Deep in the woods of the Latvian hinterland, blacksmith John Neeman along with his carpenter friend Jacob are hammering and carving away, forging beautiful woodworking tools and knives that could never be replicated in a factory.

Determined to keep the tradition of craft alive, their goal is to show what can be achieved by hand with a little skill and patience. You only need to look at the results to see they have succeeded.

Humans Invent tracked down Jacob to find out what drives the pair to return to the handmade tradition.

How would you explain your philosophy behind making tools?

The main reason for making hand tools in a hi-tech era is because every day technology takes human beings away from their identities, from their history, traditions, crafts and away from their own nature/essence. We stand for a human energy. It has much more power than a nuclear power plant.

Until the 17-18th centuries the only “factories” were windmills and watermills – simple mechanisms and they were 98% human powered and only 2% by “machine” work. Since Richard Trevithick invented the steam engine in 1802 the proportions of human work and machine work has changed dramatically – It is a tragedy of the first magnitude. My great grandfather was a village carpenter. I have never met him but I sleep in the bed he made 150 years ago. I can see the wood shavings lying down the table in his workshop and smell the tasty smell of wood that comes from there. I can see him working with the plane or cleaning the joints of the bed with his sharp chisel. This is where the heritage lies – in the creations that live long after the creators have gone.

God created the world and the human, is it really true that everything else is made in China today?

A hand-crafted Neeman axe in action.

100 years ago in every rural village in Latvia a man had a heritage of knowledge from his ancestors and he had skills – he knew how to make a house from a tree, how to make a table or a spoon from a log, how to make a tool from a rough piece of steel.

Women knew how to make a warm sweater from rough pieces of sheep wool or tasty bread from coarse rye grain. They were living simple lives and they made simple things with simple tools.

There is a saying in Latvian folklore, that the real carpenter can build a house just with an axe. Today we have left this simplicity far behind. People are taking out huge loans from the banks to build their huge homes from unnatural materials made by gigantic factories and hiring advanced builders to make them. In the old days even a child new that a house, a shelter, lies inside the trees, in the forest and in your own hands. It is the paradox of our time that we spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge but less judgment, more experts yet more problems, more medicine but less wellness.

What is important about a tool being handmade?

Every person has creative potential that should be nourished and helped to flower. The development of skills with hands is of primary importance to one’s full emotional and intellectual growth. We are focusing on the detail while crafting our tools, and the quality sums of many small details. Things made by hand become something more than just an object. They carry a story with them – the story of care, the story of a love of the craft.

Why do you think there is a return to handmade goods?

People are tired of technology and our throwaway culture; there is a thirst in their souls for something real, well made and that will last. You can go into the hardware store and buy a hammer and it will break after some serious blows, but you are feeble and sad standing in front of the broken hammer that was made in China. It is not advantageous for the manufacturers to make things that will last, they need to make things that people will buy several times.

There is a light bulb in California that has celebrated its 110th year of glowing. The improved incandescent lamp, invented by Adolphe A. Chaillet, was made by the Shelby Electric Company. It is a hand-blown bulb with a carbon filament. We live in hi-tech era but a light bulb will only last several months? So we have evidence that a bulb can glow 110 years. Are there any problems in manufacturing such a bulb? No. It is not advantageous for the bulb manufacturers, their business would collapse if they would invent such a light bulb. So I went away from the question. There will always be people who will appreciate handmade things. There will always be people who will enjoy working with hand tools, especially if they are handmade, to be part of history.

It is not advantageous for the manufacturers to make things that will last, they need to make things that people will buy several times

How long does it take to make a tool?

An American Felling axe.

It depends on the tool we are making. For example, to make an axe takes more time than a chisel. Our work is divided. John makes the steel parts and I make the handles and leather sheaths for our tools and knives. It takes about 5-7 hours to forge the axe from a rough piece of steel and about two hours to make a handle (from a rough piece of wood) and it takes about 40 minutes to make the finished leather sheath (from a rough piece of leather).

We don’t want to become rich with what we do, we are not businessmen, we are craftsmen. We want to sell the tool for the price it deserves, depending on the materials and time invested in each piece we make.

How many tools do you produce on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis?

When we started making the tools we agreed that we will never get to the stage where we make our tools in factory amounts. At the moment we are able to produce about 9-12 tools per week (in 5 working days). When our apprentices reach the skill required we plan to make about 4-5 tools per day.

We are growing our crew from 2 to 5-6 people. But it is all basically John’s and my family members. John’s brother is his apprentice in the forge. My brother helps me with the leather work. My wife will help us with the communication – emails, ordering, and shipping. All John Neeman tools are made by two people. All the tool line we have – it is designed by the two of us. The website design, photos and movies are made by myself with no budget. We started from nothing – just with the skills, enthusiasm and dreams we had. God created the world and the human, is it really true that everything else is made in China today?

Watch the second part of The Birth of a Tool: –

For more information go to Neeman Tools.

Photo Credit: Neeman Tools


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