The Ancient Art of Hand Forging

Those who hammer their guns into plows, will plow for those who do not. 

Thomas Jefferson

Hand forging is an ancient blacksmithing technique that, from the viewpoint of cutting tool performance, has been almost entirely replaced in modern times, but never surpassed. Understanding a little bit about this technique and its history is helpful in understanding what a good blade should be.

Before motor-powered machinery and gas-fired forges, steel was very expensive. It took a lot of expertise, fuel, manpower and endless hammering over long periods of time to turn rocks into useable pieces of steel, an economical reality that shaped civilization for millenia. International economics aside, all steel was of necessity hand-forged back then.

This is not an efficient process compared to drop forging or press shaping. It consumes more time and fuel, and requires more labor, skill and experience. It is contrary to modern mass-production methodology. It’s a job for a trained blacksmith who demands a fair wage, not a seasonal factory worker in Bümfüq Guangzhou intent on earning enough cash to put a new corrugated sheetmetal roof on his family hovel in the countryside.

In the final analysis, hand-forging is both unprofitable for corporations and too expensive for consumers who actively value low cost and appearance above performance. No wonder it’s as Dead as Disco.

You may recall people talking about how they prefer to use hand-forged antique chisels and planes because they are superior. Those old tools certainly don’t look superior to modern tools, and they aren’t cheap. But are they superior? And if so, why?

The essence of hand forging is using hammer, tongs, anvil and forge (charcoal/gas fired) to violently shape the metal during a series of heating and cooling cycles. The combination of hammer impacts and repeated heat cycles (heating, cooling, reheating) breaks the relatively isolated, large clumps of carbide crystals into uncountable small crystals, distributing them more evenly throughout the steel’s matrix, producing the sharper, more durable, and most desirable “fine-grained” steel.

The properties of this steel are what make it valuable.

A “Tatara” furnace in Japan used to create a “bloom” of “Tamahagane” steel from “satetsu” which translates to “sand iron.” This is the traditional steel that was used throughout Japanese history prior to the importation of Western steel from England in the 1860’s
A clump of Tamahagane (“Jewel Steel”) as it is sold from the bloom furnace. It contains lots of voids and impurities that make this material entirely unusable in modern tool-manufacturing processes.
Related image
A clump of Tamahagane early in the forging process. Most of this material will be lost as waste before a useful piece of steel is born.
After the Blacksmith hammers the raw clumps of Tamahagane hundreds of times, he then forms it into numerous small flat steel patties, which he breaks into the pieces shown in this photo in preparation for forge-welding them into a single larger piece of steel that he can then forge into a blade.

Let’s examine some of these coveted properties. The first is is that it is tougher than steel of lesser quality, meaning it is less likely to fracture due to crystalline defects. In the case of swords or knives it means the blade can cut and chop without breaking when subjected to stresses that would destroy a blade made of lower-quality steel.

The second and third ways fine-grained steel is superior is related to the first. The consistent crystalline structure with its finer carbide crystals distributed more uniformly throughout the matrix results in a cutting edge that can be made sharper, and that will retain that sharpness longer than steel of lesser quality. Of course, realizing this performance depends on the quality of the materials employed, and the skill and diligence of the blacksmith.

Many antique tools were made during a time when steel was expensive, and hand-forging was the only way to shape it. In fact, in the case of critical tools such as swords, this process included forging and reforging clumps of impure iron, folding and refolding the resulting mass into itself hundreds of times to remove impurities and adjust the carbon content, typically resulting in the a loss of 75+% of the original material’s mass. That’s a lot of material and manpower tossed onto the ash pile.

I call these tools critical not just because of their important functions but because of the implied warranty that went with them. For instance, if such a blade failed in battle, the blacksmith’s implied warranty went beyond financial compensation and involved the loss of his body parts at the hands of his vindictive customer’s surviving family members. How’s that for an “extended warranty?”

But any decent steel cutting tool was time consuming and expensive to produce. Until quite recently, blacksmiths did not have tools such as infrared temperature gauges, oxygen sensors, or hardness testers. All they had were their hands and Mark 1 Eyeball, so it took many years of training under a master for a blacksmith to learn how to make a good blade and survive.

Quality control was a big problem back then, but the blacksmiths in Scheffield, Philly, Solingen, Fukuoka and elsewhere still managed to make excellent blades of all varieties with fine-grain steel as the customer demanded. Most of those surviving blades are superior to what is manufactured in the West today. Certainly better than anything made in Chinese factories.

Drop-hammer forging parts in China

Unfortunately, it is impossible to judge a piece of steel’s crystalline structure with the naked eye, a fact mass producers exploit nowadays to make huge profits selling low-quality tools made from scrap at relatively high profits based solely on the tool’s appearance as it hangs on the hardware store wall encased in its impermeable armor of clear plastic. Lower-quality tools became widely acceptable once a generation or two of consumers that knew the value of cutting tools hand-forged from high-carbon steel left for the big lumberyard in the sky to be replaced by more urbanized generations that valued low cost and appearance more than performance.

Sadly, while the quality, consistency, and workability of steel as a material has greatly improved, the ancient technique of hand-forging has been abandoned throughout most of the world, skilled blacksmiths are almost extinct, and blade performance has suffered as a direct result.

Hand forging is still practiced by some blacksmiths in Japan, where the greater quality and performance this technique provides are still highly appreciated by craftsman obsessed with performance. Accordingly, our chisel and plane blades are made from modern high-quality high-purity steel produced by Hitachi metals instead of the much more expensive and difficult to work traditional Tamahagane. However, our blacksmiths hand-forge every single blade in their one-man forges through a minimum of three heats to form a fine-grain steel with the characteristics noted above that Japanese professional woodworkers demand.

鉋の製造工程
A composite photo of Nakano Takeo forging a plane blade.

YMHOS

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.

2 thoughts on “The Ancient Art of Hand Forging

  1. I cannot help but wonder if there is some small correlation with your previous post. Perhaps stone grit numbers have risen as blade quality has fallen in the west. If a tool is not performing, then there is a tendency to assume it needs to be ‘sharper’ and that means finer grit, right? I’m no expert, but I suspect a well forged blade will perform better for longer without the need for a super fine stone. Just conjecture on my part and I’m no expert. All else aside, there is something a little magical about a blade forged by a blacksmith.

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  2. Good point. And you are right, the higher the quality of the blade’s steel, the sharper it will become, and the longer it will remain noticeably sharp. All things equal, including the quality of the raw steel and heat-treat, a properly hand-forged blade will be superior. A softer blade made from the same high-quality raw steel and given a good heat treat but without the fine-grain that hand-forging can make possible will not become as sharp and will dull quicker, no matter how fine the sharpening stone grit. Using a 12,000 grit stone on a mass-produced blade, regardless of country of origin, is like putting magnesium wheels and sticky racing tires on a Chrysler minivan. Looks cool, but they cost a lot, wear out quickly, and don’t add anything to performance. But everyone has different values, and looking cool is OK too.

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