Motoyasu is a maker and polisher of Japanese swords, contact me for further information. Photos, etc are forthcoming..
The following articles are re-printed for your reference:
"Togi, the art of polishing, and choosing a polisher for your blade", May, 1997, Journal of Japanese Sword Arts
"Introduction to Polishing", excerpt from brief instruction set written for the Blades 'n' Stuff catalog
Christopher Lau, Ottawa, Ontario
Collector, smith (mei = Motoyasu), modern/military blade polisher.
So, you've gone and done it- you've purchased a "gen-U-ine" Japanese sword, and you got it "for a song", but it's covered in rust, or the edge is duller than a spoon, and it's got all manner of blemishes on it. What to do?? You've heard the advice: "don't touch it yourself, take it to a polisher".. All well and good, but how do you pick a polisher for your sword?? There are many out there, and they all charge differing rates and claim to be qualified, but they can't all be good.. So how do you choose??
The safest choice is always to send the blade to Japan to be worked on by a top-ranked polisher. Contrary to popular belief, a Japanese polish is not outrageously expensive: a job done by a top polisher, complete with new habaki and shirasaya can be had for between $2000-3000 US. For many blades however, even this may not be practical because the sword isn't even worth that much... But just because you didn't pay much for a blade and it's covered with rust, don't assume that it isn't valuable; if the blade under all that rust happens to be a Masamune, or other "Big Name"(tm), then it certainly would be worth the cost of a Japanese polish.
So the first step is: do NOT do ANYTHING until you have had it looked at by at least three different and *qualified* individuals (ie, an experienced Japanese sword collector/scholar- many members of the JSS/US (Japanese Sword Society/US) and other reputable sword study groups are good candidates). Beware of sword dealers, museum curators, antique appraisers and other like individuals who are generally *NOT* considered to be qualified to evaluate Japanese swords (dealers have their own agenda- namely making $$ (although if you show it to a dealer and he expresses any interest in buying it, then it probably has some value), and curators and appraisers, while having a lot of general knowledge, usually don't have the specific knowledge required to properly evaluate Japanese swords, although there are some exceptions. In the last couple of years, a number of "sword preservation societies" and "sword restoration centres" have popped up and are run by persons of dubious reputation, so you have to watch out!
If you can get a unanimous opinion that the sword is not a significant piece and not very valuable (generally swords which fall into this category are gunto blades made during WWII, and some of the older mass-produced Mino pieces), then you can consider getting it polished by a non-Japanese polisher. If the piece is believed to be a potentially important and valuable piece, but you can't afford to send it to Japan, your best bet is to leave it as is, or sell/trade it to a collector who can afford the proper treatment. Regardless of whether the sword is valuable or not though, read the rest of this article before you decide on a course of action:
In Japan, there are two major sword polishing "traditions": the Hon'ami and the Fujishiro.. There's not a lot to recommend one group over the other, they're both well established old schools and have produced roughly equal numbers of top polishers, but I'm partial to the Fujishiro school myself [Author's note: just to throw a wrench in the works, in the last couple of years (since this article was written), I've started using more and more Hon'ami techniques).. There are a couple of things that you still might want to be wary of when sending a sword to Japan: firstly, only send a sword to a top polisher- check with knowledgeable people such as those in the JSS/US or NTBHK or other reputable sword preservation/study group; unlike swordsmiths, polishers in Japan do not need to be licensed, so if you go to a less-than-top ranked polisher, you'll save some money, but may not get a very good polish (although it will almost certainly be better than the attempts by an untrained amateur). Another concern is your choice of agent: because you almost never submit your sword directly to the polisher but through a broker, if the broker is dishonest, he may send the blade to an apprentice polisher or a less skilled polisher instead of the master and pocket the difference in cost.. If you're lucky, the apprentice is in the final stages of his training and does a very respectable job, if not, who knows what you'll get.. Therefore, I suggest only sending your swords through a known and respected broker- as stated above, members of the JSS/US or other sword study group may be able to suggest several reputable brokers.
Outside of Japan, there are a couple of flavors of polishers available for you to choose from: a) Japanese-trained polishers, b) polishers who have trained from some other source, and c) completely untrained polishers who have, if you're lucky, read a couple of books.. There are only two fully-trained (full Japanese apprenticeship) polishers outside of Japan: Jimmy Hayashi and Jon Bowhay (although I hear that Jon may have gone back to Japan). There are also a handful of other polishers outside of Japan who have either completed partial or other forms of training: Benson, Boyd, Bell (both Francis Boyd and Micheal Bell were trained in the Hon'ami style by Nakajima, however both are primarily swordsmiths rather than polishers) and maybe Latham and a couple of others who were students of these individuals, and while their work is generally as good or better than most of the mid-ranked polishers in Japan, their prices are as high or higher than sending your blade to Japan (ie, you won't save any money at all, and sometimes their waiting lists are on the order of *years*, while a job sent to Japan may take only 3-4 months, round-trip). All the other polishers that you'll find are either untrained or semi-trained, and out of all these people, the ones that can do a passable job can be counted on your fingers and toes, and even these persons should not be entrusted with a valuable blade (the quality of work is not even close to Japanese standard, but for the price, it may be "acceptable" on lower quality blades or modern-made non-art (ie. for martial arts use) blades); the rest of the amateur, untrained, self-proclaimed "polishers" will just destroy your blade and should be avoided at all costs.
There are some custom knife/sword makers who polish as well, and some seem to do a fair job on their own blades, so how about them?? Well, firstly, polishing a new sword is much different than an old sword: on a new sword, fresh from the forge, you've got a lot more metal to work with- errors can generally be corrected without harming a new sword too much, but on an old sword that has been polished many times already, there's much less room for manoeuvering- if a mistake is made, it may well be fatal to the sword. Secondly, nobody should be touching old blades unless they've devoted a lot of time to the study of Japanese swords. On a Japanese sword, not only is the surface finish important, the shape of the sword (sugata) is also very important: every swordmaking school in Japan made swords of a different shape, style and with different types of activities, and it is the job of the polisher to maintain the proper shape and style as well as producing a good finish- ie, just because the sword is shiny and you can see the hamon doesn't mean that it's a good polish. Indeed, it's quite possible for an unskilled polisher to produce a nice surface finish, but obscure activities like ji-nie because he didn't know that the sword should have these extra activities and didn't polish to enhance them, or worse, he's so unskilled that didn't know how to bring the activity out.. This is a comparatively a minor sin, as a skilled polisher can re-do the finish polish stage and bring these activities out without removing too much more metal, but the worst case is where an unskilled polisher puts a mediocre finish on the blade, and then goes on to ruin the blade as well, making it worthless because he mis-shaped it.. The casual owner probably won't be able to tell that the damage has occured (he can see the hamon, and there's no more rust or serious scratching, so as far has he's concerned, it's great), but an experienced collector most certainly can see the damage..
Just like a serious collector, a good polisher must be skilled in the art of kantei or sword evaluation- just by looking at the shape and other visible characteristics of a blade, a skilled polisher should be able to tell you the period, the school, and maybe even the particular smith. So the first part of any polishing job for a qualified polisher is to use these kantei skills to evaluate the sword: determine what period it is from, what school, etc, and from this decide what the sword should look like, what activities it should have. After he knows what shape the sword should be, he'll carefully plan what steps he needs to follow to restore the blade. With his strategy all planned, only then will he touch steel to stone. Unfortunately, most modern makers and untrained polishers aren't sword scholars, they know nothing about the correct shapes for old blades- they're simply polishing to make money and have little or no interest in preserving these unique works. Most untrained polishers will take a blade to stone without any thought, which can lead to all sorts of other damage: as you've learned above, older swords tend to have been polished a lot already, and a slight mistake with the coarse stones could expose the core metal or otherwise ruin the blade- one major problem with a lot of untrained polishers is that they like to use the coarse stones because they're impatient (the coarse stones remove metal much faster), and more often than not, they ruin the blade by doing this. Unless a sword is severely rusted or chipped, the coarse stones are not needed; a bit more time spent with a finer stone or just finishing polish will restore most swords to proper appearance without the risk of the coarse stones.
Sword polishing is a very specialized skill that requires a great deal of expertise, it's not just a matter of rubbing a sword on a stone. As we've seen, polishing first involves being able to evaluate the blade and then see what needs to be done and planning how to do it correctly. Then comes the actual polishing, which is a lot harder than it appears: look at your sword, you see that ridgeline down the middle of the blade? That's called the shinogi, and it is a prominent feature whose appearance separates competent polishers from the incompetent. In a good polish, this ridge line and all other lines on the sword will be free of wobbles and will be crisp and sharp. In a bad polish, this line will be rounded off (like in most replicas because they used a power buffer to polish), and there will be wobbles in it. Making a good shinogi line (or any other line on a sword for that matter; but the shinogi is the most visible) takes a *lot* of skill- prove it to yourself: as an experiment, get a piece of scrap of steel and some 120 grit sandpaper with a hard sanding block, draw a curved line with a marker on the steel, and try to grind an even bevel following the curve with a nice sharp ridge and no wobbles.. While you're busy grinding away, don't forget that you also must maintain a constant angle on the bevel at the same time; if you're really up for a challenge, instead of grinding a flat, try producing consistent niku, which is a slight convex curve which makes the blade tougher. You'll find that it's a lot harder than it seems.. Keep trying- once you do manage to make a smooth curve and sharp ridge, check how far off you are from the original line that you drew.. If you've gone too far past the line, you've altered the shape of the blade and have ruined it.. Now assuming that after a lot of practice you can make a nice shinogi and put it in the right place, you've still got a long way to go: there are at least six stones that must be used in sequence, and each one, even the finest ones, can alter the shape of the blade if you're not extremely careful. After all the bulk stones have been used on the blade, the next step is the shiage-togi, or the finishing polish: once you've shaped the blade you must to be able to use the finger stones in such a way as to bring out the activity in the steel- this is not just the hamon or "temper line", but also the subtle grain in the steel; you need to be able to expose the crystals of nie and make the ashi and other effects visible. You can't just rub to do this- the polishing must be done in a particular way, otherwise you'll just obscure the activity in the steel, and you still have to watch the ridge line, because even the fine finger stones can round off the line if you're not careful.. Even if you learn the different techniques for bringing out the various activities in the steel, you still need to know that a particular sword has them before you can bring them out; this brings us all the way back to kantei or evaluation skills: so, poor kantei means poor polish. There's a lot more to proper sword polishing than just rubbing, and that's why the best polishers get the big bucks, and why they're worth every cent!
Now, a word about the appearance of polishes: real Japanese blades are *NOT* mirror polished like the replicas you see in the mall, the only really shiny part of the blade should be the shinogi-ji, or the flat portion on the back half of the blade, which is burnished to a high shine, the edge portion should have a slightly dull, dark finish, with the hardened edge being lighter in color (the boundary between light and dark/hard and soft is the hamon, the "temper line"). Some less skilled polishers will use acid or other chemicals to enhance the contrast between the soft body and hard edge, or they will use fine abrasive pastes to impart a shine to the entire blade. This kind of treatment is fairly easy to identify as it leaves the surface of the blade dry and "dead" looking or at the other extreme, very bright and flashy (like a mirror). A good polish on the other hand should appear very active and clear, but without all the flash.
All this said, the appearance of many blades may be improved without the need for a polish at all! If the sword has just some obscuring from layers of old, dried oil or oxidation and maybe a few small spots of light rust, it probably doesn't need a polish and can be restored with other means: in such a case, you can get a Japanese sword cleaning kit from Fred Lohman or Bugei Trading, etc.. The kit contains a "puff" filled with fine abrasive powder called "uchiko" made from Japanese polishing stones (a caveat here is *NOT* to get the cheap kits commonly available at martial arts supply places in the green and white cardboard box with the red applicator- these contain crushed athlete's chalk (which is type of limestone), not uchiko, and won't do a thing for your sword. An easy test is to dust some of the powder out on a piece of paper- uchiko should be a light brown-grey, chalk on the other hand is pure white). To use the kit, simply dust the puff on your blade and using a good quality tissue or the paper included in the kits, wipe off the uchiko with a single stroke from base to tip (don't rub, but apply light pressure to the blade when wiping) and repeat. If the blade hasn't been cleaned in a long time or it has rust, it may take quite a few passes with the uchiko to get it clean, so don't expect miracles in just a few passes- daily cleaning for weeks or months may be required to see any improvement.. Don't try to accelerate the process by rubbing or try anything like metal polish or sandpaper- if you do, you'll destroy the blade for sure. After you finish cleaning, be sure to apply a small amount of oil to the blade to protect it from corrosion, particularly if you live in a place where it's fairly humid.
Lastly, here's an anecdote told by one of the members of the Nanka Token Kai (Southern California Sword Society): a person had a sword in poor condition and brought it to the group to have it looked at. The opinion of the members of the group was that the sword was by an important shin-shinto smith and an excellent piece, and if sent for a Japanese polish, the blade would most certainly qualify for Juyo, and could be worth a great deal of money ($20k or more).. However this individual figured he'd try to save some money and sent it to a US polisher who did the job for about half the cost of a Japanese polish, but the job was pretty mediocre, and now he'd be lucky to get $2000 for the blade, never mind the $20k it *could* have been worth with a proper polish.. So he saved about $2000 in the polish, but in doing so, lost a potential $18k.. Bad decision? I think so.. Don't get me wrong though, non-Japanese polishers do have their place: modern-made blades (such as those made by Bob Engnath and others) and wartime blades aren't worth the cost of a Japanese polish (you couldn't send most military blades back to Japan anyways unless you had lots of connections- the customs officers in Japan could seize it and have it destroyed), so a good non-Japanese polisher is not a bad choice for these types of blades. Modern-made shinken used for iaido and other martial arts which get scratched up a fair bit from use are also candidates for good non-Japanese polishes. This is where I and many other polishers find our niche: modern and military blades, but for old blades, especially old blades that are judged to be worth something or are significant historical pieces, there is no substitute for a Japanese polish.
Before you decide on a polish, the first step is to have the blade looked at by several qualified people. It may turn out that the blade is worth something, it may not.. The condition of the piece may be treatable with uchiko, but if it turns out that you do need a polish, and the blade has the potential to be a valuable piece, consider a Japanese polish, but if you can't afford it, just keep up regular cleanings with the uchiko- the powder is made of the same stone that is used for polishing and with enough time, this treatment will greatly improve the appearance of any blade. The WORST thing you can do is send an old blade to an untrained polisher just to save some money.. If you must have a blade with a perfect polish, a lot of other collectors would be willing to swap you a military or modern blade in perfect condition for your old one.. Please consider carefully what you're going to do- any antique blade is unique, a piece of history and once ruined by an unskilled polisher, it is irreparable, and lost to future generations forever..
P.O Box 712
Breckenridge, TX 76424
Metropolitan New York Japanese Sword Club
14 Roosevelt Street
Brentwood, NY 11717
* A sword show and shinsa (sword evaluation by experts) is scheduled to be held at the Huntington Hilton Hotel on October 10-12, 1997. Call or write for details.
Southern California Japanese Sword Club (Nanka Token Kai)
NTK Corresponding Secretary
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
* A second shinsa will be held in Los Angeles earlier in the year, write for further information
The next article is an excerpt from a set of instructions for finish polishing of swords I wrote for Bob Engnath's Blades 'n' Stuff catalog. Only the intro section is reproduced here, the polishing instructions were simplified and intended for newly made blades like Bob's, and they have intentionally been left off to protect all those innocent antique blades out there from amateur polishers. If you really want the entire set, please contact Bob at (818)956-5110 and purchase his catalog (I derive no proceeds from the sale of the catalog).
Metal polishing involves smoothing the surface of the metal with a series of progressively finer abrasives. The finer abrasives are used to remove the scratches left by previous coarser abrasives.
Japanese polishing differs from Western polishing in that Western methods typically utilize a series of polishing compounds made of fine, hard grit in a lubricating, wax-based carrier on a power buffer. The combination of the buffer action and the hard compounds tends to "smear" the surface of the metal (burnishing), closing off the grain, and resulting in a very shiny (specular) and bright finish. On the other hand, Japanese polishes are done by hand, using many types and grades of relatively soft, natural stones. The Japanese style of finish tends to remove much more metal and leaves the crystalline structure open. Japanese finishes also tend to be less shiny than a buffed finish due to this open structure. A second difference is that the grits used in Western materials like sandpaper, buffing compounds and polishing pastes are typically made of very hard materials (silicon carbide, aluminum oxide or similar) and are often specially manufactured to have many sharp corners or edges. These materials cut even hardened steel very easily, while Japanese polishing stones, being made of much softer volcanic stones, don't cut quite as easily. Additionally, the grains in these stones are more rounded and flattened and it is this soft stone with its uniquely shaped grains that allows the polisher to bring out the fine detail in a sword and produce the characteristic appearance of a Japanese polish.
Japanese polishing can be divided into three stages: shitaji (foundation polish), shiage (finish polish) and mikagi (burnishing). Shitagi involves the use of coarse stones to sharpen and shape the blade. Up to nine different stones may be used in the foundation polishing stage, but typically, only six are used. The first three stones (arato ~180 grit, binsui ~340 grit and kaisei ~600 grit) are used to sharpen and shape the blade. While using these stones, it is important to make sure the shinogi (the ridge line in the middle of the blade) is sharply defined and free from wobbles- a poor polish can be identified instantly by the presence of a rounded-off and/or wavy shinogi line. The other lines on the sword are just as important, but the shinogi is by far the most visible and the most difficult to maintain. The next series of stones ranging from ~800 grit to nearly 3000 grit do not change the shape of the blade, but are used to slowly remove the scratches left from the previous stones. Note that the stones used in traditional polishing are NOT the same as waterstones used for knife sharpening, and although some amateur polishers do use them for the foundation polish, they are not really recommended for use on swords. Contrary to popular belief, limestone is not used in the polishing of Japanese swords. This is a popular misconception, and one that even I was under until having the stones examined by a number of geologists. The coarsest stones are various volcanic stones, the binsui and kaisei even still having the telltale gas bubbles in the stone, the critical uchigumori stones are partially metamorphosed slate of an unusually fine grade (much finer than those found in North America, and also free of mica, which most NA slate contains in abundance).
In the final polishing stage, shiage, a number of small, thin slices of fine uchigumori "finger stones" called hazuya and jizuya are used to remove any scratches left from previous steps in the polish and to bring out the details in the blade such as the hamon (the pattern of the hardened edge, also commonly called a "temper line", although the line is actually created by hardening, not tempering), the hada (the woodgrain-like pattern in the surface of the blade that results from folding of the steel) and other visible activity in the steel such as ashi (small lines of soft steel in the hardened edge intended to stop cracks and chips from propagating), nioi (very fine crystals of martensite that appear like a mist on the surface of the blade), nie (larger, individually identifiable crystals that appear like bright points in the steel), and other structures such as kinsuji, sunagashi, chikei, inazuma, utsuri, etc. These last features normally require a blade made of special non-homogeneous Japanese steel called tamahagane to form, and do not appear in blades made of modern mill steel. Although these more refined features are not possible in mill steel, the major components: hamon, ashi, nioi, the occasional nie, and hada (if the steel is folded) will be present, and their appearance can be enhanced through the application of a Japanese-style finishing polish.
The next step in the polish is the application of the nugui, the coloring/burnishing agent. There are a number of different nugui compounds that can be used depending on the style of polish and the effects that the polisher wants to emphasize. The most common types are jitekko (or kujaku) which is simply crushed and powdered magnetite ore with some limestone (tsushima), and kanahada, which is powdered black/brown iron oxide. Both of these types are used to burnish and darken the ji (the part of the blade between the hamon and the shinogi), however kanahada also darkens the hamon, which must be re-polished afterwards with the hazuya stone to "whiten" it (this style of polish is called kesho; if jitekko or kujaku is used instead, the polish is called sashikomi. Sashikomi is the original style of Japanese polish and shows more of the steel detail, but the kesho polish is currently in favor in Japan and allows the polisher some artistic freedom in interpreting the shape of the hamon when he outlines it with the stone after application of the kanahada). Other types of nugui available include akako (cinnabar) and aoko (ferric sulfide or chromium oxide). These types may be used in conjunction with either the kanahada or jitekko to enhance the appearance of the hada and further darken the steel, however they are mildly hazardous, and a skillful polisher normally has no need of these.
After the polishing is completed, the final step is mikagi. In this step, the mune (the back of the blade) and shinogi-ji (the area between the ridge line and the back) are burnished to a high shine. This is accomplished by compacting and smoothing the surface of the steel to form a bright, shiny surface. The tools used for this process are a number of hardened steel "burnishing needles" (although some of these "needles" are made of pieces of old sword and knife blades and do not look anything like needles). Before burnishing, the polisher will first lubricate the blade with a substance called ibota, which is a wax derived from an insect, then the needle is rubbed on the desired portions of the blade to produce a shiny surface. This process is actually very similar to Western buffing, however, needle burnishing purposely leaves such effects as mune-yaki (hardening on the back of the blade) visible whereas power buffing would obscure these effects.