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paulb

what do you look for?

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I wanted to pick up on a point made by Michael S and expanded on by Bruce in the "secret of success" thread. I am not sure if this is the right place or even of great interest to anyone other than me but I would value some ideas. One of the challenges any sword society or study group has is engagement and it is the task of those who organise various events to try and ensure they are addressing the needs and interests of their audience while at the same time trying to broaden their perspective by introducing new, related, material. There is little point in a master chef who specialises in creating the best steak dishes in the world discussing their finer points with the national vegan society. Likewise if the interest of a particular sword group is blades from WWII there may be a less enthusiastic response to a discussion on Kamakura period work. ( I mean no disrespect to either vegans or WWII sword collectors).

I would be very interested to have some answers to the following questions:

1. When looking at a sword what are the primary and most important things that you look for. Not what do the books tell you you should look for, but what is it within a blade that peaks your interest and increases your pulse?

 

2. In presentations and discussions about swords which are the most difficult features/ideas to understand? 

 

3. Given the opportunity to sit down with smiths from the past what are the questions you would most like answered?

 

Hopefully thinking about these may focus thinking a little and help one understand why they like what they do. It would also help those who try and make sure what they are presenting is relevant to their audience.

Thank you in advance  for any ideas shared

 

 

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1) quality of steel, there is a certain look of a really well refined steel, blue, soft reflection, pool of deep water

2) utsuri

3) how are the different grades of steel sorted and welded for the best results

As you see, really all about the steel. Sugata next. Then characteristics of hamon and polish. John

 

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1) Against all the advice and books...I am still naturally attracted to a well done, vivid and active hamon, with nice hataraki.
2) Categorizing hada into neat little boxes, or even clearly labeling it if it isn't masame.
3) How exactly did you come by your traits/style? Was it really a case of being taught by your master and school and just sticking with those characteristics, or were you free to adapt and change your style as much as you liked?
And were there actually small factories/groups churning out swords and using certain names as a trademark, with multiple people forging, signing etc?

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John,

An anecdote told to me many years ago about sorting steel. I can't remember where or by who but we were told:

"The Smith using his yeas of experience and great skill sorts wafers in to different hardness's"  I said "yes but how?" the answer was he put them over the edge of the anvil and hit them with a hammer. If they bent they went in to the soft pile if they broke then in to the hard. Not sure how accurate it is but it does help to debunk some of the mystique and hype that can grow around a very practical art form.

 

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1. Consistent and healthy jigane, bright hamon with lots of hataraki
2. correctly estimate the period especially for o-suriage blades
3. how many blades he created until he reached his peak form. What is most important in the production of a blade for a perfect result

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#1 The shape of the blade. It the shape is poor then the rest doesn't matter that much. I never did like the shape of Kanbun Shinto blades; a close second is the hada.

#2 It took a surprising number of years to really understand the different types of utsuri and appreciate antai. A blade by the Nagamitsu helped to turn the corner. Amazing utsuri. I can still see it in my minds eye, even though it was years ago.

#3 I would sit down with one of the early Awataguchi smiths and discuss hada and hataraki with him. The steel has to be excellent but what came next. If one was not available I would want to chat with Norishige...  

 

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#1: Hada and Hamon. I used to look at Hamon first, now Hada is the first thing I look at. Then, I’ll move on to sugata and hatakari. I don’t care about the mountings.

 

#2: categorizing swordsmiths that vary from their own school characteristics. Although this would be if I ever had had the opportunity to take part in a presentation! :)

 

#3: can you sell me one?

No more seriously I’d simply be curious to follow the whole process and marvel at this kind of chemistry that turns ferrous sand into a masterpiece.

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Paul, thank you for the interesting questions you posit and I hope they engender a thoughtful discussion. 
 

Personally, what I look at in a blade first are the hamon and then the jigane and then the boshi. Frankly, when kantei-ing, we know one should look at sugata first, but I am afraid this is valid mainly for ubu swords. As I am interested in Koto and Heian,  very often the swords are o-suriage and the sugata is radically changed. Of course, if I am being regaled by the likes of Kurokawa San of Sokendo or Saito san of Seikodo etc, then I could look at ubu old blades. Bu here the discourse is not about the academic approach and kantei but what enthralls emotionally first and foremost. For me, a beautiful hamon rich in hataraki is the most vivid artistic expression of the smiths and the feature which captivated me most. I would like to ensure that the jigane is skillfully rendered in my favourite mokume (could be komokume and koitame mix) and again that it has soul - variety, richness, vibrancy. I can appreciate both o-hada and ko-hada, as they display different aspirations of the smiths. 
 

Difficult to understand.... Frankly, have been looking a lot at / studying utsuri, so not so much this anymore.  I would say non-common schools and non-gokaden offshoots. Also the blend of traditions that all got mixed up in Shinto / Shinshinto period. There are a lot of smiths who emulated earlier periods and experimented with all styles and den.. but frankly lost some individuality in the course. 
 

Sitting down with smiths of the past: here I would delve into their recipes for utsuri , starting from KoBizen and KoYamashiro through Bizen, Rai, etc and also what made them choose the hamon they forged on the blade - how did they weigh the components tradition, own taste, imperative of war, performance? 

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2 hours ago, paulb said:

....."The Smith using his years of experience and great skill sorts wafers in two different hardnesses". I said "yes, but how?" the answer was he put them over the edge of the anvil and hit them with a hammer. If they bent they went in to the soft pile, if they broke then in to the hard. .....

Paul,

that is indeed the way it is done. TAMAHAGANE pieces are forged out into flat slabs of about 5-6 mm thickness, heated up to 800°C and quenched in water. Then the smith puts them over a hollow tool  (you cannot bend them over the anvil edge) and hits them with his hammer. The results classified the steel pieces as usable for the HA (hardenable) or for the SHINGANE.

Concerning your three magic questions:
 

1) I look for the SUGATA first, and if the blade has KOSHI ZORI or TORII ZORI,  O-GISSAKI and one or two (!) BOHI,  I am hooked

2) I have difficulties remembering the typical features of many schools that are not so familiar to me

3) I would like to ask the smith to allow me to see him working. As he did not know about metallurgy, I would have to follow the same path as his apprentices: Watch closely what he does and how.

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1) Sugata, I am bit obsessed about size & shape. That is what makes my pulse go up. Curvature for ubu Heian & Kamakura stuff, really large width for suriage Nanbokuchō blades. There has to be something about the shape and size of the sword that evokes my personal feelings. Now as the majority of my blade looking is just browsing books or online sources it is very easy to make side by side comparisons. I think I would be willing to accept weaker condition and craftsmanship if the shape is to my liking over a similar example in better condition in appreciation.

 

2) Vague expressions and explanations that would require seeing lots and lots of swords in order to get better understanding.

 

3) I think I would ask how much the smith personally could influence the shape and size of swords he made and how much the other circumstances had influence on that (period, tradition, person / army etc. order) of course most likely depending on many factors but would be interesting to ask.

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Just for the sake of being controversial:

 

1. Bright hada and nie which gradually varies in size, preferably starting well within hamon. 

2. Japanese classifications are very vertical. It is assumed that somebody's distant ancestors have greater sway compared to contemporaries. This creates complex genealogical tables, which are often more confusing than helpful. For example, you don't often read anywhere that early Kamakura works from all schools can be quite alike, with some subtle kantei point deciding which pile a blade gets thrown into. 

3. Who were the teachers of Etchu Norishige, Soshu Hiromitsu/Hasebe Kunishige, O-Sa.

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1. Looking at the sugata and estimate age. At surriage i try to imagine how it must have looked once to understand the sugata. Then i check if the nakago condition could match my estimation. Then i check the point where yokote, shinogi and koshinogi meet and i look at the shape of the kissaki and the boshi. After that i check the jigane and hamon. In the jigane im looking for a distinct style that can be interuppted if still well forged. I think the hamon should have a well designed pattern that makes it a good weapon or a mirror of the artistic personality of the smith.

In my opinion the shape shows the skill of the smith while the jigane shows his passion and the hamon his personality.

A good blade should look well designed from far and have enjoyable hataraki.

 

2.Good shape

 

3.I think most of them are happy we only know their works.

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Kirill I am not sure why you would think this to be controversial all answers are valid. It isn't what is right or wrong just what is important to you 

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1. Something extraordinary in the deki: Ko-Nie like shimmering diamonds, Utsuri like an aurora borealis, Hada as moist as the the reflection of a still pond in winter, thundering Inazuma circling in and out of clouds of icy nie, Starlike tobiyaki illuminating a moonless sky. Something in the blade must leave me awestruck, beauty beyond human comprehension. Then the story: the provenance, a koshirae, an old family mon, ancient tags, remnants of a romantic past. The combination of both is what I find most appealing. 

2. Utsuri. Just haven't seen enough of the more subtle types (e.g. Bo, Jifu, etc) and especially how utsuri interacts with condition. 

3. I would ask Masamune to call Kirill :) (but do tell us more about your ideas) 

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I'd look for equal effort for the "tosogu" members (who could become the majority in the future...)  Just to be clear, Paul, you obviously do a great job and this is not any kind of criticism (and yes, I know this is in the Nihonto section), but I often feel like almost everyone is focused on the blades and tosogu are an afterthought (or the redheaded stepchild) in many of these organizations.  

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1. Is the work presented as a "whole" - if Shinto, do the shape, jigane and hamon all present this idea - is the work of the smith consistent from end to end or does one feature look off, out of place, weak or too conspicuous?

2. Jigane - the differences, the qualities. Also polish - what makes a good polish. What are the different styles and how do they present the work in different ways.

3. I would want to know where did the Soshu smiths get their satetsu and how did the Bizen smiths create utsuri and what was the thinking behind it...

-t

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I honestly don't know why I love the blades, but what I love most is the STORY.  I love to hear and read the stories of the smiths, of the carry-ers of the blades, of the times surrounding the making and the using.  My almost compulsive focus on stamps is not about the stamps, but really about the WHY, which always leads to stories of the times, people making decisions, etc.  History.

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George,

Yes you are absolutely right I am a blade person and my understanding and I am afraid to say appreciation of tosogu is sadly lacking. But certainly the thought process is equally valid and I would love to hear similar views relating to fittings (possibly in a separate thread).

Thank all for your answers so far. As one might expect there are considerable difference but also so re-occurring themes which need to be thought about. I think one of my big problems is that I tend to look for black or white solutions when in reality much of what is said and described falls in the grey area in between. A clear example of this is in Nagayama where he describes all hada with the exception of Soshu as mokume. Soshu is the only one he describes as itame. Today virtually everything is defined in a variation of itame.

For the record my own answers are below:

1. I look at shape first, as I have quoted often before if the shape is bad it is a bad sword. If the sword passes the shape test then the focus shifts to Jigane. Quality and activity within the hada( as so beautifully described by Chris)  are the things that really get me hooked.

2. I also struggle with utsuri. The truth is we don't see enough good examples in the west. When you do it is obvious and stands out as a thing of great beauty but this is all too rare outside of Japan. Also definitions of utsuri type in books is often vague and contradictory .

3. How do you know when to stop? with the very fine and tight ko-itame hada I love you feel the smith is maybe one more fold away from totally losing all hada and creating a bland grainless piece of metal. But they don't and the result is perfection.

 

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I'm in the shape camp. For me nihonto are one of those art forms where the frame defines the quality of the picture. If the frame doesn't please me then often I don't bother looking at the contents, but when I do it's consistency of hada and hamon that I look for. Shin tetsu and O hada are a big turn off.

 

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That's an interesting topic with interesting answers.

 

1. The hada. I used to look the hamon first because that's the most visible feature of a sword and one day I purchased a gendaito (via NMB) with a vivid masame and this made me realize the swords I had bought until then were missing this critical feature. The hamon has to be there but I put more emphasis on the hada now.

 

2. Utsuri like others. I read about it, didn't understand what that meant. Then I attended my first (and only) token in France in October 2019 where a sword with utsuri was displayed. I had the sword in hand and was unable to see the utsuri until someone mentioned it. That's my only experience with utsuri: one of those where you realise that you can't understand until you see it by yourself.

 

3. Can you explain the secrets of quenching a sword ? How do you predict the final curvature ?

 

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Paul, I think this merits another thread: examples of “bad” ubu sugata please. I am not talking about misshaped swords due to unsightly suriage or due to damage inflicted in conflict. I am talking about an ubu sword with bad sugata. I am yet to see one. I think sugata followed function and fashion throughout times and even though personally I am like Jussi, deeply into the deep koshizori camp, I do not allow this to cloud my evaluation of another period’s sugata. Could it be that as you indicated above this has more to do with taste than mechanical characteristics? 

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Michael,

I agree totally about form following function and the features I admire so much in a blade are there from an original need to improve of enhance functionality. I agree that the majority of poor shape one sees is the result of poor suriage or abuse. When looking at ubu blades and assuming the sugata is the way the smith intended to meet a specific need then it becomes an aesthetic choice as to whether you like it or not. Some I just don't like, thinking about some of the later Soshu tanto or sue Bizen and Sue seki blades. they are ubu, functional but for me a bit uninspiring. As you say at some point scope for another thread with some illustrations.

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HelloPaul,

   And in responce to question 1..       Human instinct !  If it feels right and your “ gut instinct “ tells you it is right..it normally is ! I still cannot explain it but those old swords have a kind of “ magic “ about them....Maybe the lost “art “ ? Those swords were made for use when your life depended upon it and you only found out when you had to use it ! I often wondered how an Elizabethan rapier managed not to break until I owned one...thin,light and maintains a razor sharp edge even after being in a chimney for a couple of hundred years ....!! Hold a genuine Ufberht Viking sword and again be amazed by its “ feel “ and quality.....  with nihonto I  don’t really care who signed it or what district it was made but I know when I pick it up if it feels right....Only my opinion and in the world of Japanese sword collecting I am probably a “ bottom feeder “ collecting mainly shin -Gunto for pleasure as opposed to investment....

Best Regards,

                         Paul..

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Hi paul,

At some point sooner or later gut feel always has a part to play. Sometimes it just feels right and if I am honest at least half of the swords I currently hold are blades that I fell for even before knowing what they were. They just hit the spot. Of course as my very dear friend and teacher Deryck Ingham always said to me "Buying what you like is fine but study more and you will understand why you like what you do!" 

One of the reasons for the questions was that we all have our own motives as to how and what we collect. none are right or wrong just different. If what you like doesn't work for me so what? the important thing is that you appreciate it. 

Also regarding buying for investment regardless of which area you focus I think  is generally a bad idea. I often see it used as an excuse (usually to ones self) for spending money but the reality is you should buy it because you enjoy it and the fact you can recoup some of the cost in time is a bonus.

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Interesting tally so far: sugata leads (with 6 votes), followed closely by hada /jigane (either 5 or 6, depending on how we count John’s view on the steel used). So, it seems to more people the shape is the one that speaks most loudly and impresses first and foremost and what one would go for instinctively . I hope I have interpreted that correctly and counted accordingly (as opposed to ‘how do we kantei and what do we theoretically start with when appraising a sword?’, which of course is answered by sugata). 

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21 hours ago, paulb said:

Kirill I am not sure why you would think this to be controversial all answers are valid. It isn't what is right or wrong just what is important to you 

 

Obviously there is! The answer to [a] is supposed to be sugata, that's what every book says. I was puzzled by it for a long time, since unless one goes for Shinkai, in shinto 500$ and 50,000$ sword tends to have the same sugata. I feel the reason is actually many real collectors in Japan, just a very personal experience, don't collect anything save Heian and up to mid Kamakura, plus Kotetsu, plus Kiyomaro. Things which indeed have a distinctive sugata.

 

Regarding [c], I can say that I have/had good relationship with traditional seamstresses, paper makers, lacquer makers. It gets a bit more difficult with painters and netsuke carvers.

Yet I never managed to have anything as pleasant with any swordsmith or polisher or even sword dealer. With a few exceptions in the last category.

The reason is that compared to all other crafts, sword people are horribly arrogant.

Add to this that crafts, polishing is a very good example, can be not particularly tasking on the intellect. Polishing requires a more boredom-insulated, meticuluous mind, most people who do it in real life with great difficulty advanced to a junior drill sergeant level.

Contrary to what every polisher-written book states, a solid portion of those that are actually not bad in their craft, still can't kantei at the very basic level. Actually, all insane-level kantei I ever heard came from polishers.

 

So I actually have great reservations about what one could have learned about sword history if one were to sit down with say, Sukehiro. Its like there was a smith lineage in the Middle East whose great secret was that they excelled in the technique of storing barely forged billet in excrement. They had a detailed understanding regarding how to select the said substance, which temperature/place/season works the best. And what do we learn from that? Today it produced quite a few "traditional" swordsmiths claiming with such treatment they can produce a nitrogen-alloyed steel,  superior to everything ever made etc. etc. etc. The problem is nitrogen steel is a mythical beast - it has miracle properties in first principals calculations, but has a lifetime of a few seconds.

Connecting the "secret craft knowledge" to real life metallurgy is actually very difficult. Never use water from this river, never use charcoal from that area can mean a lot of things, and sometimes it just the result of someone simply getting randomly burned when trying to do just that.

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1. When looking at a sword what are the primary and most important things that you look for. Not what do the books tell you you should look for, but what is it within a blade that peaks your interest and increases your pulse?

 

The reason I said it wasn't controversial is because in the original post I made the point as quoted above that I was interested in what people felt rather than what the books told them thus it is a matter of choice and personal opinion and whether that conforms to what books tell you to do is not relevant. so the answer to 1)  isn't obviously sugata. 

I envy you the opportunity you have had to speak to so many artisans, something I haven't done but would welcome should the chance arise.

 

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1.  I really enjoy looking at the hada (especially when it has that wet, 3D appearance), but honestly I also really like looking at the 'hamon within the hamon'.  All the 'other activities' that make up a basic hamon that you really have to look for and study, and how they interact, play off each other, and move within each other, especially in suguha where they can be very minute and reserved and difficult to see at first.

 

2. The 'color' of steel that is mentioned and I just don't have a clue yet.  Blues and blacks, etc.  I have read that you need excellent examples of each type all laid out at the same time to really compare and contrast to learn, and I just have not had that opportunity.  To pick up an individual blade and say "the steel has a blueish hue' is currently beyond me.  

 

3. Well... to be boring (maybe?)... the gimei/mumei issues we all deal with and whether or not all the reasons we believe swords are gimei/mumei are accurate.  

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1. Nakago and its patina, color of patina, suriage any where including machi, shape, curvature, yaurimei, mekugi-ana, signs of funny stuff, etc... If in hand, the balance, sugata, and jigane tells me alot.

2. Utsuri! I was told by a very knowledgeable and well known expert that is his first kantei point. I am still trying to learn on utsuri, my next piece is said to have beautiful utsuri. Let's hope it helps.

3. Etchu Norishige, can you teach me?

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