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The Craftsmen of Tanjung Batu: South Sumatra

The incessant clanging of hammer strikes can be heard as one enters Limbang Jaya village, Tanjung Batu district, South Sumatra, where the skillful hands of steel craftsmen busily shape metal into utensils and implements. The same atmosphere prevails in the district’s other two villages; Tanjung Pinang and Tanjung Laut. Craftsmen from the three villages, who have preserved their ancestor’s art of steel crafting, have helped make the area famous as the steel production center of South Sumatra.

The craftsmen work in huts measuring two-meters-squared with thatched palm-leaf roofs and open sides for air circulation. Each cabin has a furnace, a hole 75-centimeters
deep in which two men forge heated steel and operate a blower, and a grindstone to finish the tool-making process. The huts can be found in nearly all areas of these villages, even beneath the stilted houses.

The craftsmen’s steel products meet household and agricultural needs, comprising kitchen knives, daggers, sickles, hoes and rubber-tapping tools as Khairul Saleh says.

In the past, when illegal firearms were widely in demand, some steel craftsmen in the villages also produced guns, locally called kecepek. But as time went by, with growing awareness and continuous guidance provided by local authorities, the craftsmen finally quit this illegal business.

The quality of their tools is renowned, as they use steel rather than iron, unlike most craftsmen in Java.

“Our products are marketed to regions in and outside of South Sumatra, even to Malaysia,”
Yamin, 52, a craftsman from Limbang Jaya, said last week.

Other external markets, he said, included Lampung, Jambi, Bengkulu, Riau, Medan, Kalimantan and Sulawesi, with some wealthy entrepreneurs purchasing the products to sell in Malaysia.
Car spring blades, steel pipes and plates are used as the materials for tool making, at a cost of Rp 6,000 per kilogram. Some craftsmen use white steel to forge prime-quality products, but the materials required are hard to find and are more expensive, reaching Rp 15,000 to 17,500 per kg.

A kilogram of steel can generally produce 10 to 15 knives of a standard size, sold at Rp 10,000 each, while the price of a white-steel knife is around Rp 25,000. The craftsmen work at an average daily capacity of about 25 to 30 knives.

“White steel is difficult to obtain and is more costly. So we are not yet able to meet the demand for such products,” Yamin added.

Around 3,000 families in the three villages are engaged in this craft as paid workers; filling orders from local businesspeople and those from other regions who sell the products to other areas or islands.

“We just get paid for our work as we don’t have enough capital. Sometimes orders are scarce, but we can still take over the jobs of busy craftsmen for some money,” said Rusli, a neighbor of Yamin.

The whole tool-making process, from steel burning with a charcoal furnace and blower to forging with a hammer and finishing with a grindstone, is done manually. Brands are imprinted while the steel is still red-hot.

Compared to previous years, steel is now relatively easier to obtain, although prices are beginning to soar. The charcoal required to forge steel is generally made of gelam and pelawan wood from Jambi and its surrounding areas, which is worth Rp 18,000 per 25-kg sack.

“The charcoal mostly comes from Jambi. The two species of wood for this fuel are hard to find in South Sumatra,” Yamin said.

He added he needed at least 300 kg of steel and 30 sacks of charcoal totaling Rp 540,000, excluding wages for two workers, who are his own sons and sometimes his neighbors, per month.

Ogan Ilir Regent Mawardi Yahya has expressed a strong commitment to further develop steel craftsmanship in his regency through a development program that incorporates business management guidance.

“The art of steel crafting has been handed down through the generations. Local craftsmen should be supported and introduced to business management,” Mawardi said.