Thread: shinken?
View Single Post
Old 08-24-2012, 10:26 AM   #15
Keith Larman
Dojo: AIA, Los Angeles, CA
Location: California
Join Date: Apr 2005
Posts: 1,604
Re: shinken?

Since I've been mentioned...

I live in a couple worlds when it comes to swords, and as such, I have a few different views on the topic that all depend on a variety of factors.

For some folk, they just want a sword. For them, the next question is "Okay, great, do you want something that looks relatively authentic to stick up on a stand, or do you want it to be more "real" in the sense of living up more to the functional standards or do you want more "real" in the sense of aesthetics, etc." And we go from there. These people might buy a sword ranging anywhere from Home Shopping Network stainless piece-o-crap to a well made production sword then to a well done custom piece all the way up to getting in to classical antiques. So the price range here is basically next to nothing to damned near infinity.

But when the person says "I want a sword to train with", well, that's a whole different can of worms. I have customers ranging from the guys actually doing the teaching right down to the newbs with their still stiff gi/kimono/whatever. But even with that range of ability, the range of what *should* be used (at least IMHO) contracts greatly. Fine old antiques are out -- go learn with something that isn't irreplaceable. And then the stuff on the low end is out -- they are generally simply unsafe to use.

Now time for the disclaimer -- I do consulting work for Bugei Trading. They pay me to drive down their and do the QC runs on their Bugei Custom swords. That often means me fixing all sorts of tiny details. And sometimes (even though less frequently in the last few years) outright rejecting swords. And keep in mind how difficult that is for a company like Bugei given Hanwei had a major fire over a year ago and stopped production for most of that time. So huge backlogs and here I come rejecting a sword some customer has been waiting for... So Bugei has reverted to only taking deposits on new sword orders if they don't have something on the shelves (which has been the case since the fire). And that said, sometimes a sword will go out and the customer will say the ito isn't tight enough -- stuff loosens and shakes out over time sometimes. In that case I've often found myself rewrapping tsuka for Bugei for the customer. So anyway, that's how Bugei approaches it. And it's been tough lately with the economy and with the factory not delivery much of anything for almost a year.

So now that all that's out of the way... There's lots of stuff out there. Most I personally wouldn't use. Too many have subtle problems with fit on the tsuka that really makes me nervous as they fit the damned things by undercarving the inlet and hammering the suckers on. I've seen way too many split tsuka over the years and that's just a serious butt-pucker event if you're using the sword. Dangerous. These aren't toys and people shouldn't expect to pay toy prices if they want a safe piece.

That said "comfort level" with safety appears to be something folk can disagree on. I am aware of that and I am aware that my hurdle is a bit higher than many.

Of Bugei's swords I'm rather fond of two for those in martial arts. The dragonfly was designed by my friend Ted Tenold for Bugei. Available with bo-hi or without, I think it is a lovely sword with a unique design (promptly "borrowed" by other makers -- I heard someone say that dragonflies were ubiquitous in swords so it wasn't unique -- the first part was true, tonbo are everywhere. The second part, however, is not as I still have the hand drawing of the fittings that Ted put together when it was designed. And I've yet to see an antique with that particular design. It seems some vendors ordered a variety of Bugei's swords and lo and behold soon afterward a few of their "own" designs appeared. Well, similar fittings but without any of the subtle details or proper mounting/shaping/safety.). Anyway, this is a light and fast sword with bo-hi, and a moderate light sword without. I have one myself that was a "reject" that I fixed on my own time and use regularly for cutting practice. With bo-hi. Never even a slight bend in the blade. But then again I have some degree of experience. For those who do mostly iai kata a 29/11 dragonfly with bo-hi would be a good choice.

The other of Bugei's that I personally like a lot is the Peace Sword. Because it is my design. So I'm biased. But it has sold very well. Limited options are offered on this one because we were trying to simplify things for the factory. So the end result is that I've modified a number of them for customers. In terms of training my goal was a sword balanced for kata training combined with a good cross section for those who also perform tameshigiri.

Both those swords are over $1k. But when you consider that someone like me will charge you twice that just to polish a sword... or around twice that just to mount a sword. Or that buying fittings from even someone like Fred Lohman (reproduction fittings) will likely cost you about 500. The rayskin another 100. And we haven't even talked about the blade itself.

The point here is to put it in perspective. If you're buying an inexpensive sword there must be some really good reasons why it is inexpensive. Me, I consider swords at $1000 to be inexpensive. Less than that and I get very nervous...

That said Hanwei released a sword series called the raptors. 5160 through hardened blades (so no grain, no "temper line" (a horribly incorrect term) and very little subtlety. Kind of course in blade shape and finish. The handles are blocky and boring. The fittings are blocky. The saya is kind of blocky and "one size fits all". But... They're inexpensive and seem relatively durable. Just remember you're not buying a Lexus here... But... I've put a few people in to those simply because I wasn't horribly worried about them being "unsafe". Just not exactly stunning looking.

And FWIW I looked hard at those 5160 blades with no hamon a couple times when I was down at Bugei. Gave us a few ideas, but only time will tell.

Next step is custom swords and it is a major step. Like I said, keep in mind that a proper polish is something that is expensive. And a proper blade is expensive. And then mounting. So if you realize you might have $4.5k in the polish/mount/fittings then the blade itself is going to push things up quite a bit.

Howard Clark is probably the most popular of non-traditional smiths doing Japanese swords for martial artists outside of Japan. His L6 bainite blades are legendary. His 1086 blades are quite stunning too. L6 blades start at 3800. And that's unpolished bare blade. So going back you're looking at 8.3K there unless you cut a few corners. His 1086 blades are (I think) about 1k cheaper. So you're still up there in the over $7k range.

There are other smiths doing fantastic stuff. For instance Anthony Discristofano has been working with Japanese smiths and does some really nice traditional stuff. Michael Bell (and his son) up at Dragonfly Forge produce some really nice and some unusual stuff. Rick Barrett is a prolific smith working across a variety of styles ranging from japanese to western to even fantasy. And Goldberg above was already mentioned. They seem to do things ranging from remounted Chinese made Japanese style blades (that's a mouthful) up to fully custom swords.

So anyway, lots of options here but keep in mind that the economy has decimated the craft. I don't know many who are still doing this full time. I'm barely hanging on by the skin of my teeth and others are refusing to do anything but the higher end work because there is simply no money in it. There are lots of folk who appear now and then who hang up their sign, but often they seem to last a little while then vanish. It seems like a fun thing to do but once you start doing it, it is backbreaking work for little money all while you're constantly in competition low end with stuff made in China that appeals to people who aren't educated enough to know the difference.


Then of course there are swords for martial artists made in Japan. Those can be had for prices similar to custom swords here. Just a different world, however.

So after all that has been said... If you want a sword and can afford a sword, buy a sword you like. I'm not the type that says you simply can't buy one without a good reason or the right sensei or the right training. To me the fact you want one is good enough. Just keep in mind that I see a lot of people buy a lot of cheap swords. I had one guy come over and tell me he had almost 20 cheap swords, but still couldn't find the "right" sword. Well, for what he's spent on those 20 I'm pretty sure he could have actually bought the "right" sword. But some like to collect cheap stuff. That's okay too.

But if you're talking about something for training keep in mind that *anything* you buy right now might not be something your sensei will want you to use. Some are very easy going about length and dimensions. Others the exact opposite. Some have specific requirements for mounts (the Shinkendo guys have a lot of things they require due to the teaching of Obata). So if you buy something now and then find a sensei later be prepared to find out you might have bought the wrong sword. But if that's okay and then you'll simply buy the right sword later, fine.

With some people I'll tell them the best option is to find that sensei first. Normally you'll start with an inexpensive piece as you're going to make mistakes (and if you're doing iai, for instance, you may spend years before even moving on to a "live" blade as some groups rarely if ever do tameshigiri practice). For some the "right" sword is something they'll "know" after enough years of training. So for some I tell them to simply wait until they can tell me exactly what they want rather than asking me what they should get.

So... That's enough from me for now. I'm supposed to be taking the week off so it's back to the "honey-do" list.

Oh, one thing as a shameless plug. I have a really nice folded bare blade with habaki by Howard Clark I'm hopefully finishing today if I can sneak in to my workshop when the wife goes out. Howard used to do folded blades now and then and this one is really subtle and stunning. So for perspective -- fully polished in habaki the blade will cost $6000. Mounting will set one back another 2k at least with it being more depending on fittings. But that would be a top end piece all done up nicely and correctly. And that sort of price level is about what you'll look at for a properly done, tight, professional custom sword. Just fwiw.

  Reply With Quote