Knifesmithing

Japan. A country with legendary swordsmiths who create deadly works of arts. A country where things are done the right way irrespective of time and cost. A country where traditions are built over centuries, and are lived rather than just respected.

I have long admired Japanese swords and knives. To make a traditional Japanese sword takes years of training on top of months of direct work. So when I instead found the opportunity to learn knife making from a certified Japanese swordsmith, Asano Taro, I dove in. If you go to Japan, I highly recommend doing the same.

This adventure started simply enough--we took the bullet train from Kyoto to Gifu-Hashima, where Taro's apprentice picked us up and drove us to the forge. We changed into more appropriate clothing, after which Taro introduced us to his art. This started with some history and theory and quickly progressed into hands-on training.

Taro started us off shaping a generic steel rod to get a feel for technique. After a bit of bellowing, heating, and hammering, we were ready to start our knives. Taro had each of us choose a steel blank that would soon become our knives--we would start by making the handle.

Our handles were going to be made from the same steel blank we would use for our blade. We hammered a wedge into the back end of our blank before folding the long tail to make a decorative swirl. Once done, we moved on to the blade. I decided to make a Japanese-style single-bevel blade while Ashley and Justin opted for a more western double-bevel blade. We hammered our blades to craft the edge, with Taro showing us tricks to balance the bevels and straighten the blade. Soon enough, we had what looked like real knives. We let them cool while enjoying a delicious lunch, exchanging beer, and admiring some of Taro's beautiful katana (make sure to bring Taro some of your local beer--he's a collector!). Taro's apprentice gave our knives a coarse polish on a belt polisher, after which Taro engraved our knives. We were now ready to temper the blades.

Taro closed the shutters to darken the room and demonstrated the tempering process to us with a sample knife. We then took turns tempering our own knives. We first heated our knives slowly on top of the coals. Once warmed, we inserted the blade deep into the coals and heated the blade until it was glowing evenly. We quickly dipped the blade in oil and swirled to cool the metal. Once sufficiently swirled, we transferred the knife to Taro's tongs for him to finish the cooling process. He fully dipped the knife in the oil, pulled it out, and repeated until the flames stopped. The knife was then set on a stone nearby to finish cooling. Once cooled, the knives were again taken to the belt polisher for coarse sharpening, after which we gave them razor sharp edges with whetstones. Our knives sliced paper with only the barest graze, leaving a clean smooth cut. Success!

Before driving us back to the train, Taro also showed us the raw steel he used to make our blanks and also the even higher grade he uses for his swords. He wrapped our knives up beautifully for transport and showed us more of his swords and knives. Truly an awesome day.