What is trusted best?
Between work and school haven’t had much time for blogging. Now as school comes to a close for me (more in a future post) time is free for important stuff – like swords. I own several Japanese swords and recently had my favorite refurbished. In the belief/hope some readers might be interested in the process, here’s a capsule of what was done.
This particular sword I bought in ‘08 or so, on eBay for $500. It was in guntō (or army sword) mounts and saya (scabbard). The saya was a common metal type, like this:
Guntō were mass-produced items, though they did come in various grades, stamped and machine forged for NCOs, with progressively better quality for officers of higher rank.
However I could see from the listing that the blade was not a gunto blade. It was common that officers replaced their gunto blade with a better blade, and sometimes a much older one. When I bought this sword I wasn’t sure what type of blade it had, but I could tell it was not the standard issue. It was fairly straight, something that is a common type for swords from the shinshintō period (1761 to 1876) of Japanese swordmaking. Here’s the whole blade:
The tang has a mei, or signature:
(The second image is a rubbing of the tang, with the mei highlighted.) The rust on the tang is blackish-grey and the carving of the mei is somewhat faded. I’ve seen a number of sword tangs made in the 1940’s and this was not like those.
Feeling this was a pretty good sword, I wanted it to have better furnishings. Years and years ago I thought I would just make a new scabbard, handle and the rest myself. Now I see that is not practical – maybe if I had 5 years (which I don’t have right now) to learn and practice I could make a passable saya, and then that would only be a portion of what I need.
Fortunately there are people in the US who do this stuff. I found and contacted the Fred Lohman Co., of Portland, OR. The good people there were able to create a complete set of furnishings, which is mainly the tsuka, or handle, and the saya, plus putting everything together. The sword was mounted with an Edo-period tsuba (guard) which I got (where else) on eBay. Here’s the result:
The saya is black lacquer, with a black steel kojiri, or end-cap. The tsuka is wrapped with a material called tsunami; this is a synthetic suede, it feels great on the hands, is tightly wrapped and feels like it will last a good, long time. Here’s a close-up of the handle and the tsuba:
Now this blade is outfitted close to the way that it was 150 or more years ago in the Edo period (I’m sure synthetic suede would have been more than welcome, if they had it). The main thing that remains is the polish. Japanese swords are famous for grained patterns in the steel, which come from folding of the metal during construction, and for the hamon, or “temper line”, the cloudy zone of hard steel that composes the edge of the sword. These can only be seen and appreciated when the sword has been polished – the surface burnished using grinding stones of increasing fineness. My sword, like many that have been in circulation, has been “cleaned”, perhaps with steel wool or something worse, and its polish is completely gone – the surface is hazy with fine scratches.
Like making the saya, tsuka and the rest, polishing is not to be undertaken buy the amateur. I’ve contacted a reputable polisher and put my sword on his list – the wait is 2 years. Meanwhile the sword waits in its place on the mantle. Rarely does a day go by where I do not take it out, practice a few cuts, then put it back.
Finally, if anyone was wondering on the title of this post, it’s from John Webster and The Duchess of Malfi, where quasi-narrator Delio tells his comrades he will not fail the mission he is undertaking:
Sir, fare you well:
I wish you all the joys of a bless’d father;
And, for my faith, lay this unto your breast,—
Old friends, like old swords, still are trusted best.