The Blacksmiths of Sumatra

Whenever I hear about blacksmiths then it always reminds me of the dirty-aproned man belting pieces of metal with a hammer on an anvil in some back hick town in western movies. In Indonesia, the art of smithing has existed for centuries.

There are those people who forge the metal and create gamelan instruments, and on the other hand, there are those who just forge and create instruments for use in agriculture or households.

Then there is the greatest of them all but not one you could classify as a blacksmith but still use the same basic process – the Kris makers. In Sumatra blacksmithing is alive and well, and, big business Khairul Saleh explains:

South Sumatra’s blacksmiths survive the test of time

Clanging sounds created by blacksmiths diligently and skilfully hammering molten iron can be heard the moment one arrives in Limbang Jaya village, Ogan Ilir regency, South Sumatra.

The same sounds greet those visiting the nearby villages of Tanjung Pinang and Tanjung Laut.

The three South Sumatra villages have been centers for ironwork for many years and workers’ skills have been passed down through generations. Many villagers devote their lives to this physically demanding job.

A small-scale foundry generally takes the shape of a modest hut, measuring two meters by two meters, with a thatched roof and four open sides to allow ample circulation.

Furnaces, pits wide enough for two men to smelt and forge iron in, blowers, anvils and grinding machines can be found inside.
Foundries are often built in front yards, under houses (which are generally built on platforms), along roadsides, lanes and even near graveyards.

Local blacksmiths generally produce household utensils such as kitchen knives, machetes and agricultural tools such as sickles, hoes and rubber tapping knives.

Some blacksmiths can even produce an illegal firearm known locally as a Kecepek. However, this particular practice has gradually disappeared.

The standard of products forged here is widely acknowledged as exceptional, and these products are often sold on in Lampung, Jambi, Bengkulu, Riau, North Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and occasionally exported to Malaysia.

Ogan Ilir Regent Mawardi Yahya said he is committed to developing the ironwork industry further through a regency development program. This process will include management training.

“The trade has existed for generations and progress must be made,” he said. “This will involve introducing management know-how to develop ironwork businesses.”

Most raw materials used in the villages come from iron scraps such as car springs, pipes and iron sheets, costing around Rp 6,000 per kilogram.

Many blacksmiths can also produce top-quality stainless steel products, though raw material is often difficult to find and expensive, costing between Rp 15,000 and Rp 17,500 per kg.
A kilogram of scrap iron can turn out 10 to 15 standard-sized kitchen knives which sell for Rp 10,000 each, while knives made from stainless steel cost Rp 25,000 each. Each foundry can produce 25 to 30 knives a day.

Around 3,000 blacksmith families live in the three villages and work for local financiers.

“Most of us are just workers because we don’t have enough working capital,” said Rusli, a blacksmith.

Every stage, from initial processing right up to finishing touches, is still done manually. Iron scraps are smelted in a furnace and fired with a special blower using charcoal as fuel. The process is carried out by two workers.

While one pumps air into the furnace the other smelts and forges the smoldering iron, causing it to turn amber-red. After being placed on an anvil, the molten iron is then hammered into the desired shape.

The next stage involves honing the objects which are still rough.
Raw materials were easier to obtain in the past, albeit at higher prices. This is not the case for charcoal, however, which is usually brought in from nearby Jambi. Charcoal extracted from gelam and pelawan wood is priced at Rp 18,000 per 25 kg sack.

“We buy charcoal from Jambi. It’s hard to find the kind of wood here now,” said Yamin.

Khairul Saleh