Into the Woods, Into the Fire

Tucked so far away from the main roads, seemingly frozen in centuries past, the blacksmith’s reliance on the “old ways” is more noticeable than ever.

By | Fri 31 Oct 2014

I am lost, hopelessly lost. The kind of lost that has you checking your gas gauge every five minutes lost. As impressive as Thailand’s 3G coverage is, I am struggling to find my location. To complicate matters, it appears as though I have lost myself in the late to middle Lanna period, 1300 CE or so. There is not a motorcycle to be seen. Not a car or truck. I left those long ago. The only reminder of the modern world is the odd advertising banner that has been commandeered for a tarp or shed cover. I have been told time and again that for every kilometre you drive out from Chiang Mai, you go back a decade. Here, southwest of San Patong, my mission fits the bill: I am in search of a blacksmith. Yes, the charcoal, soot, iron, flame, “Excalibur” sort of blacksmith. I have heard rumours and tips of his location, but as with many directionally reliant things in Thailand, nothing is certain. Through back roads, past rice fields and towns of progressively smaller sizes, I slowly hone in. Pausing by a river to see what the 3G status is, it is the sound that first tips me off. Rhythmic and metallic, it comes in bursts from down the road. Pulling up beside an open courtyard, the cadenced banging is quickly joined by the glow and heat from a roaring forge.

The sensation of standing, moving or sitting anywhere within just a few metres of the forge is overwhelming. The heat is withering; the flames of the fire are corralled into a long, blazing trough. Yet the heat radiates in all directions. The sound of metal on metal deafens as the sledgehammers begin to rain down to shape the iron. The steady whoosh of the bellows just adds to the din.

Looking Back The history of blacksmithing is both ancient and far-reaching. Most believe it began in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia with the working of gold, silver and bronze. These relatively easily manipulated materials paved the way for the skills needed to work the much tougher material of iron. As its strength and durability began to outclass similar weapons and tools made of bronze, iron became the preferred material for both weapons of war and everyday tools. Techniques for its creation and manipulation began to spread from 1500 BCE onwards, becoming entwined with everyday life through the creation of objects for the house, the farmer’s field and the field of battle. The Romans, the Arabs, the Byzantines: all laid the successive milestones in the growth of metalwork and blacksmithing. As it spread west into Europe through their empires, similarly did it spread east, moving through Persia into India and the Chola Empire, into Southeast Asia and what would eventually become Thailand. While the industrial revolution eventually made blacksmithing technologically obsolete, the need for locally made and manufactured ironworks never diminished in the rural countryside. Demand for quick, local repairs and supplies allowed for such institutions and smiths to survive to this day, filling the needs of locals and farmers alike. So here I am.

At the Forge It is as if they’ve been summoned telepathically. The three labourers wielding giant sledgehammers stand in unison. Sweat and soot covered, they make their way over to the glowing red blade. On cue, in a synchronised rhythm, they rain down blows on a glowing piece of metal no larger than a classroom ruler. Here in this rural blacksmith, workers make the unique and oddly beautiful machetes used throughout the rural north in the fields, rice paddies, farms and house yards. Taking an almost triangular shape, these blades have a long cutting edge, a dull backside for hammering and a sharp top edge that can be used to pry, cut or slice. It is a wonderfully unique and versatile tool.

Through broken English and Thai, the master smith explains that the best metal to use is often old car bodies or the leaf springs from old trucks because of the high quality and purity of the metal, perfect for blades. This small smith is so far removed from the regular mainstream supply chains that his ad-hoc approach to finding materials is a necessity. Tucked so far away from the main roads, seemingly frozen in centuries past, the blacksmith’s reliance on the “old ways” is more noticeable than ever. As an art and as an industry, smithing has changed little in the past two hundred years; it is still a simple combination of heat and force. Yet the delivery of those two elements has changed, with power hammers delivering the clout of multiple men, and propane fueled forges reaching extreme heats at the push of a button. It is perhaps the simplicity of the operation that most reflects the ancient ways of the blacksmith, with stacks of charcoal used to fuel the flames, and only sledgehammers (no power tools here) to deliver all the necessary force. Beginning life as a simple and rough slab of metal, the machetes are taken by the master blacksmith and heated in the forge; only through years of experience does he know when to remove the heated metal. Too short, and the metal is not malleable enough; too long and it becomes too soft and equally unworkable.

Removed at precisely the right time, the master blacksmith uses the strength of three hammers to shape and prepare the initial form of the blades. The pounding and hammering “draws out” the metal, creating more surface area and thinning the blade to its proper profile. The blades are then passed on to the finisher, who sits and plunges them back into the forge, re-heating section by section before removing them and delicately hammering out the imperfections. Next is the sharpening process, the only mechanised aspect of the machetes’ creation. The wheel spins at hundreds of revolutions per minute and sparks fly across the room as an edge is easily applied to the now finished blades.

Another Day, Another Blade As the afternoon sun climbs higher, the heat and flames become too much and a break is called. The labourers lounge in the shade, smoking tightly hand-rolled cigars (as if more smoke is a better thing). Too exhausted to be bothered by questions, they doze off into a smoke filled haze. One however finds the energy to move to the sharpening wheel and begin the work of edging the blades. He says that many of the labourers are just that: labourers. They are here to simply earn what meager wage may come from the hours of work, not interested in the skills needed to learn the trade. This man, however, seems different: a little eager, a little more aware of what is needed to be done and the skills that are necessary to carry on the craft.

An easy field of work this is not. The heat, heavy labour and dangers associated with blacksmithing make it a challenging job on the best of days. The hands of many of the labourers are covered in scars, nicks and burns. When asked how often he burns himself, the head blacksmith looks back and, cracking a gap toothed grin, replies simply, “Daily.” Couple that with their remote location and any serious accident, be it a severe laceration or blunt force trauma, could easily turn fatal. Dousing heads, hands and scarves in buckets of water, the labourers attempt to fight back the sun, heat and flames of the forge for a few more hours of work. I climb back onto my bike, and head into the dry heat of the dusty back roads and afternoon sun. With every kilometre, I slip back into the modern world, a world whose trappings and technology hold their roots in the ancient spectacle being played out daily in the remote rural countryside of northern Thailand.