The word originally meant just foot bellows, but its use was later extended to the whole furnace. The two Chinese characters used when the word has the original meaning are 踏鞴 and, besides as tatara, they can be also read as fumifuigo (ふみふいご), or foot bellows.
The word came also to mean the entire building housing the furnace.
The extremely pure steel, or tamahagane (玉鋼), used in the forging of Japanese swords (commonly known as ) by contemporary Japanese forge masters like Kihara Akira and Gassan Sadatoshi is still smelted in a tatara. One of the few remaining tatara is the Nittoho Tatara in Shimane Prefecture, Japan.
The smelting process used is different from that of the modern mass production of steel. A clay vessel about 1.1 meters (4 feet) tall, 3 meters (12 feet) long, and 1.1 meters (4 feet wide) is constructed. This is the tatara. After the clay tub has dried, it is fired until dry. A charcoal fire is started from soft pine charcoal, then the smelter will wait for the fire to reach the correct temperature. At that point he will direct the addition of iron sand known as satetsu. This will be layered in with more charcoal and more iron sand over the next 72 hours. 4 or 5 people need to constantly work on this process. It takes about a week to build the tatara and complete the iron conversion to steel. When the process is done they will break the clay tub and take out the steel bloom known as a kera. At the end of the process the tatara will have consumed about 10 tons of satetsu and 12 tons of charcoal leaving about 2.5 tons of tamahagane.
In 1977, the Japanese Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nittoho) together with the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs built in Shimane Prefecture the so-called Nittoho Tatara to provide the steel necessary for the production of Japanese swords. The Nittoho Tatara is operative only during the winter.