Thursday, December 16, 2010

Baan Hat Hien - Blacksmith Village


Baan Hat Hien Blacksmiths Forging A Cane Knife
 Since we had rented a Tuk-Tuk along with a driver during our trip to Lunag Prabang, Laos we had the freedom as well as flexibility to do some sightseeing outside of Luang Prabang proper.  As part of my research for our second trip to the area I determined that visits to three villages would be interesting.

Baan Hat Hien, "Blacksmith Village" Lao People's Democratic Republic
One of the villages that I wanted to visit was "Baan Hat Hien" which is also referred to as "Blacksmith Village".  According to my research on the Internet Baan Hat Hien is well known for making knives out of reclaimed American artillery shells and other war materials.  America's not so secret, "Secret War", in Laos ended 35 years ago and even though Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world, the amount of available war material has apparently diminished greatly.  During our visit to the village which included three homes where blacksmitting was being performed, we did not observe any brass or bomb materials.  The Baan Hat Hien blacksmiths were creating knives and machetes out of recycled steel - high grade steel from leaf springs of Tuk-Tuks and Somlaws.  Although the amount of material from the war now available for forging into knives has diminished, the threat to the Lao people from the wars remains a real concern and danger.  During our visit we saw Lao government vehicles associated with their campaign to rid the country of unexploded ordinance.

Today the blacksmiths purchase leaf springs from the suspensions of Tuk-Tuks and Somlaws from scrap metal dealers from Vientiane for 6,000 KIP ($0.75 USD) a kilogram ($0.16 USD per pound).  The blackmiths disassemble the leaf springs and cut them into the proper length.  They use their forge to heat the steel in order to cut the steel with a hammer and chisel.  I did not see any oxy-acetylene cutting torches in the village.  Oxy-acetylene cutting torches use compressed bottles of oxygen and compressed bottles of acetylene to fuel a hot flame to cut steel.  I suspect that both the cost and the lack of availability of the gases preclude their use in Baan Hat Hien.  The blacksmiths of Baan Hat Hien heat their steel in small charcoal fires.  Charcoal is a local product and cheap.


A Typical Forge in Baan Hat Hien
I didn't count the number of houses in the village, but I would guess that there were 10 to 15 houses.  From the blacksmiths I learned that there were 5 forges in the village.  Five forges?  Actually there were five homes where the family forged knives over a very small charcoal fire in the front yard of the home.  Typically the 6 inch diameter fire was contained in a rough furnace built with a few bricks and supplemented with a forced draft fan.  Everything was fit for purpose and from readily available cheap materials.  The forced draft fans are small blowers that appear to be recycled truck defroster, heater, or A/C fans.  Air from the fan was sent by a metal tube to discharge beneath the coals of the fire.


 As is typical in these cottage industry facilities and many homes the electrical system was very primitive and suspect.  Electrical cable ran unprotected along the ground from a very small junction box on a post or pole to the blower.  I did not see any protective measures such as metal conduit or a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupter).  If there is one thing that concerns me more than being involved in a traffic accident over here, it is having some sort of electrical accident.  My concerns are in general not shared by the local people.



A Husband and Wife Work Together In Front of Their Home
The people working with the hot steel wore no personal protection equipment.  Due to the heat of the day and from the forge, they wore cotton tee shirts and cotton shorts.  None of the workers wore gloves even though they were handling hot metal.  None of the workers had safety boots.  The workers were barefoot or wore their everyday rubber flip flops.  I never saw a pair of safety glasses despite the various activities that could injure the worker's eyes.  If any type of head wear was worn it was a simple baseball style cotton cap.  Despite the soot from the charcoal fire none of the workers wore a dust mask or anything else over their nose and mouth.  Although the workers were handling yellow hot steel and striking the hot steel with heavy hammers causing sparks to fly and undoubtedly small pieces of hot metal, the workers did not wear any "leathers".  I grinned to myself thinking of the heart attack any of the safety men that I had worked with in the past would have had upon inspecting these work sites.  We were witnessing a cottage industry no doubt very much like those operating in Europe or America in the mid 19th century.  The blacksmiths do not go to school to learn metallurgy or manufacturing techniques.  The ones that we spoke to were taught their craft by their fathers.  The workers were masters as well as slaves to their trade.  They pretty much controlled the entire process and means of production.  However, if they didn't produce they did not earn any money.



Two Workers Beat On A Hot Steel Blank to be Forged Into A Cane Knife

The man and wife that we spent the most amount of time with start work at 8:00 A.M. and work 7 days a week until 5 or 6 P.M..  I suspect that their quitting time is more determined by available day light than any defined schedule.  Their product is purchased by a "big company" for 16,000 KIP a cane knife ($2.00 USD) which the company then distributes and sells for $4 USD.  The blacksmith team can make 10 knives a day.  In comparison Lao field workers make $2.67 USD a day versus $20 USD for the blacksmith and his wife.

A Worker Inserts A Hot Blank Into A Bamboo Handle That is Being Prepared

At two of the forges, wives worked with their husbands to produce cane cutting knives.  The women tended to heating the steel in the fire.  They also took the hot semi finished knives from their husbands and shoved the blanks into prepared pieces of bamboo.  Bamboo is a type of grass.  It is hollow but at intervals there is a diaphragm that closes off the interior of the bamboo.  These periodic internal bracing gives the bamboo plant strength and rigidity. The prepared pieces of dried bamboo were cut so that one of the internal diaphragms was close to one end and far from the other end. As the narrow tapered end of the hot knife entered into the hollow bamboo at the long end it eventually burned through the internal diaphragm at the far short end thus creating a good mechanical connection once the blade is completed.  When the blade has been completed the blade is reinserted into the bamboo handle and the void filled with an epoxy.  The day that we visited the women were only burning the internal slot into the handle and removed the still hot blade to complete cooling on the ground.  The handles were set off to the side for use at a later time.

Baan Hat Hien Knives For Sale - We bought one of the antler handle knives
In addition to cane cutting knives, the blacksmiths of Baan Hat Hien produce smaller hand knives.  These knives are presented with a great deal of pride and available for purchase directly from the blacksmiths.  We ended up buying a knife with a simple etched bamboo handle for 50,000 KIP ($6.25 USD).  A short while later we wee presented with some other knives for consideration.  Two of the knives had antler handles.  We ended up purchasing one of them for the same $6.25 price.  We like to purchase local handicrafts on our various travels.  It is a way to support and encourage local crafts and make wonderful souvenirs as well.



Handcrafted Knives with Bamboo Handles
 We spent about an hour at the village and learned a great deal about knife making but more importantly about the people's life.

Once again I was impressed and in awe of people making do with what was available to them.  The people were able to survive with little outside involvement or perhaps more importantly without outside interference.

It is these triumphs of the individual and cultural adaptations that I enjoy witnessing and documenting.

It is crafts, skills, and traditions like these that make up the heritage of mankind.  They are priceless gifts for the future and inspirations for today.

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