A Disjointed Collection of Observations From My Amateur Sword-Polishing Endeavors

I thought I’d try a much lighter vein of non-fiction for today, although as far as originality goes this particular post is about as far from it as humanly conceivable. Note also the Socialized Aspergian Reflex: an apology, either explicit or implicit, for harping too much on a favorite subject.

Then we harp on it anyway. So frequent is my harping in particular that I may have missed out on a brilliant career in anachronistic music. That’s beside the point, however, as we’re currently approaching Sword O’clock. Observation one: sword polishing is hard. This probably won’t surprise you if you’ve ever tried to scrub a stubborn piece of oatmeal from within last week’s breakfast dishes. Now imagine that the oatmeal is high carbon steel and you’ve the task of removing only enough oatmeal to enhance the aesthetic properties of the remaining oatmeal. Now, agree with me that this analogy has just collapsed on itself like a spaghetti scaffold and let’s both move on.

So, first off, not every sword benefits from polishing or needs the same kind of polish. That may seem like an obvious statement, but you’re dealing with aesthetics. Aside from the foundation polish of Japanese nihonto, polish is fundamentally for looks. Having sharp implements with which to stab each other and shiny things to remind others of their innate inferiority (by virtue of not having things of equivalent shininess) are among mankind’s oldest instincts. All the divine guidance in the universe couldn’t stop us mashing these instincts together. From the moment someone first forged a copper sword, someone else began to wonder if a sword of superior (and increasingly obnoxious) reflectivity might not be possible. At some point it was likely noted that most materials get brighter when scratched with things, and that was that.

The second thing: it’s true as far as elaborate polishes go, Japan is tops. But I’ll remind any togishi who’s managed to dodge several decades of culturally-induced humility that a European longsword does not have the complex grain structure and elaborate heat-treat of a nihonto. European swords were forged from steel with much higher starting quality that didn’t need to be folded eight to a dozen times and differentially tempered to hold its edge and avoid breaking.

I’m not bashing Japanese artisans (look at the blog, I spend entirely too much time fawning over their work), geography just dealt them a bad hand which they spun into a tremendous source of prestige. A Japanese sword without iridescent hada and a vibrant hamon is the sword equivalent of a Piper Cub that flies like an F-22. These things wouldn’t exist if tamahagane didn’t need to be worked down so much or didn’t derive its beauty from the very impurities that weaken it.

I prefer the look of nihonto, but if you hand me a katana and a longsword in the same price range and tell me to go fight in full plate I’m taking the longsword every damn time. This may seem like a topical swerve (always a high risk on this blog): it’s not. You can’t do anything effectively with a sword, be it wielding, polishing or just owning the flipping thing if you’re too busy romanticizing it.  The only reason the West never developed an equivalent polishing tradition to that in Japan is that there were never swords that needed it, possibly barring Migration-era pieces.

Now then, moving on from that: the first thing that the process itself demands is patience. I spent yesterday working my O-tachi from 100 grit down to a mirror polish with a 15000 grit powder, doubling grit counts at each stage. This took me an hour and a half per grit until I got to around 3000 at which point the remaining stages took 90 minutes combined. It’s not bad for amateur work, but at one of the early stages (I estimate either 220 or 400 grit based on the size of the scratches) I spent too much time on one particular area of the right-hand side and wound up with marks I didn’t remove entirely in the later stages. Based on previous sessions I suspect they’ll disappear during final polishing with hazuya and jizuya stones, but if I were doing this for a client I’d have to start over at 100 grit today and make damned sure to keep things even this time.

Diamondback in an unetched mirror-polish prior to hadori. The hamon is visible, but black and somewhat indistinct. Etching and the later hadori polish whiten the hamon and darken the steel of the flats and spine, creating the contrast for which nihonto are known.

I only wound up with this problem because I forgot another fundamental lesson. When you’re altering the blade’s basic shape or working the edge, there’s some justification for high pressure. When I sharpen a blade I’m working the whole edge and counting my steps, so if I apply more pressure to one side during a particular stroke I just have to mirror that on the other. Even here, however, it’s better to let the stone, sandpaper or what-have-you do its job. Your hands are just there to guide the blade over the abrasive. All swords, from gladius to greatswords, are heavy enough that you don’t need to apply pressure to sharpen them. Their weight does the work for you.

When resting a sword on my lap and polishing by hand, I still only need enough pressure to keep sandpaper or stone in contact with the blade. Applying more than that tiny amount of pressure guarantees an uneven polish: the area under my finger will be overworked even as those around it are let alone. If I were trying to set a blade’s geometry and I did this, I could potentially remove enough steel to ruin it entirely. In this instance, I wound up with a distinct arc of large scratches on a section of otherwise immaculate mirror polish.

From what I’ve done so far, polishing is half basic guidelines and half scientific analysis, with the sum of the equation (concept-math rarely makes sense) an art form. Its complexity comes less from its methods (although there’s plenty of nuance there too) and more so from there application. Every sword is a little bit different; even mass-produced production swords will still have minor variations because one came from a slightly large billet or one was heat-treated on a more humid day. Each smith has his own methods, and so does each polisher. The methods of the togishi are nearly uniform, but which methods each chooses for the blade they work on and subtle differences in touch or sight produce a vast swath of sheens.

I only recently acquired a book on traditional Japanese polishing (I’m stubborn and like to make learning harder than it has to be, if you hadn’t guessed), and found out that I’ve been using both hazuya and jizuya in, well, amateur fashion. The stones are intended to be ground down to extraordinary fineness and then cut with grid patterns, which break open when the stones are pressed into a rounded surface. They have a lacquer backing to hold the pieces together while still allowing them to flex so they move freely over the sword’s surface. I, on the other hand, just ground mine smooth without removing much material and then work them slowly over the blade until they begin to adjust to its shape. I’ve learned to angle the stones to adjust to each section I’m working on, and to avoid scratching by sensing whether they move evenly or skip through my index finger.

I’m sure this would be maddening for a true togishi, but I’ve come to prefer this method and I won’t be switching to the classical style even now that I know it. Grinding down the stones to the recommended thickness wastes enormous amounts of material (in an era where Japan is suffering a shortage of natural stones, no less), and given how stubborn Diamondback’s hamon is I’d need a stone per centimeter. That’d run me several hundred dollars per side, which I can’t afford and wouldn’t want to if I could. This way I only need one stone per side: the shift in angle changes the shape enough that it’s difficult to use the same for both sides, but otherwise I can use the same finger stone to polish five or six times.

I also leave the blade I’m working on a towel and polish with only my index finger (sometimes another bracing the stone at the bottom for added precision and control), where normally hadori is performed by gripping the blade’s spine with all four fingers and pushing the stone with the thumb. I was a swordsman before a sword polish and a gamer besides, so to me precision tasks are accomplished by free movement of the index finger (aside from guiding the mouse, it’s the most responsible for guiding the sword). My thumb is a brute-force bludgeon to supply power to the index finger’s grace, not a keen thing in its own right.

My method works. If I don’t get good results, it’s because I’m a twitchy young adult and I get impatient (I’m getting much better at resisting that impulse), and that I haven’t grown particularly skilled as yet. I still get an even final polish that reveals the blade’s hada (the steel’s overall pattern) and hataraki (assorted “activities,” or what I like to think of as naturally occurring flourishes of the steel). This brings me to my final point for today: care for and understanding of the blade and materials are more important than the nitty-gritty methodology.

I’ve found you can’t whiten a hamon by polishing it with sandpaper or powder; this will only ever darken it (barring chemicals, which are more than just abrasion). Whitening has to be done with waterstones. I’m not sure why this is, but that’s how it works. Past the point of using the waterstones, though, all of it’s up for experimentation. I’ve learned you can’t get an even polish if you’re not working in straight lines (or as close to as possible with squishy human fingers), but I’m pretty sure the unevenness could be manipulated to produce a vibrant polish. Proving that and refining it, however, fall under the “Cullen is lazy and lacks money” header.

Oh, one last thing for now: the term “waterstone” is literal. They’re intended to be used with water. I assumed it was a euphemism referring to the liquid slurry they produce, and I’ve been using mine with oil. I like this better; the stones grip the blade more and there’s far less danger of rust. If I’d read the book first, I probably wouldn’t have found that out.

Sometimes a little stubborn is a good thing. Just don’t quote me on that when you’ve ground a hole in the side of your favorite kitchen knife.

2 thoughts on “A Disjointed Collection of Observations From My Amateur Sword-Polishing Endeavors

  1. Author’s note: this post has undergone roughly infinite edits at this time. As no one else has read it yet, think of it as Cullinger’s WordPress Blog: the post is simultaneously well-crafted and precise even as it doesn’t exist until read by an outside viewer.

    Further edits to follow with poorly-lit before and after pics of a hot vinegar etch I’m going to do in the next hour or so.

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