Katana Made in China:

"A Peek Behind the Bamboo Curtain"

In this Article, Chris Scoggin from Ronin Katana has a candid talk with one of the senior smiths at a Longquan based Chinese forge. An extremely eye opening and revealing behind the scenes look at what goes into making low to medium cost functional Katana in China today.

The factory hard at work polishing blades


Chris From Ronin: How are your smiths and polishers trained?

The Forge: Mainly from the old and famous swordsmith. And then develop by the help of books and the web.

Chris From Ronin: What do you mean by "old and famous sword smith"?

The Forge: Yes, they are trained. As you may know, in China, if you want to learn how to make swords, you must find a famous sword smith and beg him to be your master worker. If he think that you are proper and honest, he will agree, then you must learn it for 3 years. During this period of time, you must work hard and learn everything. If you study and work hard, the master will teach you the secret and real and useful skills, if you are not, he won't teach the secret and complexed skills, otherwise, you will effect his reputation.

So once the pupils work hard and finished learning three years, he must have learned all the skills. He knows everything, if we employ a smith, we must test him to see if he is skilled. Of course, during the work, he will improve a lot by meeting the customers' request. There is a sword association in this city, they have regular meetings to communicate each other. By this way,the tradtional skills are kept.

Forging the blade

Chris From Ronin: Are any of your smiths considered Master Smiths? Do they have apprentices? At what age can a person become an apprentice? Can a woman become a sword smith?

The Forge: Yes, there are two smiths considered master smiths, it is awarded first by the city, then by the province, now they are studying hard and applying for the national awards. It will take about 15 years when the final award is issued. They have appentices.

Chris From Ronin:At what age can a person become an apprentice? Can a woman become a sword smith?

The Forge: Once a person is over 18 years,he can be an apprentice. For the moment, no women become a sword smith, for forging need hard work..

Chris From Ronin: How do you train your sword smiths?

The Forge: There is an association for swordsmith, also cooperate with the university, they helped us a lot in the skills.

Chris From Ronin: Can you explain what the association is? When was it founded?

The Forge: It is Longquan sword association, only the famous sword smith and companies can become a member. It was founded at the beginning of 1990, when the govenment made the effort to promote this traditional skills.

Chris From Ronin: How many members does it have? How exactly do they help you? What is the name of the university?

The Forge: At present, it has about 80 members. We are finding a way to cooperate with the university and want the univercity help us in designing and overtake the problems for breakage during forging, for they know the ecense of each steel, there is a project is applying, hope it will approved soon, that is find an easy way to forge tamahagane steel. The university is Zhejiang University.

Chris From Ronin: Have you sent any of your smiths or polishers to Japan for training?

The Forge: No, they won't teach you the real skills, can do it after study the real samples. We have much experience in them, easy to learn and study.

Chris From Ronin: Are the blades you study made in Japan? Are they older, pre-war blades?

The Forge: Yes,some of the blades are made in Japan,some of them are made by Pau Chen,we have samples in our showroom.Some of the blade is older,for samurai blade,not so old,the Chinese sword blade is much older,more than 1000 years.

Chris From Ronin: Have you studied the blades of any famous sword smiths? Which Japanese sword smith has most influenced the smiths at your factory? When studying a sword, have you ever had to cut it in half to study the layers? If so, how many swords, and were they older swords?

The Forge: We do not know the Japanese sword smith name, for the handle is rusted. We cut the blade in many parts to test the steel type, hardness and flexibility by the help of the univercity, they have the instuments. We do not have the chance to cut the older sword, for they are expensive and hard to get it. As you may know, Japanese learn making swords from China in Chinese Tang Dynasty, so it is easy to find the secret of the blade.

Chris From Ronin: How long does it take to forge a sword blade?

The Forge: Depend on the material and lamination of the blade, from 1 or 2 hours to 10 days.

Polishing a blade

Chris From Ronin: Which lamination method takes the longest? Which lamination method is the most popular with your customers?

The Forge: Soshu Kitae lamination takes the longest time,and it is the most popular for the customer, but for it, Hon Sanmai and Kobuse are also popular.

Chris From Ronin: Does lamination produce a higher quality blade than a blade that has just been clayed? Is it possible to laminate and blade and then water quench it (through harden it) without claying the blade? Is that type of blade safe to use in a dojo against targets like bamboo?

The Forge: If a blade is forged with laminated blade, it will have a good hardness and flexibility. For the laminated blade, it must be clay-tempered and water quench, otherwise, the hardness is not good. That type of steel is the best for dojo and cutting test.

Chris From Ronin: Does your factory water quench (through hardened) only 1045 and 1060 steel, or do you also water quench 1095 steel?

The Forge: We harden our blade by water quench, for 1095, it still need water quench. 1095 is be idea steel for clay-temper, not so hard when forging, and can become the hardest one after clay-temper.

The Clay

Applying the clay to the blade

After quenching

Chris From Ronin: How often does a blade crack in quenching? What do you do with the cracked blade?

The Forge: It usually will be cracked, that's why the price is much higher than others. At present, since we make many pcs per year, the temperature is controlled well, not so many pcs to be cracked as before. The cracked ones are useless.

Chris From Ronin: In your opinion, which type of blade is stronger against harder targets like bamboo?

The Forge: In my opinion, for cutting practice, carbon steel 1060 will be the best steel. For martial practice and martial cutting test, the laminated blade will be the best, for they are hardest with good flexibility.

Chris From Ronin: Tamahagane blades are very expensive to make. Does your factory make the tamahagane the same way the Japanese do? How long does it take to make one tamahagane blade?

The Forge: Yes, we make the tamahagane the same way the Japanese do. It will take about 25 days to make one blade, it usually takes much more time in polishing.

Chris From Ronin: What are your quality control methods?

The Forge: Internal traditional one, are applying for ISO for we are building our new company, then it will meet the modern requirements for authentic.

Chris From Ronin: I don't really understand your answer, could you explain it a little better. What is an ISO, and what are you building? Does this involve new equipment?

The Forge: We have an inhouse quality control system. Each procedure is strictly inspected, For ISO, it is the international quality control system. When it is approved, the quality will be guaranteed. The new company is finished, we arrange for production in details, all the procedures are recorded by computer.

Wooden Saya

Saya in Storage

Chris From Ronin:Thanks for your time and insight.

The Forge:No problem.

Thanks to Chris Scoggin from Ronin Katana.com for conducting this interview and taking these photos from his recent trip to the forge.

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