The making of the sword
All steel swords face a basic dilemma: the steel has to be hard so it can be sharpened, but hard steel is brittle and breaks easily.
Many different techniques have been developed all over the world to over come this problem, but among them the Japanese solution – the combination of composite structure and selective hardening – is quite unique. It is surprising how the smiths of old, with no modern understanding of metallurgy, were able to develop such a delicate balance!
The steel for a Japanese sword is produced from the black, sand-like iron oxide (Fe2O3) called satetsu. To make steel out of satetsu, the oxygen has to be removed, and carbon introduced into the iron. This process is called smelting. In the traditional Japanese smelter, tatara, the iron is in relatively low temperature to produce the raw steel called tamahagane. The color and texture of tamahagane depends on the impurities of the ore and is thus dependent on place.
The smith carefully goes through the pieces of tamahagane sorting them according to their carbon content. He then hammers them to plates and breaks the plates to smaller pieces.
From these pieces he collects a rectangular block about 7,5 to 12,5 cm a side, and weighing 2-3.5 kilos. (It should be noted that the finished blade weighs only about a half of this. Much material is lost in the making.) The smith wraps the block in rice paper to hold it together and covers in clay and burned rice straws. The block is heated and hammered to fuse it together.
The fused piece of steel is heated, folded and hammered repeatedly to drive out all impurities and air bubbles that might compromise the strength of the finished blade. The folding also results in the typical “woodgrain” look of the finished blade. This patterning is called hadame. The pattern depends on whether the steel has been folded lengthwise or breadth wise, or combination of both. A craft full smith often combines steel from different sources to produce even more pronounced effect. The terms often used when talking about the steel of the blade are jihada meaning the patterning of the steel and jitetsu the quality and texture of the steel.
There are different schools on how the blade is constructed. Some smiths do it from two pieces, the surface and the core. This construction is called makuritae or kobuse. It is also possible to make the blade from four (the core, sides, and the cutting edge) pieces. This construction is called honsanmai. There are even blades constructed from five pieces (the core, the sides, the edge and the back of the blade). This is called shihozume. It takes great skill from the smith to seamlessly fuse these pieces together. Any opening or crack between the pieces would result in inferior and weak blade. This work is called tsukurikomi. The steel intended for the hard outer surface of the blade, kawagane is made of steel of high carbon content and is commonly folded 13-20 times. The steel intended for the core shingane has much lower carbon content and is folded about 10 times. If the edge is made from a separate piece, steel called hochogane (or hagane) is used. It is made from tamahagane and zukuoroshigane (old iron from pots etc.), and folded around 18 times. The steel for the back of the sword (mune) is called munegane and is quite hard.
When the different pieces of the blade have been worked together, the smith works the metal into the shape of the blade. First the blade is given its general shape, and then in succession the kissaki (the point), monouchi (the part of blade used for cutting) and nakago (the tang) are shaped. The shape is finished with a series of planes and files.
The truly critical phase of making a blade is the hardening, yaki-ire. The blade is covered with a paste made out of clay, charcoal powder and pulverized sandstone. The paste is applied thicker near the back of the blade than on the cutting edge. Thus the cutting edge will be hardened much harder than the rest of the blade. The pattern between the thick and thin layers of paste will produce the hamon, the wavy hardening pattern on the blade. Often the smith makes thin stripes of thick paste all the way to the cutting edge. These produce series of thin sectors of soft steel called ashi. Their function is to limit the damage to short area, if the hardened edge begins to chip.
One peculiarity of the yaki-ire is, that the blade bends because of the differential heating near the front and the back of the blade. The smith has to anticipate this bending, and initially make the blade less curved than intended for the finished blade. Often the curvature has to be adjusted after the hardening.
The finished blade is the polished – this an art in itself – and fitted with the appropriate koshirae (the scabbard, handle, habaki, etc.) Since the koshirae are quite costly, many swords made currently are fitted in shirasaya, this is a plain wooden storage scabbard instead of full katana mounts or tachi koshirae.
The five major schools or traditions of swordmaking in Japan, the Gokaden, are:
YAMASHIRO-DEN was most prevalent from the end of the Heian-era and to the end of Kamakura era. Some of the schools inside Yamashiro-den are Sanjo, Gojo, Avataguchi and Rai.
YAMATO-DEN is the oldest of the five traditions. It had a reneissance in the Kamakura period. The schools inside Yamato-den include Senjuin, Tegain, Taima, Shikkake and Hosho.
BIZEN-DEN that is famous for a rather flamboyant type of hamon called choji, has been influental since Heian era. It includes Osafune and other schools.
SOSHU-DEN was formulated in Kamakura era. Many of the most famous smiths in Japanese history, like Yukimitsu and Masamune belonged to it.
MINO-DEN is the youngest of the five traditions. It was most influential from the end of the Kamakura era until the end of the Muromachi era. It includes Kanebo, Muramasa and Kamenori schools, among others.