Several years ago I produced an instructional video series on survival skills; we grouped these videos under the term “neo-tribal”: taking modern, easily-scrounged materials and using primitive or less-modern skills to make them into tools.
In March of 2009, I traveled to Sedona, Arizona to shoot an instructional video series on survival skills. The shoot took the better part of a week, and it rained on and off the entire time we were there. During the shoot, we learned flint knapping, improvised weapon construction, do-it-yourself smithing, and plenty of other primitive skills. The best part of the shoot for me was the smithing, something in which I’d been interested since childhood, and the video we produced on that topic was called The Poor Man’s Forge. In it, the author took a piece of rebar and forged it into a knife using a forge he’d constructed out of recycled materials.
As you can see, the knife is ugly. It’s hideous. It’s got hammer marks, a small notch from testing the edge on a penny, and one of the sections of handle rope is gone. I love it. It’s what it’s supposed to be: functional, brutal, and effective. It started out as a length of rebar, which is made of all kinds of scrap steel melted down and made into lengths of bar or wire. It used to hold up a building. Now it’s a different sort of tool.
Note the strange sunset of colors from the middle of the blade to the back. This is from the heat-treating process that produces a hard edge and a soft back, which is what you want. You want it to be able to flex a little if it has to, but maintain the hardness of the edge. The smith who made it, a true artisan who has produced some really beautiful pieces, deliberately left the hammer marks in to show that it isn’t supposed to look good. It’s supposed to do its job, which is to scale a fish, skin a deer, carve some wood, or whatever else you need to do with it.
This is the back of the handle. In Filipino martial arts, this is called the punyo. To make this part of the knife, the smith first shaped the blade and determined the length of the handle. He then heated the other end of the unfinished rebar to the proper color (a bright yellow), hammered it out, and curled it on the edge of the anvil. This was a process that took many heats, a great deal of time, and dozens of hammer beats.
I’m not a knife guy. I don’t love knives, as such. But I do admire craftsmanship. And despite its deliberate, inherent ugliness, the rebar knife is a thing of beauty. It’s the ultimate symbol of transformation.