Mr. Tai: a Third Generation Blacksmith of Bonsai Carving Tools
Let us travel to Yoitamachi, a neighborhood in the city of Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture. The history of Echigo-yoita cutlery can be traced back to 400 years. It began with sword forging, then continue with traditional carpentry tools, specially chisels and saws. In the Taisho era (about 100 years ago), Yoitamachi had 300 smithies, but with the advent of electric tools and replaceable blade planes, the demand for carpentry tools has drastically decreased, and today there are only about 10 shops remaining in the town. Despite population decreasing and artisans and blacksmith aging, the technique has been inherited so tradition does not get lost. The number of artisans producing these tools has also dwindled and the population is aging, but the techniques are being passed on so as not to let the tradition disappear.
Mr. Tai is a third generation blacksmith working in a shop that was established 65 years ago. From the very beginning, he mainly manufactured wood carving chisels and special blades used by carpenters. Putting himself in the shoes of users, he considers the aspects of "sharpness" and "ease of use" and carefully handcrafts each item, one by one. "I hope you will try our blades, that are loved and appreciated, and used continuously by our customers. Our creations harmonize beauty and technique," he mentions. Craftsmen who started working during the workshop's first generation (during the time of Mr. Tai's grandfather) are still present today. And although the overall number of craftsmen is small, they continue to utilize the skills that they have built over the years. "We are often told that our specialty products are for professionals. But we have worked to ensure that they are hard to chip and easy to sharpen, so that even beginners and intermediate users who are not familiar with sharpening can use the tools we have created with relative ease," Mr. Tai explained.
"The reason why our products are more expensive than ordinary engraving chisels is because we use high-quality steel and have a careful manufacturing process," he continues. The Yasugi Steel White Grade (Shirogami) we use is a hard steel used for high-grade blades. The harder the steel is, the easier it is to cut and the better the sharpness lasts longer as well. A chisel finished to the optimum hardness for use in bonsai is suitable for creating bonsai jin and shari. In order to make the steel hard and chip resistant, the steel is beaten repeatedly to achieve the right consistency, while simultaneously increasing its durability. Additionally, impurities are removed to create a more pure steel. That is the secret to creating good quality bonsai chisels.
The third generation of the workshop meticulously complete blade setting themselves, which means aligning the cutting edges so that the left and right blades close without gaps. Failure to do so can cause the blades to cross or mesh, and it is impossible to undo the damage once it happens. Thus, it is a process that requires a great amount of skill.