Steel takes shape as the furnace roars

August 16, 2020 - 09:29

The summer sun adds to the heat on Lò Rèn (Blacksmith) Street in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, which is home to dozens of shops selling steel frames. The pace of life is as it is most days.

By Lê Hương & Vũ Thu Hà

The summer sun adds to the heat on Lò Rèn (Blacksmith) Street in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, which is home to dozens of shops selling steel frames. The pace of life is as it is most days.

WORK CONTINUES: Nguyễn Phương Hùng has maintained the traditional craft of his family and the street. VNS Photo Lê Hương

Sprightly 60-year-old Nguyễn Phương Hùng is concentrating on a glowing-red steel bar, as sparks fly whenever his hammer strikes.

From time to time, he puts the bar back over the fire for more heat, before beating it into the desired shape.

A DAY IN THE LIFE: Winter or summer, Hùng loses himself in his work by the furnace. VNS Photo Lê Hương

When he has forged the piece to his liking, he puts it into a nearby sink of oil to let it cool.

Every now and then he stops to talk to a customer making an order.

It’s an ordinary day in Hùng’s small workshop, which he’s had for the last 12 years. He’s the only blacksmith left on Lò Rèn, which used to be home to furnaces the same as his father’s, at number 26.

This is where he can be found every day, summer or winter.

DELICATE TOUCH: An experienced blacksmith knows how to heat the steel and forge it into the desired form. VNS Photo Lê Hương

“Every house along this street had a furnace in the 1970s,” he told Việt Nam News. “The sound of hammers shaping steel used to echo around here day and night.”

His father, who learned the craft from his grandfather and raised seven children on what he earned, passed it on to him from when he was ten.

“Every morning I have breakfast and a coffee and chat with the neighbours before starting work,” he said. “I work every day and have almost never been sick. Hard work makes me stronger, and I don’t feel my 60 years at all.”

He said blacksmithing is a demanding job and requires passion.

In order to fashion an item, the blacksmith must work on it carefully and patiently. He should know how to heat the steel to the correct temperature prior to forging it into the desired form. Machines can replace certain stages, but the “soul” of the product depends very much on the blacksmith’s skills.

HAPPY AT WORK: Hùng wears a bright smile all the time. VNS Photo Lê Hương

“Even just holding a hammer is an art in itself,” he said as he took off his thick oil gloves to reveal bare hands. “See, no calluses.”

While farming has all but disappeared from Việt Nam’s urban areas and blacksmiths are no longer needed for new equipment or repairs, his “new” customers include construction workers, who bring him worn-out drill bits or chisels to replace, and housewives, who ask him to make special knives.

Hùng doesn’t believe what he does is difficult.

“It makes me feel healthy and puts my mind at ease,” he said. “From only my own labour I have earned enough money to support my family, build a house, and raise my children.”

“Having seen how I behave, my son and daughter tried harder to better their lives.”

Though neither followed in his footsteps, he still feels proud that each studied hard and carved out a career in their chosen field.

“I have finished the job of ensuring my children are educated,” he said. “I have given them an example to follow: to be an honest person earning a living from honest labour.”

Hùng had another career before blacksmithing, after learning how to repair motor cars at the Hà Nội Mechanical Engineering School in 1978, and he also worked as a driver and welder. Only in 2008 did he replace his father in the home workshop.

“A blacksmith shouldn’t mind hard work,” he said. “He will come to know that the job is dirty and accept it. He must love it, so he can overcome the hardships.”

In the middle of summer, when it’s 40 degrees Celsius or more, Hùng still simply loses himself in his furnace.

“I don’t feel hot at all. I only think about what I have to make,” he said. “Customers are waiting.”

In exchange for sweat, he has a bright smile at all times and is popular among his customers.

Nguyễn Đức Bình, who lives nearby, said Hùng had repaired a lot of his old equipment and machinery.

“Even in the modern world we need blacksmiths like Hùng, who can fix things by hand,” Bình said. “I have a small component from my electric fan with that I need him to fix. He is one of the most skilled and experienced blacksmiths in the area.”

Hùng said that each person chooses his or her own fate.

“Whatever job you choose, your mind and passion must be in it, together with patience and hard work. Labour is always noble,” he said. VNS