some of the best knife
makers in the world
many can trace their knife making history back for 400
Lal Bahadur ('Bura'), the Royal Kami [left]
with Bill Martino [right]
~~~~~Be patient, there
are a lot of photos to load but if you like knives & are interested
in knife-making the wait will be worth it.
Kamis & Khukuri-making:
The Master Kami:
The master kami was born a kami in both
caste and work. For as long as anybody can remember his forefathers were
kamis. At perhaps age 5 or 6 he begins helping his father and
grandfather in the arun. He learns to pull the chain on the bellows.
He gathers charcoal. He brings water for the quenching pitcher. He learns
the names of tools and procedures.
At around 12 years of age he is using the hammer and
does much of the pounding of steel that goes on in the shop. He can make
a few simple farm implements by himself. Sometimes his effort produces
a quality tool, sometimes not.
By the time he is 20 he can fire up the shop by himself and can produce
many items. He can make a decent khukuri by himself but it sometimes
will not be perfect.
At 30 we can call him an intermediate.
At around 40, depending on the person, he is just about ready for
master kami status. The grandfather has left his body and his father
is too old to do much work so it is on his shoulders to take over the operation
of the arun. At this stage he has made every farm tool that can be made.
He can make a perfect khukuri 99% of the time. He understands steel
and knows how to work it. He has made hinges for gates and cabinets. He
has made prybars and wedges. He has made sickles, sythes, axes, rakes and
hatchets. He can make rings, bracelets, ear rings, pliers, tongs, awls,
nails, needles, metal baskets, and rivets. If you show him a sketch of
something you want made and give him a few verbal instructions he can
produce what you want.
He talks with you as he works and often chuckles and sometimes swears.
He may pause to take a sip of rahksi and will offer you a drink.
You are amazed at how easily, quickly and skilfully he performs his work.
It is a pleasure to watch him and you realize that his is a true artform.
He will tell you about things his grandfather made -- perhaps a lock for
a door with a handmade key for entry. And, he will tell you he is probably
the best kami in Nepal or at least the best in his district. Then
you know that here is a true master kami.
--BILL MARTINO, 24-July-1999
The kamis in shop 2 have reverted to a method of forging that
was used by their grandfathers. I don't think this method of manufacture
has been used in Nepal for maybe 40 years except in rare instances in
the villages when they were trying to make a top notch khukuri.
It involves rubbing the blade with some kind of "magic" stone during the
forging process. What this stone is I still don't know but I'm trying
to find out. My guess is it is some type stone that imparts small grains
of sand or some other material to the blade which is pounded into the
steel during the forging -- maybe a higher silicon content or carbon content
is the end result of the "magic" stone. I'm just not sure right now. However,
the kamis swear this insures the blade will never break under any
circumstances. And, who am I to argue with kamis who have a four
or five hundred year tradition of knife making to their credit. Kami Sherpa
tells me these are the best lot of khukuris he has ever seen so I
have to believe they are something special.
[I finally found out from Kami Sherpa what this 'magic stone' process
is all about and now it makes sense to me.
He brought some "magic stones" with him and it looks like granite
mixed with some quartz and mica. It is collected on the higher slopes of
The kamis wash the stone in water first. Then they pound it
to dust. In years gone by the kamis would take a strip of leather
or strong cloth such as canvas and put it in hot wax. Then they would
run the strip through the pile of magic stone dust allowing it to collect
generously on the leather-cloth strip. This could then be used in final
edging and finishing. The guys were making their own form of emery cloth
strop! They add some "white powder" (which they refer to as "cement" but
I know it isn't) to the dust before applying the dust to their strop.
I can now see how this thing works and why they would use it...but
the kamis insist that this ancient process has magic involved
and improves the quality of the blade significantly. After examining some
of the latest efforts from shop 2 I will not argue the point with them.
They are doing something very, very right.
Interestingly, in shop 2 the kamis have figured out a way
to use a bench grinder with a buffing wheel to take the place of the leather-cloth
strip in the using of the magic stone.]
The khukuris from shop 2 are also blessed with a slight Buddhist
variation. Rather than the blood letting, Kami Sherpa breaks an egg as
a sacrifice to Kali. Being an 8 year Gorkha vet he is qualified to impart
the Gorkha blessing to the khukuris. I will have to find out if the
kamis spill a little of their blood on the blades.
Since the six master kamis in shop 2 are all village kamis
who have come to Kathmandu to get rich they want to make some village
knives right in shop 2. They estimate they can make 10 per day of various
styles and sizes. When everything goes absolutely right they can produce
a single HI khukuri in a day.
The steel used in HI khukuris is recycled from the leaf-springs
off of large trucks. Using 'recycled' leaf-spring steel is a free test
for weakness, and it is also improved as a forging medium in that it has
been "work hardened" or "work strengthened". Some bladesmiths use sections
of rail, that has been "packed" by thousands of freight car wheel impacts
(sections adjacent to the joints between rail sections). Used springs are
the same (but different) in that the xillions of flexings and jolts have
worked out the molecular flaws and alignments, to the point that even if
it not useable as a spring any longer, it is still an excellent medium for
hammer and anvil. Much of the work involved in hammer-forging a blade is
shaping, and then packing the steel to eliminate "spongy" areas which would
not heat treat or form properly. "Work hardened" steel goes through the process
faster and easier, and makes a better blade.
Here is our basic steel -- springs from a Mercedes heavy truck or
bus. It will be heated and cut into appropriately sized billets for various
The fellow holding the spring (which is so heavy I can't lift it)
is Pradeep. He is assistant shop manager and a good one. He is being groomed
to take Gelbu's place when I get Gelbu here to groom him to take my place.
When we run low on springs some kami will hop a bus to India
-- always the cheapest bus which is full of chickens, goats, pigs, people,
merchandise and about everything else imaginable. They have their favorite
junk yards they visit and will pick up old junk leaf springs.
First choice -- Mercedes Benz
Second choice (almost never available) --Saab
Third choice -- Japanese cars
When they accumulate enough springs for a hundred or maybe 150
khukuris it is back to the shop.
They almost always ride atop the bus, never inside. Against the law
here but a common practice in Nepal and India.
The kamis heat a spring at the length they want and use a
chisel to cut off the desired length. They can guess within a couple of
ounces without weighing even though scales are available.
They start the forging process, heating and pounding, forming the
blade from tip to tang. When the blade is as close to final form as they
want to get it they harden it -- heat to proper color and water quench by
slow pour from a pitcher. The only high tech part of this process is using
an electric fan to drive the forge. Then electric grinder to get rid of
Then they make the handle -- block of wood or piece for horn. Drill
hole for tang using electric hand drill. Fit the block or horn to tang.
Fashion handle to rough shape with khukuri. Bring it closer with
rasp. When near final shape make bolster and buttcap. Put it all together
with Himalayan Epoxy ('laha'). Final finish and detail -- file, small knife
and maybe a section of hacksaw blade.
Then the knife is finished and polished up by apprentice using power
Final inspection and if it passes off it goes to the sarkis
--BILL MARTINO 19.12.98 & 3.3.2002
The laha -- which I prefer to call 'Himalayan epoxy' -- is
collected from trees by what Pala (Kami Sherpa) called "jungle men". Pala
and almost all shops and kamis buy the stuff commercially rather
than trying to collect it themselves. It is basically tree gum. It is boiled
and then poured into the desired places of the khukuri. The advantages
it has are it sets up very quickly, allowing the kami to continue
working on his khukuri without setting it aside for 24 hours to let
the epoxy set up, and it is also quite strong.
Forging Process & Tools
During the forging process the basic tools of the master kami
are small hammer and tongs only.
Adjustments to keep the blade straight and headed in the right direction are done by the master kami himself throughout the process and this is done by the small hammer. He will keep this hammer right at his side for easy access. When he determines that the blade is close enough to completion the big hammer is no longer used and he will bring the blade
to as near completion as he can using his small hammer. Then he moves to
various small hand tools and file to get the blade into final shape and
ready to harden.
He will then harden the blade and check his success. He hits his
mark most of the time and then grinds the edge and touches up the blade
with grinder and file. He fits and sets bolster, handle, buttcap and if
it is an HI khukuri off it goes for polishing and final finish.
--BILL MARTINO 16-Aug-99
Here are the three basic hammers of all kamis:
Big one is 5 KG
Medium one is 1.5 KG
Small is 0.5 KG
Most kamis will have a couple more of various size and weight,
usually one small one for work on bolsters and buttcaps.
--B. Martino, 2/2000
Water was the quenching medium for 2500 years or so.
It was used in Nepal "since the beginning" and a kami's skill is largely
passed down from one generation to the next. The hardening of the blade is
really an art rather than a skill.
Bura was giving me a lesson in hardening a couple of years ago --"setting
the pine" they call it. Pine = hardness.
Bura lectured as he did the work.
"Color is very important. See this color? The blade is not hot enough.
See this color? The blade is too hot. See this color? It is just right.
See the color at the tip? See the color at the cho? These all must be just
right before you start to pour."
When the blade color was just right he began to pour from his pitcher.
"You cannot pour too fast and you cannot pour too slow. You must pour
just the right amount at just the right speed. Watch the blade change color.
You will see red, purple, green, in various shades and then black. If you
do not see the color change seven times you have missed and must begin again.
See it has changed three times already. There, again. And again. Again, and
now it is black. It is finished and the blade pine is just where we want
it to be. It is very hard here (pointing to the chopping area) and not as
hard here and here (tip and bottom of blade). This knife is perfect."
I took a file to check the blade and Bura chuckled. "You are wasting
your time," he said.
And I was.
--Bill Martino, 5/2002
Time required to make a khukuri prior to the introduction of power
tools in shop two?
Since we make everything from a 9 inch to a 38 inch it's tough to
generalize or average. Further, we have forgers who forge the blade and
other people who make handles, still others who make bolsters and buttcaps
and still more who make scabbards. Plus, we have to make the karda
and chakma for each khukuri.
Let me answer like this: We have about a dozen people working
very hard and long hours and they have a difficult time to produce more
than two khukuris per day.
--BILL MARTINO 29.01.99
This photo was taken on the day of my "official" welcome by the
kamis of BirGorkha -- thus the reason for the leis and large
tika on my forehead:
I figured I'd get things started off
on the right foot so I took to the forge and anvil right away. The
kamis were shocked and amazed that I'd stoop so low as to do
kami work. What I did started forming the bond I made with them --
making them my brothers. Caste, colour, religion, nationality, fame, fortune
mean nothing to Uncle Bill. It's what you've got inside that counts.
The anvil is a chunk of about 6 by 6 steel. It's been pounded on
so much the top is mushroomed over. This is a common type anvil in Nepal.
The knives against the wall are all Kumar's stuff -- long blades of some
type. This is his forge and anvil I'm using.
At first there were the wide eyes, shocked looks, and some whispering
among the kamis. Then they started to giggle -- probably because
I was so poor at the job.
One of them said, "What kind of man is this American Bena? He can
speak Nepali, acts like a Nepali and is not afraid to pound steel!"
I got a huge kick out of it. They were surprised to say the least.
But, they thought I would never make a good kami, brother though
I might be.
Here's a shot of a couple of kamis and helpers doing
The guy nearest is Sanu. A helper who looks considerably
older than Sanu whom I've never met is looking on, awaiting his next
Next is Sher -- green T-shirt and white hat. Looks like
he's heating up some steel to pound.
Next is Bura (I think) and a helper. That's Bura's corner
and nobody uses it except him.
And now, here's master kami
Nara Bishwakarma making a khukuri from start to
This is Nara's Himalayan hillside home. Nara's wife
is bathing the youngest daughter.
This is Nara's shop -- started by his great, great,
great, great grandfather 200 years ago.
Nara collects his thoughts for the khukuri
making by saying a few prayers.
Nara fires up his forge. His charcoal bucket he made
himself. The charcoal was gathered in the forest following a fire.
His 14 year old son, Surya, is not excited about the prospect of
pounding hot steel.
Nara counts the pulls on the chain. He does not bother
to look at the forge because he knows at 37 pulls the steel with be ready.
The forge roars and the steel glows red.
Nara pulls the steel, a section of a leaf spring from
a junked Mercedes-Benz, from the forge and tells his son, "hit
Surya says, "Where?" Nara replies, "Right here!"
and points to the spot. After a few blows from the hammer the khukuri
point begins to take shape.
Nara adjusts, keeping the blade true ,and then Surya
swings some more.
After much heating and pounding the khukuri
takes on its final form. Notice Nara has put the traditional
cho, or notch, in the blade without which the knife would not
be a khukuri.
The most critical stage of the process, the zone hardening
with slow water quench. Here is where the years of experience will
help Nara. Look at the intense expression on Nara's face. He knows
only too well if he misses his mark here the entire project is a loss.
Having tested the blade and finding his hardening
a success ( a master kami will have a success rate of 99%+) Nara
begins to make the handle.
Nara blocks out his handle, heats the tang and burns
an exact fit. This is the "quick and dirty" method of handle making.
The HIMALAYAN IMPORTS khukuris
have a stronger handle, drilled through and fitted with buttcap,
that will last a lifetime. Nara's handle will fail in a few years
and will have to be replaced.
Nara fits a steel bolster he has made to handle and
locks everything together with "Himalayan epoxy." He then begins
to refine the handle into traditional shape.The handle
will last three to five years. The blade will last 50 to 100 years
depending on use.
Nara puts the edge onto the khukuri, using Surya power
transmitted via bicycle chain.
And Voila! After a little finishing work Nara displays
the fruits of his labour. He has just made a world class knife
with an open forge and the tools below. He does not realize
just how incredibly good he is although he does admit, "I am the best
kami around these parts."
And now it is time to say goodbye to master kami,
Nara Bishwakarma and his family, as he proudly shows off the khukuri he
has just made for our camera. Nara has no idea as to what the world wide
web might be but if he knew that he was on it and what it actually was he
would be absolutely flabbergasted.
When I look at this scene I sometimes wonder what
I am doing in Reno, Nevada.
If you have comments or would
like to send a message to Nara or our kamis in general email me
here and I will see that it gets to them.
Special thanks to our Himalayan
Imports cameraman, Jeevan Sherpa
Here's a pic of my flag-based kami marks. All were taken
from the same point of view with the handle at the bottom. The Kesars were
purchased in February and March of 2002. The Durba was relatively older,
I don't know when it was made. The Muralis were purchased within the last
4 months, with the initials as well.
As you can see, the Kesar "flagpole" is oriented toward the cutting edge,
flag tips toward the bolster, on the left side of the knife if viewed in
the chopping position. The marks seem made of single strikes for each line.
The flag is made up of almost equilateral triangles.
The Durba flag is oriented the same way, but is relatively smaller (the
scale of the GRS throws it off a little). The lines are made up of small
marks in a row. The flag is slightly different as the chevrons overlap and
are closer to right-angle 3-4-5 triangles.
The Murali flagpoles are toward the bolster, with the flag tips towards
the cutting edge, on the right side of the knife. The marks seem made of
single strikes, but the chevrons are right-angle triangles but are not overlapped.
Here's the others. Bura's mark seems to roam around a little, his latest
one with L.B. initials. Interestingly, Kumar has his initials in Devanagari,
with the others in Roman characters.
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