Forging a Hook and Striker for a Sacred Bell

A bell is a most expressive instrument, but left on its own, it’s merely a shapely bit of metal. Two things need to happen for a bell to ring. It needs to be hung, so that it might more freely reverberate with rich and eddying waves of sound, and it needs to be struck, to set the vibrations in motion. 

The National Bell Festival encourages efforts to keep bells ringing through conservation in use, so when we acquired the 1798 hanshō to install at the U.S. National Arboretum, we wanted it to be able to ring at moments of commensurate significance. We therefore needed to hang it and to hit it – taking care that both operations should proceed with utmost respect and tenderness, owing to the age and provenance of the bell.
 

Forging a hook

Our first challenge was finding a hook to hang the bell from the grand entrance gate to the Japanese Pavilion within the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum. No off-the-shelf hook would do. It needed to be appropriately sized to the centuries-old bell, while offering a deep-enough cup to prevent the bell from tipping out in a particularly gusty wind or strike. Enter the blacksmith. 

We turned to the Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland, located an hour’s drive northwest of Washington, D.C. in Boonsboro, Maryland. Founded by Wally Yater, the Guild comprises a 47-acre oasis for the preservation of the traditional blacksmithing art and craft. There, we met Tige Davis, a virtuoso at bringing metal together with fire.

Steel is heated for a bell hook

Image: Blacksmith Tige Davis sets a steel rod into hot coals to begin forging a bell hook at the Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland in Boonsboro, Maryland, on Dec. 2, 2023. 

In short order, Mr. Davis had red-hot coals kept alive by the hand crank of an air blower. Into this he set a bar of steel, which soon took on the heat of the forge, becoming malleable under the weight of his hammer. Strike after strike on the anvil produced a hook of necessary proportions – constantly checked against the bell itself, brought to Maryland for such a purpose.

Blacksmith makes a hook for a bell

Image: Blacksmith Tige Davis strikes a hammer against hot steel and an anvil to forge a bell hook at the Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland in Boonsboro, Maryland, on Dec. 2, 2023. 

When the hook was suitably rendered, a final application of beeswax to the hot steel created a protective barrier against oxidation. The other end of the rod was threaded, allowing us to turn it into the wood and steel supports and cap it with a locking double nut. We took every precaution to ensure lasting strength and durability. Up into the rafters it went, ready for the bell to hang.

Beeswax is applied to a bell hook

Image: Beeswax is applied to the hot bell hook to seal against future oxidation at the Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland in Boonsboro, Maryland, on Dec. 2, 2023.
 

Turning a striker

Next up, we needed to create the shu-moku, the wooden beam suspended by chain that would swing to sound the bell. Having no internal clappers like Western-profile bells, Japanese bells are sounded externally. The National Bell Festival reached out to Hideharu Motoi, chairman of Oigo Works Co., makers of traditional Japanese bells in Takaoka, Japan, to consult on the appropriate design and proportions for our historical bell. Having ascertained a plan, we set to work. 

CNC lathe makes bell striker

Image: A CNC lathe turns a log of Douglas fir into a bell striker on Dec. 14, 2023. 

Brian Irwin of Arlington, Virginia, was tapped to fashion the striker. He selected Douglas fir for its durable, straight grain and brought the raw wood to his workshop. There, the wood was machine-turned on a lathe, cutting the log into a symmetrical cylindrical shape. It was then cut to length and sanded by hand, bringing out the natural grain and luster. On the end that would make contact with the bell, a pad of leather was affixed with hide glue to soften the impact and create a more pleasing, rounded tone.

Three test bell strikers

Image: Three test strikers are made in the workshop of Brian Irwin in Arlington, Virginia, on Dec. 14, 2023.

Iron brackets slid onto the striker, allowing chains to be affixed without drilling the wood – a precaution against future splits or cracks. To these also was wound a silk cord that terminated in tassels, allowing a person at ground level to swing the striker and sound the bell. 

Japanese bell at the US National Arboretum

Image: The final installation of the 1798 hanshō at the U.S. National Arboretum, showing the bell hook and wooden striker in use.

Cover image: Detail of the steel bell hook in a vise at the Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland in Boonsboro, Maryland, on Dec. 2, 2023.