FAIRBANKS — An ancient form of bladesmithing is alive and thriving because of a small group of Alaska artisans.
The art form is the labor-intensive creation of high-quality steel, called tamahagane, used in the Japanese tradition of sword making. The word translates loosely as “precious metal” or “precious steel,” with the “precious” probably referring to how it’s made. It is no easy task and is a time-consuming effort, requiring at times round-the-clock work.
Mark and Angel Knapp of Fairbanks, owners of the knife making and outdoors business The Cutting Edge, are the two responsible for bringing the metal-making event to Fairbanks. The Knapps received an $18,000 grant from the Rasmuson Foundation to explore the folk and traditional art skill with other blade makers from Fairbanks and across the state who joined in the days-long event.
“It’s fascinating you can go to the earth to get stuff out and make things,” Mark Knapp said. “It’s a lost art these days. People don’t know where it comes from.”
Where it comes from, in Alaska at least, is from all over the state. The Knapps’ multi-day tamahagane-making adventure took place at their business in Fairbanks at 1971 Fox Ave. but saw participation and materials come from all over, including two tons of local charcoal and 400 pounds of iron-rich sand from Haines. To lead the bladesmithing event, Knapp called upon his friend Bill Burke of Boise, Idaho, himself something of a tamahagane expert. Burke is a full-time knife maker and member of the American Bladesmithing Society who got into knife making because of his interest in Japanese swords.
“Through a trip to Japan and hours of studying, I decided I had enough information to give it an attempt, and that was 10 years ago,” Burke said. “I did it at home a few times, and then with friends I did it more and more, and each time it got better and better.”
Burke led the multi-day process, which started by building an outdoor furnace measuring 3-feet-wide by 5-feet-long by 5-feet-high. From there, the furnace is filled with charcoal, which burns and cures the mortar holding the furnace together. Next, with the furnace still raging, iron oxide — the iron-rich sand from Haines — is added to the furnace every 15 minutes for 24 hours. As a large coffee can of iron oxide is dumped into the furnace, so is a large garbage can of charcoal to keep it ablaze. The process — from the building of the furnace to firing it up to filling it with charcoal and iron oxide — took three days, lasting from a Tuesday to a Thursday.
Finally, on a Friday, the bladesmiths were able to collect enough ore out of the furnace to start the blade-making process. The 400 pounds of iron ore Knapp and his crew of participants used in the furnace resulted in 30 pounds of tamahagane.
“Basically, in layman’s terms, you’re taking your iron oxide and through the smelting process you burn oxygen molecules off, and it’s replaced with carbon molecules,” Burke said.
Once the tamahagane cools, it’s placed into a forge where it is heated until red hot. Then, it’s folded and smashed, folded and smashed, over and over, until the blade maker has a workable piece of steel to turn into a knife or sword. It’s a long, grueling, hot process for a small but sweet reward.
“It was all for this,” Knapp said, holding up a 71/2-inch long by 1-inch wide by 5/16-inch thick piece of steel, from which Knapp will probably make two knives. He has no plans on selling the tamahagane as it’s of value to him, more so emotionally than financially.
“The ability to find what you need to make out of the earth is the basis for civilization,” Knapp said. “It’s our progression from the stone age to the metal age.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter at twitter.com/FDNMfeatures.