The blade of a J.D. Napier hoe is longer across the bottom than the top. It’s his grandfather’s design.
“That’s his pattern,” says Napier, 67, a blacksmith in southeastern Kentucky. “If we got into these old fields in the mountains,” said Napier, “we could take the corner of that hoe and dig right in between the rocks and put another row or two of corn in there.”
Napier, who was 7 years old when he started learning from his grandfather how to make hoes, operates a shop in the Harlan County, Kentucky community of Bledsoe, cranking out about 100 hoes a year. He figures he’s made 1,689 by now.
“We get kind of burned out on them a little bit, and it’s time to move on to knives and things of that nature,” he says. “We do about 50 things.”
A hernia operation in early June knocked him off his pace. “My doctor told me not to lift anything over 10 pounds,” said Napier, known in certain circles as the builder of what might be the world’s biggest anvil. “My hammer weighs 10 pounds.”
His garden implement is called a “saw blade hoe.” The blades are cut from giant band saws cast off by lumber mills. “They call me and say, ‘we’ve got two or three ripped if you want to come and get them.’”
The blades are no good to the mill when they hit a spike in a log and tear their teeth. “Right now I’ve probably got enough blades to do me for a lifetime.”
Napier is now similarly fortified with the material he uses for the shank – coal mine roof bolts. During a mining slowdown, Napier said he got a call from a guy going out of business in Tennessee who had a tractor-trailer load he “would sell to me really reasonable. So we ran down and bought ‘em.”
Napier cuts the long bolts into short pieces to form the shanks. He heats one end until it swells, strikes it with a hammer and splits the tip to create a forked tongue that he rivets to the blade. The curl over the blade is formed with a jig, leaving a straight section that is pounded into a hole drilled in the handle and secured with a pin.
Napier, also a woodworker, said he uses handles made of northern ash, which grows more slowly and is denser and lasts longer than its southern counterpart. “They’re getting harder to get all the time,” he said, noting insect borer infestations that are killing the trees. He said he recently bought a load of handles at a flea market about 75 miles away, but the man who brought them from Arkansas said it would be his last trip because of the lack of supply.
“I can go to the mountain and cut an ash tree and make a handle myself. But it’ll take me about five hours to do that. So it’s really not worth all that.”
Napier, whose father was a construction worker and mother a cook with the school system, is looking for a successor for his craft. He has two grandsons, the oldest nearing the right age to start learning — if tradition holds.
“He’s already interested in it somewhat,” Napier said. “Hopefully, when he gets 7, I can get him under my wing a little bit. That’s what I’m hoping.”
© 2017 John A. Bray