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It is difficult to find an ironclad knife in a modern and bustling city. Whether it’s a butcher’s shop in a large market, or a kitchen in a food kiosk, or the kitchen of an ordinary family, ironclad knives have given way to stainless steel knives with sharp white light. Out of coincidence, I once saw a chubby chef holding a dark black clip steel to skillfully cut all kinds of ingredients, and I thought I’d discovered a whole new area. I kept staring at it for a long time, and I enjoyed this scene a lot. If you want to look for the rough figure of ironclad knives, you might try your luck in a meat shop of a small town, or in ordinary families in the countryside.
Why aren’t ironclad knives popular?
It is time-consuming to make one, it rusts easily and it’s expensive. The most important reason is – it’s difficult to find an experienced master forging ironclad knives. And why do we need an experienced one? Because it takes an even longer time to manually forge a high-quality ironclad knife, and it’s an easily failed process. An experienced one usually has his own “unique skills” in terms of the control of the furnace’s temperature, the quenching materials, and the clamping and forging of steel. My grandfather used to tell his apprentices, “I hope that those who asked you to forge a knife will never return to you for repair, because a good one can be used for a lifetime.”
When I was little, I liked to sit at the threshold in front of the old house and wait for the old butcher in the village to look for my grandfather. Why? Because every time someone came to forge their knives, I got a lot of snacks. It’s difficult and time-consuming to forge a high-quality ironclad knife. If the master works fast, it would take two days, otherwise it’d usually take three to five days. Moreover, it’s even more challenging to find an experienced knife master to create a handy one.
People who looked for my grandfather to do so usually have to queue and wait. Very often, they wanted knives with shapes to be forged according to their needs or ideas, and that made the waiting time even longer. To get the product sooner, they usually brought some local produce for my grandfather, and of course, I benefited from the snacks they brought me too.
The most time-consuming part in forging an ironclad knife included the hammering, clamping and polishing of knife blades. When there was no help available with pneumatic hammers, two people were required to do the hammering. They used a furnace to burn the iron hot before the pounding, and repeat this step for a couple of dozen times before the blades of the ironclad knives are forged properly. This process is thus time-consuming and laborious. For inexperienced apprentices, this process is prone to errors, and the failure rate is high. Back to a thousand years ago, when the steel was extremely rare and precious, the apprentice would probably be beaten heavily by his master if he failed to master the skills of forging an ironclad knife. The saying “good steel is used on knife blades” thus makes perfect sense.
“If you want to become a good cook, first you need a good kitchen knife.”
Ironclad knives rust easily, and its forging gradually withdrew from the traditional Chinese market. Without the demand, there’s naturally no market of it. As a result, many knife-forging masters are not willing to spend time on forging an ironclad knife. At the very beginning, I thought about whether to introduce a traditional ironclad knife. I didn’t take action, as they rust easily, and my foreign customers wouldn’t like it. (Especially, they rust even more easily after cutting fruits.) Secondly, I couldn’t find anyone to forge this knife among the traditional masters. Given their age, they can no longer spend a long time on forging knives. Fortunately, Master Li introduced his beloved apprentice, Abu to me. He’s a Tibetan young guy of few words daily. His family owns a business of Tibetan knives and he’s been an apprentice for 4 years now. He has already mastered the skills of forging an ironclad knife.
Now, with the use of pneumatic hammers, one can complete the process of forging blades of ironclad knives alone. After drinking together twice over the dinner table (it’s easy to communicate with people of a similar age), we came to an agreement and he promised to forge an ironclad knife for me before returning home.
The process of making knife samples was not very smooth. Abu insisted on the methods and samples taught by his masters, but I wanted to add contemporary factors on the basis of tradition, and make the knives more versatile through improvement. Again, while drinking together, we reached a consensus for our joint design. After scrapping several knives (each time we scrapped one, I told Abu, “In the old days, you’d be beaten to death by Master Li.”), the knife that I’ve been looking all along – “Cloudibow” is born.
Perhaps no one will help me forge an ironclad knife anymore in the future, but I am still very happy to introduce this traditional, ordinary and very practical kitchen knife to you.
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