On March 27, [we] went to a Hmong blacksmith shop in La Crosse.
Many people come to this shop to see the blacksmith work and to talk with each other about life, funny things, and stories. The blacksmith shop is a place where Hmong people can come and relax.
The master blacksmith there is Tong Khai Vang. He learned the art of blacksmithing when he was 10. The master blacksmith is the best and most experienced blacksmith. Our guide, and one of the blacksmiths, was Yue Vu. … The blacksmith makes all sorts of things. Spirit-callers for shamans, hoes, hole cutters for trees, things to hold hot metal, knives, crossbows, and many more things. The spirit-caller takes sixteen to eighteen hours.
It was one of the most exciting, interesting, and powerful experiences we had on the trip.
[Yue Vu] showed us a lot of tools that a blacksmith would make. There were various tools used for working on a farm in Laos. One tool that interested me was a small curved blade for cutting single grains of rice off a plant when the rice is new. There’s a larger version of that for cutting lots of stalks of rice at one time, a tool that is used for drilling a hole in a piece of wood, and another for rounding it out to put rice in.
[One of the tools] was for a shaman but it wasn’t a knife. It was a ring with smaller rings that had zigzagged edges. In shamanism, it is used to communicate with the spirits.
After that, [the blacksmith] took us to the blacksmithing room. There was a big fireplace where Tong Khai sticks the metal in to be hot. There has to be a guy pulling it back and forward to make it hotter. The hotter it is the better it is. Every time the master blacksmith sticks the metal in, the [helper] will pull it back and forth. After that he pounds it. The more you pound it, the stronger it gets, so if you pound it a lot of times, the knife will be very strong.
When the metal was glowing red with heat, Mr. Vang took it out with tongs. Then he put it on a metal thing used for hammering tools into shape, and then, still holding it with the tongs, he started to hammer it into shape. When the metal first came out of the fire, I thought it looked like an unbreaking coal! When the metal wasn’t glowing red any more, Mr. Vang put it back in the fire amongst the coals. Then he took out the glowing metal to hammer. This he did eighteen times, until the blade of the knife was finished. Then, after cooling it down, he passed the blade (which wasn’t sharpened, all you mothers out there) around for each kid to hold. It wasn’t hot; it was just warm!!
While he hammered, little black flakes flew off of the knife. Those were bad pieces of metal.… Tong Khai would sell that knife for about twenty-five dollars.
The blacksmith was very cool. He started out with a piece of metal (usually from a broken down car), got it hammered into shape, and then (I think) he would sharpen it. They use special natural charcoal made out of wood. The bellows were a long tube with a handle used to pump air to the fire. This was a great experience and I want to do another trip next year.
Sounds of red hot iron
The blazing flame launches
Smoke fills the air.