Welcome to the Soulsmithing FAQ.
Feel free to send in questions to be added here!
ABOUT THE JAPANESE SWORD CULTURE
How can I become a swordsmith apprentice?
Do you make any other weapons besides full length swords, such as tanto or wakizashi?
What is shinsa and “papers” and why is there so much importance accorded to them?
How many swordsmiths are there today?
Can anyone buy tamahagane steel and make swords in Japan?
ABOUT THE DEFINITION OF JAPANESE SWORDS
ABOUT JAPANESE SWORD MANUFACTURING
How long does it actually take to go from raw material to a blade ready to be polished?
What parts of your job take the longest?
How long does polishing take?
Does a professional polisher always do that job or can polishing be done by the smith?
Anything you thought would be easy that wasn’t?
Anything you thought would be hard and was easy?
If a sword cracks or breaks, can it be salvaged?
Can a blade be re-sharpened if it were damaged in battle ?
Do you only make nihonto from a certain era or do you try to learn techniques from many eras to make different kinds?
Are other japanese metal weapons such as spears or naginata made with the same process as swords?
ABOUT THE JAPANESE SWORD CULTURE
« How can I become a swordsmith apprentice? »
(or any other classical trade for that matter)
By being very patient. And by reading these pages.
« Do you make any other weapons besides full length swords, such as tanto or wakizashi? »
Japanese swordsmiths make all the samurai weapons, all blades and sometimes others too (jutte, suntetsu, tetto, kabuto-wari, etc). We are weaponsmiths of the japanese tradition, in short.
« What is shinsa and “papers” and why is there so much importance accorded to them? »
For all antiques there are always experts who offer their services to appraise and authenticate a given work. Egyptologists will offer their opinion on the origin and authenticity of some egyptian artifact and shinsa-in, or appraisers in Japanese, will do the same in their own branch of specialization.
A shinsa is an appraisal session. In the case of swords, sword fittings or other samurai antiques, it is done mostly by organizations, namely the NTBTHK, the NTHK, the NTHK-NPO, and less commonly by other, more local organizations throughout Japan (the newly created NBSK does not offer any shinsa services at this point).
Shinsa are held at scheduled periods. The swords or other objects are submitted, and passed through an examination process. The result is stated and, if the piece is believed authentic, a certificate, or kantei-sho, may be produced.
Western collectors put much emphasis on the presence or absence of a certificate, or “paper”, along a given sword or sword fittings, whereas the Japanese tend to trust their own knowledge as well as their chosen dealer more. In Japan it is a bit embarrassing to show interest in a sword’s paper, thus demonstrating that one doesn’t have the eye to judge by oneself.
The truth is very few individuals have the necessary knowledge to properly judge a sword, but it is also true that relying too much on papers alone is a great risk as well as a way of preventing someone from fully enjoying a sword. It is important to remember that kantei-sho produced at a shinsa session, are ultimately someone’s opinion, and humans being fallible and influenceable, many erroneous or bribed cases have been observed in the past.
« How many swordsmiths are there today? »
I actually called the office at the Agency for Cultural Affairs to get a straight answer. The straight answer was: « We don’t keep records of the actual number. » That could have been interpreted as a refusal, but he did give me all sorts of statistics and exact numbers on sword registration and other details.
It is usually agreed that there are about 300 individuals who own the necessary licence to make swords in Japan. However, not all of them work full time as a swordsmith, many even don’t do this at all. It is said that about a hundred smiths do this full time, while less than half of this actually make a living from this trade.
« Can anyone buy tamahagane steel and make swords in Japan? »
Moreover, japanese swords being both a weapon and a traditional craft, only the licence holders are allowed to make them, and even so they must limit their production to two long swords or their equivalent per month (a wakizashi, or short sword, is considered two thirds, and a tanto, or dirk, one third of a long sword).
ABOUT THE DEFINITION OF JAPANESE SWORDS
« What’s all the fuss about japanese swords? »
Although originally made as plain weapons, much like every other craft in Japan, their manufacturing was elevated into a fine art. In Japan over one hundred swords have been declared National Treasure, something unseen in any other part of the world.
Japanese Swords are appreciated for various reasons according to individual tastes. Everyone agrees, though, on the following factors:
- The technology used in their manufacturing is beyond the complete understanding of even modern scientists: we understand, but we can’t reproduce the masterpieces of old.
- The skills required to successfully manufacture one sword requires a lifetime of practice from several individuals. Indeed, one sword requires from five to eight craftsmen to be complete.
- From an aesthetic point of view, japanese swords present a number of features that please the eye: an elegant curvature, finely crafted lines, actual steel grain, or «skin», such as in wood, and a hardening mark, the hamon, a unique characteristic. Moreover, the japanese swords fittings are an entire world on their own, and many collectors choose to focus on this aspect alone.
But talking doesn’t make for actually viewing of swords! Take any opportunity you may have to see a great japanese sword in books, at a museum, and pay attention to its lines, its steel texture or hardening mark, and to its age, because most good swords are centuries old.
« What’s the difference between a machine-made modern blade and a traditional japanese sword? »
That is both a very simple, and very complex question! Basically, all japanese swords are the same. They all have a single cutting edge, a curvature, everything that makes the typical “japanese sword shape”. Then, what makes some collectors pay the price of a house for some blades, but not that of a plank for others? What’s the difference between a convenience store wine and a fine wine? They’re both just fermented, filtered grape juice.
Mediocrity and masterpieces, it’s all in the details. First we separate swords made with modern materials and techniques from traditional ones. The purpose of the later is to preserve the tradition, nothing else, while the former are made to be economically competitive or to perform well during cutting or other types of tests.
Traditional swords are made to perform well within the limits of the tradition’s available technology. That is, everything is hand-made, starting with the steel itself, its forging, and then the final polishing and dressing of a sword. Also, they should not only be constructed so as to neither break nor bend and cut well, but also to please the viewer such as the fine art that is it.
« Are swords made today of a type of their own? »
Our job is to preserve a tradition. Today swords are useless as weapons. You could make much better, stronger and unbreakable swords with modern industrial alloys, no question. The point is we’re making these amazing masterpieces with the techniques of old. So we always reproduce, or get inspired from old schools. However it is true that modern swords are called Gendaito. Even though we try to work within the tradition, everything that is manufactured by individuals has individual traits, and it is impossible for a new sword to be like a 700 year-old one.
ABOUT JAPANESE SWORD MANUFACTURING
« How long does it actually take to go from raw material to a blade ready to be polished? I’ve heard all sorts of stories. »
I was asked very often, and took the time to actually calculate the time spent making a sword. I estimated that there is about 6 weeks worth of actual work (or about 35-40 days) involved on the swordsmith’s part. The problem to this question, however, is that no sword is ever made from scratch to finish in one stretch.
Imagine a potter: he could prepare clay for a month’s worth of production, then turn pots for a week, then mixing some new glaze while they dry, making a test, go back to finishing the pots, knead some more though, etc…
— How long does it take you to make a pot ?
(and the answer would be anywhere from a day to a year and TV shows would say “it takes years to make one pot!”)
We work on several swords at the same time. We make mistakes. We do research. Then swords need to visit other craftsmen to be completed, and they have their own schedule. So swords are usually delivered from anywhere between one to four years after the order has been placed, but it doesn’t take that much time to make one single sword.
In the old days, swordsmiths were working in small factories by the hundreds and were specialized in one aspect of sword making. There would be forgers, and quenchers, and shapers…
« What parts of your job take the longest? »
It depends on who and what technique he adopted. Tanren and kaji-oshi can be considered the most time consuming though.
Tanren. The forge-folding, or kind of kneading of the raw steel in order to prepare it and turn it into a useful material. Depending on the technique and on defining where tanren starts and end, it takes about two to five full days (that means lunch while forging, no kidding).
Kaji-oshi. All the work done after the quench-hardening of a sword. It involves straightening, adjusting the curvature, finishing the swords lines and surfaces, carving grooves, etc. The last steps of kaji-oshi and the first steps done by the polisher are in fact the same. They have to overlap in order for the polisher to properly take over where the smith intended to have left off.
« How long does polishing take? »
Polishers take about a week to 10 days to complete their part, while scabbard and habaki makers a bit less than that. It depends on who, the style and the level of work. In the early 20th century most polishers would do it in a day! I wonder what they were doing, though.
« Does a professional polisher always do that job or can polishing be done by the smith? »
A swordsmith’s apprenticeship lasts between 5 to 7 years. A polisher’s is 10. I don’t believe that most people can become prominent in both (or any two or more) trades in one normal lifetime. Someone with the right strength of mind and the focus (something like “work before wife, before kids, before money, before eating, before home, before safety”) could get there, but I just don’t see the point. Even DaVinci never finished what he started and he lost much business because of this. It’s not 5 years of apprenticeship and home free, but rather 30 years of steady, rigorous work to get to an interesting level, no kidding. So no, smiths don’t polish, and polishers don’t smith.
« Anything you thought would be easy that wasn’t? »
Cutting charcoal. It’s an art, no joke.
« Anything you thought would be hard and was easy? »
My original young master’s schedule.
But for the work itself, everything is difficult. Very.
As Kawachi said: “Everything is difficult if you’re serious about it.” That’s exactly it. Even the most insignificant work gets very complex, and a true source of wonder, if done with one’s whole being.
« If a sword cracks or breaks, can it be salvaged? »
It can only be shortened from the tang, not from the tip. So you can only make something with the undamaged portion that is between the tip and the flaw. If you have a crack 10cm from the tip, you can make a letter opener. If the crack is near the base, you can make a shorter sword or dirk.
Steel can always be recycled, but very few do this. It involves a lot of work, it’s costly, and the yield is bad.
However a crack cannot be fixed, but bend can be.
(you can always put masking tape, but I think a connoisseur would notice )
« Can a blade be re-sharpened if it were damaged in battle ? »
Blades can be and are re-sharpened: it’s the polisher’s job. However sharpening implies the removal of material, which means that the sword is slowly being destroyed: so as less as possible.
« Do you only make nihonto from a certain era or do you try to learn techniques from many eras to make different kinds? »
Right now I’m learning, so I’m learning from every era and school and tradition. Eventually one finds a certain school that he likes and focusses his research on. That is important to evolve: to have a focus and progress, otherwise one never gets better.
« Are other japanese metal weapons such as spears or naginata made with the same process as swords? »
They are very exactly the same thing, just a different shape!