Making a Traditional Japanese Sword in Feudal Japan
In ancient Japan, katanas were very rare and valuable. They were made with special techniques and metals – more specifically one – Tamahagane steel (also called Jewel Steel). This is a special type of steel issued from iron sand smelted in the traditional Japanese low furnace.
Tamahagane steel swordsmithing is not completely extinct nowadays, but nearly. This is simply because the traditional methods of smelting, forging, and refining a blade is extremely expensive. Moreover, the special ore (Tamagahane) required for the traditional process is very rare – and thus expensive. Moreover, swords are actually illegal in Japan, so it’s very hard to get any of these so-prized pieces of art out of the country.
Therefore, the few smiths who are using the traditional techniques in Japan and are willing to sell their swords do so for a really high price – usually upward of 5000$. Needless to say, these swords are inaccessible to most people.
Modern Sword Builders, Modest Prices
Thankfully, there are smiths in other countries which hand-forge and sell exquisite katanas for a fraction of that price.
Instead of dealing in thousands, they deal in hundreds, which is much more reasonable. And they’re able to create really good, battle-ready works of art.
Modern swordsmiths don’t use Tamahagane steel – but instead Damascus Steel, which can be worked with in great ways. There are also many types of guards (tsuba), scabbards (saya), and other pieces which can create truly beautiful Japanese swords – especially custom katana swords.
P.S. Anyone who tells you they’re selling Tamahagane steel from Asia, Europe or North America are 100% selling you fake Tamahagane. This technique is nearly extinct today – and available only from a few select smiths in Japan whose work is nearly inaccessible.
The building process used by Swords for Sale sword builders involves at a minimum 3 people:
Material Selection and Smelting
First of all, the Smelter prepares the raw materials and works exclusively in his furnace.
This is a process that takes multiple days to complete. At the start, the Smelter has raw iron ore full of impurities that he refines uninterruptedly (sometimes for up to seven days) with the charcoal of his furnace. At the end, the Smelter has a refined block of steel which he sends to the Swordsmith.
Only select steel blocks make it through, while smaller, impure steel is sent to make forks and small knives.
Swordsmiths are notoriously known to be difficult with the types of steel they work with, so the block of steel has to pass a thorough inspection before making it to their own workspace.
Blade Forging, Folding & Clay-Tempering
Once the Smelter finishes his job, the Swordsmith takes over. His responsibility is to transform the block of steel into an exquisite blade.
First of all, he takes the block of steel, reheats it in his own furnace, and forges (elongating and hammering) it as per the needs of the sword he’s building.
If the smith builds a Folded blade, he elongates, beats the steel and re-folds it – making it into a steel block again. He can do this several times. This is what creates the beautiful “Damascus Steel” effect on the blade and makes for a stronger steel.
For simpler, high-carbon blades – he simply elongates the steel and hammers it directly. This is also where the Blood Groove (Bo-Hi) is built – and the Smith needs to be very exact in order to create a perfect blade.
Once he is done, he proceeds to heat treating (quenching) the blade. Depending on the sword he’s building and whether he needs to create a Hamon or not – he proceeds to Clay-Tempering the steel with a special cooling process. On normal swords, he quenches the sword with a much simpler process.
When he is done, he has a full raw blade that’s ready to be Grinded, Polished, and Sharpened.
Polishing & Sharpening the Blade
After the Smith is done with the blade, the final person to work on it is the Togishi. His job is to polish and sharpen the blade.
First of all, the Togishi uses a special process to hand-polish and grind the blade. At the start, the blade is very rough, and has many imperfections. At the end, the blade has a “mirror-like” look, and reveals the inner beauty of the forging process.
Moreover, the Togishi can also use a “Hazuya Polishing” process to polish and refine the blade. It’s a special type of polishing which uses the special Hazuya stone to enhance and create a beautiful effect on the blade.
Hazuya polishing is an extremely time-consuming process, as every part of the blade has to be polished by hand… To be more exact: by pressing the finger on the blade’s entire surface (see pictures below).
Finally, the blade has to be sharpened. Initially, rough, low-grain grindstones are used to sharpen katana blades, and then progressively, finer, higher-grain grindstones are utilised. Once the blade’s entire length is sharpened, the Togishi has to work on the tip (the kissaki), and uses a different technique to make it extra-sharp.
Assembly of the Sword
Once the blade is finished, it’s finally time to assemble the sword. Usually, it’s a different person from the smith than the smith who does this – the Assembler.
Before assembly, the most important thing is to build the scabbard and the wooden handle. Both these parts have to be built with the final blade. The process of building a Saya and Tsuka from hard wood can be pretty tedious and long – it has to be precise since they have to fit perfectly.
Once the saya and tsuka are built, the handle has to be assembled along with the handle guard (tsuba), and blade collars, fuchi, menuki, etc. The handle is held in place to the tang by Mekugi (two small wooden cylinders).
Every single piece of the sword must fit together perfectly. A functional, balanced Japanese sword is the end-result of the Assembler‘s work.