An Artisan’s Partner: My tetsuchi may break but my spirit will not
Hi, this is Kengo from the SUNCHI editorial desk. Today we will continue our series titled “An Artisan’s Partner” which sheds light on the indispensable tools used by artisans that don’t usually receive much attention. This time I went to Sanjō in Niigata prefecture to visit Hinoura Cutlery, the only blacksmith in the area that specializes in handmade hatchets, and interviewed current company president Mr. Tsukasa Hinoura.
Mr. Hinoura’s artisanal partner is his tetsuchi. Tetsuchi, meaning hand-held hammer, is a term that really emphasizes the handmade aspect of the hammer and a blacksmith’s pride in the techniques that have been passed down from artisan to artisan to make and use such a tool. His tetsuchi is more than a tool, it is the embodiment of his thoughts and spirit as a blacksmith hoping to bridge past and future.
The spirit of the blacksmith passed down over 100 years
“To be a blacksmith, the first thing you do is make your own tetsuchi”
Mr. Hinoura said while holding his in his hand. ”It’s important to make your own hammer with your own hands so that you can choose and adjust the length of the handle, the materials used, and balance the weight between the handle and the head to your own preference. Before you start making the hammer, you will need to visit a steel shop and wood shop to get the materials.” Mr. Hinoura told us about his early days as a budding blacksmith trying to make his own tetsuchi through trial and error, using only his predecessor’s tetsuchi as a guide.
During the interview, I found a really old tetsuchi blackened by the heat of decades of flames next to Mr. Hinoura’s.
“This old tetsuchi has been passed down over three generations, more than 100 years. The handle has been replaced once and had finger grooves worn into it by my predecessor.”
Indeed the handle seemed to be rather new while the head looked aged and blackened with the passage of time. He let me pick it up, and it was much heavier than it looked, as if weighed down with the history and passion imparted on it over the decades. Cherry tree wood is the preferred handle material since it is strong and hard but it can still be broken after being used over three generations. We can imagine how much force that tetsuchi has endured while beating on iron.
Traditionally at Japanese blacksmith shops, the master sits on one side of an anvil and 2 or 3 of his apprentices sit on the other. So if you look at an old tetsuchi, you can tell if it was used by the master or an apprentice based on the angle of the hammer head since the head angles are tilted in opposite directions. Given this, if the apprentice hits the same spot on a piece of iron as the master, he can transmit the same force at the same impact angle as the master. Their tools are designed for collaboration to make one product together.
“We still make our tetsuchi with a focus on hammer head angles that will help transmit the most force with the highest efficiency.”
Nowadays blacksmiths have mechanized hammers called spring hammers, so they no longer need as many people for a process that used to require several skilled artisans. But they still forge iron by hand during the final process as it requires directly feeling the iron in order to carefully and delicately craft the highest quality blade. Since slight head angle of the tetsuchi maximizes the impact force, they take only short swings at targeted points on the iron rather than full swings.