Monday, February 8, 2010

The Village Blacksmith(s) - Laos Day #3

The Village Blacksmith

"UNDER a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man. ... "
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On our "leisure" day trip on Wednesday, 27 January, we encountered the village blacksmiths in the Khmu village of Baan Sopsim. Lacking a spreading chestnut tree, the blacksmiths toiled under a thatched roof lean-to that was attached to some one's home. Outside of their smithy shop, women tended to babies and kept watch over the older children who were occupied with their play. The wood stairway leading up into the home made both a convenient seat and observation post for two of the mothers. Off to the side, a grandmother stood crocheting a fine meshed nylon bag typically used for holding fish or snails gathered in the nearby river.

When we first arrived in Sopsim, we did not see the blacksmiths. Our attention was drawn to some woman and children. The woman were sewing and doing embroidery. The children were busy running around and playing - agitated by the arrival of a foreigner. We started to hear sounds of metal banging upon metal in an almost rhythmic cadence from across the dirt road that bisects the village. We crossed the road and investigated.

There were several men engaged in making new knives and spears for spear guns. There appeared to be just as many men watching as well as socializing with the workers. This is typical in Laos as well as in Isaan. Manchester United Football team's slogan is "You Never Walk Alone" A similar slogan could be adapted for Lao culture - "You never work alone" You may not necessarily have someone helping you but you will most certainly have some one watching you.

There was a charcoal fire about the size of a small Campbell's Soup can where the steel was heated in and over. Next to the fire was a round cylinder about 8 inches in diameter which appeared to be wood and about 18 inches long with two 1/2 inch diameter pipes coming out of its side and running underneath the small fire. One end of the cylinder was completely sealed off. The other end of the cylinder was sealed with a membrane that had a small diameter metal rod penetrating its center. At the exposed end of the metal rod there was a wood "T" handle that a young man diligently grasped as he continuously drove the the rod back and forth into the cylinder. The in and out motion of the rod caused air to be forced into the fire to create the higher temperatures necessary for forging the steel. The home made forced draft "fan" or quasi-bellows was very similar to the device that I had recently seen on television related to ancient Chinese technology of over 1,000 years ago. Absolutely fascinating - air was forced into the fire on each push as well as pull stroke of the rod. We watched for quite awhile. Duang asked if I could work the bellows. I made a crude remark about having to place my hand around the rod in a different position to stroke the rod. I used the Lao term for the action (practise?) and the men laughed like crazy. Unfortunately the laugh was not at my expense but at the expense of the young man who had been stroking the rod for so long. He became embarrassed with their teasing and left for a short time. His friend took over but quickly turned over the task to the first young man when he returned. It was all very good natured teasing like you would expect amongst family members or very good friends.

One of the men was alternatively heating some thin steel in the fire and pounding upon it with a medium sized ball peen hammer to turn it into a knife shape. His "anvil" was a spike shaped piece of steel with a 3 inch square head driven into a large diameter hardwood log that was laying on its side underneath the thatched roof.

Next to the anvil a man was busy cutting a small diameter steel pipe. He did not have any electric tools. He did not have a hacksaw or even a hacksaw blade. He was using a file and a heavy knife along with the ball peen hammer to cut the tube. Further back, a man was preparing to put a hole in a piece of wood. He did not have a bit and brace. He did not have a hand drill. He did not even have a twisted drill bit. He was using a red hot steel rod to burn a hole in the wood. Wisps of smoke rose in spirals as the hot steel burned its way into the wood while he twisted the rod.

Another man was carving a piece of wood to be the knife handle. The tapered end of the knife blade would be driven into the hole at the end of the wood handle. Throughout this Lao trip, we saw men walking along the roads and into the forest with their long handled knife strapped to their waist in scabbards made from woven bamboo. The people are very much self sufficient and quite adapt at making do with what resources are readily available to them.

Another blacksmith was occupied in forging parts for a spear gun or rather more accurately a "spear pistol". We had seen several young men walking near the river carrying pistol sized guns that shot spears made out of 3/32 inch metal rods. The devices are used to catch fish.

While he worked on the spear gun, the other blacksmith, was sharpening one of his new knife blades on a piece of sandstone. The sandstone was a piece of rock that had been struck and cleaved to form a fairly flat raw surface that he poured some of the water from the wooden tempering trough to lubricate, cool, as well as create a slurry that he rubbed the steel over and over. Besides creating a cutting edge on the knife blade, he rubbed the backside of the blade to smooth the edges and square the side.

"He earns what'er he can

And Looks the whole world in the face,

For he owes not any man ... "

Recently I was asked how is poor defined in this culture. I responded that the people do not have many material possessions but they are able to care for themselves as well as their families. In this culture spiritual well being and happiness are also considered measures of wealth. Rather than pitying these people for all the material goods that they lack, I am awed by their ability to survive in the conditions that they find themselves in. I joke with Duang that I would be dead in two weeks.

Rather than being poor they are wealthy in the sense that just as Longfellow's Village Blacksmith could they too can look the while world in the face for they owe not any man.

How many of us are that rich?


  1. Bob Patrick, Arkansas: A great article, wish I could have been there. I learned to forge in a hole in the ground on a 10 lb anvil starting when I was 9 years old, and used charcoal. Because of this I have always been able to get by blacksmithing, and at 65 I have a nice enough shop; I still admire people like this. I feel a real kinship with them.

  2. Thank yoy, Bob Patrick, for your complimentary words. I have also written an article about the knife mmakers of Laos who use recycled car and truck leaf springs. I guess that there remains hope for our freedom as long as there are people in this world like you who know and practise the traditional arts such as black smithing. It is frightenng how little the younger generation knows about being self-sufficient. I hope that you are passing along your knowledge.



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