This article in part of our Small Makers Collection. This series celebrates blacksmiths that make some of our favourite hand-made blades, but not enough for us to stock full time. You can learn more about our Small Makers Collection here.
There are many hidden, unknown and remote blacksmiths in Japan. Once upon a time, Kisuke Manaka-san of Kasukabe in Saitama prefecture, was one of them.
I first discovered his beautiful works of knife-art on his Instagram account (@manaka_hamono_tanrenjo), where his beautiful but rugged and unrefined knives drew me in. The more I read about him on his website, the more Instagram posts I saw, the more I couldn’t resist contacting him directly. When I decided to visit Japan for some skill and knowledge training, I asked Manaka-san if he would do me the favour of showing me his workshop. Luckily, he agreed to do so!
So there I was, in the middle of Saitama prefecture, visiting a blacksmith that not many people know about.
I got a good impression as he picked me up at the station. He is relatively young (for a blacksmith), very nice and has a great smile. I was prepared to walk to his workshop, but he was even kind enough to drive me. This came as a huge relief, since I was hauling a huge 70lb suitcase full of knives and sharpening stones across Japan with me.
Kisuke Manaka-san is the 5th generation blacksmith at Manaka Hamono. He began his blacksmithing career and started forging knives about 10 years ago, when he married into a knife making family. At the time he thought it was super cool to be a blacksmith, but the reality was that his father-in-law was more like a wholesaler or a retailer who sold knives at pop-up stores. He wanted to sell knives that he could confidently and honestly say that he hand-forged himself, and that was what led him to actually start forging knives.
Manaka-san, at work in his workshop.
He started making knives pretty much from scratch. His father-in-law was not able to teach him how but fortunately, he had a ton of machinery and blacksmithing equipment from his grand-father-in-law. With this equipment and a stack of books on knife-making, Manaka-san began the herculean task of teaching himself to make knives.
He wanted to forge as much as he could on his own, including forge-welding the layered steel in-house, rather than buying it pre-laminated from a factory like many blacksmiths do. He read every book on blacksmithing that he could find, and tried endless different materials, finally perfecting his technique of warikomi forge-welding (splitting a hot piece of soft steel like a hotdog bun, inserting a hard steel core, and forge-welding them together). He even achieved the feat of forge-welding stainless steels, which is not an easy task. All of his knives are now made with his warikomi forge-welded technique, done entirely in-house.
Manaka-san forge-welding soft steel onto harder core steel, using the warikomi technique.
Once he perfected forge-welding, Manaka-san’s focus shifted to perfecting heat treatment. He is a bookworm through and through, reading everything he can get his hands on about various heat treatment techniques for steel, and how they affect the finished products. Although he doesn’t have many fancy machines to help with their cladding and other processes, all of his stainless steel knives are treated with a method called “sub-zero treatment”, which significantly decreases the retained austenite in the blade. The retained austenite will eventually transform to martensite, but this transformation will affect the volume of the steel and thus can cause the knife to bend as it ages. In plain English, this process prevents the knife from warping over time.
Manaka-san has managed to teach himself a massive amount about knife-making and create many of the knives that he envisioned, but living and working in an area void of other blacksmiths has made his journey more challenging than most. Several years ago, he visited Hinoura-san in Niigata and he was moved and impressed by how knowledgeable, warm and accepting he was. Now Manaka-san calls Hinoura-san his mentor.
He is very passionate, enthusiastic, and diligent in what he does. When visiting I had a great chat with him about the grind and sharpness of his knives, where I suggested he make a slightly thinner bevel. He was honest in our discussions and open to new ideas. His latest batch of knives look like the bevels are nice and thin, without sacrificing the beauty of the knife. We are very excited to have his knives in our collection and look forward to a bright future together.
Manaka-san's Shirogami #2 series.
At Knifewear, we are proud to bring in two of his lines, his White #2 Kurouchi Tsuchime blades and ATS34 stainless steel Migaki Tsuchime knives. ATS34 is a resilient, rugged stainless steel that is perfect for first-time knife owners and folks who prefer lower maintenance knives, while White #2 steel is very traditional, great for those who like old-fashioned Japanese knives. Both lines are made with a load of love and integrity, and we hope you’ll love them as much as we do!