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How Japanese Sword Smiths Craft Genuine Katana Swords Today

Once known as the “soul” of a Samurai warrior, the fact that one of the most well-known swords of the east, the katana, is still crafted today, testifies to the magnificence and beauty of this Japanese weapon. Crafting a katana today is a meticulous and exhaustive process. Here is a brief overview of the steps involved in genuine katana production.

1. Obtaining the Tamahagane

Tamahagane or “jewel steel” is the material from which a genuine katana is made. Worth up to 50 times more than normal steel, it takes around 3 days to smelt about 25 tons of charcoal and iron-bearing river sand into just 2 tons of tamahagane. The smelting is performed in a tatara – A specially made furnace which reaches temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the smelting process, the tamahagane is never allowed to become molten. By keeping the material from reaching a molten state, two types of tamahagane are formed. Both types of tamahagane, high-carbon and low-carbon are used in the construction of a katana. Together this blend of tamahagane forms a blade which is neither too brittle nor too soft.

2. First Steps for the Sword Smith

Before the sword smith can even begin to create the katana, he must remove all impurities from the tamahagane, of which only the best pieces from the tatara smelting will be used. The smith heats the tamahagane and repeatedly hammers and folds the material to draw out impurities and ensure thorough blending of iron and carbon.

When all impurities have been removed from the tamahagane, the smith starts by heating the high-carbon steel and shaping it into a long “u” shaped form. Next, the low-carbon tamahagane is heated, shaped and hammered into the channel of the u-shaped hard steel. The two metals are then forged together. The result is the blade of the katana, with a hard outer shell and cutting edge and a tough, low-carbon core.

3. Coating and Curving the Katana Blade

The katana is next coated with a thick, insulating mixture of charcoal powder and clay. The sharp edge of the blade receives only a thin coating of this mixture, however. As well as protecting the blade, this coating also creates the “hamon”. The hamon is s the signature wavy design which will later be revealed by polishing. After this the katana is fired again in a furnace, to a temperature just below 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The next step in the process is where sword smiths lose as many as one in three of the swords they produce. The curving of the katana blade by removing it from the furnace and dousing it immediately in cold water is a tricky task and requires a high degree of skill.

4. The Final Stages

With the katana now fully forged, the process is taken over by a sword polisher, who will spend as long as two weeks meticulously grinding the blade to a razor sharp edge. Finally, artisans and metal workers will craft the sword guard and handle, as well as making a customized wooden scabbard. When all is complete, the katana is returned to the sword smith, who will give it a final inspection.

The entire process will have taken nearly six months and around 15 people will have been involved in the sword’s creation. However this is a genuine Japanese katana and it will now be valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars: a fair reward for the level of work involved in bringing it to life.