Katana Samurai Swords
If you’re looking to buy yourself an authentic Katana Samurai Sword, something which has been hand-crafted in Japan (called a Shinken or True Sword), expect to pay £10,000 or more. If you’d rather buy something traditional but made outside of Japan, you’ll likely pay anywhere between $150 and $2000, this would be for a sword that is for all intents and purposes crafted in a traditional manner.
You may be asking yourself, why do swords made in Japan cost so much? What’s the difference between a ‘real’ Japanese Sword and something which is affordable and looks the same and comes from outside Japan?
This article is to assist in understanding what the real thing is: a sort off beginner’s intro to sword making and where the costs come from. We’ll also look to dismiss some common misconceptions and burst a few fantasies surrounding the Japanese Samurai Sword (hopefully we’ll not upset too many people).
So without further ado let’s get started.
Forging a Japanese Samurai Sword
The process for forging an authentic Samurai Sword is the same for all Katana created in Japan, whether it’s an antique Japanese sword or a high quality modern-day Katana. The steps can be broken down into three distinct elements: folding, laminating, and differential hardening, which is the process of claying the sword and treating the blade with heat to create hardened areas and the famed hamon lines.
Are these steps really necessary in order to produce a usable quality Katana, given that modern day industrial steel is far superior to anything available to previous generations? Are Japanese swordsmiths performing these steps in order to ensure an excellent product or are they done merely because that’s how a traditional sword is forged? The answer is not straightforward and it’s important to understand each process.
Let’s dive in and examine each stage in the forging process.
There’s an incredible amount of misinformation and fantasy surrounding the folded steel used in Japanese swords, so much so that’s it’s easy to be misled and start to believe some of the wilder claims made. You’ve perhaps heard that a real Japanese Katana is made from steel that has been folded over a millions times, leading to a blade that is of such formidable quality that it can cut through nearly anything, from gun barrels, to armor plated vehicles. Literally anything can be cut open with such a blade (blame dodgy Hollywood films and Manga).
The truth is, it was incredibly rare for any traditional sword to be folded in excess of 16 times; this is still capable of creating an impressive amount of layering, easily exceeding 32 thousand layers.
So why spend all this time folding the steel and what does it accomplish? Will it allow the sword to pass through armor like a hot knife through butter? The truth is, with modern steel, the folding process is redundant and can actually weaken the final sword when performed by an inexperienced sword smith.
In ancient Japan, the iron available to swordsmiths was pretty poor, filled with impurities that without treating would lead to a weak final product. The Japanese, being the innovative bunch that they were, worked to remove the impurities present in their steel using a special furnace named a Tatara. Over the course of 72 hours the ore would be treated until a special steel was created called the Tamagahane or jewel steel. The jewel steel was still not pure enough to be forged into a sword. To overcome this issue, the Japanese forgers would fold the steel in order to even out the carbon content and remove impurities.
In modern times, most swords smiths will not work steel this way. However, the Japanese smiths must fold the steel by law: it’s part of the requirement of being a licensed Japanese sword smith. Other regions and smiths may forgo this step, as folding the steel introduces extra cost and is not needed other than for completing the traditional steps in order to satisfy a purist or collector that wants an authentic traditionally-made Samurai Sword.
So, we can safely do away with folding process without impacting the quality of the final sword, but what about the other two traditional processes?
Lamination of a Katana
Like folding, which serves which is carried out for tradition and aesthetics' sake, Lamination is not needed in a modern blade (due to the properties of modern steel), but can be used to create a more authentic Samurai Sword.
There are many ways Lamination can be carried out and many names for the methods and techniques used, for example, Sanmai, Shoshu Kitae (a complicated method) and Kobuse (a simpler method).
Despite the name and the complexity of the methods utilized, they all have one goal in mind, which is to take various types of steel and fuse them together to create a sword which can keep an edge but is also able to endure without snapping. The exception to this law is the Maru style which is a sword made from a single type of steel (the most common and cheapest style for modern blades). While the techniques are different, they all work to the same principle: to create a blade with a hard and sharp edge which is surrounded by a flexible softer jacket. As with allot of hand crafted items, the more in depth and complicated the method, the more expensive the sword is going to be.
Differential Hardening and Claying
So far we’ve covered two of the three processes that go into creating an authentic Samurai Sword, we know that the steel is folded for the sake of tradition rather than anything else, and we know that the sword is laminated in order to create a sword with a soft core and hard edge. And we’re now going to take the hard edge and soft flexible jacket concept further, looking at how the edges are hardened further which also reveals how the hamon is created as a by-product of this process.
At a basic level, claying and hardening involves covering the blade in a layer of meticulously applied clay. A thicker layer is applied to the spine or back of the blade and a thinner layer is applied to the cutting edge. The blade is then heated up to a set temperature of approximately 750 degrees Celsius, then submerged in water. This action causes the part of the blade covered in the thinner layer of clay to cool much faster than the rest. The fast cooling changes the steel structure to a different sort of steel called ‘martensite’, which is incredibly hard.
The end result of the process is that the cutting edge will be very hard and capable of taking and retaining an sharp angle while the rest of the blade will remain flexible and unlikely to snap.
Swords made purely to satisfy the authentic Katana market will not often go through all three processes, any which do will start at around $300 for a basic model. A sword made in Japan will easily cost ten times as much.
If you had to choose one process for your Samurai Sword, which one is most necessary?
We can safely rule out folded swords. The patterns produced look beautiful, but the folding process is not essential to a modern sword. In fact, if performed incorrectly and by an inexperienced smith, the folding process may even reduce the overall strength of the blade by introducing pockets of air into the sword.
That leaves us with differential hardening or lamination. Truth be told, they both produce a similar end product, that’s of course assuming the right kind of steel is used in the lamination process. So if both produce similar results, which should you choose? Our vote goes to differential hardening.
Why Differential Hardening?
It produces an end product that is almost identical to lamination but it also produces an authentic hamon.
There is a downside to a Samurai Sword produced using lamination, especially for swords that will see use, they are far more likely to be damaged which causes the blade to bend. This is due to the blade containing two or more types of steel with varying hardness, any substantial sideways force can cause the sword to bend permanently. A cheaper sword made with Maru (one type of steel), is likely to not bend permanently, assuming the steel is of decent quality.
It’s often the case that the traditionally forged and crafted expensive swords are not as tough or resilient as cheaper ones, which may leave you asking why bother with a traditionally crafted Katana at all? For most people, it's the pride of owning a work of art that reflects a proud culture that stood for over a thousand years.
Traditional or Modern, which is better?
Modern replicas are available in a huge range of shapes, colors and sizes, some of which look very cool. A lot of them are still hand forged or hand finished and have all the qualities of a top notch sword, making them perfect for a variety of martial arts uses or display. However, for many, it’s the forging processes and history that makes the sword something special, which is of course absolutely true, just expect to pay a bit more for the privilege. There’s no denying that a custom Samurai Sword made in the traditional manner is much more than a sword, it’s a unique piece of art and one which has had several artists working on it.
We have several types of Samurai Swords to suit your requirements, from simple quality mono steel swords in a variety of finishes, to clay baked swords made in the traditional manner. Prices vary on the sword finish required; we can even accommodate custom designed swords, just get in contact for more information and a quote.
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