How to Sharpen a Samurai Sword

staff writer
How to Sharpen a Samurai Sword

The samurai sword, or the katana, has always been considered special in Japanese culture. Making the swords used to be the exclusive province of mountain monks until they chose to hand the task over to blacksmithing families. These craftsmen, in turn, preserved their sword-forging secrets from one generation to another and treated it like the sacred task that it was. Before undertaking his work, the blacksmith would don special garments, symbolically clean his soul with water, and pray to the gods.

The blacksmith had an equally important partner, the togishi or the Japanese sword sharpener. He was in charge of honing the edge of new blades or restoring and maintaining the sharpness of old ones. Sharpening a samurai sword is a delicate task, one that is best left to experts.

If you would like to learn how to sharpen a samurai sword, you have to be willing to approach the task with the necessary patience and delicacy. However, we caution you that it is best to only sharpen katanas that are mass-produced, not mukansa swords because they are valuable swords handcrafted after the manner of traditional katana blacksmithing. Here is how to sharpen a samurai sword:

  1. Your samurai sharpening kit will need to include the following: different Japanese water stones for whetting, a hammer, polishing oil, wooden jigs, wax ball, and sandpaper of various grits. You can purchase an assembled kit online or from a specialty shop, or simply put together one of your own. The Japanese water stones are particularly important. They have to be just the right shape and are to be used wet. Just like the sandpaper, you will need several pieces of various grits ranging from the fine to very fine.

  2. Prepare your whetting stones by soaking them for about 30 minutes in some water sprinkled with baking soda.

  3. Your whetting stones have to be convex. As they become used, the constant friction will flatten and make them concave. You can reshape them back into a convex shape by rubbing them with another stone that has a coarser grit.

  4. Position the wooden jigs so that they steady the sword and the stones, preventing them from rolling or flipping while you work.

  5. Unsheathe the samurai sword from its scabbard and hilt. Do not even attempt to undo the leather wrap; it is intricately tied in a complex manner, and it won’t be easy to put back again.

  6. The katana has a gracefully curved blade. You have to reshape it so that when viewed from the side, it is rigidly straight. One way to do it is to hold the blade on your knee and then force both ends down. You can use the wooden jigs to help you as needed.

  7. Use a succession of Japanese water stones to whet the blade. The first stage of sharpening is called shitagi togi. The purpose of this is to rub out any unwanted grooves on the surface of the blade and refine its overall shape. You will use increasingly finer grits as you go: arato stone (grit 180), binsui stone (grit 300), kaisei stone (grit 500), chu-nagura stone (grit 800), koma-nagura stone (grit 1500) and uchigumori stone (grit 4000). Secure the stone on the floor and then with steady and deliberate movements, carefully grind the sword against the stone.

  8. The next step is the fine polishing stage called shiaji togi. Cut paper-thin slices from the uchigumori stone to make hazuya stones. Also, prepare your nugui powder, which is bound to be included in your kit. This is a very fine powder composed of pulverized stones, iron ore, and other abrasives.

  9. This time, you will secure the sword with wooden jigs and move the hazuya stone up and down the blade’s edge with your thumb. Once the tempering line can be seen, switch to a piece of 6000 grit sandpaper.

  10. Mix the nugui powder with the sharpening oil in your kit to make a paste. Dab a cloth into this paste and polish the blade surface with it.

  11. Use the hazuya stone to bring out the temper line from the katana’s cutting edge.

  12. Polish everything to a mirror shine by wetting it with horn powder before buffing it with the wax ball. Use a clean white cloth to wipe all dirt and moisture off.

We again remind you to leave the sharpening of traditionally-made katanas to the experts. As you can see above, the process is a painstaking one, and a togishi will have spent years mastering how to sharpen a samurai sword. Reshaping the sword can destroy its balance and aesthetics, and one wrong move can remove the identifying marks on a mukansa—any of which will dramatically lower its value.

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