Handmade Katana | Authentically Forged

Handmade Katana | Authentically Forged

An authentic handmade katana, forged by a Japanese swordsmith (Shinken), can quite easily cost upwards of $14,000. A handmade katana forged outwith Japan made using traditional methods will vary from around $300 up to around $2500.
So why does it cost so much? What distinguishes an authentic katana from cheap, stainless steel swords available for $50 from your local mall?

This article has been put together to give you an idea of the craftsmanship that goes into an authentic Katana. We’ll also try to dispel a few myths surrounding these swords and make you better informed about hand forged katana.

Handmade Katana: Forging an Authentic Sword

All antique Japanese Katana or any sword that has been made using traditional methods will feature three distinct processes. These processes are folding, laminating and differential hardening, otherwise known as clay tempering, it’s this procedure that creates the distinctive Hamon line.

The question at this point should be, are all of these processes strictly necessary in order to create a battle ready katana? Are modern-day steels enough to do the job by themselves without these time consuming and expensive treatments? After all, modern-day steels function in very high-intensity environments such as vehicles, tools and military applications. Are handmade Katana simply created the way that they are because that’s the way they’ve always been made?

Let’s take a closer look at each of the processes.

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Folded Steel Katana

However, the truth of the matter is that no sword is capable of these claims. Most steel that is destined to become a sword will be folded a maximum of 15 times, that’s if it’s folded at all. This still creates a very notable 32,768 layers.There is a huge amount of misleading and false information about folded steel katana, the sheer rubbish that is spouted by so-called ‘experts’ is overwhelming. Some might make you believe that an authentic katana will be folded over 1,000 times to create a steel that is impervious to almost everything. Not only that, but the sword is sharp enough to slice its way through armor plating and anything else which is unlucky enough to get in its way.

If you’re asking yourself, what do these folds and layers actually do? Are they created for a reason? Nowadays the folding process is largely an aesthetic exercise, doing very little for the resultant swords resilience or capabilities.

In the olden days, the iron ore available to Japanese sword smiths was pretty poor. Not ones to be easily deterred, the Japanese metal workers came up with ingenious methods for taking the various types of poor quality iron and turning them into something a bit better. This was accomplished by heating the iron over a 72 hour period in a specialist furnace name the Tatara. The resulting steel (Tamagahane) could then be shipped to swordsmiths.

However, despite the steel undergoing the extensive heat treatment, it wasn’t pure enough to be made into a Katana. In order to improve the steel further, the swordsmiths would fold the steel multiple times, this folding process would even out and homogenize the carbon.
Nowadays, swordsmiths that are not using Tamahagane are unlikely to perform the folding process out of any necessity to even out the steels carbon content. Modern-day steel is far beyond anything available to ancient Japanese swordsmiths, it’s technically and chemically superior in almost every way imaginable, so you can just skip the folding steps unless you want it folded for aesthetic reasons or for the sake of traditional authentic Katana. 

However, the remaining two processes are far more practical and can in the right circumstances lead to a superior sword.

Katana Lamination

Unlike the folding process, which as we’ve already established is largely unnecessary unless it’s for aesthetic reasons, Lamination can and does change the physical properties of a Katana and can result in a superior sword. 
There are more than a dozen ways in which Lamination can be performed, with each way having a distinct name, for example, Kobuse and Shoshu Kitae. The visuals below illustrates some of the most popular methods that you’re likely to come across in your search for a sword. 

All the various types of Lamination have one defining feature which ties them together (apart from Maru or Monosteel). They all take steels of varying hardness and fuse them together to create a single piece of steel with the intention of creating a sharp sword that won’t snap.

The exact methods used to achieve this goal differ, however, the general idea is that a hard steel is used for the edge and softer more flexible steel is used to surround this edge. The more complicated the methods used to accomplish this goal, the higher the likelihood that the sword will cost more.

Clay Tempered Katana

So far we’ve established that an authentic handmade Katana will be folded (for aesthetics or traditional reasons) and will be laminated to create a hard yet flexible blade. In order to take the idea of hardened edge and more flexible spine even further, we’ll take a look at the differential hardening/clay tempering method. 
At its very core, clay tempering consists of carefully applying a thin layer of wet clay to the edge of the blade, while a thicker layer of clay is applied to the spine of the blade.

The clay is allowed to dry and then the blade is heated to around 750 degrees Celcius, the blade is then immersed in a water or oil bath to rapidly cool it.
As the edge of the blade will cool significantly faster (due to the thinner layer of clay) than the spine of the blade, two different steel crystalline structures are produced. The edge will form into a rigid and hard lattice (matensite), while the spine will form a more flexible yet softer spine. 

The resultant blade has a very hard edge that will take and retain any attempts at sharpening, while the rest of the blade will allow the sword to flex without snapping. 

Obviously, a sword possessing all three of the characteristics of an authentic handmade Katana will have taken a significant amount of time to produce and will cost more than a standard sword. You will typically pay in excess of $700 for a sword that has all three procedures performed. 

If you could only choose one process, which is the best one to pick?
I think it goes without saying that unless you’re exceptionally keen on the aesthetics of a folded sword, it’s best to rule it out. They add nothing to modern day steel and may, in fact, weaken the overall integrity of the sword, depending on how well they’ve been formed. So, let’s strike folded steel of the list of must-have features in a Katana. 

That leaves us with clary tempering/differential hardening and lamination. So, which is better? In practice, if both have been performed with equal levels of skill, then the end result should be swords that are equally capable. However, without a doubt, differential hardening is the most popular choice available.

Why Clay Tempering?

Clay tempering will produce an effect very similar to lamination, but, it’s also significantly easier to perform and it will also produce a Hamon as part of the process.

Small disclaimer. A handmade Katana that is used for active cutting has one major drawback when compared to monosteel. That is, if used incorrectly, they can take a permanent bend to the blade. When two levels of hardness are present in a steel, any sort of the substantial lateral force can and will cause the blade to become permanently bent out of shape. While a monosteel Katana if heat treated and produced using quality steel, will tend to return to its original shape.

Sadly, it’s often the case that authentic handmade Katana are less capable than cheaper to produce monosteel swords.

At this point, you might be asking yourself, why even bother with a handmade Katana? It’s a great question and well worth exploring.

It’s true that modern swords are fantastic pieces of engineering and are available at a range of prices, you’ll be hard pressed to not find something to suit everyone from the first time cutter through to experienced practitioners. However, they can be somewhat lacking in character. One of the things that makes a handmade Katana so special is that it’s essentially a unique piece of artwork that the product of years of experience by the swordsmith and hundreds of years of cultural influence. It’s a representation of form working hand in hand with a function to produce something truly remarkable