Since the Bronze Age, Korean metalworkers have developed a variety of techniques,
designs and forms according to the inspirations and needs of each period. But the ancient
tradition of using simple tools, such as a chisel and hammer, has never changed. The rapid
technological development in the 20th century, however, drove the art of Korean traditional
metalwork towards gradual extinction, leaving only a very limited number of artisans who
know about the traditional metalwork designs and methods.

Kim Cheol-ju, Master Craftsman of Metalwork, entered the world of traditional metalwork
as a young boy when he started to help his father, Kim Jeong-seop, who ran a metalwork
workshop. His father was in fact one of the Joseon Dynasty’s last, and one of the greatest,
master metalworkers who worked in the Royal Arts and Crafts Institute of Joseon,
a prestigious organization established in 1908 by the Joseon court to promote traditional crafts.

In 1947 Kim Jeong-seop opened his own workshop (the Baekha Metal Crafts Company) in
Seoul and produced traditional metalwork items for the home, such as silver ware, kettles,
cups and saucers, vases and dishes, as well as Buddhist objects such as sarira cases,
Buddha images and candlesticks. His achievement as a master metalworker and his lifelong
contribution to the development of traditional metal work was officially recognized in 1971
when the Korean government designated him as a Jogakjang, or Master Craftsman of
Metalwork, and his art as the Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 35.

For Kim Cheol-ju, looking at his father lost in making a wealth of wonderful metal objects was a great joy of his
childhood. He was fascinated by the beautiful designs that his father engraved onto hard metal plates such as
gold, silver, bronze and even aluminum. Even at a very early age, he began to envy his father’s skills and decided
to follow his father’s career. A difficult learning period followed, during which his father often scolded him for ruining
valuable materials due to too much ambition yet a lack of skill. But gradually his hard work began to yield results;
his father’s anger turned to smiles, and he became a successful descendant to the one of the day’s finest
artisans specializing in traditional Korean metal crafts.

Kim Cheol-ju eventually mastered the skills and techniques of traditional
metalwork his father taught him, and began to teach traditional metal crafts
at colleges and universities. At the same time, he continued to make fine
pieces of traditional metal work for which he was awarded prizes in many
arts and crafts shows. In 1989, a year after his father’s death, he received
the honorary title, Master Craftsman of Metalwork, that his father had held
before him. Since then, Kim has made outstanding achievements in the
designs and forms of metalwork, creatively combining traditional methods
and practices with modern art.

The works of Kim are largely divided into two categories: houseware, such
as jewelry boxes, vases, incense burners, kettles and cups; and plaques,
mostly made from aluminum and engraved with images and calligraphic
works. He exploits a variety of traditional designs including those of Chinese
characters with auspicious meaning such as Su (‘long life’) and Bok
(‘fortune’), arabesques, sagunja (‘four noble creatures’), sipjangsaeng
(’10 symbolic creatures of longevity’), landscapes, hwajo (‘flowers and birds’),
bats, dragons, phoenixes and tigers. In order to engrave these diverse
designs he uses approximately 250 chisels that are divided according
to their function and size, most of which are only about 5cm in length.

The traditional metalwork techniques Kim uses are largely classified into five categories: the most basic
technique of seongak (‘line engraving’); the hwagak (‘flower engraving’) approach used for brush-stroke effects; the
gogak (‘tall engraving’) method used for creating three-dimensional effects; the tugak (‘openwork carving’)
technique; and the most difficult yukgak (‘flesh carving’) technique used for creating three-dimensional effects by
hammering both sides of a metal plate. The greatest of all his techniques is the practice of inlaying gold or silver into a
metal surface to create forms and designs that display delightful vitality, like a living thing.

It usually takes from one month to several years for Kim Cheol-ju to produce a fine piece of metal work. The most
important element for making a great work is giving his full attention and focus to what is being done, because
even a moment’s distraction can lead to a wrong line, which then can ruin the entire work and make him start all
over again. That is why he often compares the process of his work with a constant fight he has with his mind for full
mental and emotional control.

The exquisite designs that a gray-haired craftsman created
by chiseling, hammering, and grinding several thousand times
with gnarled hands display the brilliant tradition that has been
passed down from a millennium ago.

* Photo of Kim Cheol-ju by Seo Heun-kang

Kim Cheol-ju, Master Craftsman of Metalwork,
is working with a small hammer and a chisel,
engraving a dragon design onto
the metal
surface of a household item.

View the master's works