Mr MacKinnon - Taranaki steel


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Forged from Taranaki sand and obsession

Making the perfect blade from Taranaki ironsand has haunted an Opunake man for years, and there is limited light at the end of the tunnel, as reporter Laird Harper discovered.

Living in rural Opunake, Andrew MacKinnon is working towards a goal of creating perfect Japanese-style swords, with all the turmoil and toil that follows.

So far he has created just three. For every one creation he throws away about 11. For him, there is no such thing as second-best.

"If you are compelled by any kind of technical excellence [the Japanese sword] is basically where it stops," he said.

"If you want to try out all the complex techniques, that's pretty much where you need to go."

He began by forging knifes with a Taranaki twist before taking on the time-consuming practice of sword-making.

"I was talking to Rangi Kipa, the Maori carver - a very talented man - and the idea that in Taranaki we don't have any taonga," Mr MacKinnon said.

"In Taranaki we really only have ironsands.

"If you're carrying a piece of Taranaki steel in your pocket you're carrying a piece of the mountain in your pocket, and that's where it started from."

He said the jump from forging knives to creating swords was not a pleasant choice but something he was driven toward.

"I grew up in the liberal arts tradition and I make sharp pieces of steel that only have one function. I mean how deviant is that?

"A knife, outside of a hammer, is the most basic human tool. The sword is the evil twin brother."

Mr MacKinnon's passion for blades started from a young age. He experimented with his first creation made from a car spring at the age of 16.

"It's like anything I suppose. Inevitably anyone's passion starts from when they're a boy."

He later took on a job as an industrial blacksmith in Auckland to refine his craft.

"I asked myself do I really want to do this, because it wasn't a particularly pleasant trade, but if you actually want to get good at anything you need bloody-minded repetition," Mr MacKinnon said.

"It really came down to the fact that the old codgers were not the slightest bit interested in what I was interested in but they had the technical capacity to do everything I wanted to do."

With an expected outlay of $4500 to $5800 per sword, his clientele was limited but given the months involved in the process he wasn't complaining.

The steel produced in a furnace varies in carbon content, ranging from wrought iron to pig iron.

Very low carbon steel is used for the core of the blade. High carbon steel and pig iron are combined to form the outer skin of the blade.

For every blow of the hammer, a high degree of chemistry know- how was needed. A slight miscalculation can doom a sword.

And Taranaki ironsand is an unforgiving mistress.

Mr MacKinnon said for him swordmaking was not about imitating a product that was ingrained in Japanese culture but creating something of his own using Japanese skills.

He said a love of "pyromania and hitting things with hammers" kept him going but blind determination got him where he is.

"It's been the real driver in my life.

"When I started I thought, how hard can it be? Well nigh on a nervous breakdown and six years later, it's not that easy."

contact Mr MacKinnon at   taranakisteel @ gmail.com (remove the spaces)