The Value of Learning from Others

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.

Troy speaking at the spring Kootenay Blacksmith Association conference.

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.

Some of Troy Flander’s work.

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:

One Blade Becomes Two

Sister Blades

Working on some new tool designs, I took an old lawn mower blade and recycled it to use as stock for a kusakezuri (Japanese hand hoe) and a hori hori. In my continuing study of Japanese agricultural tools made with reclaimed steel, I’ve created these as prototypes. The fact that the two blades are sisters really speaks to me, and I plan to let whoever becomes the owner of these tools know it.

The kusakezuri blade, ferrule and handle unassembled. The blade needs hardening at this point.

The hori hori blade with tape measure to capture the scale.

Heat Treatment Process

The hand hoe is ready for heat treatment. The process involves annealing (which I did already), then normalizing the blade for two or three cycles depending on if the blade warps as it cools. Finally, the blade will be hardened by quenching. For this particular steel from the reclaimed lawn mower blade, I took a piece of it and tested it. It hardened very well at a cherry red heat quenched in room temperature water. For longer pieces like a blade, however, quenching it in a medium like that could cause it to warp excessively or even crack from the stress of cooling so quickly.

I next tried hardening the test piece in warm vegetable oil (came out soft), and then cold vegetable oil. The second result had ok hardness (a file barely scratched it). I decided to quench the hori hori blade in the cold vegetable oil. This is the result:

A slight curve can be seen along the blade’s edge. This needs to be corrected.

The blade warped slightly, curving upwards, and the edges were a little soft for my liking, with the file biting a bit. The ideal is a file skating on the surface of the hardened steel. I’m going to harden the hori hori again, but this time using yaki-ire to harden the edges. I will use the same process for the hand hoe as well.

Yaki-ire is a style of edge hardening that is accomplished by applying a clay mask to all surfaces of the blade except for the edge. When the 1-2 mm clay layer is dry, the blade is heated to the correct temperature and then quenched in water. Water quenches faster than oil, so I believe this will give the hardness that I want while maintaining some toughness in the rest of the blade.

Blade Anatomy

A slight concave is forged into the back of the hoe blade to ease in sharpening.

Tang detail: note the sharp shoulder where the tang meets the ferrule.

The back side of a single bevel blade is called ura in Japanese, and in the picture above I forged a slight concave on the ura to make sharpening easier. This is a traditional method for forging single bevel blades. The blade will fit into a slot cut into a hardwood handle. An iron ferrule is used to support the tang and blade; for the support to work correctly the ferrule must fit snugly with both the tang and the wood. It takes a bit of work to ensure all the pieces fit properly.

Next update will show the completed pieces.

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