Knives forged from Yasugi steel sandwiched between soft iron

The natural environment of Okuizumo
Tachiku’ekyō Gorge is a renowned scenic spot with strangely shaped rocks soaring 100-200 metres into the sky. The area was designated a national Place of Scenic Beauty and Natural Monument in 1927, before becoming the prefectural national park in 1964.
The history of the Takahashi smithery
This area is known as Kajiya-mawari (area of smiths). In the vicinity is the former site where nodatara (a method of smithing employed since ancient times up to the early modern period) was once practiced and where kera (iron lumps formed at the bottom during nodatara smithing) have been unearthed. 105 years ago, the first smith here returned here after his training and established his own smithery. It was inherited by the great-grandfather of the former head of the family and fourth-generation Takahashi Tsutomu, whose father was the third-generation smith of the family.
The connection with folkcraft
The Takahashi family became involved in folkcraft from with Takahashi Tsutomu’s father. When the Izumo Mingei Kan (Izumo Folkcraft Museum) was founded it became clear that there were no smiths who knew how to forge iron using the age-old wakashi (forge welding) technique. His father became involved when he was invited to forge iron at the museum by Tonomura Kichinosuke, the then director of the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, as he was pleased with his father’s skills. This came at a time when his father began realizing that the curtain was closing on the work of smiths as a result of machines replacing agricultural tools such as plows and hoes in the 30s of the Shōwa period (1955-1964). 

The family has since then become involved in folkcraft exhibitions at the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum.

The Takahashi Smithery today
The Takahashi Smithery used to make agricultural tools such as plows and hoes, as well as candlestands. There were some 45 different products being made when Takahashi Tsutomu took over. Whenever he participated at events held in Tokyo he would receive requests such as for a variety of products that would better suit urban daily life in condominiums. The types of products thus increased as he meets these demands. 
At the smithery
Takahashi’s knives are made using the wakashi (forge welding) technique. While Japanese swords are made by placing soft iron between hard iron or steel to bring out viscosity, knives are made with soft iron on the outside, allowing for easy cutting, since knives are generally used to cut food items like vegetables, meats and fish that are relatively soft.
Beating the steel
The steel is first heated in a coke oven preheated to 1300˚C. It is then beaten alternately manually and with a spring hammer. The steel is repeatedly and carefully beaten. Once the steel has been beaten to the desired length, it is then cut to pieces using a grinder. Each piece of beaten steel makes about 10-11 knives.
Beating the soft iron on the outside
Next, the soft iron to be the outer layer of the knife is folded in half and the steel piece is inserted inbetween. Wax is then applied as an adhesive, before the combined piece is temporarily placed in 600˚C heat and then beaten again. After that the piece is placed back in the oven, with the temperature raised to 900˚C this time. It is then beaten repeatedly to form one single piece.
Rough finish
The roughly finished piece is further beaten to form the shape of a knife. Once the desired shape has been achieved, a hatchet is used to mark where excess area is to be cut off. Once the excess area is cut off, the knife is placed back into the fire and then beaten again to a certain point, before it is beveled using ther grinder. 
Fine finish
The hardness of the iron-steel compound depends on the type of knife being made, but it must not be too hard or too soft. The blade is soaked in tempura oil in order for the surface to harden. Finally, the knife is beveled using the grinder.
Wet sanding
After wet sanding the blade using a machine, it is meticulously sharpened using a whetstone. A vegetable prepared aside is then used to check how well the knife cuts. If it does not cut too well, it is returned to Takahashi to be sharpened again. How well a knife cuts depends on the slightest thickness invisible to the eye.
Next smith in line
“There is no one in line to take over the family business. From time to time someone would come and say they want to work as a smith. I always tell them only to pursue that if it is hobby, but advise them against doing it if they intend to live off it. I think I will continue for another 10 or 15 years,” says Takahashi.
Takahashi Smithery
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

Images provided & Supported by:

Direction & Text by:
Ueno Masato

English translation by:
Eddy Y.L. Chang

Photo by:
Mori Yoshiyuki

Exhibition created by:
Iwata Mitsuki, Kyoto Women's University

Project Directers:
Dr Maezaki Shinya, Kyoto Women's University
Dr Yamamoto Masako, Ritsumeikan University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google