Korean Masters - Lee Eun-cheul

Posted : 2015-03-18 12:05 Updated : 2018-04-08 10:28
Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

Master restores ancient swordmaking skill

By Chung Ah-young

YEOJU, Gyeonggi Province — Still freezing outside, Lee Eun-cheul, a swordsmith, sweats buckets in front of a furnace flaring to more than 1,300 degrees Celsius. He pushes and pulls wooden bellows to feed the charcoal fire in order to prepare to make a sword in the traditional way at his workshop in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province.

Lee is one of the few artisans who have the skill to make traditional swords through the ancient method. He has restored the forgotten art of ancient Korean swordsmithing because it is the "soul of the Korean culture."

"Our ancient method from smelting iron to making iron artifacts declined around the 19th century. Even though our country boasts of its leading steel industry today, we lost our ancient iron-making skills for a long time. Now we are just beginning to restore them," Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

The artisan began researching ancient iron smelting methods through historical documents along with a handful of scholars beginning in 1980 after being motivated by an article carried in Korea's Art Quarterly on the disappearance of the craft.

Master Lee, who was already interested in making knives and other iron artifacts, studied research for about 10 years since manufacturing iron requires a high degree of scientific knowledge. Then he started experimenting with sword making.

Lee said because iron artifacts have been excavated from ancient tombs, people just assume that Korea has its own native tradition of iron manipulation techniques, but no one knew how to actually do it.

Through tireless effort and attempts, in 2004 Lee finally succeeded in reproducing Baekje (18 BC-660 AD) and Goryeo (918-1392)Kingdom-style2 swords.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

For absolute value

Over some 30 years, Lee has not only mastered technical skills, but he has also succeeded in creating beautiful traditional swords. To achieve this level of quality, Lee made numerous mistakes. He said making a mistake or a tiny error can lead to a serious accident.

"I can't count how many accidents I have had. My arms are covered with burn scars. Sometimes a burning iron fragment would get into my eye. Fortunately, I didn't lose my sight," he said.

But safety isn't the only reason why there should be no error in the creation process. The goal is to reach the "absolute value," striking a balance between aesthetics and function.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

Making a sword begins with the understanding of basic chemical reactions between iron and carbon, but ultimately the sword should be beautiful and artistic. "If we fail to achieve scientific perfection, the sword will not be functional. If we fail to create a sword which is beautiful, it will lose its visual appeal," he said.

The master explained that to achieve both, all the preparation steps should be "perfect," from selecting good quality iron ore to polishing the steel.

Lee said ancient swords made in the traditional way have different qualities from those of modern steel. Because of the unique way in which the iron is folded repeatedly in the same direction, or crosswise, resulting in over 30,000 layers, the ridgeline on the blade's surface is visible. "This method can create a different style2 of blade," he said.

"A skillful smith can choose the unique, subtle look of grain, like wood, for example, by simply varying the direction of folding. He can also control the strength and durability of the blades through chemical composition," he said.

The reproductions of the ancient blades are made with a high carbon content. To repeatedly hammer out heated iron, he covers it with red clay water and rice straw ash to prevent oxidation.

"That's the main difference between modern rolled interstitial-free steels, which have no grain, and ancient iron ones. With this diverse pattern on the surface of the finished blades, the ancient swords are beautiful," he said.

Sacrifice, passion, pride

Lee said he has lived a "crazy" life by manufacturing iron swords for some 30 years. He said he couldn't have done it had it not been so.

The master says his swords are not for sale. Rather, they are used to explore the metallic qualities of Korean traditional swords and to compare new ones with the ancient as he uses the same techniques.

Lee only creates swords for public purposes such as museum exhibits or academic research. For example, he and his pupils take two to three 11-ton trucks, which carry traditional equipment and materials, to showcase the sword-making process to the public. To promote the ancient art of sword making, he has given demonstrations at regional cultural festivals over the last 10 years.

"I spend almost all my time making swords. Since I began the craft, I have never looked back. I am very proud of having this job because I am one of the few who can restore the ancient skill of swordsmithing, even though it requires a huge sacrifice in my personal life," he said.

"Koreans have a long history of manufacturing with iron. But it was forgotten for more than 100 years. Now due to the efforts of a handful of scholars, I have succeeded in producing the same kind of iron swords that were made during ancient times, especially in the Baekje era. Even though we are just starting and as of yet falling behind Japan, it's a very significant step for us," he said.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

Who is Lee Eun-cheul?

Born in 1957 in Dangjin, South Chungcheong Province, Lee began making iron in a traditional way in 1980 by mining iron ore, smelting iron, forging it and then polishing it. He moved to Yeoju and opened his workshop in 1996.

Swordsmithing through this process was widely practiced in ancient Korea. Lee succeeded in reviving the technique of making Baekje (18 BC-660 AD) and Goryeo (918-1392) Kingdom swords in 2004. Since 2000 Lee has cooperated with the Iron Museum in Eumseong, North Chungcheong Province, to restore ancient iron smithing. He is one of the few artisans who can produce iron using the traditional method.

Lee was designated as the Korea Traditional Skills Transmitter in 2009 by the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk

What is swordsmithing?

Korean ancient swordsmithing was conducted from the Iron Age to the Joseon Kingdom. The iron culture peaked during the Gaya (42-562) and Baekje (BC 18-660 AD) Kingdoms. It declined during the 19th century and the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945).

To manufacture swords by the traditional method, a smith engages in everything from mining iron ore, to smelting iron, to forging and polishing.

When placed in the blast furnace, the ore produces molten iron, which is then repeatedly forged. Iron in a carbon rich environment makes a higher quality one. The iron is then beaten into rough sword shape, dipped in ash, heated, folded and hammered again and again until it is ready to be tempered in water.

Traditional blades made with a high carbon content are as strong as modern ones and have a unique grain-like tree growth rings due to the process of folding. Even though many artisans insist they produce traditional swords, if they use modern steel, they cannot be called "traditional," he said.

Korean swords were used for military and ceremonial purposes. Single edged swords are called "do" and double-edged are dubbed as "geom." Other parts, such as the scabbard, the pommel and tassels are created by each artisan and are assembled later.

As a result of complicated, laborious procedures, ancient swords feature stylistic and aesthetic beauty as well as physical strength. A good example is the famous sword called "chiljido" or shichishito or "seven-pronged sword" which is 75 centimeters long with six prongs protruding from the central blade. Made in the Baekje Kingdom, it was given to a monarch of Japan from a Baekje king as a gift.

But swordsmithing is not simply an art to be revived from the past. "All this ancient technique has become a source for developing the industry today," he said.

Korea Times Photo by Choi Won-suk