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Newsletter "The Source"
Care and feeding of Swords
by Kendall Kelsoe



I have met a number of Kenjutsu (sword arts) enthusiasts that know a Great deal about wielding a sword but comparatively little about how to maintain one. I would like to offer a few observations that hopefully will be useful to Anyone interested in edged weapons. First, Ninpo training requires daily study and attention to detail. Maintaining a finely forged sword or knife is no different. If you own a live blade, you should know how to take care of it. Most modern replicas of the Japanese Katana or Daito (long sword) and Ninja To (straight sword, also known as a Chokuto) are made of stainless steel, Usually 440, 440C or 420B. Stainless steel is normally carbon steel with nickel added to it to make it more resistant to corrosion. Modern commercial sword manufacturers use stainless steel because it is air hardening. This means that the tempering method is quicker and more fool proof than the method used to temper carbon steel. A stainless steel blade that comes out of the forge is merely left out in the air to cool. Carbon steel blades require quenching, (plunging the hot steel into a liquid bath). A real Japanese Katana uses selective tempering so that it produces a blade with a very hard edge and a body that is relatively softer and more flexible. This enables the sword to better absorb shock when delivering powerful cuts. Although stainless steel is tough and holds a decent edge, carbon steel Offers better flexibility (depending on what heat - treating method is used) and edge retention. Carbon steel is also much easier to sharpen. Corrosion from perspiration, skin oils , blood , and exposure to the elements are the problems we need to know well. In the case of carbon steel, these culprits can cause severe discoloration and rust very rapidly if neglected. I own swords that literally will rust before your eyes if left unoiled. This is a very serious problem the martial arts student must know how to combat. The edge is the thinnest part of a cutting implement and the most Vulnerable to neglect. If allowed to rust, a razor-sharp weapon will become dull in a Short period of time. Genuine Katanas are famous for their polish and mirror like finish. This is not for merely cosmetic appearance. Steel has microscopic pores that collect moisture. A finely polished blade has smaller pores and sheds blood much more easily than an unpolished one. Hence, the more corrosive agents that collect in the pores, the more tarnish and rust will accumulate. A sword should be wiped down with a clean piece of cloth to remove old oil before use. Oil on the blade can interfere with it's cutting ability. After use, the blade should be wiped off again to remove skin oil and perspiration, then lightly oiled before storage. As to the selection of what kind of oil should be used, here are some things to consider. You will be handling the blade when you resheath it (noto) and a little oil will get on your hands. Most petroleum based oils are toxic and can build up after being absorbed through the skin. Common vegetable oil quickly goes rancid when exposed to the air and can severely discolor carbon steel if not properly removed on a regular basis. For centuries, the Japanese have used Kurobara (camellia oil) to care for their swords and tools. This oil is non-toxic and non-allergic. In a pinch it can readily be used for cooking and it even works well as a skin softener. A little bit of this excellent oil goes a long way and can easily remove light surface rust . Among Kurobara's other benefits is that this fine oil also conditions wood. A proper Saya (scabbard) made of wood can soak up oil over a long period of time and help preserve your steel sword every time you resheath it. If you can't find Kurobara, Choji (clove-oil) works very well and has the added advantage of being a natural anesthetic for small cuts. Lastly, extra-virgin olive oil can serve to protect your sword from rusting. A light coating will seal the metal from air and prevent oxidation. Be sure to always wipe the sword from the Habakimoto (widest part of the sword) towards the Kissaki (point) and not the other way around. Also make sure the Ha (edge) is directed away from your hand. Failure to pay attention while you're doing this can result in a nasty cut.

Most modern replicas have a cast polyester Tsuka (handle). This is another time-saving shortcut in order to keep the cost down. In my thinking, these handles are wholly unacceptable. I have broken more than one from normal usage and now make my own out of solid oak. If you train enough, you'll be sure to notice that the Nakago (tang) tends to wear away the plastic handle from the stress and strain of frequent drawing and cutting. The tell tale signs are powdered plastic dust working it's way out of the Fuchi (metal collar on the handle) that's close to the Tsuba (guard). This indicates that the Nakago is wearing lose. Left unattended, this can be an accident waiting to happen. Those of us of the western persuasion tend to be much taller than the Average warrior of feudal age Japan. The length of the Tsuka was determined in the Kamakura (warring states) period by measuring the distance of a warrior's Grip plus the length of his forearm. This long, two handed handle enabled quick, powerful and precise cuts with the Katana. If you are having a Tsuka made for you, make sure this measurement is taken from your own forearm to better understand what a real Katana should feel like. You will find your sword Kamae (posture) improves dramatically with a proportionate Tsuka. The Nakago is Fitted precisely to the Tsuka and secured in place by a Mekugi (bamboo peg). Always inspect the Mekugi before Kenjutsu training because if it is damaged or even worse, missing, the blade could fly out of the Tsuka and create a tragedy. Shihan Steve Hayes related a story from Japan about how a Kenjutsu Practitioner failed to notice his sword's Mekugi pin was missing and while performing an Iaijutsu draw, (drawing and cutting with the sword in one quick movement) the blade flew out of his Tsuka and impaled a 12 year old child, killing him. Next, we need to know about another important piece of hardware used On Japanese swords - the Habaki (metal collar). This is the collar you will see fitted around the blade above the Tsuba. When resting in the Saya the Habaki fits snugly in the Koi Guchi (mouth of the scabbard , or literally, the carp's mouth,). When pushed in, the habaki ''locked'' the Katana in the saya to prevent it from falling out at an inopportune time, such as while riding a horse or running on foot. The warrior would ''free'' the blade by firmly pushing forward on the Tsuba with his left thumb. This action would allow a fast and smooth draw. The tight fit of the Habaki also served to keep rain and dust out of the Saya. Now we look at the place of rest for a Katana, the Saya. A normal Saya Made for Katanas and Chokutos are heavily lacquered to facilitate being thrust Through the Obi (belt or sash) when worn with daily wear. This allowed fluid and unhampered movement when removing and inserting the Katana close to the body. On the outside of the saya is a device called the Kurikata, which serves to hold the Sageo (utility cord). The Sageo was used, among other things, to tie up the sleeves of a warrior's kimono. This enabled him greater freedom of movement and prevented his sleeves from becoming entangled. I earn part of my living restoring antique edged weapons and have often seen the end result of neglect, or even worse - abuse. Some of the horror stories I can share include people that ''played Zorro'' with genuine 16th century era Katanas and clacked the swords together, severely nicking the edges. One of my customers brought me a genuine Wakizashi (companion short sword) and remarked how well it cut down the trees in his back yard. I have seen swords that their owners had tried to sharpen using a mill file, or even worse -a power grinder. It has taken me a great deal of time and energy learning how to properly polish and sharpen a real Katana, so if you don't know what you're doing -DON'T DO IT !
One person I met recently asked me how effectively a Katana could cut Through concrete! I guess he got the idea from the movie ''Highlander''. All this aside, Katanas are well known for their awesome cutting power. These swords are designed for a very specific purpose - killing living beings. I would be remiss however, if I failed to add that the sword in Japan is considered an important tool for preserving life, peace and order. The art of live blade cutting is called Tameshigiri. In old Japan, Tameshigiri men were professional sword testers. They cut a variety of objects, including cadavers and sometimes living human beings. Only after cutting several things would they judge whether or not a sword was suitable for use in combat.

Today, any serious student of Kenjutsu practices Tameshigiri on a regular basis. Takegiri (bamboo cutting) is a very challenging technique for the student to evaluate his cutting skills. An other good target is a plastic milk jug filled with water and suspended with cords from a tree branch. Try swinging one to practice timing your cut on a moving target. When training with a razor sharp steel sword, we are moving into the area of Shin Ken Gata (realistic training). This means that one slip of technique can cause severe injury to the practitioner or some innocent bystander. Never try any cutting technique without first consulting a qualified instructor. Lastly, my original Sensei - Dr. Kelly Hill once told me that the best weapon is the one in your hand. This means that if you have a piece of jagged glass in your hand, you should still be able to deliver a good cut with confidence. In the Austin Kunren Sukisha Dojo, we also study European weaponry and fencing. Soke Hatsumi-sama points out that eastern and western combat methods are fundamentally the same. We have applied Taijutsu Kamae (unarmed fighting postures) to Rapier and dagger methods, and they work very well indeed. I recommend Ninpo students to explore Shinobi Kenjutsu techniques using western swords such as a Falchion or Greatsword. An edged weapon does not have to be of Japanese origin to be effective. My favorite fighting knife is a Bowie, even though I like a Tanto (knife with a guard) as well. Ninjutsu is an art that thrives on spontaneity, pragmatism, and a profound respect for the truth. No swordsman worth his or her salt would be able to wield only one specific Blade and no other. Anyone familiar with the vast number of weapons in a Ninja's arsenal can agree that there is more than one way to accomplish success in an armed encounter.

KENDALL KELSOE has studied Ninpo since 1984 and lives in Austin, Texas. He is a well known lecturer and has taught a course on the history of swords at the University of Texas. Ken has appeared on many local television shows demonstrating Ninpo fighting arts and weapons.



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