I had the honour of hand crafting a hori hori for my neighbour to give as an anniversary gift. Since our forge is small scale, it’s agile and adaptable, and well suited to custom projects such as this one. Details such as having a heart stamped in both blade and sheath to make the knife truly unique, and making the sheath and serrations to match the needs of its owner, aren’t typically found with factory produced goods. Neither do my wife and I wish to compete against machines; it’s a losing battle every time. Instead we aim to provide an alternative: handmade, slowcrafted goods forged from reclaimed and recycled materials.
This hori hori was forged from reclaimed 1/4″ thick leaf spring, quenched in heated canola oil and tempered to approximately 50 to 55 HRC. The softer temper guards against breaking, and sharpening with a file much easier.
Detail of the matching heart stamp on blade and sheath. The heart stamp was a custom request from the customer.
Reclaimed hardwood slabs (most likely walnut) are pinned and epoxied to the tang. The tang is heat treated to prevent bending.
The serrations are hand filed with a chainsaw file, running four inches along one side of the blade. The teeth are on the top side of the blade for a right handed user, and would be on the opposite side for a left handed gardener.
The veg-tanned leather sheath is hand dyed and riveted with copper. The cross draw design of the sheath allows for easy access to the knife even when kneeling down, which is common for gardeners and foragers alike.
Blacksmithing can be a lonely craft. Thankfully, I have my wife to keep me company in the shop to help with striking, designing awesome driftwood and iron pieces and generally being a great support in our endeavours. This past weekend was the first Kootenay Blacksmith Association meeting that was held since before the covid pandemic hit the world, and I didn’t realize how much I missed it.
This spring, the KBA invited a bladesmith, Troy Flanders of Flanders Forge, to speak to the crowd. What a source of information, and he barely scratched the surface of the bladesmithing craft. Regardless, I learned much from him and also got some useful tips on improving my forging techniques from a fellow member. I’m currently finishing up a hori hori for a customer, putting what I learned into practice and I can honestly say this is the best hori I’ve made yet.
I’ve been a professional blacksmith for over five years now, so I figure I know quite a bit about hammering steel and all the other accompanying skills that go with it. However, in order for me to learn anything from other ‘smiths I have to do two things: swallow my pride and listen. There is a vulnerability that comes with that because I have to admit to myself that I don’t know everything, that there are others who are better at this stuff than I am, and the only way I can learn is by admitting that to myself and to others.
Thankfully, the KBA members are gracious and helpful folks (despite the stereotype of blacksmiths being ornery and secretive), and if you’re willing to be quiet and pay attention to what the older generation of craftsmen are saying, you might just learn a thing or two. If you’d like to keep up with the happenings of the Kootenay Blacksmith’s Association, go to their contact page to become a member: https://kootenay-blacksmiths.ca/contact-us/
The past couple of years have certainly been a struggle as we made a major transition moving to a new province, searching for a suitable (and affordable) property to set up our homestead and shop, coping with the challenges that were brought forward by the pandemic, and trying to maintain our sanity in a world that seemed to be even less based on reason than before. When our family relocated to British Columbia, Tim and I had initially planned to each launch our own businesses in our town, with Tim’s focus on Reforged Ironworks and mine on creating an artistic, herbal apothecary of sorts. We completed a business course to hone our business ideas and get more established in our new environment. The class ended just at the beginning of the pandemic, and as we prepared to launch our businesses in our new community, the world went into lock down. My business folded as retail and markets were shut down yet, surprisingly to us, Reforged Ironwork’s online sales surged higher. I stepped away from my business to help Tim keep up with the demand for fire pokers and garden tools, and have been helping in the forge ever since.
We have also intentionally chosen to slow down our pace of life as we increasingly feel the pressure to speed up, make quicker decisions and take on more and more (while simultaneously being encouraged by our culture to take advantage of more and more conveniences-which in turn have us doing less and less for our own health and wellness and are arguably not sustainable ‘solutions’). Turning against the tide so to speak has been a challenge. But the more we let go of the narratives of our times, the more we realize that we had been pulled out of alignment with many of our values by those societal mantras. For example, the term sustainable is thrown around consistently these days as a measure that we need to strive for, yet it doesn’t seem that many stop to consider if their own lifestyles could be deemed as sustainable. Diversity, consent and respect are other key terms of our times, but I personally cannot say that I have seen the meaning behind these words well portrayed in the past few years.
As our sales increased, both Tim and I realized how difficult it is for those who make their work by hand to keep up with increasing demands. While our family felt an immense amount of gratitude for being able to do what we love for a living, and have it sustain us financially, we also realized the limitations that we faced (physical and mental). This has been a humbling experience in so many ways- for myself, I have had to learn a trade that requires much skill, strength and consideration to detail which I found myself fumbling to pick up as I worked alongside my husband in the shop. Luckily, Tim is a wonderful teacher, and I say with confidence that if he can train me to blacksmith, he can likely help anyone learn this craft. My skills with a hammer in the beginning were amateur at best. Tim was starting to offer lessons while we were still in Alberta and he had an increasing amount of interest, but for the past two years hasn’t been able to offer this part of our business. We have also both experienced the physical limitations that our bodies will allow with repetitive, strenuous work. And with this experience, we can understand the shift to machine-made, mass produced items that often come from other countries due to lower labor costs. But we choose not to move in that direction ourselves, as we believe that with those gains in quantity, there is significant loss in quality, workmanship, the art of the craft, sustainability, choice of materials, etc.
If you have purchased an item from us, I want to say thank you for supporting our small, slow-craft family business. And I want to say an extra thank you for those who have been our customers and been understanding of the constraints that making a product from scratch and as an art entail. This has been a difficult journey, sometimes we’ve felt as though we were taking a dive into an abyss of uncertainty, but because of people who support what we do, this art and process has been able to survive and flourish. Thank you for helping to sustain the craft of hand-forged products.
It’s useful on occasion to revisit one’s earlier work. The two photos above contrast the results of my ‘smithing over a six year period. The first picture is my latest hori hori creation, forged from an old railroad spike, hardened, sharpened and finished with walnut handle slabs. The second photo is a set of hori hori that I made for the Nikka Yuko Japanese Gardens in Lethbridge, AB. It was a great learning experience for me, and looking at the older photo now I can see both how my design has changed over time, and how my ‘smithing has changed.
The big, iron block is a 250 lb. Japanese pattern anvil I purchased from my friend and mentor, Dave J Friesen of Crossed Heart Forge. Using that, and an eight pound hammer, has really increased my efficiency. There’s quite a bit of material to move in the spike. It’s a mid carbon steel so it’s not as tough as spring steel, but it starts out at 5/8″ thick, and I forge that down to 5/32″ at the hilt of the blade with a slight thickness taper to the point. Two holes are drilled in the handle for steel pins to secure the handle slabs.
The serrations have seen some modification over the years, too. For the Nikka Yuko hori hori, I used a half round file but it seemed to me the teeth were too shallow and didn’t saw very well. I then switched to a small chainsaw file for the knives made from coil spring, and that worked ok but I think the teeth were a bit small. The serrations, according to my research and personal experience, are designed to saw through woody materials such as thick roots and small branches. The latest iteration uses a large chainsaw file for deeper teeth which should make for quicker cutting and sharpening (less teeth to sharpen).
The scooped blade is formed by forging into a shallow piece of pipe, cut in half. The first railroad hori hori knives had a very slight scoop by forging with a round peen along the length of the blade. I leave the scale from forging on the blade as it inhibits rust, and it wears off over time anyhow because of digging in the soil.
The blade and handle are hardened in room temperature vegetable oil. This gives a hardness a bit below an axe, and allows for quick field dressing with a bastard file and chainsaw file if needed. There’s no need to make the edge razor sharp as the first stab into soil acts like sandpaper. The balance between hardness and toughness is important; it’s hard enough so that sharpening isn’t required too frequently, while remaining tough so the knife doesn’t snap when prying a plant out of the ground.
The handle is a simple affair: two slabs of walnut, or whatever scrap hardwood I have lying about, pinned with two steel rivets. A woodworking tool that I love to use ever since Dave J showed me is the Japanese saw file. It works quickly and leaves a finish that needs only light sanding to smooth out. The bevels on the handle are formed with that saw file. A coating of linseed oil seals and protects the wood.
After discussing the sheath design with my wife and striker, Lorinda, I decided to try a cross carry instead of the traditional wooden sheath or vertical sheath that’s common with factory models. The cross carry keeps the handle out of the way when bending over or kneeling, which is a very common stance in the garden. The vertical carry can make drawing the knife a bit awkward, and these knives are easily misplaced if not kept near at hand. This is an experiment at this point, but I really like how it came together.
The leather sheath is fitted to the scooped blade to ensure a snug fit while preventing the edges from slicing up the inside of the sheath. Copper rivets secure the belt loop and the sheath itself. I thought about using copper rivets on the handle, too, but decided on steel for the extra strength they provide.
I look now at the requirements for a good hori hori knife and I realize I picked a really hard tool to start with. Back in 2016 I had only been a hobby smith for about a year. The hori hori has a difficult blade shape, two sharpened edges, and needs just the right balance of hardness and toughness. I ruined a good number of promising knives when they warped after quenching and tried bending them back. Pretty sure the neighbours heard my dismay when the blade went <snap>! Other times I would spend an hour or more heating up a warped blade, forging it straight, normalizing it and quenching once again… only to have it warp again. Thankfully, I can say that no one who has purchased one my knives have had them break or bend, which is a common complaint about the factory models.
I’m looking at trying my hand at other hand tools, now that I have a good number of years of experience under my belt. Wood carving knives, draw knives and broad axes are next. Hopefully I can make at least one of each this year and see where that takes me.
We make broad forks, and many of them each year. Sometimes a client will ask if we can make the handles out of metal instead of wood, in the hopes that they can avoid breaking a handle if too much force is applied to the tool. Some believe that a breakable handle is a design flaw, but our decision to use wooden handles for all of our tools is a deliberate feature. Today I’m going to share our reasoning for that decision.
Wooden handles are lighter.
An average 4′ ash handle with 1.5″ diameter comes in at about 1.5 pounds in weight. The same length of schedule 40 black pipe with an outside diameter of about 1″ weighs 4.5 lbs! Two handles per broad fork means we’ve just added an extra 6 lbs of weight to a 12 lb tool, increasing its weight by 50%. Heavy tools are harder to use and bring on exhaustion that much faster.
Wooden handles are more comfortable.
Ever held a piece of metal pipe or rod in the cold? It’s not pleasant. The conductivity of heat in steel is a lot higher than compared to wood. That means cold, stiff hands when working in inclement weather. The inverse is true when working in the sun. Steel soaks up all that heat, again making the handle comfortable. Metal handles feel awful in wet, cold, sunny or hot weather which pretty much means all the time. No thanks!
Wooden handles are easily replaced.
There’s a reason why hardware stores stock wooden handles. They break with age, but more often break from misuse. Thankfully, a broken handle is not especially difficult to fix. Almost anyone with simple tools can replace a handle at home. As a matter of deliberate choice, we’ve designed our broad forks to use standard 4′ Garant brand shovel handles. These are stocked in many hardware stores and they take about ten or fifteen minutes to adapt to the fork’s steel socket.
This quality is the main argument for metal handles: they never break and never need to be replaced! But this must be weighed against the considerations above and against this last consideration which is that
Wooden handles reduce the chance of breaking the tool.
I’m not sure why it happens to be the case, and perhaps it’s always been this way, but it seems that it’s ok to push a tool to its breaking point time and time again until it finally breaks. Our modern throwaway culture certainly encourages a wasteful attitude, even when it comes to tools that could last many long years if they are treated with respect. In any case, when a tool is pushed beyond its limits a wooden handle, being the “weakest” part of the tool, means that it’s also the most likely part to break. This is a good thing.
Imagine a broad fork with metal handles. The tines are now the weakest part of the tool, and since the attitude of pushing a tool until it breaks is still firmly in place, that means it’s very likely that a tine will bend or snap off. Which is easier to repair: a wooden handle that can be picked up at the hardware store, or a piece of steel that needs welding equipment and expertise?
I hope that sharing our design considerations helps future customers, gardeners and tool enthusiasts alike realize that there are advantages when it comes to using wooden handles rather than their metal counterparts. A gentler attitude towards tool use, and perhaps work in general, may be of benefit as well. Hand tools speak to us through our use of them. It takes a sensitive “ear” to hear that communication, when we’re starting to push a tool too far. Next time you’re out in the garden or the workshop, slow down a little and see if you can “hear” what your hand tool is trying to tell you. It just might save you a trip to the hardware store.
The world has seen dramatic and seismic shifts in almost every manner this past year, and it’s helped many people reflect on their circumstances (especially with the nature of work) and whether something better could be conceived. For Lorinda and me, it’s given us ample time to consider how we structure our daily lives and in what ways we can better align ourselves with our ideals of meaningful work, work-life balance, peace and quiet, and resiliency.
This year we’re trying a different approach to ‘smithing. We’ve been in business for six years now and we have a fairly good sense of where to spend our production time. The plan is to create, in advance, a good number of products that we’re quite sure will earn us a solid income. Building up an inventory isn’t really a radical idea; most businesses have to operate on that model in order to keep up with demand. For us, however, it’s always been a “wait and see” approach. We put up an item for sale and wait and see if it sells. It keeps us very agile, but it doesn’t allow much room for branching into new products or processes since we’re always trying to catch up to demand.
That process of “just in time” production and shipping for online markets is very common these days, but the sense I get is that we, as a society, are shifting away from that. I see a future of more localized demand and supply, and part of getting on board with that system is to be able to put our product out there in the stores of local merchants. It’s precisely the opposite of online commerce, which has seen explosive growth over the past two years, but I think this last year has revealed its limits. Lorinda and I have done well enough for ourselves by moving in contrarian ways to that of society around us, and so we want to pivot to more local sales, less reliance on e-commerce, and establishing a market closer to where we live.
This mode of production will also free up time for us to stretch our artistic and ‘smithing abilities by trying new things. I aim to create more knives and axes (especially for woodworking) and Lorinda has already seen success with her creative blending of ironwork and locally scavenged driftwood. Blacksmithing is an interesting mix of creative and manufacturing pursuits. We’re shifting the balance in our forge with an eye towards a future that’s more local and more resilient. We hope you’ll join us.
We’ve been a supplier for Ragnar the Trader, a traveling Viking merchant, for a few years now and we wanted to share a few pictures of what some of that product looks like.
It’s an interesting process creating large batches of items (my wife and ‘smithing partner was practically dancing when we finished the 50th horn stand) when we forge everything by hand with hammer and anvil. Creating items wholesale requires patience, diligence and being ok with a degree of monotony. There are upsides to wholesale (though my wife may disagree), however : it requires a focus on shop economics and streamlining production, and it provides plenty of practice in the fundamental skills of blacksmithing.
The first blacksmith I studied with, Ontario Artist Blacksmith David Robertson, suggests that new ‘smiths focus on wholesale production for the advantages it provides. It may also be a form of self-selection, for only those truly dedicated to the craft would be ok with cutting, forging, polishing and oiling the same thing 50 times or more.
We’re proud of our wares and happy to have Ragnar sell them across the land! Be sure to visit his website, Etsy store or see him in person if you happen to be in Lethbridge or Edmonton this December.
Etsy is an online commerce website that caters specifically to customers who want to find custom, vintage or handmade items. The worldwide web is a big place and it’s easy for a small site like ours to be overlooked by search engines, so having an online presence where customers are already looking for a business like ours (small, independent, family-run and focused on the highest quality) is a boon to us.
The focus of our website, Reforged Ironworks, is the hand forged, heirloom quality hand tools that we create. This space allows to share an in depth view of our process which gives our customers an understanding of what goes into every one of our handmade tools.
Ornamental ironwork, jewelry, and fire tools are among some of the other items we make, and these are featured on our Etsy page. We invite you to have a look to see what else we create.
As always, we welcome custom requests and projects. Contact us at info-at-reforgedironworks-dot-com.
Yaki-ire, or clay tempering, is a style of steel hardening. It isolates the hardening to the places the bladesmith wants hard (such as the edge), while keeping the rest of the piece tough (the body and spine). If the style is perfected, it results in blades that combine the best qualities of steel: hardness and durability at the edge, and toughness as the foundation to prevent breaking from brittleness in the blade. The transition zone between the two qualities of steel is called hamon. I’m curious to see if a hamon, a sort of frosty, wavy line that delineates the transition, is visible on the blades I treated using yaki-ire.
Preparing the Clay
I took the sister blades I featured in my last post and applied a clay mask to each of them using the recipe I found on the Crossed Heart Forge website (a wealth of information, by the way). The basic recipe is:
1 part clay (binds the mix)
1 part crushed sand/grog (prevents cracking and shrinkage)
1 part crushed charcoal (prevents flaking off in the fire due to heat expansion)
The goal is to crush these materials as fine as possible, for the smallest size grain determines the minimum thickness of the clay slip or mask that can be applied. This post covers how I prepared the clay mixture.
Bringing it all together
Now that I had my three (four technically) constituent parts, I was ready to mix them in equal proportion (by volume) and add water. The consistency to aim for the mask that goes on the body of the blade is pancake batter. It seemed to me to be like the texture of mortar when laying down tiles.
My next post will feature a video where I mix and apply the clay mask to the hori hori. Stay tuned!