat stones for grinding? Isn’t there some kind of round revolving stone used?

    Thank again, and congrats on the effort!

    1. Pierre Nadeau Avatar

      Hi Athanasios,
      Thank you for your appreciation. Depending on the smith, all sorts of grinding devices are used. The decisive factors are money (always!), the amount of material needing to be removed, the area, and wether the steel is quenched or not. Some use bandsanders (some dry, some wet), some use rotating waterstones, my moneyless master used an angle grinder ;-)
      The togidai and brick-sized waterstones are the traditional method, and still very efficient. Most of the fine work can only be done this way. All other methods mentioned are for rough removal.
      Hope this helps!

  3. islandblacksmith Avatar

    very nice! lots of natsukashi tools, i especially like the anvils and swage block and vice…so sweet. are they yours or inherited with the shop? i hope you will be able to move some of them to your new shop…
    (i used an angle grinder mostly too…just for “fine” finishing)