The Samurai Sword needs no introduction. When you simply look at one, you get a feeling of fear (it’s a sword after-all) and beauty (it’s a good looking sword too)
The price of a Japanese Samurai sword varies quite a bit and most of this has to do with how it’s made. Making it is a work of art and the price definitely shows that. Now here’s the part that interests me — is the price still justified? Does the work put in really validate the price point?
OK so lets first start of with some price points:
So let us try and understand the processes that go into making a sword and if they really add any value that you’re justifiably paying for.
There are three distinct processes that into making a high quality samurai sword:
Carefully selected steel billets, which are worthy of becoming swords are folded around 15 times, creating up an impressive 32,768 layers.
In olden time. the quality of iron ore wasn’t very good but the clever Japanese found a way around this — they took the impure iron and purified it over flame over a period of 72 hours days, in a large specially made furnace called Tatara. The resulting steel was called Tamagahane a.k.a. jewel steel
However, even the jewel steel wasn’t 100% pure so that Japanese would then take it and carefully fold it in an effort to try and homogenize and even out the carbon content.
These days, not too many smiths other than those in Japan still make the sword this way (Japanese smiths still have to by LAW) simply because the quality of modern steel billets or powder steel is so good that practically, you can just skip this step, or at least skip using Tamahagane and just fold it for the sake of tradition or just satisfying the needs of a collector who wants a folded sword.
The second and third traditional processes however are a little more on the practical side.
This process, unlike the first, does contribute to the essential physical characteristics of the Authentic Samurai sword.
There are many different ways it can be done such as Kobuse (the most simple method), Sanmai, Shoshu Kitae (the most complicated method) etc.
However, apart from the Maru style (what we call today a monosteel sword) they all have one thing in common. They are basically taking billets of steel of a different hardness and fusing them to create a blade designed to hold a sharp edge without snapping.
So while the techniques differ - the general principle is to create a blade with a very hard edge, surrounded by a more flexible jacket. As a rule of thumb, the more complicated the technique, the more valuable/expensive the sword is.
3) Claying and Differential Hardening:
So far, we have determined than an authentic Samurai sword is folded (for traditions sake) and laminated to create a hard inner core with a hard exposed edge and a more flexible jacket. And now, the concept of a hard edge and softer spine is taken one step further and the famous Japanese hamon is created in the process.
Stripped down to the basics, the blade is covered in a layer of carefully applied clay, with a thick layer on the spine and a thin layer on the cutting edge.
It is then heated up to a predetermined temperature (approx 750 degrees Celsius) and quenched in water. By metallurgical magic, the edge which cools faster than the spine transforms into a totally different kind of steel called martensite — the hardest steel there is.
At the end, this procedure yields a blade that can take a serious edge, and keep it while the rest of the blade stays nice and flexible.
Modern Day Production swords:
Most swords made to satisfy the production market rarely have all three of the essential characteristics of an authentic Samurai sword, and those that do typically start at around the US$1,000 mark.
So if you can only have one of these characteristics, which one should it be?
From what we have learnt so far, we can already rule out folded swords. While the patterns they produce look nice (though are generally subdued by polishing on an authentic Samurai sword), they arguably add nothing to the swords overall functionality (indeed, the cheaper ones are usually actually weaker for it with poor welds between the folds creating air pockets!).
So the toss up is between lamination and differential hardening. In truth, both achieve about the same kind of results, assuming the correct combinations of steel are used in the laminating. However, there is little doubt that the most popular method is differential hardening.
Why is that? — Because it not only achieves an almost identical result as laminating but as a by-product it produces a real hamon, such as on the wildly popular $300 Kaze and Kaze Ko Katana
The downside to an authentic Samurai sword is that, especially production pieces, is that they are prone to taking a permanent bend easier than the monosteel ones.
So after all this, why even bother with traditional Japanese Samurai Swords? — Because a traditionally made Japanese Katana is a unique work of art and the outward manifestation of several artisans working together and striving for perfection of form and function.
Props to this website for nicely laying out the above information in easy to digest bits: http://www.sword-buyers-guide.com/authentic-samurai-sword.html
To finish this post out…
I definitely think the whole process of Samurai Sword making is pretty awesome and MYrago is working hard towards getting an experience where you could actually check out this entire process in person! However, while we wait for that, why not check out how to wield this awesome piece of weaponry with a Kembu Master? Sounds like a great idea? Check out: #Kyoto: Samurai Experience With 'Kembu' Master
Let us know what you thought about this blog in the comments below