It is important to understand how swords are made, even if you never intend to make a sword in your life. If you are a collector or a sword enthusiast who DOESN'T at least have a basic idea of how they are made and the various processes used to make them, it is all too easy to fall prey to unscrupulous sellers who claim the impossible or try to trick you out of your hard earned money by overcharging.
But more than this, if you don't understand and appreciate how swords
are made, you will have false expectations and end up disappointed and
waste both your time and your money buying swords that simply will not
suit your personal requirements..
Well by the end of this
article, you will not only understand more about what goes into making a
sword than 95% of other sword collectors, but you will also learn how
to cut through any marketing BS and make it so much easier to get a
sword that suits your needs at the price you are willing to pay for it.
So let's get started..
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As around 85% of all fully functional swords being sold today are made in China, it is especially important for collectors to know what is REALLY going on over there. Contrary to popular belief, Chinese made swords do not automatically equate to poor quality - they make swords according to customer demand at at various price points, from wall hangers to extremely high end museum quality pieces that are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
After all, the China has been a center of sword making for over 2,500 years, creating two handed fighting swords 1000 years before they appeared in the west, and taught the Japanese how swords were made using advanced techniques
such as differential hardening, folding and lamination that they used to form the techniques to make the legendary Katana -
so let there be know doubt, China know how all the secrets of how swords are made and there are very few methods that they cannot reliably reproduce.
Unfortunately, some sword sellers - especially those from mainland China operating on eBay, would like you to believe that their bargain basement swords are made by the Master Smiths themselves..
When in fact, maybe 95% of all swords under $300 are made in one place by blue collar workers - a single workshop known colloquially as "hammer town" in Longquan China.
The basic technique used here is to take billets of steel (usually 1045 carbon steel - marketing it as whatever steel is popular at the moment) and heat them until the steel becomes red hot and enters a malleable state.
Then the billets are pounded out to the shape and length desired by a power hammer..
This is not necessarily a a bad thing in itself, power hammers are used to make high end Katana in Japan. But it is something to be aware of as many eBay sellers claim their swords are hand hammered by Master Smiths, when nothing could be further from the truth..
It is interesting to see how swords are made much faster this way with the least amount of sweat. And naturally, it is how the vast majority of swords being sold online are made - despite many eBay vendors claiming that they have their own forges or make the swords themselves.
Your REAL cheapies (typically most swords under $100) aren't even made at hammertown, they are simply stamped out of steel sheet and run through several specialized machines. I have been shown how swords are made in the fastest time possible this way, literally churning them out, and some of the shortcuts used are downright scary..
For the most part, it is all an economy of scale. To truly understand how swords are made, the basic principle is that they are made to a predetermined budget. With machine made blades (which, devoid of human influence are rather 'perfect' but soulless cookie cutter things) there is a limit to what can be done - but with a forged blade, the question then becomes how far do you refine it - and when do you stop to meet the target price point?
If you understand this principle, then you will understand how swords are made across the board - you can buy pintos or Ferraris, but you can't realistically expect a Pinto to go as fast, handle as well or look as cool as a Ferrari - and the same principle is very true of swords.
The short answer is of course a resounding YES.
What separates most serious sword companies apart from the fakes who pretend to run their own forge, but just grab what comes off the line at hammertown, is that they commission their blades to be made by independent forges who are owned and run by certified master smiths, men who have taken a grueling 3-7 year apprenticeship, learned how to forge a sword in a variety of styles and techniques and passed the test to become a level one (city level) master.
Swords made at their forges are either made by skilled apprentices under the supervision of the Master Smith, or by the Master Smith themselves - typically rank one smiths, but sometimes even rank 2 smiths who prefer to spend their time at an anvil rather than in front of a computer screen.
These guys certainly know how to forge a sword by hammer and anvil. let's take one last look at the Chinese method and the various levels of sword production there with a video I shot on location in Longquan which will show you some of the techniques and methods in action.
Of course, its all well and good to know how the blades are made, but to properly understand how swords are made, you need to pay attention to the fittings too.
In Lonquan city there are forged of all sizes producing swords of all quality levels - from huge factories with hundreds of workers to mom and pop family run operations operating out of a shack.
But the size of a forge is certainly no indication of its quality - for example, Blade Culture International, otherwise known as B.C.I. is a small family run enterprise operating in the most out of the way location in Pangasinan, the Philippines using a single forge set in the wall and a small circular anvil a few feet away.
It was quite fascinating to see how swords are made in the Philippines. Their forges and workshops are tiny - not much more than a single forge, a few grinding machines and benches with various hand tools, and a whole lot of sweat and a huge amount of innovation and creativity.
Such small forges also exist in China too, but they are for the most part just puppets of the big forges. But these guys, they are true artisans. It truly is hard to believe that out of a workshop like this..
they can make swords like THIS
And a short hop across the South China Sea Citadel Swords in Cambodia have a pretty simple set up as well - using hand pumps and the same kind of round anvil - but produce swords of such quality that even the Japanese recognize their work!
There is nothing fancy about either of these forges, but the swords they make their belie their humble origins.
In terms of sheer volume, 90% of the swords you see for sale on the internet these days are made in either China, South East Asia or India. And India is quite an interesting one as they make swords not just for collectors, but some of them - such as Windlass Steelcrafts - are THE suppliers of presentation swords for the military's around the world (including the US marine core) - and have been since the late 1940s..
Much to their credit, they are quite open to show how swords are made at their facility as well - combining old fashioned techniques with state of the art equipment to produce quite affordable and nicely tempered swords.
Unfortunately for India, their export laws do not allow them to make or ship SHARPENED swords, so as a result - most are sharpened locally in the USA or elsewhere.
While it is true that in terms of volume 90% of all swords are made in South, South East and East Asia, the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe make up a that last 10% - and as you might expect, for the most part they don't compete on price but instead concentrate on quality.
At the entry level there are small local businesses such as Scorpion Swords, Zombie Tools, BKS (Baltimore Knives and Swords) and other small up and coming small enterprises making extremely tough swords using the stock removal method.
While the stock removal method is not traditional, it is faster and thus more affordable - to use the same techniques how swords are made in China that cost $300 would easily cost $1000 or more if it was made in the USA. And as the heat treat equalizes everything, there is no practical difference in terms of blade strength and blade integrity between a sword hand forged or a sword made via stock removal.
Higher end production swords made in the USA tend to be exclusively Western medieval or renaissance period blades (those few who make Japanese styled swords are all custom sword makers only). How swords are made at the higher end can vary, some bang away on hammer and anvil, others like Albion use advanced machinery such as CNCs.
VIDEO: How Swords are made at Albion
By using such equipment it is possible to produce a sword to the same exacting specifications every time, though price and waiting time can be an issue - with few swords under $1000 and an average wait time of 12 months or so.
Japan is not legally permitted to make any type of functional mass produced sword - the last such swords made this way were in 1945 at the end of world war II, and since then they have all been made by a handful of heavily regulated master smiths using Tamahagane steel from a single foundry.The only exception is for zinc aluminum iaito and mogito swords which cannot hold an edge and are only used for training purposes.
Power hammers ARE used for rough shaping, but the final shaping is all done with hammer and anvil and has a highly ritualized spiritual element to it. Because there are strict limits on how many swords can be made per month and the inherent time investment and incredible level of detail that goes into making them (Japanese tend to be perfectionists as a rule) how swords are made in Japan is not seen anywhere else in the world, and they are priced accordingly - with the lowest price for a new, modern made Nihonto or Shinken typically starting at around $4000 for a bare blade.
If you understand how swords are made, then you will have a much better idea of what is actually possible and reasonable at the different price points, and if a given sword actually represents good value or not.
At the end of the day, how swords are made and what level of refinement can be done depends entirely on how much it will sell for and how much it costs to make.
To try and give a practical example of this principle, let's take a look at Japanese swords..
Essentially, a Katana consists of 3 main parts and the actual blade. Those parts are the saya (sheathe), the tsuka (handle) and the tsuba (hand guard) - as well as few small bits and pieces like the habaki blade collar, seppa, etc (for an easy guide to Japanese sword terminology, click here)
The blade itself also has two main parts - the blade and the kissaki. All of these parts cost money to make - and how much money they cost depends on what level of refinement you want to spend on it..
One company that has done more to show the sword community how swords are made and how all this works is Ronin Katana - and in this example, we can see how much of a pecentage of the overall price the parts cost relative to each other and the blade.
At the sub $300 price point, these swords are some of the best out of the box cutters on the market, and balanced quiet perfectly between the costs of the blade and the fittings to create a nice serviceable entry level dojo cutter (after all, a sword is only as strong as its weakest link).
Now if you understand how swords are made to the maximum quality possible at that price point, then you will understand that if more money is put into any of those 4 main components (blade, handle, sheathe and hand guard) the sword gets better but costs more..
For example, lets look at the blades. The blades represent 48% of the products final price and are worth $141. For that $141, you get a billet of 1060 carbon steel hand forged into shape, it is then ground into shape, taken away and heat treated, hand polished for few hours, quality checked, coated in oil and sent off to be assembled.
The end result of all that work is a nicely made, extremely strong blade. But to have all that done and still cost $141 - you can't afford the master polisher who will work on it for a FULL DAY with Japanese water stones like you can on a $1000 Ronin Elite or a Project X sword..
If you wanted to get the same exact style of blade hand forged by a certified master smith and polished by the master polisher, at the very least you would need to TRIPLE the price of the blade ($141 x 3 = $423) and now this Katana that was formerly $295 is a $577 sword..
Of course, if you were to do this, its going to be unbalanced because now the blade is head and shoulders in quality above the fittings, and to get it back in balance again, you would have to upgrade the fittings too..
So clearly, if you do all that, it simply isn't a $300 sword anymore..
To really clearly understand this principle, let's look at one of the main parts of the sword - the tsuka handle.
Generally speaking, the percentages given above are fairly accurate - and so the tsuka handle in general makes up 16% of a swords total value. Most tsuka have rayskin (called same) in either a paneled or full wrap..
Rayskin like this usually runs at about $70 per skin - and can be used to make ONE full wrap or around 5 or 6 if paneled and none of it is wasted. Here is a video which demonstrates what I mean and shows how swords are made with either a full or paneled wrap.
VIDEO: How Swords are Made Using Rayskin - Panels or Full Wraps
Now as we saw from the example above, the tsuka costs $50 - and is paneled - it HAS to be as the cost of a skin to do a full wrap is $70!
On the other hand, Citadel of Cambodia - whose Katana are recognized as some of the best outside of Japan - use a full wrap, make the tsuka core to fit that particular blade exactly, use imported Japanese silk - and cost around $2800 for the complete package - so at 16%, to make a tsuka as good as it can possibly be will cost around $448..(and that is based n Cambodian cost of manufacturer, in the USA, Japan or Europe, this would cost even more!).
As such, this means that to make a tsuka handle as good as it can be costs the same as one and a half complete swords.
So at the end of the day, how swords are made and what price they will be sold for are inseparable - and it is critically important to understand what you are paying for any what to expect, otherwise you may have completely unrealistic expectations.
True enough, many sword collectors would prefer it if their sword had a custom fitted tsuka core made for their $300 sword, but don't want to pay the price to have it done.
But to be realistic, at the the end of the day you have two choices, buy a sword that is as good as it can possibly be for under $300 (and don't get me wrong, you can get a pretty darned solid sword for under $300) and either live with its inherent limitations, customize it yourself or buy a higher end sword..
Just as it would be a bit silly to go back to the Pinto dealer because their new Pinto isn't as fast as their friends Ferrari or does not handle quite as well, so it is equally silly to compare a perfectly made tsuka core that costs one and a half times as much as the entire sword of a sub $300 beater.,
As we said at from the outset, knowing how swords are made - and how swords are made within the limitations of the final selling price - is extremely important information that every sword collector or enthusiast needs to know to be able to make the most informed buying decision possible and avoid unrealistic expectations that may lead to disappointment.
Of course, it does not mean that one should settle for inferior products - even the cheapest functional swords need to meet a minimum standard, and while some imperfections are unavoidable and par for the course, it doesn't mean that sword sellers should be allowed to sell utter rubbish just because how swords are made to fit a given budget.
And by the same token, it doesn't mean that a more expensive sword will be stronger or cut better than a cheaper one, it is simply a case of refinement.
What it does mean however is that if you have champagne tastes on a beer budget, you either have to DIY it to improve the sword or accept the limitations inherent at the price point you are buying them at.
When you consider what goes into them and how swords are made with so many processes from start to finish, it really is quite a miracle that there is such a thing as sub $300 swords to begin with..
And for many of us, they are more than good enough..
If you are curious on how to make your OWN swords we have some good tutorials on making swords via the stock removal method here - and a ton of free step by step tutorials on how to customize both Medieval and Japanese style swords here.
YouTube has a ton of behind the scenes sword making videos showing you how swords are made, either in the backyard at home, by skilled artisans or at the various Asian sword forges we mentioned. One of the most entertaining is my 'Michael Cthulu' whose YouTube channel is here and he specializes in custom sword builds for gigantic over the top swords and fun testing at the end.
And quite a few sword manufacturers show how swords are made at their facilities and what to realistically expect if you visit their official websites (you can find the biggest and/or most important sword makers listed in the SBG sword manufacturers dossier).
I hope this article on how swords are made been helpful. To return to the SBG Homepage from How Swords are Made, click here