Craft

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I made a knife! Incredible! And manly, haha.

*****

One of the benefits of traveling with Remote Year is Tracks. Tracks are activities arranged by the Remote Year local city team for Remotes (the name for participants in a Remote Year program) to experience the city’s culture.

In Hanoi this month, one track offers the chance to make a knife. Isn’t that cool? You bet I signed up to check out what making a knife is all about.

The village is made up of tall and narrow buildings similar to the ones in Hanoi. I’m surprised a trade village looks so modern. The bus parks at an unassuming home with a glass panel display case of knives and scissors in front. I also wasn’t expecting only a short twenty minute drive to a village.  

During the war, this village began to forge knives, moving on from farming. Today, the trade is passed down from generation to generation.

Once out of the bus, the guide cheerfully ushers the group of us in and introduces us to the and the family of forgers, an older man and a man and woman who look a bit older than me. I’m fascinated by the whole sight. The tiny space is filled with supplies and parts for knives and scissors making. That feeling like something great is about to happen wells up inside me.

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After introductions, I timidly take a seat and the guide hands me a piece of wood about 7 inches long and 4 inches wide. To whittle the handle for the knife, I use a tool that looks like a sickle. The tool is a long rod with a sickled blade at the end. The guide gives the instruction to hold the rod at my hip bone and maneuver the wood against the blade. Coordination is not really a strong suit of mine so I take a while to get used to the action and my hand cramps from gripping the tool. Ugh, I get frustrated when after what feels like a very long time, the piece of wood still looks the same as when I was first got it. For goodness sake.

Finally, I get the hang of it and understand how so long as the end of the sickle looking tool is firmly held in place, the whittling happens with a more natural maneuver of the wood against the blade. Yes! Hand cramping avoided, haha. And the wood is showing some shape now.

Next, I sit by a forge on a red plastic stool. The older man forger gives me a stencil to trace my blade on a sheet of metal. He hands me a white out pen, like the ones I used as a junior high schooler, how nostalgic. My stencil is a rectangular shape since I’m making a vegetable knife, also known as a Nakiri type. Then I get to hammer while the forger holds a tool that cuts the sheet metal. Bam, bam, I hit the center of the tool and he follows the white out traced lines on the sheet metal. I feel fascinated by each of these steps because I wouldn’t have ever thought about everything required to make a tool readily available for purchase at home.  The guide advises me to use more strength to swing the hammer so now I’m sweating a little and putting some power behind my strikes. Manly, right? Truth be told, putting power behind the strikes makes me feel alive.

My sense of time is both alert for feeling like I take longer than necessary to do steps and not on my radar because I am lost in the whittling and hammering.

The next step is using a smaller, open forge to stick the blade in coals with a scissors-like tool. Here the blade is beat with a hammer again to thin out the metal. The younger man forger helps me with this part. Bam, bam, I see the indents of each strike on the blade. Each stroke is so satisfying for the noticeable effect of the blade flattening more. Yeah, I’m getting somewhere!

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Then I go back to the red plastic stool by the older forger. We hammer in rhythm to thin the sheet out even more. Bam, he strikes, bam, I strike, bam, bam.

All the while there’s a rotation between other remotes, Gavin, Igor, Beth, Nikki, and me. I work on whittling my handle when they’re with the forger or at the open forge. I spend a lot of time whittling and the guide cracks jokes with me about being tired and so unable to make as much progress as the others. I agree with her only partly. What’s more likely is I’m on the weaker side, ha! When the shape of the handle is finally to my liking, I use sandpaper to smooth the handle. The grinding feels satisfying.

Now there’s a machine with a wheel spinning used to smooth the blade. I put on goggles and gloves. With a wooden stick in my left hand and the blade set in a handle in my right, I lay the blade on the spinning wheel and use the wooden stick to hold it against the wheel. Fiery, orange sparks fly away from me and the grating sound signals smoothing is happening which is also seen where the sheet metal shines.

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Now I’ve got to put a metal ring on the handle. I trace the outline for the metal ring onto the top of the handle, then cut the wood with a knife. The technique is to use a tap method to get the knife into the wood in sync with rotating the handle.

Then the metal ring is hammered onto the handle until the metal and wood are flat and level. More bam! The forger finally puts the blade into the handle I’ve made. With the finish line near, I get to set the blade using a clamp scissors-looking tool. Tap, tap, tap, the blade rests deeper into the handle. With jest, the guide again tells me to use more strength.

The last step is to sharpen the blade on a sharpening block. With the handle in my right hand and three fingers of my left hand on the surface of the blade, the woman forger demonstrates the motion for how to glide the blade on the block a few times by guiding my hands with hers. After about three tries, I get into a meditative rhythm of moving the blade horizontally across the block, up the block, and down again to the starting position.

With her not paying any attention to me, I startle when the woman takes my knife from me to cut a piece of paper as a way to test the knife’s sharpness. The knife easily slices the paper to which the woman smiles at me and nods in approval. I made a knife.

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While it’s cool and all how I now own an awesome tool I made myself, I have to say I felt most impressed by the dedication and discipline required of a craft. In the process of making a knife, I had moments where giving up would have been easier and/or where instant gratification would have tasted sweeter. Rather than giving into these quick fixes, I practiced delayed gratification which made the difference for me to know the dedication and discipline required for any worthwhile work.

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