Activities in the Steel

by Jim Kurrasch

By activities in the steel we are talking about things such as sunagashi, kinsuji, inazuma, and chikei. But here I am also going to include things such as utsuri, and chirimen hada. These are various things or extras to look for. Their mere presents tends to tell you that this is a above average sword. And if they are there in great numbers, with great variations it will point out the really very super swords. Basically I will freely admit that in the following article I assume quite a bit. This is because the actual methods for making the better swords, were trade secrets and died out along with those smiths. If anyone alive knew the exact methods used to make Ichimonji, Rai, or Aoe blades, then their blades would be far better than any made in the last 600 years. So I am stating what could have happened to make those great blades of the Kamakura.

Basically we had better start with the definitions for nioi, and nie. Because it is from these that the activities are built from. If we start off with low carbon steel we can not harden it to any extent. So we must add carbon. Carbon will migrate into or out of red hot steel depending on the exterior conditions. If red hot steel is immersed in carbon, it will be absorbed into the skin of the steel. This allows surface hardening in modern metalworking. But red hot steel in a oxidizing condition with no source of exterior carbon will give off carbon, reducing it’s content. It is through this that the Japanese swordsmith is able to raise or lower the carbon content in their steel. If they want more carbon they coat the iron with a clay containing rice straw, and then heat it red hot. To reduce the carbon they take the steel and just heat it red hot with lots of air.

Now that high or low carbon content can be made, what can be done with it. If we take high carbon steel heat it orange hot. Then immerse it in water it will harden. With increased temperature, decreased water temperature, or increase carbon content we will end up with a harder steel. The opposites will may a softer steel. With the softer steel we will noticed a change in appearance in the polished metal. It will take on a soft hazy appearance. With the hard steel there will be a hard looking shine. The Japanese swordsmiths are masters at making it exactly right for what they want. And good swordsmiths can pick the effect they want.

Now there is another thing that comes into the game. The method of refining the steel. This is done by repeated folding. A stack of small pieces of the steel (about 3 X 5 X 2 inches), is taken, coated with the a clay flux. And a piece of rice paper is wrapped around it to hold it together until it starts to bond itself. This all is heated red hot and hammered together. It is then partly split, again coated with the clay / rice straw slurry, heated red hot and folded over onto itself. Then the process is gone through again. As more and more folds are done the number of laminations in the steel increases as does the carbon content. The lamination numbers go up by a factor of 2. So we get 2 layers, 4 layers, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096, 8,192, 16,384, and 32,768 layers. If we did 16 folds we would have 65,536 layers. When making a sword approximately 5 folds would be used for the center /core steel, and this would be 32 layers. Approximately 10 folds – 1,024 layers would be used for the side steel – jitetsû. And approximately 15 folds – 32,768 layers would be used for the edge steel. Different schools would vary on the basic formula depending on their raw materials (what type of wood, and sand iron is used). And another reason for variations was the finished sword desired (nioi deki, nie deki , or loaded with ara nie).

Now to say that your edge steel was folded 15 times so therefore it has exactly 32,768 layers in it is wrong. When making the sword this iron is cut into smaller pieces. These pieces are then again stacked giving the desired pattern. That pattern will be hammered by a extremely skill swordsmith into something that will resemble the finished sword. The back edge of the tip will be cut away at a 45º angle and the front edge will be hammered up into a bôshi shape. This allows the grain of the steel to flow around the bôshi.

And if we use more folds we also tend to get a muji tetsû . This often appears to be a over refined steel. I will also assume that the refined near muji appearance of Rai tetsû, or Bitchû Aoe is due to using more layers for their jitetsû, than other schools that had ô-hada. And the ha of Bitchû Aoe had a grain pattern, so they probably used less folds for their ha tetsû .

Another thing to know about the folding process. The steel is never melted. It is heated just hot enough to tightly bond. If it starts to melt, the impurities are driven back into the steel. With proper temperature control each folding will drive the impurities out of the steel. By the way, there is a tremendous loss of steel with all of this folding. The smith starts with several times as much steel as the final sword will weigh.

Now comes the tempering. A fine clay slurry is put onto the edge area of the sword. The pattern of this initial clay will dictate the tempered pattern. This clay is allowed to dry somewhat. Then a second layer of clay is put onto the sword. This layer will make the surface basically smooth, and it also protects the metal from oxidation. Some of the swordsmiths in Japan are now experimenting with not using clay in the tempering. With only a oil coating they have been able to form wild chôji temper patterns similar to Ichimonji. The sword is heated up to a orange red color, and plunged into water. The sword temperature, water temperature, and the plunge rates are very controlled trade secrets.

It is very important to understand the method behind the folding and layering methods. Without that one can not understand just why the activity form. Remember that the increasing of the carbon content as the steel is folded, is a surface effect. It does not penetrate the steel to any great extent. And as the steel is folded each of the prior layers narrows by ½. So the last layer forms ½ of the thickness of the block of steel. 2 folds back is ¼ of the thickness, and 3 folds back is 1/8 of the thickness. Added importance is due to the fact that the skin thickness of the added carbon content is also decreased. Another thing that would vary the thickness of these conditions is the relationship of that line to the surface of the blade. If the line runs at a 90º angle the line appears thin. At other angles it appears wider. Actually the line is the same in either condition, but at a larger angle, more is exposed, and it appears wider. I also assume that the better swordsmiths are able to vary the amount of carbon added in each layer by adding more or less straw, or varying the type of straw in the clay slurry. They might even use the charcoal of certain woods to increase the carbon content of a specific layer.

Why is it so important to understand the layering effect and the carbon effect? Well they allow the activities to form. As the tempering takes place, finely tempered lines will form sunagashi, kinsuji, and chikei . What forms where depends of where the carbon content is patched correctly, with the metal temperature, and rate of cooling. The ha is formed where the carbon content, the temperature and the rate of cooling are all fairly high. Kinsuji is formed where the grain is basically masame, and the localized carbon content is higher than the general hamon carbon content. This may have been caused by that extra carbon content added. Masame is necessary because kinsuji is fairly straight, and masame would be required to placed that localized high carbon content in that straight line. Mokume or itame would be used to make inazuma. This brings that layer of high carbon skin steel into and out of the hamon , giving us the lighting – inazuma effect. A similar effect happens with ayasugi-hada where the wavy masame goes into and out of the hamon. And thus the shiny line goes into and out of the hamon .

Chikei is a similar condition as kinsuji or inazuma but it is in the ji. Since the ji is a thicker body than the ha, with a increased heat sink effect. And since the ji is better protected by the protective clay. The chikei does not harden nor shine to the same extent as if it had been in the ha. A very good smith could take this into account and increase the carbon content in some layers of the ji, thus causing increased brightness of the chikei .

Another thing to mention. The shininess does not have to be strictly due to carbon. After the arrival of the U.S. Navy and it’s fleet of Black Ships to Tokyô Bay, in 1854, the Japanese swordsmiths picked up some tricks from the foreigners. New metals, possibly nickel, or chromium were sometimes added to form activities. I own a blade with this, the blade is tempered in ara nie, and the kinsuji formed are wide, giving a somewhat un-natural appearance. But this appearance would fool most collectors. What one looks for is a bright line that stays shiny no matter what the surrounding material does. It shines equally in the ji as in the ha. Actually there is nothing that says similar methods highly refined, were not used in Kamakura. And without very localized minute analysis with something like SEM-EDX (Electron Scanning Microscopy – Electron Dispersive X-ray) we may never know.

Sunagashi is a condition where the carbon is more spread out. The high tempered steel are like a line of sand spread across an area. So in some small areas it shines, but right next to it the conditions were not satisfiBuying Big Named Blades
by Jim Kurrasch

The following article by me actually promotes 2 opinions. While this seems somewhat schizophrenic it has more to do with the fact that very little is “black and white”. Everything is a shade of gray. And to make matters worse which shade of gray varies as one gains more experience.

OK, since I have been ranting and raving about the blades for sale lately, I better start the return trip to reality. At a recent meeting I was talking to one of our fairly new members. The absolute facts in this really do not matter, since the problem has been here for hundreds of years. The other thing is all people involved are very nice people, and tend to be pretty honest and down home folks.

I am also sure that the new member, will learn, and after 10 or 20 years will have a very fine collection, but he is still in his learning phrase (hell I am still in my learning phrase, and as far as Japanese Swords are concerned I am barely out of diapers). Anyway he had seen a big named sword at a recent gun show, and it had a big price on it. Upon hearing this without even thinking I said “Bulls*it”. Sam Oyama was in the group and had seen that blade, he agreed with me, that it was not that smiths work.

Now the fact of life for the new members out there, and this can be a refresher course for the “experienced collector”. There are no big named swords out there without papers, and very few papers can really be trusted. You will Not find a Masamune, Sadamune, Rai blade, Ichimonji, Umetada, any of Masamune’s or Sadamune’s Students or other big named sword out there for big prices without papers. All similar swords were known in Japan and have been written about somewhere. Occasionally one does come out of the woodwork, but that means that the prices are fairly low. If the seller is trying to sweet talk you into really believing that he has a super blade just say NO. If they say that it has the possibility of being the signature just say “Bulls*it!”

And if the dealer is disguising himself as a Sensei be extremely wary. Anyone that sells more than 5 or 6 blades a year is a dealer no matter what they call themselves. And they must first be known as a dealer, with all of the dealer traits. It is fine to learn what you can from dealers, just make sure to define them as dealers. And if they get uptight and state that they are not a dealer, ask them if they feel like having the IRS make the decision?

Let’s use a completely made up example. Let’s say I have a blade signed Masamune. And I want only $10,000 for it. If I really thought that it is a Masamune believe you me the first thing that I would do is send it to Japan for polish and papers. I would be willing to put everything I own on the line to get that blade papered. Then I would sell it for $100,000 or more. Do you really think that a dealer or a sensei is going to give you an important blade for a fire sale price? And I would tend to be more sympathetic towards the dealer, at least they can plead stupidity.

If you are going to pay big prices demand big papers. And to be really honest the only papers that you can completely trust are from the NTHK (Yoshikawa’s Group). They have always been extremely harsh with their grading, and it is their policy that to receive papers the blade must be 100% correct. This leaves many fine and honest blades being turned down by them for papers. But when a blade has their papers it IS what the papers say it is.

The NTHK’s papers are the only ones that take full responsibility for their appraisals. The NTHK states which is sho-shin and means authentic on the front of their papers in the center column. This leaves them open to lawsuits if they are wrong. The other groups only state their opinion, meaning if they are wrong “Oh well it was only a opinion”. This causes the NTHK to make very conservative statements. But when they make a Important kantei it is correct and there is no fine print to hide behind.

A fact to note is there are many dealers that absolutely do not like NTHK papers. When I was recently asked “Who papers do I prefer?” My question was “Am I buying or selling?” If I am buying I want NTHK papers since they absolutely do not fudge. But if I was a dealer, and trying to get my blades papered I would get the papers of the easiest group around. And then I would “hype” those papers. If you ever hear a dealer putting down the NTHK’s papers, you know that they are just that a dealer. And you will probably be better off only asking their opinion on something they understand, like; “Which color of sword bag goes best with the saya?”, or “Which Ginzu Knife works best for general work around the kitchen?” I am not saying do not buy from them, just do not give their opinion too much weight.

The NBTHK is a very fine and honorable group. Unfortunately partly because of their fame they have had problems. Some of their papers have been forged, and occasionally they have had dishonest Judges at the local level. Their Jūyō and other Main Branch papers are good, if they are not forgeries. But occasionally their out-lying branch papers have had problems.

Then there are the dealers papers. These are usually the most questionable. Lets face it the dealers are there for profit. They and others like them will only make real money by selling big name blades. So their standards tend to be lower. I have used them and shall use them in the future, but their level of confidence is lower than the NBTHK or NTHK.

Now there is nothing wrong with buying a beautiful mumei blade if you pay a fair price. And it’s maker in fact may actually be a big name, but as far as you are concerned if it does not have papers it is just a beautiful mumei blade, and the price should reflect that. If it has a big signature consider it gimei unless it is papered by a reliable group, and pay accordingly. If it actually was that maker it would have been quickly sent to Japan for papers long ago. Or it would have received papers from one of the groups that come here. Big named papers are given out here for a completely honest blade.

The next point is judging a big name yourself. first off do not trust the dealers opinions. Most in the U.S. have probably never even seen a big named blade unless it was at a sword show or club meeting. And almost none have ever had time or inclination to really hold and study a big named blade. What they ee are fair blades with big names, and that is their base of judgment. They are not being completely dishonest, they just do not know. There use to be a dealer around that got dumber with the more experience he received. Basically for him it was “convenience to not know”.

How can you judge if a blade is really great? Totally ignore the signature, unless it is papered as such. The one most important thing that you will be able to learn as to how good the blade is without saying who made it is the activity in the blade. Almost any great blade will have activity that will knock your socks off, and when was the last time that happened at a gun show. There will be kinsuji, inazuma, chikei, ko-nie of 10 colors, and the blade will be SO completely covered with nie. Again when was the last time that you saw that at a gun show. There are some nioi-deki blades that have absolutely beautiful hamon with no nie. As you look down the hamon it just seems to be on fire and have a 3 dimensional look.

So how do you see these things? This is more difficult. I remember one my first trip to Japan with Sensei Yumoto, while in the Sword Museum I asked one of the foremost authorities to show me kinsuji. He was embarrassed that I had asked him such a basic question, and had his son show me. And I still could not see the kinsuji shown me.

Well that brings up another point. On Sensei Yumoto’s Tours I was able to hold and study some of the World’s finest Japanese Blades, but I was not really able to “See them”. There were 2 basic problems. 1; I was not ready! I was just working too much to be able to study the amount necessary. And good blades had not been really available for me to study. 2; The condition of the blades. One can have the world’s finest blade, but if it has a poor polish nothing will be seen. Or one can give the world’s finest blade the world’s best polish, and if not taken proper care of in 100 years little will be seen. I am not talking about rust here. But a build-up of something that just veils everything.

Let’s face it most of the world’s finest blades are in Japan. Nobody would uchiko a great blade everyday of it’s life, and that is not needed. But many of these blades are put away for long periods of time, and only lightly uchikoed when taken out. This is right, even uchiko will wear down a blade, if frequently done for hundreds of years. And the finest blades should be lovingly cared for and protected from harm. Yes it is my opinion that the protector should be willing to lay down their life to protect a great blade from harm.

So what do you do? You must truly study blades. Closely examine the best examples that you can see. Look at the hamon intensely. Bring a small flashlight with you when you go to view displays behind glass. Use it to light the blade in various ways to see the most. In a way this may seem rude, to so examine a blade. But the true collectors will understand, and in applaud your efforts.

You may want to ask before hand if they mind, and which blades they would recommend to learn from. I remember a very upset owner one time when I looked a one of his blades too closely (it had a major flaw, but I did not state this).

The next part is more difficult. You must study a good blade in good polish. It all does not have to be in good polish, if only part of it is clean study that part. Hagiri or shintetsū will not bother your efforts either, study the good parts. If you can buy such a blade for a reasonable price buy it. Then you can study it to your hearts content.

Uchiko the hell out of that blade. You will get to a point with uchiko where you will start to lose details that you had seen before. That is a good place to stop for a while. After a month or so uchiko again, but this time with less force. If you are working with a good blade, you will be seeing more and more things. Some of the blurs along the hamon will turn into ko-nie. Then some groups of ko-nie will turn into sunagashi. Some of the sunagashi will turn into kinsuji and inazuma. And you may even find the nie of 10 colors.

As you go through this process with several good blades, studying them for hundreds of hours (enjoyable but time consuming), you will start to be able to notice the activity at earlier and earlier stages of the clean-up. Also it may take some time before you see results. I have been working on a sword for 5+ years and have finally started to see some life, but then only in certain light. So maybe in another 5 years it will appear to be something other than a polished out blade. From the start I had known that it had kinsuji and inazuma, but they did not have much life.

Also try using different light sources, and find out what works the best for you, and when looking at what. A distant point source is good for looking down the hamon, and seeing the general workings. A diffuse light behind you will often show the nie, and activity to advantage. A florescent light may help you see the utsuri, and very fine jitetsu (actually a broad diffuse source may be the secret). Lights of different intensities may give different results, experiment. Learn what works for you. When you are buying a blade the light will not be perfect, so allow for that or find a different light.

“Nie of 10 colors” is a effect where the nie is so excellent that it refracts the light. This will give a “rainbow effect” with each nie. So when pointed towards a point source of white light at a certain angle, the nie will just sparkle all of the colors of the rainbow at you. Try not to be overly excitable here, it is not that hard to find a blade that gives white, yellow and shades of orange light from a incandescent light. But what is difficult is finding a blade that gives all of the colors of the rainbow.

You will notice how the kinsuji or inazuma is a completely different color than the nie. How it is Sooo much more brilliant, much like small lines of mirror in the steel. You may notice how some will stand out from others. How they appear rounded and 3 dimensional.

When evaluating the color of the steel, the color of the source light is very important. Use a mirror to find out what a perfect steel would look like. And next time you see a “blue sky” take a really good look at it. Just what color is it. That is “bluer” than the finest Japanese steels, and it is a good light source for looking at your blades. How much blue of the sky is reflected from your blade. Do this test when pointing the blade towards a patch of blue sky, and not the sun. Compare many blades of different known quality until you can see the difference. For me this is one of the hardest tests to evaluate. Maybe I need a more active imagination.

Sensei Yumoto once told another Japanese sword expert that he was better at judging swords, since he had to judge them in the condition that they are found in the U.S. Now believe me that Japan does have a abundance of swords in poor condition, red rust and all. But they tend to be swords of lesser value.

In the U.S. we can still occasionally find a really great sword in poor condition at a cheap price. To do this first you must learn to read the sword. Learning to read the Big Names only causes most inexperienced sword collectors more problems than not reading kanji at all. And after you think you have found one of the great swords, you get to put your manhood on the line. You get to pay for a polish, and submit it for papers. If you have done what I have told you, it will do well. But very few will actually do their homework, so they will have to rely on vast quantities of BS to sell their mistakes.

But I disagree that we are never going to see a big named blade. The U.S. abounds in big named blades. And some of those are very real. Some of the greats came out of Japan 115 years ago after the ban on wearing Swords. Some came out due to the interest by curious Westerners. Some came out after W.W.II. And a great many came out with the Japanese families that left Japan for whatever reason.

I can not say what is happening in the other parts of the World. But in California there is a large number of Hizen-to. I view this as partially due to the people of Kyushu being more “open” to foreigners. Hence they had a greater tendency to leave Japan than the Northerners. And of course they took their family blades, many of which were from their area.

About 7 or 8 years ago a healthy ubu katana with a long “Muramasa” signature came out of the Eastern U.S. The owner was paid $3,000. About 10 years ago a katana by Kotetsū, with fabulous fittings all papered by the Big names of the past was purchased for $3,000. And about 20 years ago a dealer friend of mine sold a tired tanto for $800. The Japanese dealer who bought it later informed him that the Japanese “Experts” found it to be a “Masamune”. I personally know of 4 “Rai Kunimitsu” blades in the Western U.S. 2 tachi, and 2 tanto. 3 of these blades have been authenticated by the “Experts”, The 4th. has been seen by persons knowledgeable about telling very good swords, but not the exact smith. By the way one of those tachi was good enough so that Yoshikawa Sensei’s mouth dropped open on seeing it. This blade may be a Rai Kunitoshi, my sources recall the name differently. I was in the kantei room but did not have time to look at it. ‘What a bummer’.

So in the U.S. we can find great swords and pull them out of the woodwork. And these are occasionally at very low prices. But how many know when they should be happy to kick in $3,000, $5,000, $10,000. And when to bar the doors, mortgage the house, and be willing to throw in everything they own to buy a sword. 10 years ago I was in Japan with Sensei Yumoto. Another of the persons present said he had heard that one of the tsuba at the Osaka Show of the NBTHK was for sale for $250,000. Sensei Yumoto stated that if it was only $250,000 he would be happy to mortgage his house to buy it.

So the actual big names blades are here. But there are far-far more blades and of course fittings with gi-mei big names. Who is able to tell which is which? Where to put the big money down and where to laugh and run. Also we have quite a few mu-mei blades by famous makers, And they tend to go for a fraction of what they are worth. But they can still make Jūyō , if you know enough to send them.

So I may never be able to say with any confidence that “This is a Masamune” or “This is a Ichimonji blade.” But I can occasionally say “This is a very good blade, and I should buy it”. And that is from studying the big named smiths.d for making hard steel. The line follows the skin of one layer, or it could follow several layers close together.

The ji nie or ha nie are formed when the carbon is spread out much thinner. This is not really a situation where the skin is involved, except it may be due to a condition similar to sunagashi, involving layers across all of the ji. Scattered ha nie are similar, but obviously in the ha.

Utsuri is really a stumper. Just what causes it I have no real clue. But it could simply be a contaminant in the metal, something like silicon, or molydeum. Anyway the some swordsmiths knew how to make it, and making it has only been recently re-discovered. Those that can do it state that it the blade must be heated to a very exact temperature range prior to tempering. But there is another factor that what we see now in the old swords may be the same thing that we see in the new swords, after aging 500+ years. Maybe cooling every evening, and warming everyday does something to the metal. Or maybe the metal is acting like a super-cooled liquid. After 500+ years that liquid is a bit more solid, causing utsuri.

A interesting thing about utsuri is that it can exist in the same metal that has ji nie. True utsuri tends to follow the metal pattern. By this I mean that one group of layers of the metal has utsuri, and the next group of layers does not. But both of these groups can have similar ji nie formations.

Now just sit back and think what the supreme swordsmiths during the Kamakura could do. They were able to make a sword that had masame to make the kinsuji, itame, mokume or wavy masame to make the inazuma . Metal that formed utsuri, and metal that did not form utsuri . They applied clay in a way to give very complex patters in the ha . And then they brought this metal uniformly to the right temperature, and immersed it in the water of the right temperature, at the right rate so that it all came together to make a Marvelous Sword. And this sword had to be strong enough to live through many battles, little the worst for it. Being able to cut through armor as well as flesh, to hit up against other swords, and various weapons, and to still function as weapons until they could be resharpened. All of the layers of the metal had to be brought together as one. Each layer had to have it’s own function that enhanced the function of the layer next to it.