Forged in Thai Fire: Hand Forging an Axe in Thailand
The humidity is soaring high, to match the rising mercury as the temperature soars to 41C and beyond. The Northern Isaan province, Roi Et, Thailand, is littered with wide open rice fields and dense jungle backwoods. Nestled in a small village, relatively close to no where, sits a small blacksmith shop set back in the shade. A chiseled, soot covered Thai Blacksmith hammers away at some molten hot steel, showing off a toothless grin as we approach his workshop with hopes of learning the process of forging an axe in Thailand.
Meet Tedtae, one of Thailand’s back country blacksmiths that labours relentlessly, barely breaking a sweat as he hovers over a roaring coal forge. Tedtae is a self taught blacksmith, that’s learned the ancient trade from fellow blacksmiths in the region. His hammer pounds against steel, with uniformed, precise strikes as he bends steel to his will.
The next few hours, are the hottest I’ve ever felt in my life. I was already sweating my balls off, just waking up in the hot countryside. Now I was drenched in sweat, and the blacksmith had a grin from ear to ear. “Ready to work?” he says in Thai through a welcoming smile, as I translated via a translation app.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked in such hot and stifling weather before, so the next few hours were difficult to say the least. The double takes from locals, who had probably never seen a 6’4 tall, 300lbs farang with a beard and long hair to match the immense size, should have been an indicator I was in unfamiliar territory, off the beaten path, deep in rural Thailand.
My first attempt at forging, did not last long. Tedtae showed me some hammering techniques, corrected the angle of my swings, and showed me how to shape the steel with brute force. He must have heard my heart skipping beats, trying to keep up with the tough physical activity in the raunchy Thai heat. Thank fuck for that! He gave me a smile that said “I got this” and proceeded to hammer out 4 axe heads, in as little as 15 minutes. His shirt ripped to shreds, his flip flops held together with string, he had completed a task he’s done countless times before.
After the steel was heated to a temperature above its critical point, it was air-cooled until it drops to room temperature. It was during this process, that I learned just how much went into the entire operation. Tedtae makes his own charcoal out of old tree stumps, burning it on site. The forge was made from a spare air blower and oil drum, with a concrete quench bath attached. I asked what the next steps were, and was promptly told that work was finished for the week. It was Tuesday, but in this extreme heat and humidity, everyone works mid-morning, when it starts to get too hot to do anything besides chill in a hammock with an ice cold drink.
The next day, we met an older gentleman that carved all the handles by hand, using exotic Thai hardwood, local to the region. Some beautiful Padauk & Tamarind wood with red and blonde two tone patterns, that look like 2 entirely different species of wood seamlessly glued together. The wood carver sat near the ground, with a file, sandpaper, a hand saw and a machete, the only tools he needs to craft a solid handle for some hand forged axes completed the previous week. He’s been carving wood for the past 60 years, but he says that time is catching up with him, and he doesn’t do as much as he use to, pointing to a house built entirely out of wood in the background.
The finished product, a Thai jungle axe with a unique shape to most conventional axes, was both beautiful and functional. A hard juxtaposition when looking for a tool that is practical and efficient, especially when used in the dense jungles of Thailand. Having seen exactly what went into this axe, and having a hand in the forging process, showed me just how hard these men and women of Thailand labour over their ancient craft, passed down generation to generation.