Monday, 5 September 2011

Now that's a knife!

I remember looking in the martial arts shops, or the weird gift shops on holidays and in town and seeing the famous 'Samurai Sword set - £49.99' with free stand!
I'm sure we all have seen them, or gone into some ones house and seen it balanced on the fire place, or on a window ledge, normally with the BT bill wedged behind it! 
One thing we never give any thought about is to how they were made originally. How they were made in the times of the samurai. Why is a katana so special? Why do we not have 'medieval swords' on the wall? Why do we always think about a katana being the true king of all swords?
There are many reasons why katanas are seemed to by 'mystique' and the best sword available but some facts speak for themselves. They are the only sword to have removable fittings and have not changed design in the last 1000 years. The wealthy samurai would buy different colour fittings for different occasions, going round town, into battle, different seasons. The katana became his shadow, his best friend. Whenever a blade was made it was signed by the maker, the polisher, the clan printed on, the town, and the date so the history could be traced back in years to come. Can't remember Little John having a Bo to the same quality!
So how is a blade made? Well we start our journey with a piece of steel. Steel is full of carbon which makes a cutting edge very sharp on a blade, but is brittle from side impact. If we was to remove all the carbon from the steel then it would make the steel more flexible so there was less chance of it snapping on impact, but the edge would dull and chip over time… so the makers came up with a system of making a inside core of steel with very little carbon to make the blade flexible but a cutting edge made of steel with the carbon in to keep a sharp cutting edge (like a kind of bi-metal blade) Not bad for 1000 years ago! 
They first started welding the two pieces together but later started rolling the two types together, so there were no joints. The sword maker started with a block of steel and heated it in a 'tatara' furnace, once heated they would hammer the molten into a block twice the size, then fold it over and weld the side together, cleaning the joints with steam on the anvil and quenching in water to avoid contamination. Standard steel has a carbon content of around 2.5% but once it is heated, hammered, folded and quenched it loses 0.2% of this. The process is then repeated till the piece of steel is left with roughly 0.5% of carbon left. This piece of steel will form the inner core of the blade.
The outer cutting edge the blade is then formed from a separate piece of steel but without the carbon being removed, the two are then folded and hammered together so it looks similar to a sausage roll! The whole blade is then ready to be shaped and hardened. The blade would be straight at this point and would look nothing like the curved blade we recognise today. The blade would then be coated with thin layer of sticky clay and left to dry, once dry a thicker layer of clay would be applied to just the back half of the blade to create a layered effect of different thickness clay, it would then would be heated back in the furnace. Once hot the blade is quenched to harden the steel and this is when the blade takes its curved shape as different parts of the steel cool at different levels due to the clay and thickness of the steel. 
The layers of the clay once removed leave a distinctive mark on the blade called the 'hamon'. This is where the blade has been at different temperatures. Sometimes you will see little bubbly, wiggly marks on the hamon called 'choji', this was a sign that bubbles had risen up the blade in the quenching period. This was a sign that the blade had been 'rushed' due to high demand during the times of war, it's not a defect of the blade though, just shows a different pattern. If you looked carefully at the rest of the blade you should be able to see the grain of the steel, it looks similar to the grain of wood running up and down the blade from the folds in the steel. The sword maker would also apply slight breaks in the cutting edge, these are called 'ashi' which would be designed like a fuse in a plug, a weak point to stop any cracks that might appear due to battling from travelling the full length of the cutting edge and destroying the blade.
Once the blade was complete it would then be sent to a polisher whose job was to make this lump of steel look like a katana. He started by hunching himself over a wooden water barrel and setting the lines in the blade with a course piece of stone, this took many hours of rubbing and washing the excess steel away. Once this was completed he then has to remove the scratches he has made with a finer stone, and would finish with tiny slithers of stone, glued onto pieces of paper to fine polish the blade. This process would take around two weeks of solid work to polish one katana. 
The stone used was taken from Kyoto in Japan and is limestone, the quarry what is used is running out fast and is charging upwards of £1000 for a stone today! Cheap polishes made are around £1000 a blade a polish from Mr Mujishiro, one of the top polisher’s charges around £5000. No wonder they are all riddled with arthritis at an early age! The fittings would then be added to a blade and it was then complete, ready for the samurai to take to the battlefield.
There were 5 main time periods and areas for making blades, all making different styles and designs:
Gokaden (blades made up to 1600's)
Yamato / Yamashiro (Made near Kyoto - made blades for noblemen)
Bizen (70% blades made before 1600's - curved near the tang)
Soshu (Wide and thin blades made near the Shoguns Court)
Mino (Average blades with even curves and hard edges)
Not also did the Samurai wear a katana, but up to the 1500's they worn a 'tachi' as well which was longer and worn upside down for use on horseback, the katana was easier to use when on foot so was saved for combat, a 'no-dachi' (shoulder sword) was sometimes used without a saya (scabbard) on the battlefield and the samurai would sometimes employ a peasant to carry this for him. A ‘Wakizashi’ (short sword) would be worn sometimes around town to show authority and was a samurai's way of saying ‘look at me‘. Wakizashi were often made from old 'Naginata' (spear) blades that had there wooden shaft broken, so not to waste the blade.
Sword Smiths prided themselves on the quality of there work and the blade spoke for themselves on the battlefield but when there was no wars being fought they had to be tested another way. They were often tested for sharpness on human corpses or prisoners. This is called 'Tameshigiri' (test cutting) If a prisoner got an idea that they would be used for this purpose they would swallow stones the night before so it would chip the blades if they were to be cut!
As you can see there is a lot of work, time, effort and history into making a blade and the ones I have described don't sound like the £49 set! These were proper traditional blades designed to be used and took months to make, all by hand, not the cheap ones from Spain everyone has now and that makes me think about an old saying from the words of Crocodile Dundee 'now that’s a knife!'
EDITOR'S NOTE - the cheap ornamental blades such as those costing £49 highlighted in this article are now illegal in the UK. Anyone caught with such a blade faces six months in prison and a fine of up to £5000.

However, legitimate historical katana are not banned, and neither are new katanas as long as they are made in the traditional methods by craftsmen. To import these weapons requires an importation licence from HM Customs and Excise. Only legitimate historical collectors - such as the Royal Armouries - and those practicing arts such as Iaido and Kenjutsu are permitted to import such blades and they must belong to a bonafide club and be properly licenced. These blades must be kept covered and out of reach at any time they are transported in public. 

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