Ok, well it's not like me to play down the value of a good bargain, I've lived in a financially 'tight' manner for many years. I mean I've managed, but I put some of that down to the eye for a deal. However, to remain on subject, with swords you need to be more careful. I suppose there are a great number of things that are like this, take brake discs for example or 4 way power adapters or replacement phone batteries, lol. There are only so many corners you can cut before the item becomes a liability. Of course a cheaper deal can often be perfectly practical and safe but be disappointing in quality.
When thinking of buying a sword and price is a definite consideration, you have to be sure that you at least know what corners you're cutting. So with that in mind let's forget about the price for a while, become pessimists, and simply look at a bullet point list of things that you should be aware may be a problem before you commit to buy.
Poor heat treatment
A poor heat treatment can ruin the sword entirely. If you're lucky then the sword was not properly hardened and will bend easily but if the blade was over hardened then you could have something that could snap or chip easily. It's usually easier to mess up a differential hardening treatment so even if the hamon really pops, its possible that you'll still have a lemon. Of course it may not even be differentially hardened. It's far easier for a forge to harden the blade and draw back the spine to a softer finish. such a process is called differential tempering.
Penknife style blade edge
Sometimes the quickest way to get an edge on a blade is to give it a secondary bevel. Never should this be done to a katana. nonetheless I've had a blade labelled as paper cutting sharp sent to me with a secondary bevel. It was terrible and forced me to rework the entire blade. This happens on cheap swords made by people who havent a clue.
A secondary bevel shows that the factory it was made in decided to sharpen this as they would a cheap kitchen knife.
Materials not being what they say they are
Simply put, are you sure that 1095 or T-10 blade isn't just plain old 1060? How many people are going to check do you think? It's easy to spot a 1045 blade because it will take a set but anything above that would take considerable experience to be able to even hazard a guess as to what it was. I know I couldn't, I just believe what I'm told unless I have a specific reason to think otherwise.
Poorly executed Bo-hi
Bohi are basically gouged out of the steel using a special tool. well they would be if they were hand made but I get the impression that a power tool is used these days especially seeing the quality from some of the real horrible examples that spring to mind. One sword I bought from the UK still had a godawful uneven and very shallow bohi that was purely cosmetic and they failed at even that. when you see the picture of what you're getting, you're basically buying into a stock photo. Poorly done bohi basically ruin that tachi kaze that you're trying to attain with every stroke and even worse if youre trying to train in decent hasuji based on it, you can find your angles are off but the sound is right.
No thought given to the balance of the blade
Katana should be balanced well. I mean it goes without saying. The balance of each blade will be different and some will be better or worse than others, or even better or worse for you personally. A cheap manufactured blade can sometimes feel like a very long axe. With the variety of koshirae available, you have to wonder if that doesnt account for some of it, but how are you going to be able to tell without remounting it?
Poorly shaped tsuka
A pickaxe handle or straight with no curvature tsuka is uncomfortable to hold. The shape of the tsuka should be made to leave you in no doubt as to which way the blade is pointing and how far along the grip your hands are and of course it should be able to do this without you having to look to check. Some companies are better than others at this and it's usually instantly obvious in the photo what it's going to be like so pay attention to this.
This is one of my pet peeves so I wont go on for ages about it. A poor wrap will be made of poor quality overly stretchy shoelace like ito, with no hishigami which are the paper wedges that sit underneath the crossovers of the wrap and help to keep its structure secure. It will be loose and therefore potentially dangerous, the end knot will come undone and looking at it after one cutting session will make you cry. thats it, I'll leave it there. expect to rewrap practically every cheap production sword you buy, or be prepared to lacquer the damn thing as soon as you get it.
Day 2 of use and a poor wrap can just fall apart. This also shows the same was not even cut from the right piece with a wasted emperor node on almost falling off the side.
Usually on production katana, the tsuka is something that is mass made and hammered onto the nakago of the next sword in the pile. If it doesnt fit so well, then it's just whacked a few more times with the mallet to force it on. This sort of thing causes stresses and cracks in the tsuka and is at best not optimal and at worst, bloody dangerous. Because of this some companies glue the tsuka to the nakago to make sure it doesnt come off. ever. good for safety, not good for routine maintenance or customisation but i suppose it's better than the sword blade flying out of the tsuka.
This habaki, along with the tsuka was 'hot-glued' into place. This photo was taken actually after I'd cleaned off as much of the gunk as I easily could.
"One size fits all" type saya
Another saya from the pile, all made in the same way, all roughly the same shape and size. If it rattles then thats forgiveable but they can end up being loose at the koiguchi which means the sword will slide out of the saya unless you keep your thumb on the tsuba at all times.
Horrible same panels
Not all katana from japan had full same wraps, a lot were panels because rayskin is a premium item. However, there are still good panels and bad panels. On cheaply done panels you will find that sometimes the rayskin is almost smooth and sometimes a panel is even made up of multiple pieces which can slide around on the tsuka.
- plastic menuki - or indeed even plastic fittings. This isn't so common anymore but it used to be. Everything from menuki to would you believe it, plastic habaki. scary stuff.
- Cog wheel type seppa - These are unattractive plain and simple. Functional but not aesthetically pleasing. This is the sort of corner cutting that is done in order to bring the cost down by a tiny tiny amount. This amount is nothing when youre dealing with 100 swords but when youre talking about the 1000's that are sold every month, it all adds up.
- Sageo is shoelace. Every. Chinese. Ebay. Forge. Ever. Literally shoelace. What is the point? Its too short to be used as sageo, it doesnt even look nice. It's basically to cover up the fact that they have no real sageo. I'd rather they didn't bother to be honest.
Postal service and customs
Whoever you're buying from, ask for tracking. Some companies will simply pay the postage and send it off in a fire and forget manner and others go beyond the call of duty to make sure that the package gets right to your door. Never ask them to label it 'Gift' to help get it through customs as as this actually gets it stopped at customs straight away. Instead be responsible and know the legalities for your country and have it appropriately labelled. You're going to need to know if duty has to be paid on top as well. I know for example that if the package I'm receiving is anywhere near 110 GBP, I'll need to be paying customs as it gets here. Check the duty calculator for your country as this may make the end product a lot more expensive than you had at first thought.
But hey... It's not all bad
I suppose this could be seen at as being a very pessimistic look at things but this is what I think about when I get the urge to cut corners and you should too. I mean, your mileage may vary and you could find that you get a decent service and a nice blade to boot, and if you do, you obviously fell on your feet.. but it can be a gamble.
I got a decent blade about 4 years ago from a chinese ebay dealer. It wasnt spectacular, I mean the tsukamaki sucked, the ito was stretchy like elastic, the fittings were cheap, the saya clanked around and needed shimming, but the blade itself was nice. The whole feel of the sword could be summed up as basic but well weighted. I ended up remounting it and it became a favourite sword. There are a few jewels in the rough out there, but you should be aware that you need to be careful and choosy. If you get a crappy sword, well its on you now. Better you weigh up the odds before you buy rather than after.
There are plenty of forums and people to talk to on various groups on facebook who would be happy to share their experiences with whichever company they've decided to shop with and this is often a good way to gather intel before venturing further. If you've got X number of pounds/dollars to spend on a sword, do yourself a favour and put them to one side. Start asking about and shortlisting various companies, wait before you buy, continue saving. Only when you're sure that you're going to get what you want should you part with your hard earned cash.