Crowbars to Kitchen Knives? Stunning Blades from Toshihiro Wakui
August 09, 20224 min read
The region of Tsubame-Sanjo, in Niigata, is renowned for its metalworking industry: stainless cutlery, pots and pans, kitchen knives, carpentry tools, and almost anything else you can imagine. Only 10% of Japan’s manufacturing GDP comes from the steel industry, but in Sanjo, that number is over 50%! Toshihiro Wakui-san is one of many, MANY makers that comprise the metal industry in Sanjo, each with a unique story that makes up the greater manufacturing culture in the region. Born into a family of a crowbar makers, Wakui Bar Manufacturing, he is the 3rd generation of Wakui and has faced many challenges in his years as head of the family enterprise. This is the story of how he triumphed over seemingly insurmountable odds to provide us (and you!) with some truly spectacular kitchen knives.
The roads in Sanjo are literally covered in rust!
Sanjo roads are world-renowned for being covered in rust, a fact we assumed was a tall tale until we saw it for ourselves! Legend has it this is the result of their massive steel industry, belching steel particles into the air, which settle on the pavement and oxidize. The actual culprit is more mundane: their snow-removal methods are entirely to blame. Many main roads are equipped with warm-water sprinklers that melt the snow on the road (an unthinkable solution in Canada), and the water contains a small amount of iron which rusts on the streets. On our recent trip to Japan, we were walking along these rusted roads when we suddenly heard the distinct “BANG BANG BANG” of a blacksmith forging steel. This unexpected noise was from Wakui-san’s workshop, located smack in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. We were immediately intrigued, as most makers have been pushed out of residential areas to industrial regions where noises like this are more tolerated.
As the name suggests, Wakui Bar Manufacturing’s primary focus has historically been forging crowbars by hand. Over 20 years ago Japanese construction techniques change drastically from the methods used previously, and the need for handmade prybars dropped completely. Rather than throw in the towel, the 3rd generation blacksmith got to work thinking about the future of his company and how they could continue to embody the Sanjo quality they were known for.
Facing these immense difficulties, Wakui-san decided to veer in a different direction from his company’s past. He spoke with Kazuomi Yamamoto, the head blacksmith of Yoshikane, about his plight and Kazuomi-san generously offered to teach Wakui-san how to make kitchen knives at Yoshikane. For four years straight, he’d do a full day of work at his own factory, then go directly to Yoshikane to work a shift making kitchen knives. This immense effort paid off, and by the end of those four long years, he learned everything Kazuomi-san had to offer. He then began making kitchen knives of his own.
Wakui-san's workshop is jam-packed, and yet he couldn't be happier!
Despite having a new set of skills, he faced another huge hurdle: to start producing kitchen knives he needed all new gear. The equipment required was totally different from crowbar manufacturing, so he had to source new machines wherever he could and squeeze them into his existing space. His workshop is truly impressive. Every corner and available space is utilized and filled to the brim with knife-making equipment in a way that seems somewhere between mad scientist and Mad Max. Because the place is so packed with gear, there’s a distinct footpath you can use to get through the workshop, every other square inch is filled with steel, gear, or some other arcane knife-making equipment.
Typically, a blacksmith will place the kiln to heat their steel next to the hammer for maximum efficiency, but not Wakui-san. His kiln and hammer are in totally separate areas because he literally couldn’t get them any closer together. Watching him work in this patchwork environment is enthralling. And yet, despite these seemingly insurmountable roadblocks, Wakui-san makes some outstanding blades.
His knives carry the distinctive trademark of Sanjo-style blades: they have a nice thick spine, smooth taper down towards the tip, and a beautiful convex taper to the edge. This allows the knife to cut smooth like silk while retaining a good amount of strength and rigidity. It doesn’t hurt that they’re forged in crazy sharp white carbon #2 steel with a protective outer layer of stainless steel to reduce maintenance. And honestly? They’re gorgeous blades too! The clean, shiny polish, the sexy dark octagon rosewood handle that fits your hand perfectly - don’t sleep on these guys; they might just become your new favourite knife.
When you handle his work, it's clear that Wakui-san is in love with knife-making.
Except for a bit of help from his dad shaping the blades, Wakui-san works entirely on his own without any help from apprentices or employees. Perhaps this seriously limited production is to blame for his lack of notoriety, but it allows him to oversee every single step and ensure everything is done perfectly. Wakui-san is a seriously underrated knife-maker who produces some seriously kickass blades!
We are honoured to have got to know him and finally be able to carry his knives at all of our stores. We’re excited to share Wakui-san’s passion and skill outside of Japan, and we hope he will gain the recognition he deserves!
Naoto came to Canada several years ago and we aren't letting him go back. After getting angry with his roommate's dull knives, he started to dream of sharp Japanese knives. Naoto graduated from University of Calgary with a bachelor degree of art, majoring International Relations and finds that selling Japanese knives is his own way of doing international relations. Naoto is our Head of Shipping and receiving. You can also see him in SpringHammer looking cool and holding it all together.