The making of a Japanese sword is a very complex process. Traditionally a sword is made by several craftsmen; an impressive number of (at least) 8 people will deliver a contribution before the sword is finished. In this article we will roughly explain the several crafts and explain what they stand for to better understand how a Japanese sword is made.
Important to know is that each of these crafts will take years to learn and decades to master. So let’s have a look at the main contributors of a Japanese sword.
The absolute beginning of a Japanese sword is the unique Tamahagane steel. This steel ore is made in a low clay furnace known as the tatara. The furnace master is called the Murage who won’t lose sight of the tatare once it has been lit. Besides the murage the furnace requires a dozen additional workers to operate it through its 7 day Tamahagane production cycle.
The tatara is only operated three weeks per year. During each winter – when the air humidity is the lowest - the tatara is fired up.
The Tosho or blade smith gathers the required steel for a sword by selecting the right steel wafers made of flattened pieces of Tamahagane ore. The pieces will be forged together and will go through a folding process creating thousands of layers in the steel (which takes about 12-14 folds). The biggest misconception is that the steel is folded hundreds or thousands of times. Besides the ridiculousness of this claim each fold will reduce the carbon content of the steel. Thousands folds would create a useless piece of steel with less carbon than a soft iron nail.
The main tools you can find in a Japanese sword forge are similar to what you would find in a Western forge: hammers, anvils and of course the forge itself with a bellow to push air into the forge.
A Tosogu-shi (or kinko-shi) is a sword fitting maker or fine metal worker / jeweler. The tosogu-shi makes the metal parts of a Japanese sword such as the tsuba, fuchi and kashira and menuki. Also optional saya decoration such as the koijiri, semegane, saya-jiri, kogai and kozukaare made by the tosogu-shi / kinko-shi.
This art uses chisels, files, jeweler’s saws and punches to create incredible details in a sword’s furniture and applies multiple patina techniques to add color to the created piece.
The most common materials to make sword fittings are steel, copper, several copper based alloys and brass. Besides the base materials, the Japanese art of metalworking often uses inlays of gold, silver as well as specific Japanese alloys such as shibuichi (copper and silver alloy) and shakudo (copper and gold alloy).
The togi-shi or blade polisher uses different grades of water stones to give the blade a very sharp edge and a beautiful appearance. During the polish, the tosogu-shi constantly needs to check the geometry and symmetry of the sword blade. After the sword has been properly shaped and sharpened, the sword polisher will continue with the shiage polish. This is the finalizing touch that is focused on bringing out several details which are hidden the steel. Examples are the temper line (hamon), folding pattern (hada) and crystallization pattern. These details can only be highlighted by using the correct tools, stones and technique.
Also part of the finalizing stage is the finishing of the tip (kissaki) and the burnishing of the ji and mune (side and back of the blade). Polishers can leave a signature on the sword blade in the form of Mikagi lines. This striped pattern can sometimes be found on the back side of the sword tip or underneath the habaki.
The saya-shi is the woodworker responsible for the handle and the sheath of a Japanese sword.
Depending on the wishes of the client, a saya-shi will make a shirasaya (storage scabbard) or nuri-saya (saya to be lacquered). In both cases, the construction is made by gluing an omote and ura side together where the shape of the nakago (tang) and blade slot are carefully carved out.
The saya-shi uses a variety of (bent) chisels, shaves, knives and planes to give the tsuka and saya their final shape. This craftsman collaborates closely with the tsukamaki-shi and nuri-shi.
The tsukamaki-shi is responsible for finishing the sword handle. Together with the saya-shi, they can determine the shape of the handle, the exact amount of space needed for the wrapping and fit the sword furniture so that everything is aligned to the sword’s ‘sugata’ (overall shape).
Before the tsukamaki-shi can start, he needs to receive the tsuka-shita-ji (bare wooden handle) from the saya-shi and the sword’s fuchi, kashira and menuki from the tosogu-shi. If the sword furniture is already fitted to the tsuka, the sword blade itself is not required.
The tsukamaki-shi will need to apply the ray skin, determine the position of the menuki and finalize the wrapping. Besides the functional aspect of a wrapped handle (enhancing the grip), the tsuka has many cosmetic details a tsukamaki-shi should take care of. A proper handle wrap is extremely tight, is symmetric and has even crossovers and should perfectly align with the metal fittings which are on the tsuka and under the binding.
A handle of a Japanese sword can be wrapped with a variety of materials including cotton, silk or leather bindings. Different periods in Japan used different materials and techniques for wrapping the handle. There are many variants of tsuka-maki which makes all have a different origin, period and aesthetic feel. The most common wrapping on modern swords is hineri maki. On antique and art swords ‘tsumami maki’ is used more often.
The habaki-shi can be the same person as the tosogu-shi but is considered a separate profession. This person is responsible for the blade collar (named the habaki) of a sword. The habaki locks the saya over the blade and also functions as a stopper for the tsuba. Habaki are made from a softer metal such as copper, brass or another copper based alloy. Gold or silver habaki are a bit more scarce but still not that uncommon. A rectangular sheet of metal is wrapped around the nakago and soldered together with silver and a metal wedge. Each habaki is specifically made for a sword blade.
The habaki can be decorated and patinated using the same techniques as with tosogu (sword fittings). However, techniques such as inlays are often left out as the habaki is constantly in function of holding the saya.
A nuri-shi is a lacquerer. The Japanese lacquer tradition is seen in many objects including plates, boxes and other daily things such as tool handles. The nuri-shi uses urushi lacquer which is a resin based lacquer made from the sap of a lacquer tree. Urushi is poisonous and can cause allergic reactions until it the lacquer is fully cured.
Urushi nuri – urushi lacquering – is an elaborate process by itself as it requires up to 40 steps with a minimum of 10-14 urushi lacquer layers. A Japanese sword sheath is supposed to be tough, light, water-resistant and preferably also scratch-resistant. Urushi can survive decades of use and even after centuries, some urushi lacquered pieces are in perfect condition.
There are hundreds of different lacquering styles including a stone-like structure, egg shell inlays, mother of pearl inlays and a ‘simple’ high-gloss finish. Several natural materials are used to give the lacquer work a specific style. By using pigments the nuri-shi can make the exact color he needs for the job.
Maki-e (urushi art work) even uses gold and silver powder and leaf, beetle wings and pine needles to classify a Japanese sword sheath as a true work of art!
All these craftsmen are irreplaceable in the making of a Japanese sword. They all contribute to the elegant beauty of all the pieces of perfection altogether. With every craft having over 1000 years of history and development, it’s also considered impossible to master them all. The Japanese sword tradition strongly holds on to the principle: Jack of all trades, master of none. You can only achieve a (near) perfect result with years and years of dedication.