Sword Cleaning and Maintenance

By Jim Kurrasch
from the February 1999 Nanka Token Kai Newsletter

Once again a question about cleaning paper was raised on the inter-net. I have been thinking more about this problem and feel that the time was probably good to give some more information.

I was avoiding answering this because to be completely honest I feel that many collectors

tend to go anal about things like this when it just does not matter to a great extent. Please remember that these are steel swords and can suffer through quite a bit with absolutely no damage. 200 years ago they were used in the rain and wiped with what ever the Samurai had handy. When I first started my study of swords about 20 years ago, one of the things that first struck me was that many of the older and very respected collectors (some major names) took great pride in using very old and somewhat dirty silk cloths to handle the swords that they were studying. All that they would do is to shake out this old cloth. Thinking back on it some probably took great glee in watching the expression on the faces of the newer students when they saw what was being used.

When studying in Japan it does not take too long before seeing some Japanese pull a pair of
white gloves out of their pocket and put them on to handle the swords or kodogu. Some of these
gloves have seen much use with no washing, and the fingertips can be pretty dark (much closer to black than to white).

As a side note there were some dealers saying that they represented “The Japanese Government” to buy back Important Swords for return to Japan. Their use of white gloves to handle the sword offered for sale was what impressed some American owners more than anything else did. They showed impressive credentials, which were in Japanese and probably thanked them for shopping at who knows where. I further imagine that the later story was something like “Well sir this sword has some problems. It would not be fair to expect the Japanese Government to pay such a high price!”

In general I tend to think about just what I am cleaning, but this is just a tendency and if using what I would prefer is difficult in the slightest I just alter that with no problems. For instance to clean the oil off I tend to use either white tissue paper or white toilet paper. If it does not leave splinters in my butt I doubt that it will do much damage to a steel sword. However if all that is available is colored toilet paper I have no great problem using that either. If it is also perfumed life will still go on tomorrow. However here please beware that some other collectors or experts will be offended by using something so base on something so important.

As I mentioned to clean off the old oil (old but still liquid) I use clean tissue. It really is best not to use a rag or what ever since the liquid oil will attract lint, dirt etc, and that may cause damage at a later date. So clean off the liquid oil and discard that tissue. It may take more than one tissue to remove the majority of the liquid oil.
Then on swords in old polish these frequently have gone a great number of years with little care. They have dried oil in their pits and pores that with age has turned into a varnish. Sometimes that varnish also has formed a thin protective layer on the surface of the steel. This protection is good for the steel but difficult to see through. I feel that there are many good swords in the U.S. whose potential can not be recognized due to this dried oil. Some oxidation has also taken place that has darkened the steel somewhat but otherwise is just too thin to be noticed. However that darkening will also throw off an otherwise good kantei (darker steel = lower class sword then otherwise).

To clean off the dried oil just as you have probably recognized most papers just give out too easily. This includes the traditional sword cleaning paper. So I have gone to one of the new randomly woven micro-fiber cloths. These are really a miracle of modern technology. I first learned of these micro fibers about ten years ago when they came on the scene to be used cleaning camera lenses. The fibers are so small that they actually go under the oil molecules and lift them away. If the clothes will not cause damage to the optical coating of an expensive camera lens swords should be fine. What I use now is a randomly woven micro-fiber cloth that is made to clean the plastic screens of laptop computers. If they scratched a plastic computer screen the screams of anger would quickly be raised. A packages of five sheets cost about $6. The sheets are about 12 X 18 inches and tougher than the traditional papers. They are available at many computer stores. I buy mine at Fry’s!

As you uchiko off the old layers of dried oil and oxidation you may notice small scratches and blame the uchiko or paper. Frequently these scratches are older than you are but have been obscured so long (again longer than you have lived) that you never saw them before. You might be able to show this by the direction of the scratches. If you have only wiped the sword lengthwise and they are crosswise do you think the paper was really at fault?
The uchiko used is another story. I tend to buy mine at the Sword Museum in Tokyo. They have a number of Important Swords (Kokuho, Jûyô Bunkazai etc.) so they really would not use inferior uchiko. The color of the cloth ball is not important. Red or white it is all the same. The balls of uchiko from the Sword Museum are red. One could buy a quantity of uchiko from a polisher or sword shop and make their own uchiko with their wives, or girl friends silk panties with hearts and flowers on them, It would all work as well. What is important is the weave of the cloth. This cloth is the last layer of filtering material that the uchiko goes through and thus should be fairly fine. Avoid buying or using balls of uchiko that have a cloth
of a coarser weave.

While going through this initial cleaning and removing of old dried oil if you are doing it fairly frequently (several times per month) there is really no reason to re-oil the sword between cleanings. Frequently cleaned swords have little possibility of rusting. Another problem is that frequent cleaning and oiling will cause a mini-kesho polishing effect. This will darken the ji and worry the new collector. The darkening is a temporary thing and return to normal if these frequent oiling are stopped.

Freshly polished swords are a different matter. Here you will not want to remove material. Swords with a fine Keisho polish are as close as they can be to a perfect polish (if they should have a Keisho polish in the first place). So avoid anything that will wear that polish down (such as over uchikoing). Here the uchiko is used mostly to soak up the final remains of the old oil.
Swords in Sashi-komi polish are different. Sashi-komi polishes will improve with age and uchiko. If properly maintained using uchiko several times a year they will reach perfection in five or ten years (please see the quote at the end of this article).

I tend to prefer Sashi-komi polishes over Kesho (make-up) polishes. As I mentioned Sashi-komi polishes improve with age. Kesho polishes however maybe wise for certain swords. As with women it takes real skill for make-up to improve youthful beauty. However as the scars and effects of age materialize the make-up becomes more important. Here a talented polisher can cover certain visual faults such as a weak hamon. Personally the scars and effects of age bother me very little. I have them so I can not fault them in others. But they may bother some shinsa judges so a flawed blade with a good Kesho polish may be able to go one step higher at shinsa than it would have been able to with a Sashi-komi polish.

A Kesho polish will either increase or decrease the beauty of a sword depending on the skills of the polisher. I have to wonder just how many swords did poorly at shinsa due to their new polish? Maybe if the owner would have paid for a better polisher he would have received a better paper. This may seem relatively minor but suppose that you paid $2,500 for polish and submission for Jûyô Shinsa and the sword did not pass. What would you think if you found out that with a $3,500 polish it would have had a better chance to go Jûyô? Here I think that the Sword Museums Annual Sword Polishing Contest is an excellent idea. It is a rating system that allows polishers some guidance in improving their skills.

Another area to be considered is cleaning a sword that has horimono on it. The horimono will funnel the uchiko into areas of heavier concentration where the horimono ends. This will leave streaks in a fresh polish damaging its’ beauty. Similar streaks are also in older polishes but once the sword is fully cleaned they will not be noticed as much.
To avoid this streaking in freshly polished swords they should be treated in sections. Wipe the area down to the end of the horimono in one long swipe. Then lift the cloth and place it down in a slightly different place to continue the wipe (the next wipe alter the area again but to a slightly different area). If there are several horimono (such as bô-hi and bonji) they should each be treated separately.

I am sure that most old collectors stopped reading this feeling that something simple like “What type of paper should be used for cleaning the old oil from a sword?” is just too simple of a question to deserve more than one or two sentences of answer. They probably further feel that I must be some kind of idiot to waste my time with such a long answer. But it is the kind of thing that drives the newer collectors crazy. Also if new polishes are saved some of the effects of poor care, and some swords with older polishes are better recognized for what they are, how much of a waste was this?

I found the quote in the NTHK’s Novice Course. Of course it is in the last paragraph on the last page of the last pamphlet (page 228). So does everybody want to guess just how many pages I had to look through to find it?
“ V. Taking Care of Your Polish

When you receive your newly polished sword back from the polisher, there are some important steps in caring for it. Due to the build up of water in the pores of the steel, it is a good idea to keep it well oiled. When you take the blade out to inspect it, you should cautiously remove the oil with uchiko, and when finished, re-oil the blade and carefully return the blade to its’ saya. It will take several months of oiling before all the water is removed. You should use only clean paper or cloth when whipping off the blade. You should not whip quickly or apply great pressure. In this way, after a period of five to ten years, the polish on your blade will reach a state of great beauty. Finally, it is not necessary nor entirely desirable to keep a thick coating of oil on the blade, unless you have a rainy season like Japan’s where there is almost continuous rain for six weeks.”

The above is taken directly from the manual with a few minor changes. The part about the “whipping” and “whip” were the translators. So please do not blame me for that “kinkyness.” [:^ ) I guess somebody in Japan might want to ask him about it and report back to the rest of us.