by Don Fogg
The time is right for a new age of swords. It is not the need for weapons that stimulates this resurgence, but rather a convergence of interests, that of the modern swordsman and the modern blade smith. Each group is dedicated to the study of its craft, each with teachers and individuals intent on mastery.
There are specific tooling requirements to make swords. Interestingly, you do not need a deep, or long, fire to do the hot work on a lengthy sword blade. Heating more than a 5- or 6-inch section will only cause problems in forging. If you heat a longer section, the blade will bend as you are working on it.
Traditionally, charcoal would have been used to forge swords. There are many plans and designs for building a charcoal forge. Coal forges are particularly popular with blacksmiths because of the versatility of the fire. Many blade smiths have switched to propane forges. A propane forge is relatively inexpensive and simple to construct. For details on building a forge like the one I use, visit my website www.dfoggknives.com and check out the “Bladesmithing” section. I would also have you refer to my extensive links section for other sites on the craft.
I use two forges when I am working. The first is built on a 15-inch-diameter pipe standing vertically 18 inches high. The burner comes in at the bottom of the forge at a tangent, allowing the flame to burn in a circular flow following the interior of the forge.
There are two doors cut opposite each other at the top of the forge. This allows longer sections to be passed through the forge. The burner is constructed of standard pipe fittings using 1 1/2-inch pipe attached to a 100 cfm shaded pole blower. The air is controlled with a flap on the intake of the blower, and the gas is controlled by a needle valve. I use the large forge for welding damascus billets and for breaking down stock.
For the actual blade forging, I use a much smaller version of the same forge. It is built on an 8-inch pipe with a considerably smaller blower. This forge gives a 5-inch heat on the bar and allows me to pass the point out of the forge so that it doesn’t overheat.
Forging of the Long Blade
The initial forging step is to prepare the overall shape. The profile and thickness of the steel are hammered to form. The Japanese call this initial shape the sunobe. It prepares the billet for the final edge beveling and shapes the tang. Careful forging at this point will make the final forging go smoothly.
I work from round stock primarily because I have the tools to break down the round bar, and keeping just a few sizes on hand gives me the entire range of possibilities.
The initial stage involves breaking the steel down to bar stock. During this process, I am setting my dimensions and thickness. The next step is to forge the tang and point shapes. When I have finished, I have a rough bar with the preshape of my desired sword in the proportional thickness.
Once the sunobe is formed, then the edge bevels can be established. I have found that beginning the forging by establishing a mini bevel with light hammer blows allows you to find the center of the bar and serves as a registration point when you lay the bar on the anvil. You can feel the flat of the mini-bevel.
Forge the bevels a section at a time. It is helpful to forge the bevel up from the edge instead of forging down to the edge. If you forge toward the edge, it tends to get too thin before the entire flat has been established. Forging the bevel up toward the ridgeline moves more metal quickly and helps to maintain control.
I find that if you are careful to check that the bevel is equal on both sides, then keeping the edge in the center pretty much takes care of itself. I do not forge the section down completely before moving to the next section. When you do move an unforged section, it is important to work from it to the forged section. If you don’t, then you will induce a bend in the blade as it transitions from thin to thick.
As you forge the bevels, it is important to register the flat on the anvil and to strike the work piece at the same angle as the bevel. Adjust your hammer hand to that position and lock it in. It is helpful to strike in the same spot on the anvil and at the right angle. Move the work piece as opposed to moving the hammer. The tong hand is the brains; the hammer hand is the force.
To gain control over the forging, you need to be able to eliminate as many variables as possible. The hammer arm is comprised of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. Each of these joints must be coordinated in order to strike a consistent blow. Add the rotation of the wrist and you can see that it becomes a daunting task.
I teach new students to lock their arm to the side of their body and minimize or eliminate the shoulder as a variable. With your elbow to your side, you are basically restricted to an up and down motion. The wrist can be controlled by using a hammer that is heavy enough so that you must lock your wrist to use it.
Too light a hammer and the wrist will be able to rotate, then the hammer face will be out of control. If you go too heavy, then your wrist can not support it and no work will get done. So, having a range of hammers to choose from is helpful. If you try this method, it will teach you control and will give you a frame of reference to fall back on as your skills improve.
Hammerin’ Hot Steel
There are some peculiar forging problems that occur when you get beyond a 10-inch blade. First, when you forge a bevel in a bar, you stretch the metal and lengthen it, which causes it to curve upward. In a small blade, this is a problem, but when you compound it by additional length, it requires constant correction to keep the blade straight. One way to approach the problem is to correct as you go.
As you forge the bevel and the edge climbs, reserve enough heat to make the correction. I usually do this by placing the spine on the anvil and lightly tapping on the edge until the spine is completely flat on the anvil. Tapping on the edge will upset and deform the edge, and so it follows that it is necessary to correct the deformed portion of the edge, as well.
Working 5 inches of blade length at a time, the work progresses down the blade and includes forging the bevel up, making sure it is equidistant on both sides, forging the curve back out and then correcting the distortion to the edge.
As the edge becomes thinner, you have to move to a lighter hammer and use lighter blows to correct for the curvature. The curve will diminish as you approach the final edge dimension because there is less material being moved.
Another approach is to precurve the blade down and then it will straighten out as the bevel is forged. This is easier to do in small blades than in sword-length pieces, but it can be done. There is no advantage of one method over the other and each has its own peculiar set of problems.
Another problem that comes from forging blades over 10 inches is that they tend to develop a helical twist. The bevels will be properly equal, the edge will be in the center, but as you sight down the edge it will appear to corkscrew. This can be hard to get out if it goes too far before correction.
The correction is to lay the flat of the blade on the anvil, and with light taps, bring it back to straight. I saw a demonstration by Japanese swordsmith Enomoto, and he corrected this action by first reversing the direction of his forging, and then by changing ends of the sword and reforging. In effect, he removed the twist by unwinding it through the reverse process. Keeping the flats straight is the objective in either case.
Once the bevels have been established over the entire length of the sword, the blade is sighted for major correction. There will be areas that bow out or in down its length and those are flattened now. The straightness of the blade is corrected at this point until the blade is eyeball close.
Now it is time to enter the final forging. At this point, the bevels are forged back to the ridgeline, but the edge is still too thick. Heats at this stage should be at or slightly above critical temperature. Using a light hammer will give more control and you are not as likely to make an uncorrectable error because you can not move the metal as quickly with the light hammer.
It is important that you carefully watch the surface of the steel as you are forging in this stage. There should be no sharp hammer marks. Scale should be wire brushed off or it will be pounded into the surface and create pocks and craters that can be deep and difficult to remove.
One way to keep the surface free of scale is to wet the anvil and hammer during this part of the forging. The water converts to steam and quickly blows off the scale. What remains is light and flaky and will not be a problem.
Watching your heats is critical during this stage. The intent is to refine the grain of the steel, so you don’t want to get the metal too hot. Also, you don’t want it to get too cold or it might set up stress fractures. Your working time per heat is reduced so you have to work with light, rapid blows going repeatedly in and out of the fire. How far you take the edge is a function of your experience, but I would encourage you to forge as close to shape as you can. This minimizes the stock removal and cold work required.
When the blade is finish forged, it is checked for straight and true, corrections are made and then it is normailzed by heating above critical and allowing it to cool in still air. After the blade has cooled, it is examined again. If there are major corrections needed, it must go back into the fire and steps taken. If it looks good, then you can begin to profile the blade.
The quickest way to profile the blade is with a belt sander, but you can also do it with files and scrapers. I do most of my profiling working on an 8-inch contact wheel. If you have done a careful job of forging, this process should go quickly. Because of the scale on the blade, I use a worn belt. I do not mean worn out, but one that still has some life in it.
I continually check the profile of the blade silhouette by holding it up to the florescent lights above the grinding table. When the profile is pleasing, it is time to begin setting the edge. I do this part of the process freehand and grind a mini-bevel on both sides, leaving the finished edge in the center of the blade. These mini-bevels give me a reference when I am grinding the bevels and keep me from grinding past center.
Grinding a long blade on a belt sander requires that you go beyond your locked position. A locked position is established by tucking your elbows tight to your body and making yourself as stable as you can. The blade is presented to the wheel or platen and drawn across it by shifting the weight on your hips.
There is a limit to how far you grind without changing position on the blade. I grind my swords in sections in this manner, blending the areas by overlapping them. I will generally use the 8-inch contact wheel to remove the scale and take off any excess, being careful not to remove too much during this stage.
I switch to the platen for the next stage. When grinding on the platen, you need to pay attention to how the blade contacts the belt. Generally you are working on one edge of the platen or the other. In one direction, the grind will plunge, and in the other, the grind will climb. I do not try to be too aggressive with the grind until the bevel flats have been established and I can feel them. I do my primary rough grinding on a 40-grit belt.
The flats are difficult to hold freehand and I generally set them with a sen, or scraper, and finish them with files. At this point on the grinder, I am only getting out the scale and major low spots. When you first start to use the scraper, it takes a few strokes before it starts to get a bite on the steel. Once it does start to bite, however, it will pull curls off the steel.
There is a lot of heat generated during this process, and if you work too quickly, it can create carbide pimples on the surface of the steel that will dull a file. You can generate the same problem if you are too aggressive with a file. Once these carbides form, you have to dig them out with the edge of a worn file before any more cutting can be done.
It is best to work at a steady pace, watch your breath and toil at a rate that does not leave you panting. All rough shaping on the flats and bevels can be established with the scraper and then cleaned up with files.
The best filing technique is called draw filing. Using an 8- or 10-inch bastard mill file, hold the file with your hands on both ends. Work the file at right angles and lengthwise on the blade. You need to find the right amount of pressure when using a file. Too much pressure and the teeth will load, causing gauling or deep scratches. Too little pressure and no work gets done.
With the right amount of pressure, the file will remove light shavings and allow you to quickly clean up the rough scraper finish. Files wear out. I like to start a new project with a fresh file. If you can see bright areas on your file, the teeth are gone and it isn’t going to work as quickly as a fresh file would.
All hand tools have their own touch to make them work efficiently and effectively. It is a common problem to bull through the work, but if you do, you will create problems and frustrate yourself. Learn to use them effectively and they are pleasant tool with which to work.
Once the blade is draw filed to finished dimensions, it is ready for heat treating. All the file marks should be running the length of the blade. There should be no sharp angles or corners that will be hardened. I like to round the edge by knocking off the corners and getting the file marks to run lengthwise on the blade. This will prevent stress risers and potential cracks.
Up to now. you could have worked on sword-length pieces with your normal knife making equipment, but for heat treating, the length of the blade requires new tools. You can harden long blades in a small fire by passing the blade back and forth through the fire until it all comes up to temperature, but you will be chasing the ends.
When the tang end of the blade is up to heat, the tip is cooling and vice versa. If you are working with charcoal, it is possible to build a long fire by fashioning an air pipe with holes drilled along it to provide an air source the length that you need, building up the sides of the forge with firebrick.
My preferred method is using a propane forge built from a 55-gallon oil drum. The drum that I use has a removable lid so it is easy to line the insides with ceramic fiber insulation and reinstall the lid. You can insert stainless or resistance wire clips by drilling holes and pushing them through the wool to keep it from sagging.
To fire the forge, use either a small venturi or small power burner with the flame coming in at the bottom from one end. Cut small doors at the top of the drum to insert your blade. You could also hang rods down from the top as hangers to hold the blade and minimize sagging while it is heating.
The way this forge works is that instead of trying to equalized heat over a long length and narrow diameter, the heat equalizes itself over the larger area, giving a nice even heat. The key is to use a small burner. The one I have on my setup can only bring the forge to a maximum of 1,650 degrees Fahrenheit and is capable of running as low as 1,300 F with controllable increments in between.
Once we have our heating source, we have to consider the quench tank. If you are going to quench horizontally, you’ll need a tank long enough for the blade, including the tang and tongs. A dry run with the tongs in place will give you an idea of how much extra length is required to get the entire blade into the quench.
If you quench vertically, then you will need a cylinder with not only enough depth, but also volume so that the quenchant doesn’t overheat. You will, of course, need extra quenchant to fill these containers.
The blade that I have been making will be selectively hardened by applying a refractory clay coating to the back, or spine, of the edged steel. When the blade is quenched, the clay will slow down the cooling enough to prevent the spine from fully hardening and leave only the edge fully hard.
I hardened this blade in oil and had pre-curved the blade during forging so that it will come out relatively straight. It is an interesting effect with long blades that, when hardened in oil, the point will drop and the blade will curve downward.
If the same blade were quenched in water, the point would climb and the blade would curve up. The cause of this is much debated and the process is quite complex. It is enough to know that it will occur and to anticipate it. This particular blade still curved past straight and I had to regrind some of the re-curve out of it to make it straight.
The blade was forged from 1095 high-carbon steel, and for the heat treatment, I brought the entire blade up to 1,425 F, and soaked it until all the carbides had gone into solution. If the fire is steady and you watch the blade carefully, you can see the metal make its transformation to austenite.
The blade will gain color as it heats. As it approaches the temperature of the forge, it will appear to hang and not gain in temperature. During this stage, shadows will be visible on the blade. It is still gaining temperature, but energy is required for the carbon to move from within the matrix of the iron molecule and go into solution. Once this finally occurs throughout the blade, the steel will brighten and be uniform over the entire length.
Bring the blade above critical temperature and then allow it to cool in still air in a darkened space. I have a pipe by the forge for this purpose. As the temperature drops, it will lose color until it reaches a point where it seems to hang, and then, especially in the thinner sections, it will appear to visibly brighten as the steel drops below critical temperature.
Because I work in an outside shop, I have to check for critical temperature before I start forging to adapt my eye to the changing colors. Finding the decalescence and recalescense points is one sure way of knowing what my temperatures are. Another way is to check the steel with a magnet. Steel will lose its ability to attract a magnet just prior to the critical temperature.
Once the blade reaches critical temperature and has soaked long enough to put all the carbides into solution, then it is ready to quench. I have a pair of special offset tongs that allow me to hold the blade by the tang and have the tongs out of the way when I dip it into the quench tank.
Having a pair of straight tongs will greatly increase the size of the tank required to get the whole blade into the quench. It is a good idea to do a dry run on your equipment before you get to the hardening stage.
The Oil Plunge
The blade is at critical temperature and I quickly withdraw it from the fire and immediately plunge it into the oil. I am using a commercial quench oil called Tough Quench. There are many possibilities for the quench. A vegetable-type oil will work well, especially peanut and Canola oil.
I hold the blade in the quench until it stops bubbling, gently moving it back and forth. It is important to enter the quench cleanly and not to tip it to one side or the other. Doing so will almost guarantee warping. I like to think of this as the first cut the sword will make, and it is the moment when it comes alive.
After the quenching solution has stopped bubbling, I remove the blade and scrape off the clay. The blade is still too warm to touch. With gloves on, I sight down the blade, and if it needs adjusting, I do it quickly. It is still setting up and is somewhat pliable at this point, but you do not have much time before it completely hardens and is fixed.
The blade will continue to harden and curve until it is popped into the tempering oven, so it is a better practice to go from the quench to the tempering oven. Most of the cracking that occurs during hardening comes from the edge curving too much and tearing itself apart. This is a particular problem when water quenching and it makes the process quite exciting.
It’s Time to Temper
After the blade is hardened, it is hard, but brittle. The tempering cycle adds heat back to the steel and softens it somewhat, but more importantly it adds toughness to the steel, making it far less brittle. Depending on the style of sword, you will want to draw the hardness to the point where it will not chip in heavy use, yet still maintain a good edge.
Some European swords are drawn to spring temper and are extremely tough, while the Japanese-style blades are sometimes left full hard because the blade has toughness in the unhardened back. Full-hard edges will chip and it only makes sense to draw them down (cool them) some to increase the toughness.
Sword-length blades will generally exceed the size of a normal kitchen oven, so you will have to prepare before you harden the blade. Many sword makers use low-temperature salts for this purpose. Low-temperature salts melt at 350-400 F and become liquid capable of taking heats well in excess of normal blade-tempering temperatures. Because the salts are liquid, once heated, the temperature is fairly uniform throughout the bath. Salts may be heated either electrically or by using a propane pipe burner under the tank.
Blade-bluing salt tanks provide a good model for this type of heating system, and pictures of their pipe burners can be found. Low-temperature salts are relatively inexpensive and reusable, but they are messy, corrosive and hygroscopic. Leave them for any length of time, and they will wick moisture from the air, leaving a layer of water on top of the salts that has to be removed or boiled off every time you use them.
Interior and exterior of the author’s tempering oven.
Low-temp salts also have to be recharged with water on occasion and this is a dicey operation that requires feeding water to hot salt at a measured rate. I have personally abandoned them because of these problems.
Another method is to heat sand or glass beads used in sand blasting. You can heat them with a pipe burner, as well. This method will hold the heat well, but the heat is not as evenly distributed and you have to mix them repeated to get a uniform temperature.
You can also build a small oven using heating elements and controls from conventional electric ovens. Tempering temperatures are not very high, but you do have to maintain a consistent temperature for a relatively long period of time and control is of upmost importance.
I have tried all the methods mentioned and have ended up building my own electric oven. I use resistance wire for heating and cast the internal box out of insulation refractory. The elements are controlled by a digital controller that gives me consistent results. It was expensive, but solved the problem.
I set the oven at 450 F and preheat it while I am hardening the blade. After hardening, I will pop it in the oven for a one-hour draw. I remove the blade and let it cool to room temperature and then run another one-hour draw.
I can adjust the temperature if I find, after checking the blade with a file, that it is too hard. The second draw is important because with all steels there will be some retained austenite that has not converted to martensite. This retained austenite will change to fresh martensite during the tempering and cooling process, and the second draw will temper that martensite. It would not hurt to repeat for a third cycle, but it is not necessary.
The times and temperatures will vary depending on the type of steel used and it is a good practice to make smaller test blades to determine the best combination for what you are trying to make. I am a firm believer in testing your work. I routinely take blades through progressively more demanding series of tests all the way to destruction. If you do this consistently, you will know what to expect from your steel and what your blades are capable of doing.
Inevitably, with long blades, you will get some warping and distortion. Good normalizing practice prior to hardening will help but not eliminate warping. There are several ways you can correct warping after the blade has been heat treated. If the blade has been selectively hardened using clay on the back, you can often correct the warp by hammering the blade using a round-faced hammer. Work over the hardy hole or over a plate with a hole in it.
If the blade has been thoroughly hardened, then you can use heat to correct the warped section. The Japanese smiths often used a heated copper block for this purpose, but an acetylene torch will work. Heat a small area on the outside of the curve, being careful not to draw (or reduce) the temper on the edge, until it just sizzles water, and then quench the blade.
Repeat the process many times and it will slowly begin to straighten the blade. Another approach is to clamp the blade and flex it back into position. I don’t favor this approach since it can leave stretch marks on the surface of the blade and weaken it. Also, if the blade has been thoroughly hardened, it should just spring back or break after flexing.
Finishing the Blade
Once the blade is straight and the profile is correct, you can begin to finish the blade. I usually go back to the grinders to rough in the flats and adjust the profile. It is helpful to reduce the speed of the grinder at this point to minimize the chance of overheating the blade. I work bare handed so I can feel the heat build up and quench the blade as soon as it begins to get warm. I start with a 40-grit belt, making sure to use fresh belts for all grinding.
Some makers like to work off the wheel and run lengthwise, but I have learned to work directly off the platen. There shouldn’t be much stock to remove, so this stage requires care and a “light hand.” After the 40-grit belt, I graduate to 120- and 220-grit belts. I have been trying the new Trizac abrasives and do like them for this operation.
The final geometry of the blade should be established now. Since a sword blade is subjected to incredible forces on the cutting edge, it is important to roll the edge in for maximum support. This can be done using the slack belt, but care should be taken that it doesn’t wash over your grind lines.
While grinders are used in my operation, I prefer to finish my blades by hand. I like the control and finish that I get doing it this way and it is not as stressful. For the final shaping, I use a large Norton KB8 stone. The stone is soaked in water with a touch of Fantastic added.
I use my drill press table to hold the sword. I clamp a small drill-press vise in a larger vise that is mounted to the table. Using a piece of 1×2 wood to back up the blade, I clamp the whole thing in the vise. The advantage to this is that I can raise or lower the table until I have just the right working height. The stone is quite heavy and cuts quickly.
I work slowly and rinse the stone frequently. You have to watch the cutting and operate by feel, but soon a nice rhythm is established. I try to work the stone at different angles because it is friable and I want it to wear evenly. During this stage, I will roll the edge and actually sharpen the blade in the process. It is also time to set the bevel lines.
After stoning both sides, the geometry of the blade is set and it is ready for polishing. For this part, I switch to sheet abrasives. There is a product commonly used by auto body workers on jitterbug sanders that is adhesive backed and comes in rolls of various grits. This is made for metal finishing and is an excellent abrasive.
I mount the abrasive to sanding bars that are roughly 18 inches long and have handles on both ends. I stick the sandpaper on one side and cut to length, trim the side with a box cutter, stick the remainder to the opposite side and trim the excess. It is helpful to wax the bars so the paper will peel off easily.
I am using my back and shoulders while I do this sanding, so I can apply a lot of pressure and, consequently, it cuts aggressively. The paper will load quickly, but you can extend the life of it by scrubbing it occasionally with rough leather. I use the entire length of the bar as I work and change the paper frequently. The scratch pattern is at an opposite angle to the previous stone scratches. If you work each successive grit in the opposite direction from the previous grit, you can see the underlying scratches clearly. You sand out all of the previous grit scratches before changing grits.
Sans Stone Scratches
I start with 180-grit paper to remove the stone scratches and finish both side before moving to the next grit. When one side is completed, I put a strip of masking tape down the length to keep the surface from scratching when I flip it over to do the other side.
After all of the underlying scratches have been removed, I switch to 400-grit paper on the sanding bar and, going in the opposite direction, proceed to sand out all of the 180-grit scratches.
The adhesive-back rolls are available up to 400 grit, and then you have to switch to sheet abrasives. You can use spray adhesive to stick the paper to the bar, but it is messy and I find it more convenient to cut the paper into strips and wrap them around a sanding block.
The author demonstrates sanding.
After the 400-grit paper, I graduate to 500-, 800- and 1,000-grit paper. The 1,000-grit sanding is done lengthwise on the blade using a block with hard neoprene. The type of backing you use with the abrasive will greatly affect the finish on the metal. I have many sanding blocks that I have fashioned. My primary block is cut from .5-inch Corian with hard neoprene glued to one side. This block is impervious to water and gives me two different densities with which to work.
After I have a good, 1,000-grit finish on the blade, I wipe the grease off the blade and give it a light etch in ferric chloride. I made up a tube for the ferric out of PVC pipe and it is especially useful for the long blades.
It is extremely important to completely degrease the blade. Also, you should have a container of clean water that is deep enough in which to immerse the entire blade. Water should sheet over the entire surface of the blade. If there are any grease spots on the blade, clean the spots until they are gone.
I dunk the entire blade in the ferric chloride for a short count and then remove it to see if there are any areas that still need to be degreased. If it is clean, then I dunk the blade for a 20-second count or until the hardened area turns black. The tempered martensite on the edge will etch black and the pearlite on the back will etch gray.
I go immediate back to the rinse water and thoroughly rinse the blade. I spritz the blade with ammonia and scrub it down with a wet paper towel. Rinse and repeat, this time using baking soda on the paper towel. Rinse and then wipe the blade completely dry.
The blade at this point will have a light surface oxide. I move back to the bench and remove the loose oxides with a cotton ball and pumice. I have been using 2F fine pumice from a woodworkers supply store. You can either use it dry or spray the blade down with WD40 and scrub off all the loose oxides.
The finish on the blade will be dull at this point, but the hamon (temper line) will show clearly. I use 2,000-grit paper wrapped over the block with the neoprene side down and pull the paper over the entire length of the blade in one smooth motion. For each pass, I change to a fresh section of paper. The motion is done with the body so that the line is straight, uninterrupted and smooth. Start at the blade tang and pull, rocking back as you come to the end of the blade.
The Swirl-Free Sword
When you have a nice, swirl-free, 2,000-grit finish on the blade, it will have a soft, matte look. Again, we go back to the etch, cleaning and degreasing the blade thoroughly and then doing another 20-second dunk in ferric chloride.
The first etch serves as a chemical abrasion, in effect eroding the tops of the prior sanding marks. The 2,000-grit finish abrades that down even finer and leaves a smooth, uniform surface. When the blade comes out of the second etch, you follow the same procedure, making sure that it is completely rinsed and neutralized. This is a good-looking finish on the blade, all the details are visible in a good light and it is relatively easy to maintain.
You can take the polish to another level by continuing to work on the finish. This time we will want to distinguish the two zones on the blade by polishing the area above the hamon and leaving the hard area frosted. To polish it, I prepare 2,000-grit paper by sticking it to 1/8-inch, sticky foam sheets.
I said earlier that the backing will make a big difference in how the paper cuts. By using the foam backing, you can apply light pressure to the paper and it will not leave hard, swirled stop-and-start marks. The finish mimics that which was achieved using traditional finger stones.
It is helpful to apply a fluid to the blade during this process. I will sometimes use Liquid Wrench, but because of the petrochemical aspect of the solution, I prefer to apply soapy distilled water. I cut the foam-backed, 2,000-grit paper into strips 3/8-to-1/2-inches wide each, and then cut off 1/2-inch-long sections. I rub the gritty sides of the smaller pieces against each other to take the bite out of the paper.
With a small piece of sandpaper under my thumb, I begin to lightly sand the whole blade, paying more attention the area above the hamon than below it. The softer steel will polish more than the harder sections. Continue to polish until the oxide matte has been polished away. Finishing is a matter of taste and what you should be shooting for is getting the best look and not trying to mimic a traditional finish. After you have finished the blade with the 2,000-grit paper, you can proceed with paste abrasives.
Simichrome is a fine polish for this purpose. I don’t recommend diamond paste abrasives because they tend to cut both hard and soft equally, and will not produce good results. I rub out the blade by putting the paste on a cotton pad, replenishing the pad with the paste when it darkens and is not as fluid. Simichrome will leave a waxy residue on the blade that can be cleaned up with pumice on a cotton ball.
This process is time consuming and is only finished when you decide the blade finish looks as good as you can make it. I usually stop before the final finish to make the habaki [handle charm] and fittings for the handle. Whenever you stop for the day, or an extended period of time, oil the blade to prevent rust. While I am working on the fittings, I tape the blade with masking tape to insure against scratching the finish.
The type of finish you choose to apply to the blade will be determined by its use and function. I am fascinated by the hamon because it is beautiful and because it shows the heat treatment of the sword. So, my process is centered around enhancing the beauty of that characteristic.
This is the end of the sword smith’s work, and from here on, it is handle making. In ancient cultures, the various parts of the sword would be made by craftsmen who would specialize in each particular aspect. We are beginning to develope specialty crafts within sword smithing, but more commonly, the smith will have to learn to handle his own work.
The history of swords is rich and fascinating. When you begin to make swords, you are partaking in that history at its latest evolution. We have many technical advantages today, but the process is remarkably similar to what the ancients did, and it certainly encompasses the same challenges. In the future, we will see evolved sword forms develop. New materials and techniques will enable the smiths to create better blades than were possible in the past. It will require the cooperation of the warrior and the smith to discover the new potentials.
While we are fortunate to be able to draw on the experience and artifacts of the past, what is exciting about our times is that we have a chance to once again redefine the symbols of character. Ours is a new age, yet there are still the ominous dragons to slay, and like the dragons of old, their oppressive presence blocks the light of truth. The warrior and the smith are alive again and answering the clarion call.
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