The Katana is a significant Japanese sword that was directly related to the honor and grace of the Samurai warriors. Japanese swords were classified into various types based on their length and based on the classes of people that could use them. The Katana was so special that it was reserved only for the warrior class. If a peasant or a lower class person was found in possession of the majestic curved Katana, he was killed instantly. Such was the respect that the warriors gave their precious katana.
It was not surprising that the Katana was regarded as the soul of the warriors those days. The katana was mainly used for cutting, because of its extra sharp blades. It was quite big and heavy, and it was usually used in combination with a smaller sword (a wakizashi, mostly) during fights. A combination of the katana and the wakizashi is known as the daisho. In this article, we will see more about the significance of a katana, how it is made, types of steel used in the process, caring for a katana and testing the quality of a katana.
History of the Katana
Though the exact history of the katana is still unknown, it is widely believed that the sword was first used during the Muromachi era, which lasted between 1392 and 1573AD. This particular sword was known for its two features – sharpness and a highly-crafted blade. Katana became very popular during close-combat fighting sequences because samurai warriors depended on the quick drawing power of this sword to attack enemies with lightning speed movements. The blade of the katana sword was anywhere between 60 and 80cm. As the katana hang from a belted sash, known as the obi, the warrior felt an immense sense of pride and honor, when he plunged into the battlefield, in the earlier years.
The katana has a chisel-like point, and historically, a warrior was allowed to use it only when the situation really demanded it. In short, a katana was used only when a warrior couldn’t use any of this other weapons. Most of the times, warriors and soldiers used this sword to protect their or their family’s honor during a fight, or for self-defense. A combination of a wakizashi and katana was so powerful that sword experts explained the art of simultaneously using both the swords as niten’ichi (the Japanese word for “two heavens as one”) or nito’ichi (the Japanese word for “two swords as one”).
In the Meiji Era, the samurai class was disbanded; therefore, the use of Japanese swords, including the katana, was abolished. Before and after the World War II, traditional katana were completely stopped. Today, nobody uses these swords; however, some historical sword lovers do collect them because of the intrinsic artwork and the quality of workmanship that these swords have.
Types of Katana Sword Steel
There are many kinds of steel that are used to make a katana. If you are looking to collect swords, you should buy the one that suits your purpose the best. A traditional katana made by a group of trained swordsmiths wouldn’t be very shiny; so, if you are looking for a glossy sword, you should buy the cheaper, stainless steel ones. As we already saw, the katana’s real worth is known for its beautiful artwork. What kinds of steel are usually used for making a katana? Read on to know more:
1. 1045 Carbon Steel
Carbon steel is the most commonly used element for making the Katana sword. Does that make your choice any better? Not at all! On the contrary, you will be surprised at knowing that there are different types of carbon steel used for sword making. One of them is the 1045 Carbon Steel. The naming convention of these steels is an indication to tell you the carbon content in it. For example, 1045 carbon steel has 0.45% carbon content. These are the cheapest among all katana battle swords available and they are used by beginners mostly, because of they are quite compatible with abuse. If you need a sword that is tougher and stronger, you need to opt for the next type.
2. 1050 -1055 Carbon Steel
This is the type of steel that contains 0.50% to 0.555% carbon content. This medium carbon steel katana is stronger and more durable than the swords made from 1045 carbon steel. The blades of these steels are designed in such a way that they are resistant to all kinds of damages. If you are looking for a sword that thrives well against all kinds of application, this one would be the right choice for you.
3. 1060 – 1065 Carbon Steel
With a carbon content of 0.60% to 0.65%, this type of steel is the best-suited for making swords that not only produce quick reflex actions while cutting but also able to sustain the cuts well. These are quite commonly used battle ready swords because of their quick adaptability to different conditions. With the right kind of tempering, these swords are one of the best that you can use. We will see the tempering and forging process in the later sections.
4. 1075 Carbon Steel
Since it contains a very high carbon content of 0.75%, the blades made from this type of steel are very sharp and suited for weapons like knives and axes. The cutting action of this sword is top-class and the blade, per se, is very tough and long-lasting. If you are looking for very sharp blades that can be used for years without any hassles, this is the steel that you have to choose.
5. 1095 Carbon Steel
For obvious reasons, this sword is considered the best among all the types, because of its exorbitantly high carbon content (0.95%). With the right kind of tempering, this sword can become incredibly sharp. However, it is to be noted that this sword can only be used by people who are highly experienced, because the blades are unbelievably sharp! If it is not used and cared for properly, it can be a huge waste of money. So, this sword is not best suited for beginners.
6. 65Mn Steel
The blades made from this type of steel are quite resistant to wear and tear. The medium carbon content and manganese content in this steel improve the blades’ adjustability to different forging methods. Blades made from this variety of steel are compatible with many weapons that require maximum impact.
7. 1566 Spring Steel
You can instantly understand that a sword is made from the 1566 spring steel because it leaves behind a trademark crystalline microstructure on the blades. It is this structure that provides the much-needed resilience, durability, and compatibility with high-end weapons, to the blades. This steel contains a very high component of steel and manganese.
8. T-10 Steel
A katana has various versions. Even in the earlier centuries, there were Chinese and Korean adaptations of the original Japanese Katana. The T-10 steel is nothing but the Chinese version of the 1095 Carbon Steel. The unique feature of this steel is that it has got some silicon mixture as well, in it. Silicon adds more strength and durability to the steel. However, the hitch is that this steel is less-resistant to corrosion. Therefore, you need to take good care while maintaining blades made of this steel.
9. 5160 Spring Steel
If you are looking for affordably –priced steel that is extremely tough has powerful & hard blades that have excellent edge-holding capacities, the 5160 Spring Steel blades are a good choice for you. The extra toughness of this steel comes from the chromium mixture added in it. For this precise reason, we see many forgers using this variety of steel in their processes.
10. 440 Stainless Steel
Today, many katana sword collectors opt for this variety of steel, because they are quite cheaply priced than the original carbon steel models. Blades made from this steel can turn out to be extremely hard and tough when it is heat-treated properly. Since there is not much of functionality involved, this steel is a great choice for swords that are purchased exclusively for decorative purposes. The four qualities available in this variety are:
440A – Very little carbon content and highly resistant to corrosion and stains
440B – More carbon content and harder than 440A and lesser resistant to stains
440C – Highest carbon content and strongest of all types
440F – High Carbon Content (similar to 440C), but is the machining alternate of the 440 type
11. L6 Bainite Steel
This is one of the toughest steel varieties to work with. The process involved with this variant of steel is very expensive; therefore, it is used for making blades that are quite exorbitantly priced. Though they are not used on a large-scale production basis, this variety of steel is very much in demand by the choicest of sword connoisseurs from across the world. Many swordsmiths still use this steel for forging the authentic Japanese Katana.
12. Damascus Steel
Blades made from Damascus steel were are very beautiful because they are made using an intricate technique. Several layers of iron and steel and welded together, to make an impressive-looking Damascus steel sword. Many sword collectors prefer this sword because of the unique patterns on the blades – something that one cannot find in other types.
13. Folded Steel
What was once a necessity in the technique of sword making has now become a luxury! Yes, we are talking about the folded steel technique. When the katana swords were introduced many centuries ago, there was not much of steel content in Japan. So the swordsmiths used to even out whatever steel they had and mix different quantities of carbon in it, to get the desired level of hardening on the blades. They used to spread out the steel billets evenly and hammer them out well to spread the carbon uniformly. Today, there is an ample amount of steel available of steel available in the market, and the production of Katana is very limited or even abolished in some places. So, folded steel is mainly used to improve the visual appeal of the swords and make them look aesthetic and beautiful.
What is a Clay Tempered Katana?
When you proceed to study the various types of katana, you will come across a very common term – clay-tempered. Have you wondered what that means? We all know that tempering is the heat treatment process that blades are subjected to. Clay-tempering is the process where the blades are coated with a layer of clay and then subjected to heat treatments at various temperature settings. Clay tempering is considered to be one of the most important techniques in sword forging. All authentic swords were man-made using this process.
How is it done?
The base material of the blade is known as the Tamahagne in the Japanese dialect. This is a mixture of carbon and steel, which is then folded with the required carbon content to make different qualities of blades to be used for specific purposes. Expert swordsmiths would tell you that the 1095 Carbon Steel Katana (which contained 0.95% carbon content) was the best model that was compatible with clay-tempering. In this process, there are few things that you should know.
Firstly, the clay composition that each swordsmith uses is different, based on the quality of blades that he wants. Secondly, the blades are not only coated with a clay mixture. This coating is predominantly made of clay, but it also contains other components like water, stone powder, ash, and rusts. Swordsmiths use their discretion while mixing these components to get the right coating that they want. In case of stone, the powder isn’t available some smiths use charcoal powder as well. All of these components are ground by hand in a very accurate manner so that there are no dust or foreign bodies attached to them.
The blades are coated with a wet mixture of clay and these components. Professionals focus on coating the edge and the spines well, to get the desired durability. As the blades are heated, this wet mixture is applied. After a while, it is hammered well and filled with a solution of water or oil (again, based on the discretion of the swordsmith) before deeming it ready to be used. The clay coating, heat, and liquid treatments ensure that the blade’s edges are kept as hard as possible, and the spines are kept as soft as possible, to give the sword the right mix of cutting technique, accuracy, and durability.
Why are clay-tempered katana famous?
The combined effects of clay repeated heating, and quenching treatments make the swords absolutely beautiful. As the sword undergoes these processes, the blades display the peculiar art-work of hamon. With the trademark curves that the blades start developing during the clay-tempering process, it is little surprise that swords made through this method are an absolute delight to use for the samurai warrior. Even today, sword collectors love to collect clay-tempered katana, because the visual appeal that they exude is priceless!
Since it is a very complex and time-consuming process, clay-tempering is done only by experienced smiths. The quality of the final blade depends on various factors like the composition of the clay mixture (if the components are mixed in the right ratio or not), quality of water, slight differences in temperature settings and the perfect time that is allowed for the blade to rest before it is subjected to the quenching process. Even if there is a small mistake in one of these processes, smiths know that the blade will be wasted. In spite of knowing that it is a risky process, smiths preferred this process those days, because they knew that if the process was performed right, they could get the best quality of katana.
Folded Steel Katana
If you are looking katana that are true representations of the rich heritage and culture of the traditional Japanese samurai warriors, you should buy the one that is made from folded steel. In this process, the base material of tamahagane (the Japanese word for precious steel), made from iron sand is hammered out well so that the carbon content in the steel is spread out uniformly all over the sword. When the steel billets were folded and hammered out so effectively, they produced swords that were aesthetically brilliant. They are then heated repeatedly to remove all the foreign bodies like dust so that the finished product is highly durable, reliable and battle-ready. Folding is a time-consuming process; the finished product in this method is a result of many expert smiths who work in teams. Hence, these swords are quite costlier than the clay-tempered swords.
Quality of the Modern Katana
The use of the katana came down drastically during the period between 1603 and 1838. Naturally, when there was no demand, the quality of sword-making stooped down to a large extent. Many inexperienced bladesmiths started making swords, and they were given illegal authentication certificates by organizations that wanted to exploit and mint money from sword makers. For the next 500 years or so (until 1900), the Japanese sword making industry and the quality of the swords made, including the katana, underwent a steep decline.
To bring back the original charm and significance of the swords back into the fray, the Token Kai was established during 1900. This group started making small inroads in reviving the ancient trends in the making katana and other swords, making sword collectors and like-minded people aware of the rich culture that existed many centuries ago and whatever they could, to revive this industry. However, with the World War II (1939 to 1942), these efforts took a backseat. Swords had to make way for guns and other military weapons.
America had banned Japan from making and using these swords during this period. A few years later, the ban was lifted. Japanese took this opportunity to form the Society for the Preservation of the Japanese Sword. It is this organization that continues to produce authentic swords even today, by using techniques that were somewhat similar to what the ace smiths used before the 15th century. Today, a licensed smith in Japan keeps crafting these swords in the same quality and precision that was practiced hundreds of years ago.
What is katana forging?
The artistic and aesthetic katana that we see as the final product is the result of many processes that are complicated and time-consuming. These processes are known as forging. A raw billet of steel is forged in many variations throughout a series of steps, to transform into a sword that speaks volumes about the talent and workmanship quality of the artisans and the smiths involved in making it. The steps involved in Katana forging are briefly explained below:
Rough Forging – A billet of steel, which contains a good amount of carbon content, is taken and repeatedly hammered to arrive at a particular shape. This is done simultaneously when the billet is subjected to heat treatment. Due to the repeated heating and hammering, a crystalline structure is formed on the blades. The hammering process is done mainly to spread the carbon content evenly throughout the steel billet.
Rough-shaping – Thanks to the continuous heating in the above step, the steel part leaves behind a residue known as scale. Smiths don’t need this to make a katana. So it is taken off the blades. In this step, the cooling process starts, when the blade is quite soft and getting into the right shape as per the requirements of the smiths. Katana have straight blades in this process.
Clay-covering – The blades undergo a clay –tempering process in which they are coated with a mixture of clay, stone powder, ash, water, etc. and subjected to repeated heating. Expert smiths apply a thin clay coating on the edge of the sword and a thick coating at the other places. Due to this, the edges cool quickly during quenching process and form very hard edges, whereas the spine cools slowly and becomes soft to make the sword less resistant to corrosion and wear & tear.
Quenching – Katana get their trademark curved-edged blades in this process. After the heating process, the clay-coated blades are quenched in water or oil. The timing when the blades are taken off the heat and introduced to quenching is critical to get the perfect quality of blades. It is during this process that blades start to display their Hamon, which is the temper line, curved structure, which is known as sori and their overall personality.
Sizing – Here, the blades are given a final adjustment to fine-tune the sori (curvature) and remove any excess scale component. This is also the process, where every sword gets its particular collar made, based on its overall dimensions.
Finishing – A sword polishing process is as important as the sword making process. Unless the polisher polishes the blades well, we will never get to see the temper line, softness, and texture of the blades that the swordsmith so painstakingly created.
Some things that you should know about the Katana
1. It could take months to make a good-quality katana
Sword making was a very religious activity in Japan. Smiths took their profession very seriously, and they revered it with 100% devotion. As we saw above, a katana goes through several complicated processes and could take years to complete. Before starting to make a sword, a Smith goes on a pilgrimage to ask for blessings from the Lord. Once he starts his sword-making process, he draws a line in his workplace beyond which, womenfolk aren’t allowed to enter. He stays away from sex and other entertainment until the time he completes his katana.
2. You need to store it properly
If a katana is not stored properly, it loses its value and the purpose why it was designed. Katana have trademark curved blades; therefore, you should always keep it in the case with the tip facing downwards, so that the blades are given good care. They are quite prone to wear and tear issues; so, if you want to justify the amount that you spent in acquiring them, you have to maintain them properly.
3. Broad categories
Though there are quite a few shapes of processes in making a katana, they broadly fall into four main categories. The antique katana with impressive artwork on it is known as the Nihonto. The katana, which has been sharpened for use, is known as the Shinken or the Shinsaku. The katana that are in use today for the training of various combat fight techniques are known as laito. The fourth category of katana is the one that is ornamental and used specifically for religious or ceremonial purposes.
4. Testing the katana
In the earlier years, after making a sword, how did the warriors test the quality of the blades on their katana? Hold your breath! They tested the blades on corpses and criminals. Dead bodies or criminals used to be piled one on top of each other and the katana would be sliced through their bodies to know how sharp and accurate it is.
5. Katana wasn’t originally curved
When the first smiths made the katana, they made it with straight blades, just like other samurai weapons. However, owing to the sharp cutting and stabbing power of this sword, warriors felt that they could make better use of it when they used it from a height (example, while they were on horseback). To provide the soldiers the flexibility of using it from a mounted position, swordsmiths started making curved blades for the katana.
6. Uses in martial arts
Yes, the samurai class has been abolished in modern Japan. Yes, there are no more combat-style fights or battles in today’s world. Does that mean that the katana is not used at all? Definitely, not! These sharp and curved bladed-weapons are still used by martial art practitioners all over the world. Some of the forms of martial arts where the katana are used are ninjutsu, laijutsu, iaido, kendo, battojutsu, etc. Many Japanese schools teach their kids about holding the katana properly and the posture required while cutting with it, so that they get a good posture and balance in their bodies.
7. Wearing a katana
While wearing a katana, the warrior would ensure that the blade faces upwards and the handle faces towards the left. This position helped him to take the katana in a second when it was required. When entering a building, he would always keep the katana at the entrance, as a mark of respect. Katana were predominantly used outdoors; therefore, a warrior was prohibited from carrying it inside one’s home.
Caring for a katana
As we saw in the previous sections, a katana is a curved sword that is known for its sharpness and its brilliant artwork. Today, antique swords cost at least $2000.Remember, this is just the basic price. We all know that a katana doesn’t look cheap. So, if you are in possession of a katana, you should ensure that you take care of it properly. Here are some tips that will help you to do it:
You should always hang the katana (if purchasing it as a display piece), with the edge upwards, so that the blade and scabbard are well protected.
It is highly advisable that you don’t draw out the sword from the scabbard; however, if you have to do it, you need to be very careful. With the blade edge facing upwards, slightly loosen the scabbard with your left thumb so that the copper (pieces that are used to hold the blade tightly) loosens. Now, using your right thumb, pull out the blade as carefully as you can.
Do you plan to touch your katana? Experts recommend users never to touch their precious katana. However, if you do touch it, you have to remember to clean it right away. The oil, dirt and other particles from your fingers get transferred to the high-quality carbon steel of the blades, and it may cause your katana to rust.
Never test your katana by using it on your fingers or any other object. They were designed to cut flesh; if you really want to learn the traditional samurai style, you need to get trained under a professional trainer for the same.
Here are some of the things that you have to get in advance before you proceed to clean the katana – Choji Oil, soft flannel cloth, Nuguigami, a wiping paper, wiping cloth and uchiko ball.
We need an oil that could prevent rusting of the blades; so, if you don’t have choji oil in your area, you could use normal mineral oil.
If the soft flannel cloth is big enough, you can use it as the wiping cloth as well. You don’t need to buy a separate one.
The Nuguigami is a special soft tissue paper that works very effectively in cleaning the katana; however, if you can’t find one, you could use a soft paper towel as well. Ensure that the paper towel that you use has no aroma.
The Uchiko Ball is a soft silk ball that has finely-ground stone powder inside.
Remove the blade as we have mentioned above and give it a slight shake so that all debris (if any) falls off the to the ground
Use a flannel cloth to wipe off previous applications of oil, if any. Then proceed to use the Uchiko Ball on the blade to apply the stone powder on it. Start from the blade’s collar and give the ball a tap at regular intervals till you reach the tip. This will ensure the uniform spread of stone powder. Do this process on both the sides.
Now use the soft tissue, Nuguigami, to clean off this powder. You need to do this carefully from the collar to the tip to ensure thorough cleaning.
Now take a wiping cloth and apply some Chogi Oil on it and clean the blades in the same way mentioned above, so that your blades are cleaned and free of dust.
If you are a sword collector, you need to buy a katana cleaning kit, at the time of buying the sword.
Never attempt to sharpen a katana by yourself. If you feel that the blades have become dull or flattened, you need to send it to a sword-cleaning professional, who will apply the right sharpening technique.
As we saw in the previous sections, making a katana involves years of hard work, commitment, and sacrifices of the swordsmiths. Smiths never considered this just as their profession, but as their lives. Since the katana are known as the soul of the samurai warrior, it is only natural that we respect them, isn’t it? If we could give the best care to our katana, it would be the best way in which we could show our respect to them.
Is your katana original?
Here are simple ways to check if the katana that you own is an original or not:
Type of steel used – As we saw in the previous sections, carbon steel was the main element that was used to make katana many centuries ago. So, if you own a katana made out of stainless steel, you don’t possess the authentic antique model.
Only forged steel – Today, with modern practices, there are readymade, mass-fabricated steel swords available to you. These cost you very less as well. If you want to own an original katana, you should be ready to shell out a large sum of money, and you should never forget to ask for forged steel swords only.
We saw how it takes years to make a good katana and how a warrior considers it as his soul. However, a katana was never used as the first weapon for attacks. This is because it was never the greatest of the weapons used by samurai warriors. It couldn’t be used to fight against other weapons made from steel. It was effective against flesh only. So, a samurai couldn’t attack his weapon-holding opponent with a katana. They weren’t as effective as the primary weapons like spears, bows & arrows or guns. The Japanese iron sand that was the base for making the katana wasn’t considered good enough for the iron that was available elsewhere in the world.
Many people feel that a katana wouldn’t have been effective in wars because it focused only on cutting and couldn’t be used for defending oneself when attacked by opponents. The only reason they became famous was that they could be used to stab people easily from a height. The artwork and beautiful display of the blades only added to the glamor of these swords. Today, the katana that you find in the sword market isn’t half as good as what was made during the 15th century. However, if you still think that you want to collect them and hang them as an ornamental display piece, ensure that you purchase the right one after reading through various forums. Always opt for the hand-made forged steel katana, as they are the best choices today.
Join network groups of sword collectors and connect with them on social media to be aware of the scams in the sword business today. Katana doesn’t come cheap, so you need to ensure that you invest in the right model. Brainstorming with professionals and experienced sword collectors will give you a good idea of the sword that you have to buy and the source that you need to buy it from. Be informed, make qualified decisions and collect authentic katana. You can also read more about the samurai history and know about the different types of swords they used & the significance of each one of them. This will give you an idea of how katana fared in comparison to those weapons and how warriors used a combination of these swords for a successful fight.