At the far western tip of Papua, on the outskirts of the town of Sorong, is a place called Tempat Garam (“salt-making place”). The Mombrasar family (pictured at right) of blacksmiths have their shop there. They build boats, make any and all kinds of tools, and invent labor-saving devices.
Chainsaw-Powered Sago Grinder
Yohanis Mombrasar showed me one of the family’s inventions, a chainsaw-powered sago grinder (Figure A). The local staple is sago palm starch. The sago palm grows in dense stands in freshwater swamps just behind a barrier beach. The pith of the trunk is composed of starch and fibers.
Big chainsaws are plentiful here because of the timber industry. The area has valuable hardwoods sought by Malaysian Chinese traders.
The traditional method of making sago starch is to fell a sago log and pound the insides with wooden hammers until the starch grains are separated from the fibers. (I’ve read that even that way, it’s one-tenth as much labor as rice cultivation.) With a power tool like this, it would take very little time to process large quantities.
The Product Line
Pandai besi means “blacksmith” in the Bahasa Indonesia language. Just like our word, it literally means “iron pounder.”
This sign (Figure B) shows some of the things that someone in this family is ready to make at any time, including axes, a huge variety of knives and machetes, spear points, sickles, chisels, and all kinds of hardware.
The local stores carry mass-produced machetes and sickles like we have, but no one wants them. The local people appreciate a finely crafted steel tool made exactly to suit the work they do.
This price list (Figure C) shows how much the family’s major products cost and how many they can make in a month. It’s an impressively well-organized operation.
It was their day off, but Elisabet Dimara and Andreas Mombrasar kindly offered to show me how their forge works. It’s a very sociable operation.
Elisabet sits on the throne and works the bellows (Figure D). It’s a piston pump made from two sections of water pipe and some wooden piston plungers. The gasket material is very soft and hangs down on the upstroke, allowing air to pass around it. It looks like a soft foam. I’ve also seen gaskets made from many layers of woven plastic bags.
Tuyère is the English word, from French, for the pipe that blows air into a forge. Some call it a tweer. Theirs is made exactly as it appears; two small pipes, no valves. The iron rod in the middle is only there to set the spacing between the two nozzles (Figure E).
The nozzles blow air through a hole in the side of a vertical slab of tile or stone. The side blast probably reduces the problems with clinkers clogging the tweer. That’s a chronic problem with American forges, which blow air from below.
Andreas lit some wood shavings and piled charcoal on them. Elisabet worked the pistons, and after a few strokes the forge was roaring (Figure F).
Another fantastic Mombrasar family invention is a coconut-grating attachment for a hand-cranked knife sharpener (Figure G). You hold half a coconut against the spinning cutter and put a bowl underneath to catch the grated coconut.
They also make really nice traditional coconut-grating tools. I bought a couple of those. The ornate wooden thing in the foreground is a spear gun with a trigger made from a nail.
Here’s one of the family’s fishing canoes (Figure H). The design is from Ambai Island. I didn’t ask if they have relatives there, but that island has a strong blacksmithing tradition.
The crossbeams are exactly 1 meter apart, which is how much room a paddler needs. The outrigger log is a branch of hibiscus, a very light wood.
They’re also repairing this huge dugout canoe (Figure I). The local water taxis are just like this. I think it’s made from a smaller log, which is spread open with steam, but I haven’t seen it done.