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Iron Tsuba , cleaning?


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Hello Gents,

Just purchased a kiyonobu wakizashi and the fittings a  bit of a hotch potch but nice. The iron tsuba is slightly rusty and wondering what peoples thoughts about removing the rust(looks live) do I attempt with a fine grade steel wool keeping away from the gilt highlights? The tsubas very simple but I find quite attractive , 7cm diametre, only 2mm thick, any idea on period , certainly looks older  than the rest of the sword




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Pippo:  Never, never use steel wool - no matter how fine it will destroy any and all patina. The best thing to use is either Ivory, bone or antler to rub the active rust off, it won't damage the iron surface but readily removes the softer rust. You can buy bone or ivory awls on-line but they are expensive, if you can find a ruined old piano key they can be used if they are ivory. I make my own bone picks from cow long leg bones, boil them for a few minutes and dry them, then cut into pencil size pieces. I use a bench grinder to smooth and shape. Simply boiling the iron guard in clean water can also remove a lot of accumulated dirt and softens the rust - just make sure you dry the guard carefully afterward. You might use a soft brush or even a tooth brush to remove the dust generated when you use the bone tools, just nothing harder than soft bristles.

bone tools.jpg

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wash it with a mild soap and took a medium toothbrusch. After that dry it and oil it with chiji oil. In some days took a soft cotton towel and rub it smoothly or wear it in your jacket. Oil it again. Do this again and again and the rust goes away. You need slightly a year but you get a very deep and nice brown color. It takes time. Don't hurry. When you boil it i fear the last gold is away.

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Dear Pippo,


I generally agree with what Dale is saying I have tried and still do these approaches to remove active red rust on an iron handguard. I agree with Chris S. that when you would boil this specific handguard the small gold inlays would likely be damaged or all together lost. My advice would be very careful around the gold inlays and just skip the boiling in hot water step.    

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I have had some *success with Ian B's rust stabilizer. It's a mixture of boiled (reduced) linseed oil and white spirits, but I cannot remember the exact proportions he recommended. (80/85% boiled linseed oil to 15/20% white spirit, perhaps?) You paint it on lightly and leave for a day or two. When you wipe it off, much of the red rust will just come away. Encourage with above scrapers if needed, and repeat the process as necessary. The surface will gradually go a healthy hard black colour. From then on you can buff with a cotton cloth or wear it in your pocket, etc., as per instructions in other posts above.


*Used on all problematic rusty old iron around here, kabuto, tsuba, matchlock barrels, candle holders, fittings on chests and boxes, etc. I have even been asked a couple of times at exhibitions, "Tell me, how do you get your matchlock barrels so dark?"


Just be careful not to let the tsuba end up looking 'oily'.

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David, I have to agree, I should have pointed out not to boil if there is overlay such as nunome. Inlays as opposed to overlays are not likely to be affected but don't touch the inlays/overlays with any scrapers.

Omar, good idea about the tooth picks, they would be ideal for fine sukashi holes as well.

Piers, I will give that formula a try on the next rusty iron guard I get - sounds too easy. :)

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Good luck Pippo! It's a looooooong term project. Don't try and do it all at once. Worry at it whenever you feel like it. Take plenty of breaks. It's much slower than watching paint dry.


Take before shots, and then a month later, intermediate shots, and so on! :glee:

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A while back, I tried using the flat edges of some throw-away bamboo chopsticks to get some rust off of iron, and it really didn't do much.

Save yourself the time and effort, and get yourself some bone or antler...  


I ordered some antler tips from amazon so I could give them a try. Apparently they are cheaper than getting them from the pet store.

The antler tips have little to no marrow in them so they are a harder structure overall.

I used some fine files to shape the tip into a sort of sharp wedge shape (flat on one side, ,angled on the other) to make a fine scraping edge.

I also flattened some sides on the thick end to make a broader scraping edge.

It takes a lot of time and you need to put a fair degree of muscle behind it for iron tsuba.

DO NOT USE THIS ON SOFT METAL! You'll ruin it for sure...


BEFORE (had difficulty seeing the mei clearly because of rust on the seppadai):












Now I just have to spend many hours working away at the surfaces of each of the linear fret surfaces...

It's going to take a long time, but I'm really looking forward to having this one all cleaned up :) 




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There is an interesting article on cleaning Iron guards here: http://www.japaneseswordindex.com/tsuba/tsubacln.htm

I am not sure I would agree with "NEVER clean the inside of the sukashi". One of mine had a piece of rock wedged in a cavity that obviously wasn't there as decoration and other greasy objects that blocked up other undercutting - I can't see the retention of this adding any cultural or aesthetic value.

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The transcript is here if you can't access the site. 

by Jim Gilbert


Most tsuba should just be left alone. Any tsuba that is already in good condition should absolutely be left as is. The need to leave our mark shows itself in the habits of collectors who routinely over clean, polish and in the worst cases actually strip the guards they encounter to bare metal in order to apply a new color of their own liking. Remember that the supply of genuine old tsuba can only get smaller. After surviving actual use and hundreds of years of storage, we don’t need to lose any more tsuba to "good intentions".

So, if you're looking at an iron tsuba with obvious crud and/or red rust, here is a path you can take. Please be very cautious. Go slow. Don't take shortcuts.

The simplest and safest first step is to wash your tsuba in mild soap and water. Use hand soap, not detergent or cleanser. Over years of careless handling a tsuba can pick up quite a bit of plain old dirt. After you’ve washed the piece, be sure to dry it thoroughly. Once it’s relatively clean, take a careful look at the piece in good light - sunlight if possible. You’ll probably see plenty of red rust. You may also see various surface coatings of modern to antique original wax, shoe polish, paint, old lacquer, etc. If you are not sure what you’re looking at, show the tsuba to someone familiar with old guards. My preference is to leave old lacquer in place, unless it is associated with serious corrosion.

Dealing with crud that won’t come off with soap and water can require a couple of different approaches. The most straightforward method for an iron guard is to boil it in distilled water for 20 minutes or so. This will remove most films without altering the metal or removing any lacquer that may be present. I don’t recommend adding any chemical agents to the water. The more aggressive the cleaning solution the greater the risk of permanently damaging the guard. Boiling water is good enough.

When the tsuba comes out of the water, the good news is that all of the oils and waxes that were hiding rust will be gone. The bad news is that you are likely to be looking at a very ugly, dry, rusty plate at this point. You may wish that you had just left things as they were, and frankly, if you’re not willing to go through with the very time consuming and finger-tiring next step of rust removal, you should have left well enough alone.

Rust removal is a mechanical process of dealing with two slightly different iron oxides. The idea is to rub off the active red corrosion (anhydrous ferric oxide) while leaving behind the slightly harder protective black magnetite patina. I have tried bone, antler, ivory, bamboo, etc., and all are good for certain aspects of the job. I find that ivory (old piano keys are a good source) works best. If it isn’t available, get a section of dense bone. The typical beef "soup bone" is good. Get one that has all of the grease cooked out and use a hammer and chisel (wear your safety glasses) to break the bone up into a number of variously shaped and sized chunks. You’ll find that one of the assortment of sharp and dull surfaces and angles should do the job.

Whatever the tool, you're looking for something harder than the red rust and softer than the patina. Never use steel, iron, glass, sandpaper, or anything else harder than the patina. DO NOT try chemical rust removers - they will remove the patina and damage the iron. In fact don't try chemical treatments of any type - including boiling in tea or anything of the sort. Also, don't put your tsuba in a fire despite what Robinson's "Arts of the Japanese Sword" says! Some people will use chogi oil at the start of the process to loosen the red rust. I haven’t found this method to be much help. It certainly won’t harm the iron, but it is fairly tricky to keep the oil from soaking into the rust inside any sukashi openings and darkening it to an unnatural color.

The surest method is to just take your bone, antler or ivory and gently scrape away at the red rust. Periodically wipe off the red dust to see how you're doing (a damp cloth removes the dust better than a dry one). It’s usually best to work slowly in a small area. Quickly rubbing over a large area is ineffective. Avoid the temptation to find a faster way, because if you do, you will also have found a way to take the patina off. I can't stress this enough. In your inevitable attempt to get the job done faster, you will be tempted to use brass or copper, but it's much too easy to wind up damaging the patina this way. Even if you're successful (this time), you'll have to find a way to get the ugly brass residue off. Lots of patience and tired fingers is the only way. Depending on how severe your rust is, in hours to weeks you will eventually remove the red and just leave the nice black. Go gently and slowly and check your work constantly. Too much scrubbing even with a soft tool will eventually remove the patina.

If you think you've got the rust under control, take your tsuba out in the sunlight and have another look. Most artificial lighting hides red rust somewhat, but sunlight will reveal all. You will probably find that there is still more rust there, but don’t get carried away with trying to remove every trace. Don't over do your cleaning. The idea is not to make a 500-year-old tsuba look new. Older tsuba can have quite a lot of oxide build up that is best left alone. The idea is to remove any active corrosion and restore the beauty of the surface, not to alter fundamentally alter it. An over cleaned tsuba is always worse than an under cleaned one. If you overdo it and damage the patina, you're in trouble. You won't get it back any time soon. There are people who repatinate iron tsuba, but the only one in the U.S. that does good work is no longer taking orders. Many people who claim to do restoration will destroy your guard. Unfortunately, even the best repatination cannot recreate the original aged surface.

Also, NEVER clean the inside of the sukashi. Cleaning the inner walls of the sukashi is like polishing the nakago of a sword - a bad idea. However, do remember to clean the rim as well as the web of the plate.

Once you have the rust down to the point that you're satisfied, get out a piece of cotton cloth and just rub the tsuba. As you keep this up you'll find that the color will darken and the surface will take on a soft luster. The cloth won't do much to remove red rust, so if you find that you missed some rust, go back to more boning. Just go slowly. Once the tsuba is clean, you may want to carry it in your pocket for a few weeks in addition to rubbing it with the cloth. The idea is not to polish the guard to the point that it shines. Also, avoid rubbing the guard on carpeting or synthetics that can leave a greasy finish.

I prefer to stay away from oil on a finished guard. The oily sheen is not as attractive as the natural finish and it will tend to attract dust and lint over time. It will eventually dry out, and can then actually promote a new layer of rust under the dry oil film. By the way, a coat of oil is often used as a "quick fix" to make red rust look dark. This may seem like an improvement in the short term, but really just winds up making the tsuba look like oily dirt. Also, a coating of black shoe polish is a frequently encountered "magic patina". Watch out for these dirty tricks when buying tsuba.

There's no substitute for spending a lot of time with bone and cloth to get a rusty tsuba into shape. Once you've conquered rust, store your guard in one of the wood boxes made for tsuba. Compared to the cost of all of the work you've just done, the box is cheap. After a fresh sword polish, who would leave that blade out on the shelf, or wrapped up in paper, rather than pay for a shirasaya? Be aware that most of the tsuba boxes you will come across have the center post attached by two very sharp nails coming up from the bottom of the box. Transporting tsuba in this type of box will eventually cause the center post to come loose from the weight of the tsuba moving around on it. Once that happens, the tsuba will rattle around on top of those little nails and scratch up the seppa dai. Always transport tsuba in cloth bags.

Periodically take your tsuba out and give it some light rubbing with the cloth. Try to keep your fingers off, since you risk starting more rust this way.

When I was discussing the initial cleaning, I mentioned that there are a couple of alternatives to consider. In the case of a guard already in good condition, free of rust, etc., but simply covered in wax, it is usually possible to safely remove the wax by rubbing with some isopropyl alcohol.

Additionally, you will occasionally come across a guard that has been coated in polyurethane or some other tough, modern finish. For these, there is a commercial stripper called Strypeeze that will not harm the iron or patina. It could harm you, though, so wear gloves and work with plenty of ventilation and/or a solvent respirator.

Other problems that you can encounter include fire scale, a depatinated plate, cracks and breaks or other serious damage. Unfortunately, these will require professional care. Experimenting with home treatments will generally result in further damage to the plate.

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