Fifty years of persevering as a blacksmith

by Funahiro (Yuji Funatsu) (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 2, October 2016)

Young Funahiro

Yuji Funatsu

This article was translated and reprinted with express permission from Mr. Funatsu. It previously appeared in the Kezuroukai Japan newsletter No. 66 where it is part of an ongoing series.

The third generation Funahiro (Yuji Funatsu) attended night classes in high school while helping his father (Kouzou) during the day. When he was in 5th grade, Kouzou became an apprentice of first generation Mr. Ikeda (current Kunikei) of the Sanjo blacksmiths and continued until he was 20 years old. A famous kanna blacksmith, Hatsuhiro, lived nearby, and father visited him often and learned about heat treatment. He told me the stories often.

First Setback

I’ll never forget one Fall day 40 years ago when I received complaints from an old retail business client in Shibukawa, Gunma. One after another the store received returns due to chipped blades. It was at the time when I took over from my father, and I had no idea why the blades I made just like my father did had such problems. The retail shop removed Funahiro nomi from the window display. I promised the wholesaler, “Please give me one year. I’ll make sharp nomi and go visit and apologize to the retail shop and carpenters.”

The Cause

To analyze the cause, I went to Sanjo Metalwork Laboratory and learned about a heat treatment technique from engineering professor Furukawa of Niigata University. At the same time, I asked my client carpenters about any flaws. Days and nights I studied about heat treatment and steel. My wife, Chiyoko, who was working for a company, had to support the family, as income from my work was reduced. It occupied my head 24 hours a day–so many nights I had heat treatment nightmares. Often I woke up in the middle of the night and made a note. The lab result by the metallographic microscope showed that my father’s nomi was perfectly quenched and had a spheroidized structure. The result of my nomi showed beyond question poor quality. It showed how unskilled I was. I felt the limitations of purely relying on my intuition. Then I acutely realized that it was necessary to introduce principles of modern science to the traditional heat treatment technique.

Chemical Composition

Meeting with Kengo Usui

It had been few months since I first visited the lab when the chief said, “Funahiro, why don’t you visit Mr. Kengo Usui who knows very well about the microscope?” That was how I first met Mr. Usui. I purchased my own metallographic microscope following his advice, but the price, 400,000 yen at the time, was a large sum of money for me. I was very impressed with his dedication to create sharper blades analyzing steel heat treatment and decided to look him up as my teacher. Looking back, it has been a long road. 42 years.

Research Incorporating Modern Science

After purchasing the microscope, I examined every blade. I wondered how the network and the spheroidized structure were formed. I read the heat treatment books borrowed from the lab many times and realized there was a certain formula. Carbon steel containing five elements is mainly used to make nomi. (see chart below) For spheroidization, the smith forging and the temperature control are key points.

Teaching from Master

After one year, I told the wholesaler, “Tomorrow I’ll visit the retail shop in Shibukawa and the carpenters who are dissatisfied.” The wholesaler had a cold with high fever and couldn’t go with me. Although I didn’t know where the shop was, my wife (who was anxious) and I went and visited the shop to apologize. There were about 10 carpenters there and they tried my nomi. I was confident my nomi was excellent but felt uneasy and fearful for an instant. “Funahiro, this is sharp and completely different from the old one,” one said smiling. I was really relieved. I made up my mind to create dependable sharp nomi thinking about the end users. At the same time I felt strongly mastering sharpening skill was necessary to make sharp tools.