SBG: Paul, do you remember what it was that first sparked your interest in the Japanese Katana?
Paul Chen: Absolutely... Both my wife and I are kendokas and have also studied very briefly in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido years ago. We both hold the rank of ni-dan for kendo in the SCKF (Southern California Kendo Federation) and still practice 3 to 4 times a week.
Additionally, all of our friends that we hang out with are practitioners of either kendo or iai... As such, our conversations, day-in and day-out for several years, always revolved around sword forms, techniques, wazas, and various applications of JSA.
During our parties, instead of watching football or baseball games on TV, we would watch videos of katas or kendo tournament from around the world instead.
Before every kendo tournaments within our federation, there would always be iaido and kendo kata demonstrations using katanas.
I had always thought that this was done intentionally so that kendokas would not forget our sport is based on the use of the katana... (Much of modern kendo has evolved into a stick fighting sport where if the shinai was replaced with a real blade, the techniques employed would be ineffective.)
It appears that the powers that be, for kendo, recognizes this and want to maintain a connection between the katana and the shinai.
When I spoke to the VP of SCKF (who a fishing buddy of mine) regarding kendo and the katana... he stated that although kendo people don't often practice tameshigiri, he believed that more of them should.
As a result of this, I started looking into the Japanese Katana and started practicing katas and occasional cutting using steel blades. I would also envision that I am holding a katana instead of a shinai during sparring practices.
This does, indeed, change some of my forms in kendo. (there are subtle differences between a shinai swing and a katana cut that would not be apparent until you have tried both... (i.e.. kendo swing involves more wrist to help speed up the strike... katana swing uses less wrist).)
Not that the techniques are interchangeable between kendo and iai... but the understanding of one does help you with the understanding of the other.
My fascination for the Japanese katana grew out of this and had continued to grow as of today.
SBG: How did Cheness Cutlery come about?
Paul Chen: When I first started becoming interested in getting a cutting blade for my practice, I found that the price for a half-way decent cutting katana to be too expensive for my budget. I simply could not afford it (nor would I want to use a $600 or $1000 blade for cutting for fear of damaging it even if I could have afforded one).
I purchased what I could afford, which was a PK first and then a PPK from Hanwei (both of which I still have), but I was not satisfied with them as cutters. They had wonderful fittings and were beautiful to look at and were the only swords available in that price range at the time...
But after having compared them to the dojo cutter that I had used... the Bugei Samurai, I was left wanting.
At this time, I was working as an Operations Manager for a company and was well connected to many manufacturing plants and sourcing agents in China. I decided to leave my job and start a new company because I believed that I could create a more suitable cutter (or a greater variety of cutters) within the same price range as the PPK.
When I decided to do this, I did not have enough money to start the business that I want.... so I started by reselling low priced items that I could afford to inventory such as bokkens, shinais, and karate sais for about half a year in order to make the necessary starting capital.
By 2005, I finally had enough capital to start the business that I had wanted... and made my first batch of cutters.
To this day, all the money made from every batch of production went straight back into the business to help further develop the company, forge, and its products. (Luckily, I have a very wonderful and understanding wife who was also very much into the swords that is working full time).
The market situation today is already drastically different then when I first came up with the concept for making my cutters.
There are now plenty of swords in the $200 range... but most of which are still very low in quality and their consistency is all over the map.
My mission was modified slightly to the creation of cutters which are both affordable and consistent in quality... so as to help the buyers sort through the jewels from the junk for swords in the $200 range.
SBG: I know this is a tough one, but I ask everyone this same question... ;-) If you had to select just one of the swords on offer at Cheness Cutlery as your personal favorite, which one would it be and why?
Paul Chen: Actually, this is a very easy question for me.
In my own mind, I have two different and distinct lines of swords.... One is created for myself and the other is created to satisfy market demand.
Market demand favors aesthetically pleasing swords, sword construction with historic basis, or low priced katanas... The lines which attempts to satisfy these demands are the natural hamon and folded lines for those looking for aesthetics... Laminated blades for those looking for a traditionally constructed sword... and 1045 line for those looking for something low cost.
"he swords created to satisfy myself are the basic, reliable cutters at a low prices. These swords are the 1060 and 9260 lines..
I would select the through hardened 9260 spring steel blade with the antiqued brass Musashi Double Ring fittings (Yet to be named) as my personal favorite.
I have had the opportunity to test the 9260 blade from the moment the first prototypes arrived and had been very pleased with the results. Aside from the obvious fact that this is an extremely durable metal for a katana, the heat treatment is very well done.
The 9260 spring steel contains a silicon alloying agent which reduces metal fatigue, making the blade more resilient..
This steel is often used in applications which requires the ability to return to centre after significant bend such as fencing foils. It is very difficult to get it to set by bare hands (as is often seen in a dojo, even in higher end swords, after a bad cut).
As is with all of my blades, I have yet to use anything with more than a 0.6% carbon content. The reason for this is from my personal belief that it makes for a safer cutting instrument at a cost of edge retention. A higher carbon steel, such as 1095, will allow for a sharper and harder edge, but are also more susceptible to chipping, which can be more dangerous.
The 1095 would also require differential hardening which adds about 40 minutes of processing time per blade and significant increase in cost. The 1060 and 9260 creates a good edge for cutting tatami omote mats at a much reduced risk of chipping.
It is also a great material for through hardening, which yields a nice spine hardness without becoming overly brittle. It may not retain its edge as well as the 1095, but for a cutter in the $200 range, it is a safer and economically acceptable tradeoff. Additionally, this is also the blade with the most refined geometry to date.
I will have to admit, though, that I do find my favorite blade changing from time to time, especially as I come up with new products. Over the next few months, I will be testing a new 9260 laminated blade and a differentially hardened 9260... it is entirely possible that I may find my new favorite among those in the near future.
SBG:What is the most common question people ask when they visit Cheness Cutlery?
Paul Chen: Well, aside from the obvious "Are you the same Paul Chen as the one from Hanwei?" (Which I am not... we just share the same name is all!! ;-))...
The most common question people ask seems to be requests for customizations...
Everything from changing the tsuba, blade length, color and finish, to tsuka length, to lamination and forging method.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to accommodate the individual requests for customizations to date.
As my main goal is to provide reliable cutters at the $200 range... activities such as customization will drive up my overhead drastically, and end up being translated into an overall price increase in the products... which I am desperately trying to avoid.
I do provide custom blades under 2 circumstances.... One is for orders over 50 pieces... since the production processes for multiple piece orders can usually be standardized to reduce the per-blade production cost... and the other circumstance is if it is a custom order for a dojo. I do give preferential treatment to representatives from JSA and KSA dojos because I do have a soft spot for dojos.
Hopefully, in the near future, I can expand my business enough to provide for a more comprehensive service ability so that I can cater to those asking... but in the mean time, I have to turn down most requests unfortunately.
SBG:You are well known for constantly striving to produce a better product without a corresponding price rise. So with that in mind, what has been the biggest obstacle in your quest to produce the best quality, yet very reasonably priced Katana?
Paul Chen: My biggest obstacle actually doesn't have much to do with the product attributes directly. It is simply the enormous cash flow that has to be tied up in inventories for a small business.
Dealing with material vendors in China is a hugely challenging task in itself, but because of the high rate of default, there is very little credits and payment terms issued in the country. As a result of this, a large portion of my cash is tied up in raw materials, products in progress, and products in transit.
This may not be such a significant issue in larger businesses, but for a small company, it represents a significant percentage of the available asset that becomes locked up for a duration of 3 months at a time (2 month for production, 1 month for shipping).
I will attempt to illustrate how this presents a major hurdle in the inclusion of any upgrades.
For example, when a component is being upgraded from a $10 to a $20 part, it not only implies a $10 requirement increase in cashflow, but is actually the increase of $10 multiplied by the number of items in inventory then multiplied again by three if manufacturing a new batch each month (for the number of months required as lead time from the moment raw material is acquired).
Using the numbers above, to actually change a small $10 part to a $20 part (for example, a habaki or tsuba) actually requires an initial cash outlay of about $10,000. Imagine this formula applied to a more expensive component or feature upgrade of if multiple upgrades are being done at the same time, the financial impact can simply be staggering.
There are several product features which I would like to upgrade, but unfortunately have spread these out over time and only focus on what would provide a functional improvement for dojo applications. Improvements can and are still being made... but, realistically, have to be accomplished over time.
SBG: What's in store for the future at Cheness Cutlery?
Paul Chen: Well, one of the major challenges that I see coming in the near future is the major influx of low priced swords from China.
After the government owned sword factory shut down, many of the workers had left to open up their own micro-forges to capitalize on the demand for katanas in the US. The majority of these low priced katana fall short of being reliable due to the steel stock they are using, but are attractive to beginner collectors because of the low pricing.
The problem with this situation is that it will create an association of low priced production katanas with the idea of low quality.
My objective for the future will be to define a minimum standard for all of my swords so as to differentiate myself from the said influx.
Unfortunately, there will only be so much that can be done to a sword for $200, so I will be maintaining a focus on making only swords with a functional application within a dojo setting.
This means that I will probably not be able to satisfy those looking for a "show sword" or those looking for a traditionally constructed katana. My focus has already been turned to producing low cost and reliable dojo cutters, cutters without bo-hi, and providing non-sharpened carbon steel iaitos in a variety of lengths.
In addition to this, I will be attempting to improve on the tolerances of my blades and components in the longer run.
"The reason for this is that I want to standardize the dimensions of my blades to the point where it will accept interchangeable components..."
Buyers will be able to select a variety of stock sword parts that previously required customization in order to fit.
To make parts such as the saya and tsuka interchangeable means that buyers will be able to perform more of the repairs and maintenances on their own... along with the fact that they will be able to select the components they prefer, even after the initial purchase... say switch from a 10" to an 11" tsuka or upgrade from a cotton/panel wrapped tsuka to a silk/full wrap without having to send the sword back for re-mounting...
This is a major step in my swords though, as it does mean having to reach a very high level of consistency and tight tolerances. However, if it can be done, it will satisfy much of the customization needs of my current customers and hopefully prove to be revolutionary in terms of how an entry level katana is perceived.