Chefs regard their knives as revered tools, symbols of their prowess in the kitchen and badges of honour earned from relentless work. So, it was no surprise that chefs and food aficionados came out in force to the Knifewear booth at the Inglewood Sunfest earlier in August when a team of Japanese blacksmiths from Echizen province’s Takefu Knife Village showed up to demonstrate traditional Japanese blacksmithing techniques.
As this is the first time that the millennia-old blacksmithing technique has been seen outside of Japan, the specific equipment the blacksmiths needed was readily available in this country. Luckily SAIT’s School of Manufacturing and Automation was able to provide an improvised forge and anvil, while the Takefu knife-makers sent over hammers, steel and other equipment required for the demonstration.
Leading the team of blacksmiths was Hiroshi Kato. The 72-year-old master blacksmith and head of Kanehiro-uchi-hamono (uchi-hamono meaning “forged knives”) has been creating handmade knives for over 50 years. Kato learned the trade from his father, who spent another 50-plus years learning and refining his skills. Together with Kato’s three apprentices, one of whom is his grandson-in-law, Kanehiro-uchi-hamono has over 130 years of combined knife-making expertise.
Japanese blacksmiths use high-carbon steel to create a material that is harder than the stainless steel used in the construction of most common knives.
Hard materials like white and blue steel are great for knives as they can be sharpened to a finer edge and will hold that edge for a longer time. The downside to high-carbon steel is its tendency to rust if it is not immediately wiped dry after use.
Master blacksmiths like Kato meticulously control heating and shaping through very precise actions. He can tell the temperature of the steel solely by its colour, and uses ash, charcoal and careful positioning within the fire to manipulate the heat distribution.
Once the steel is at the proper malleable temperature, he pulls it out for hammering. Kato uses a smaller hammer, in between heavier hammer blows delivered by his apprentices, to make slight adjustments to the shape. This hammering process not only shapes the metal, it also drives out any remaining impurities in the form of sparks, purifying the material and increasing the hardness of the knife. This is an amazing spectacle considering the modern age of instant and automated production.
Once the steel is formed into the desired shape, it is taken aside for more delicate forging. It is trimmed to a specific size and shape, aesthetic finishes are applied to the body of the blade, and a master sharpener creates the razor edge by hand.
Admittedly, apprentices swinging hammers has not been a widely used technique since the middle of the previous century — now pedal-powered hydraulic hammers and modern forges have made the blacksmithing processes more efficient, and possibly safer.
However, there is something magic about the spirit of these modern “ancient” blacksmiths. Some Japanese knife-makers can trace their histories back more than 700 years to the glorious period of katanas and samurais. All of them still hold the same dedication to quality, tirelessly refining their skills and techniques, and sourcing better materials in the quest to make a better knife. They continue to produce blades that are not just utilitarian devices but must be considered pieces of art chronicling centuries of toil.
During the time I spent travelling across Japan, I never came across anyone who had seen this process. Luckily for us, Knifewear has treated Calgary to a rare glimpse of Japanese culture that is historical in its roots and yet modern in its utilitarian form.