For half a century, Seok No-gi has been working as a blacksmith in Yeongju, a small town seated on a plateau where undulating mountain ranges converge. His handcrafted plow hoes, called homi, are in great demand on global online marketplaces such as Amazon and Ebay. The hand plow with an angled blade is a versatile gardening tool, more convenient than the regular trowel.
At Yeongju Smithy in North Gyeongsang Province, the blacksmith Seok No-gi sharpens the blade of a homi, or hand plow, hammering the heated metal into shape. He began working as a blacksmith at 14, opened his current shop near Yeongju Station at 23, and has been running it for 43 years.
“When I heard for the first time that a large number of my homi were being sold on Amazon, I thought of a bunch of middle-aged Korean women plowing the earth in the Amazon jungle,” said Seok No-gi.
The only “Amazon” the blacksmith knew was the tropical rainforest. But he soon became acquainted with another Amazon when his homi were chosen as one of the international online store’s top ten gardening tools and given the “Amazon’s Choice” label. Last year, more than 2,000 hand plows produced at his smithy found their way to customers around the world through the popular online marketplace.
As he talked, Seok gazed down at the simple tool bearing the logo of Youngju Daejanggan (Yeongju Smithy). But he still did not seem to fully recognize the nature of this phenomenon.
Seok makes hand plows of various sizes and shapes, often tailoring his products to customers’ preferences.
Korean-style Horticultural Tool
“In many foreign countries where gardening is a popular pastime, I heard they have hand tools like trowels and rakes, but nothing like this one with an angled blade,” he said. “It seems the homi’s curved handle puts less strain on the wrist and lumps of clay don’t stick to the blade as with a trowel.”
The story of the indigenous Korean tool being widely used overseas is more than just a pleasant surprise — at least to the generations of Koreans who remember their mothers wielding it to work the fields. Homi used to be a necessity on every farm for particular farming chores that were mostly carried out by women. Mothers would go out to the fields early in the morning and work all day until dusk. Using the small but versatile tool, they would turn up the earth to plant the seeds for the year’s crops, remove the weeds that would hamper their growth, dig out the crops with its pointed tip, and make furrows or level them down with its rounded edge.
It is impossible to keep the chest and back upright while using the homi. Facing the earth with the tool in hand means turning toward the land with the body lax and stooped. The hunched backs of the mothers working in the fields resemble the homi’s curved blade. There is something rueful about the roundness, like the bent back of a person who tries to straighten up but cannot. Just looking at the round backs toiling to prepare the land to grow life arouses certain emotions.
Therefore, meeting the blacksmith who has spent 52 years crafting countless homi enkindled a series of questions. What does he see in his work? What is he thinking when he hammers a hot piece of metal into shape? What does he make of his job, which requires him to commune with water, fire, air and metal to produce a single hand plow?
Individually Different Usage
“With a blade like this, it looks like the dirt will be heaped rather than parted. Could you make it flatter here? And the tip sharper?” asked a customer while examining a homi that he had picked up from the shelves. He wanted the convex edge of the triangular blade flattened and the tip sharpened. Seemingly used to dealing with such requests, Seok took the tool from the customer and went up to the furnace. He lit a fire, giving it a blow with the bellows. As the flames started to rise, he looked at them for a while before putting the tool into the furnace.
“Everyone has their own way of working with the tool. Though they may be using the same homi, the way the dirt is plowed is different. That is why some of my customers have a new homi tailored to their preferences as soon as they buy it,” he explained, proudly adding, “This place is different from a hardware shop carrying only readymade goods.”
Gazing at the fire, the look in his eyes changed in an instant before he picked up a pair of tongs and took out the heated tool. A blazing fire seemed to be trapped in the red hot metal. He placed the metal on the anvil and started to pound it with a hammer, turning it this way and that. The clang of metal striking metal resounded through the smithy and sparks flew in all directions. As the red glow faded, the blade was gradually reshaped, and the customer nodded with approval.
Catching the Moment
Watching the flames swallowing a piece of metal seemed to induce a trance-like absorption. Now, Seok put a piece of iron as large as a man’s fist in the furnace and stared again at the flames. Iron melts at around 1,500°C, and the blacksmith must seize the moment when metal becomes malleable just before it melts. The sole means of reading the temperature inside Seok’s old furnace, which lacks a thermometer, is his intuition.
“I observe the color of the metal to read its state. If it’s still red, it has to be heated longer. Being reddish like the moon means it’s too hard, so you need to wait until it gets as white as the sun. Beyond that point, however, the metal melts and you can’t make anything with it,” he said.
His perception of the moon as reddish and the sun as white had not quite registered with me when the pounding began again. This time, it was not a regular hammer but an automatic forging hammer that moved up and down at a regular pace. Seok placed a piece of heated metal under it to be shaped. The machine’s rhythmic pounding and the swift movement of his hands turning it over repeatedly to obtain the desired shape were in wonderful harmony. Under the rhythm, the triangular blade was created, and the bit of metal stretched out like taffy formed the shank to connect the blade to the handle. After the roughly shaped metal was heated up again and the shape refined, the blade was finished.
“At a foundry, things are made by pouring molten metal into molds, but it’s completely different at a smithy, where metal is heated, pounded, stretched and shaped by hand,” Seok said.
Pounding involves a series of interrelated procedures — controlling the fire to reshape the metal, dealing with the air, and transforming the innate quality of the metal.
“The air blown by the bellows creates tiny holes in the melting metal. Pounding helps to fill the holes and create an even density across the surface. That’s why blacksmiths of the past used to strike the raw metal hundreds and thousands of times. But I haven’t done a lot of that because I adopted a machine hammer early on,” Seok said.
An insight into the metal is a prerequisite for this work. No matter how experienced a blacksmith might be, he can never discern its quality just by looking at it.
Pounding and Tempering
“You can’t say precisely how strong any given piece of metal is until you heat and strike it. Similar as they may seem, all metals have different properties, just as rice comes in many varieties. Some are strong but break easily, but others are both strong and resistant to breakage, which makes them good for sickles or spades,” Seok said.
To make his homi, Seok uses leaf springs recycled from vehicles. “My favorite material is steel, which other blacksmiths seldom use,” he said. “Steel is so hard and dense that it is more difficult to handle than iron. But tools made of soft metal tend to be curled up at the edges rather than being sharp. You lose customer trust if you sell such products. Repair them? It was possible in the past, when homi were heavier and thicker. A typical homi used to weigh about 500 grams, which meant there was plenty of material to stretch the edges out for a sharper blade. Or else, we could attach scrap metal to the edges and sharpen them. But nowadays, people prefer lighter tools weighing about 200 to 300 grams, which are too thin to repair.”
Seok believes that the value of metal tools is determined by tempering, a heat treatment method performed by briefly dipping the heated metal into cold water. Although the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard described tempering as the process of “enclosing fire in the iron with cold water to enclose the wild beast of fire in the steel prison,” Seok maintained that it was a skill beyond description. Depending on the nature of the metal, its thickness, temperature and other conditions, tempering can take less than a second or much longer. Called the “crowning glory of blacksmithing,” it is a critical process that determines the durability of the metal. So much so that in the past, blacksmiths would complete the process in the quiet solitude of night. Indeed, it could not have been easy to negotiate the two extremes of water and fire to get the best out of the material.
Seok shows how to use the tongs to put the blades in and out of the furnace and the hammer to strike the heated metal on the anvil.
The blacksmith says the hardest part of his career has been enduring the hard work day in and day out; his crooked fingers attest to his tough life.
Tempering is performed by dipping the heated metal into cold water. A blacksmith needs long experience and intuitive skills to be able to properly carry out this process that determines the strength of the metal.
A Battle with Self
Seok first set foot in a smithy at the age of 14 when he went to help his brother-in-law, who was a blacksmith. It was such an impoverished time that anyone who borrowed a sack of barley in spring had to pay it back with one and a half sacks in autumn. He would not have turned down any job that paid him properly for his work.
But working as a blacksmith was not easy. “You have to get the metal into shape before it cools down. Even when chips of hot metal land on the back of your hand, there’s no time to remove them because if the metal cools down you have to heat it up all over again,” Seok said. “One day, in my teens, when I was learning the craft, sparks flew up at one of my eyes. I felt the eye with my gloved hand and saw that the glove was soaked with blood. I covered the other eye with my hand to see if I could still see. I could, so I kept working, thinking at least my eye hadn’t popped out.”
Asked about the biggest hurdle in his career — the hard work, the people he interacted with, the low income, or anything at all — he answered it was the fact that he had to carry on working, no matter what.
“It was my dream to be able to make a living while taking two months off, or even one month, every summer,” he said. “I used to wonder why I had to toil at the furnace when everyone else seemed to manage fine in other jobs. My grievance grew stronger after I managed to buy a house for my family. I decided to open a small corner store but eventually gave up the plan. I wasn’t sure I could support my family that way. Working as a blacksmith, I could at least keep my head above water.”
Although he had worked so long and struggled so hard with himself to become a master blacksmith, dark clouds gathered in only a moment. The development of farm machines radically reduced the demand for handmade tools, and low-priced Chinese products also encroached on the market. Yet, he held on to his craft.
“Some may take it for granted that out of a thousand homi, at least one may have a defect. But I can’t accept that,” he said. “It may be one out of a thousand for me, but for the customer it is the only one, because few people today would own two homi.”
As the industry declined, he tried to find a new market. In the old days, when almost all the work was done by hand, he had been innovative enough to invest a sum big enough to buy a house to purchase a metal cutting machine. This time, he found a way out of the crisis when he found someone who could manage online sales.
“It’s been over 10 years since I started selling online. I was often told that some of my homi were sold to the U.S. As customers there started talking about my products, there was a gradual increase in orders,” Seok said. “With time, they were listed on Amazon, but it didn’t happen overnight. Now, they are exported to Australia as well. It seems there is good news every day… But these days, production can’t keep up with demand. No young people want to learn the craft. I have a few people helping me, but they are rather old and there’s no telling when they will quit. It could be this month, or the next. I’m also losing strength every year. Ours is probably the last generation of blacksmiths in this country.”
The heated breaths of the blacksmith striking the red hot metal overlapped with the plaintive sighs of the mothers working their fingers to the bone, each wearing out one homi blade a year.
Chosen as one of Amazon’s Top Ten Garden Tools and given the “Amazon’s Choice” label, the hand plows made by Seok No-gi are popular in many countries.
An Honest Life
He smiled with a mixture of pride and regret in his face. “I’ve looked after myself financially since I was 14. I opened my shop right here at 23. I started my family, bought our house, and raised three children, giving them all a college education,” he recollected. “My wife and I have never been reduced to borrowing money from others. Would a poorly educated man like me have been able to become someone grand like a politician, doctor, or judge? No, I’ve never dreamed of that. I’ve simply worked hard, always telling myself, I won’t lag behind, though I may never lead. I’m satisfied. I think I’ve had a good life.”
Seok was talking about being self-sufficient in this world where we constantly desire what others desire. “Perhaps because I’ve spent a lot of time before the fire, I still have good eyesight. At this age, I still don’t need reading glasses,” he said, chuckling.
Brightened by the force of the flames, his eyes shone like the moonlight — or was it the sunlight? There he was, his physique petite but solid, his face gentle but resolved, his voice raised in hoarse excitement while telling his story, and his fingers crooked like the curved handles of the countless homi he has crafted. The man whose life was forged by fire and iron again reminded me of mothers squatting in the fields digging the earth with their homi. The heated breaths of the blacksmith striking the red hot metal overlapped with the plaintive sighs of the mothers working their fingers to the bone, each wearing out one homi blade a year. I understood then why my eyes and my heart lingered on the smithy shelves arrayed with the simple hand plows.