January 7, 2008

Katana Cleaning- A "How I Do It" Guide

It's been quite a while since I have made a post like this- but as I was cleaning my room in prep for A) doing some model work B) sleep and C) departure to the campus I noticed that I have not cleaned my katana for a couple of months.

Generally how often you should clean your katana depends on a major factor: how you use it. I use my katana as a display sword- but be warned it is LIVE steel and I have cut things with it (bed sheets, sorry mom!). Since my sword is on display I do not have to clean it as often as- say if I were to perform tameshigiri (mat cutting) with the blade- I would probably have to oil and polish the blade every month or two (two is a safer estimate- I'm not sure ask someone who is more knowledgeable on the subject). I typically will oil my blade two to three times a year and polish it once a year. This post should serve as a general guide on how to properly clean a katana- how I do it and a couple of warnings I can give you before doing something stupid.

When I wanted a katana I accepted the full responsibility of taking care of it. Japanese Swords need just that- a steel blade needs to be taken care of to prevent rust- because all steel and most metals rust. Samurai immediatly cleaned their blades after battle- human blood is highly corrosive to the blade. While it is unlikely that my blade will face rust anytime soon I like to play it safe and oil the blade when it needs it.

To start, I remove the katana from its scabbard and I use the storage bag as a sort of blanket underneath the blade. I clean that bag before I set my raw blade down on it. Now for me I never grab the scabbard with my bare hands- the only reason I do not do this is to protect the laquer coating that protects the scabbard- I am not going to put another coat on it myself for fear of damage so I will take awesome care of it. Once the sword is removed I inspect it then gently place it on the mat with the scabbard nearby.

The only polishing agent is old fashioned- typically in sword maintenance kits you will get a puffy powder ball. I cannot remember too much but I do remember that the powder is made from a VERY FINE rock that is found in Japan; I think it is around 2000-3000 grit but ask someone who is knowledgeable on eastern swords. You will want to lightly tap the ball (I tap it on the edge) onto the blade until you see some of the white powder on the steel.

You don't want to apply too much, but not too little either. I typically use a 5 point system- I try to imagine with my eyes 5 evenly spaced points on the blade then I apply the taps there. You should have 5 taps on the blade. After this I use rice paper (you can also use tissues- and I recommend they be tissues with no chemicals added such as Vicks or whatever) to gently smooth the polish onto the blade. Always go in one direction for beginners, and do not put too much pressure on the steel- you could cut yourself. I will go in both directions somewhat slowly so I do not slip and cut myself. I typically use anywhere from 5-10 swipes of the blade. I then flip the blade and do the same to the other side. The blade is now polished and it will look fantastic.

Oiling your blade will prevent it from rusting. Generally you want to oil the blade, if it is on display like mine, two to three times a year. If I polish I polish before I oil. I believe the oil is called Choshu oil and it typically comes with sword maintenance kits along with a pleasant aroma. The aroma is truly unique and I cannot describe it- if I could describe it I would say it smells like Japan (hehe). I use the same five point system and then apply the oil, then I wipe it with rice paper. The key here is to have a good light source- I know my blade is well oiled when I see the oil evenly on the surface- but again not too much but not too little. I do the same to the other side, I clean the back (since I draw my sword somewhat often I clean this part as well) then I give the sword 5-10 minutes of air.

You want to be very careful placing your sword back into its scabbard immediatly- improper handling or incorrect positioning will cause the oil to drip from the blade (yes it will) and it will act as a lubricant for the blade- meaning that you will not need to put pressure on the tsuka to get the sword drawn- this is bad and potentially dangerous. I always make sure that the oil is as even as possible, then I place the sword slowly into the scabbard with the cutting edge facing UP, in fact the cutting edge always faces up to prevent cutting into the scabbard and dulling the blade. I always draw the sword with a slight pressure to the backbone of the blade as to not damage the cutting edge.

Katana are kind of like those seamonkies you feed twice a year and can forget about- I care about the beauty and well being of my blade so I make sure that I properly maintain it. Since I don't want to disassemble the blade, if anything comes lose or pops off I will take it to a specialist that can fix it. I display the sword out of the bag while I am home- you will need to dust off the scabbard (in my case) every week to prevent dust buildup and to protect the laquer coating on the scabbard. In my case now I am heading back to campus in a week- so keeping the sword in the sword bag (in scabbard, of course) will keep the sword 100% protected so long as no one knocks it over (death to whoever does that....).

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