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My adventure with the Japanese tanto, AKA raising the bar

Pieter-Paul Derks

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This summer marked the 5th year where I have spent my spare time forging blades, I think I have gained a fairly good grasp on the making of knives and simple Damascus and am quite happy with the quality of work I can make now. However, I am a firm believer in always raising the bar and once in a while I think it is a good idea to raise myself a real challenge.



This summer I found myself with 6 weeks of summer vacation, one of the perks of being a student I suppose. So, I decided to build a tanto with the traditional mountings that come apart with a single pin. I had never attempted to make a takedown before, the wooden sheath, habaki, leather wrap and basically everything else was new to me, but I figured I had plenty of time and willpower to muscle through.

To make things simultaneously harder and easier for myself I decided to do all the work with hand tools. I think finding the ´´zen´´ of working with hand tools is a great way to honour the traditions of bladesmithing and also it makes you much more connected with the blade you are crafting. As an added bonus I am a lot less likely to make a fatal mistake with files instead of a grinder.

It will probably be no great surprise for the bladesmithsforum veterans that my main inspiration for this project was the work of Dave Friesen and his phenomenal website: islandblacksmith.com. On this site every step of the process is clearly explained and beautifully photographed, so there was really no excuse not to try it myself.

I tried to shoot many pictures of the process, both for myself and to post them on my Instagram page and here on the forum.

They are just cell phone pictures and are in no way meant to be a complete tutorial or anything, more of a documentation of my efforts, If you are interested in trying this yourself I suggest you check out the website of Dave Friesen, for the making of Japanese fittings I suggest everyone check out Ford Hallam’s  ‘’ironbrush’’ forum, the absolute best place to find anything involving Japanese metalwork, with a great emphasis on the art, tradition and hard work that goes into that craft.

Before this project started, I had already forged a san mai (three layer) billet of 1095 steel with beautiful wrought iron sides, this billet was initially a test to see how the iron forgewelded, but it proved to be about the right size for this tanto.

I started with the forging of the blade, at this point I did not have a complete plan of what I wanted to make, I knew that I wanted a thick blade with a shinogi zukuri cross section but that was about it.

Unfortunately, there was a big delamination in the wrought iron, so the tang was a bit shorter than ideal, but I figured it would still work out.

As all the work was to be done with files, I forged the blade close to the final shape, I am quite proud how even the bevels turned out, although this is a lot easier on a 7mm thick blade than say on a thin kitchen knife.


After the forging was done, it was time to break out the files, nothing too exciting, I just clamped the blade in my sen-dai, and spend some hours. At this point the bevelled spine and the edge notches are also defined. Because two thirds of the blade is wrought iron, filing was actually really enjoyable.

After filing it was time for hardening, I break all the edges with a file before heat treat but I have never found the need to sand any higher, on normal blades I quench with a 46-grit finish with broken edges and I haven’t broken a blade in the quench yet. The tanto blade was hardened in canola oil, as the blade construction wasn’t traditional anyway and I didn’t really desire a Hamon. On my next tanto I will probably skip the wrought iron and attempt a Hamon on folded 1095 steel.



I do not have pictures of this, but after heat treat het blade was first thinned out with files, which was relatively painless due to the wrought iron, and then shaped to a rounded zero edge with synthetic waterstones. (I believe the Japanese term is niku? On western blades you would call it an Appleseed edge.)

With the blade shaped to final dimensions but not yet polished, about 180 grit I believe, I started on the habaki, as it needs to be forged around the blade.

The habaki was forged from copper with a small copper wedge silver soldered in: the machigane.

It took me a few ties to get a habaki that was usable, although as I later found out, my machigane was a little bit too thin after filing which makes the habaki a bit loose on the finished blade. I will do better next time.


The habaki was a lot more difficult than I expected, and the shape is actually really complex as I wanted it to flow naturally from the blade’s lines, it took me a few days with a file and some very careful sanding to get all the lines lined up with the spine ridges and shape of the blade.


After the habaki was fitted it was time for the ever-present sanding, this blade I sanded higher than I normally would, to about 1200 grit to show the best of the grain in the wrought iron, as the blade aged it really got a nice subtle texture which I really like.


Now that the blade and habaki were done, it was time to start on the handle, although not very traditional for this size of tanto I also wanted to make a tsuba, I did a rough design of the handle and decided I would do a ray skin wrap with no silk overwrap and would also make a copper fuchi and kashira.


The tsuba was forged from wrought iron that I had to laminate because I did not have a big enough piece. I believe this wrought iron came from fellow bladesmithsforum member Kris Lipinski, it really is quite lovely in grain and texture.

The tsuba was first forged hot and then further refined by cold forging, I used textured hammers to create a kind of stone texture that I think turned out great. However, it still pales in comparison to the textures found on antique tsuba, in the future I really want to experiment more with traditional finishes and patinas.

The tsuba was cut out with a jeweller saw, I first wanted to do some cut-out designs, but I think it would have made the design a bit too busy and decided the texture would be enough.

The hole in the tsuba is sawn oversized for the blade and copper inserts are fitted on the top and bottom to fit the blade without damaging the blade. I believe these inserts are called seki-gane.



Brass seppa or spacers were cut to fit on both sides of the tsuba, these are relatively straightforward although I did bevel the sides to create a more pleasing flow of lines.

After this it was time to make the fuchi, this is made from two pieces of copper: a long strip bent into an oval and silver soldered, and a cap piece with a hole cut-out for the tang, all the copper for this was forged from bus bar as I did not have any sheet thick enough and I sadly don’t own a rolling mill yet. Creating the shape into a nice even oval was the most difficult part although I managed to even it out with a file later, the fuchi’s shape is also tapered from front to back to give the handle a bit of an hourglass shape.


After this the kashira was shaped, the kashira is most often formed from a single piece of sheet that is punched through a special die, so naturally I had to make the die first, this is just mild steel with a matching hickory punch. The copper is oversized a bit and frequently annealed until driven through. The die is just a bit too big for tanto fittings actually, so I will make one smaller in the future, but for this blade, and with a bit of corrective filing the kashira turned out alright. As the handle was not to be wrapped with silk lace, I did not put any cord holes (himotoshi) in the kashira.




Edited by pieter-pauld
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After the metal parts it was time for the handle itself, the grip core is made from birch wood as I did not have any access to traditional magnolia(honoki) and the wood can not be seen on the grip anyway.

The handle was split into two and carved to fit the tang, with a special chisel I had to make for this purpose, known as a Saya nomi which is curved for clearance. Since I made this chisel, I have used it a lot for other things as it just is a really handy shape.

The grip is glued together again and carved to tightly fit the fuchi and kashira, at first I forgot to carve the space for the ray skin wrap so I had to carve and rasp all over again.

I used carving knives, chisels and my amazing Liogier hand cut rasp, which is probably the best gift I have ever given myself. The handle was given a slight hourglass shape and the characteristic notch was cut in one side, this notch is traditionally meant to fit a knot in the silk handle wrap, but is also often found in unwrapped handles, I find it gives a great place to rest your pinkie when gripping the handle and it just plain looks cool.

A small hole is now drilled in the tang and handle, and enlarged with a homemade tapered drill bit to eventually fit the tapered pin that holds the handle together.20180730_193611.jpg20180713_202632.jpg20180719_200013.jpg20180722_172039.jpg20180722_220459.jpg20180724_155350.jpg


The handle is then wrapped in stingray leather, the traditional material is stingray rawhide, but I could not find any at a reasonable price and the leather worked great, even though it is an absolute nightmare to cut. I eventually had to resort to sanding the edge to get straight lines. It does however give a superb grip and feel to a handle, and I want to use it a lot more in the future.


After this the blade could be test assembled with a wooden pin and everything fitted alright although there are still some very slight rattles, I will do better on the next tanto, but I decided to press on and finish the blade even if it was not totally perfect.

Now it was time to move on to the sheath. In hindsight I know now that the sheath should be made together with the handle to form a seamless pair, but I only found that out halfway through, so the sheath and handle don’t match perfectly.

The sheath was split and carved similar to the grip core, although the sheath should only grip the blade at the habaki and spine and not touch the blade anywhere else. Sadly, now that the blade is finished the sheath is just a bit too loose, I might fix it with some paper shims in the future.


After the sheath was glued together and roughly shaped It was time for the horn fittings on the end and on the mouth of the sheath, these were all cut from a piece of buffalo horn and glued on with some very small locating pins to keep them aligned and stronger against shock load.  The last part was to carve the kurigata, the horn piece that holds the cord on which the blade is secured to the traditional Japanese belt or obi. This was also carved from buffalo horn and glued in a dovetail cut in the sheath.

The tapered pin that holds it all together was also carved from the same buffalo horn.




Sadly, the finish on the sheath turned out a bit blotchy and picked up some black pigment form somewhere, that stained around the mouth of the scabbard.

Now it was time for final sharpening and assembly of the blade, it all goes together quite well although not good enough to sell, I will keep it for myself but I am certain that I will return to the Japanese blade in the future. I already have some sketches of a more traditional hira zukuri tanto with a shirasaya style mounting lying around somewhere…

And now for some more glamorous pictures of the knife taken with a real camera, my cat seems to like it.

Thanks for reading, I am open for any praise/questions/critique 





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Awesome! I love what you did with the wrought and 1095, that is very clearly a very clean forging! The grain in the iron is very satisfying in the blade.


You did really clean work with the habaki and fuchi kashira, one word of advice I would give is that the habaki nearly never have such a drastic slant to them, instead being nearly flat or evenly curved at the top lip. Also another note is that the habaki never is totally flush with the mune machi, and always sticks out a slight amount. I thought it was sloppiness at first when I saw it but every sword I have seen is like that. 


I love the size and proportions of the piece! Very clean work in general, I'm very happy to see this! 

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Thanks for the kind words everyone, I am quite proud how it turned out myself. The blade has a very deadly feeling in the hand which none of the work I´ve done before has.

1 hour ago, Emiliano Carrillo said:

Awesome! I love what you did with the wrought and 1095, that is very clearly a very clean forging! The grain in the iron is very satisfying in the blade.


You did really clean work with the habaki and fuchi kashira, one word of advice I would give is that the habaki nearly never have such a drastic slant to them, instead being nearly flat or evenly curved at the top lip. Also another note is that the habaki never is totally flush with the mune machi, and always sticks out a slight amount. I thought it was sloppiness at first when I saw it but every sword I have seen is like that. 


I love the size and proportions of the piece! Very clean work in general, I'm very happy to see this! 

 Thanks for the advice about the habaki, I have never actually seen an antique japanese blade in person, and details like the fit of the mune machi are easily overlooked in pictures.

Btw, your work is a real inspiration to me, and I enjoyed meeting you at Owen´s hammer in in May.

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Very lovely finished Tanto and very good presentation. Well done!

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I know I'm a little late to the party, but it is great to see you back in the forum Pieter and with a spectacular piece as well! You are a lot braver man than me, I can tell you that. All of that in 6 weeks? Holy smokes man, you are a much faster smith than I am too. Thanks for the process pics. (although I will never, ever, remember what all those names refer to.)

“So I'm lightin' out for the territory, ahead of the scared and the weak and the mean spirited, because Aunt Sally is fixin’ to adopt me and civilize me, and I can't stand it. I've been there before.”

The only bad experience is the one from which you learn nothing.  





J.States Bladesmith | Facebook



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Thanks for the kind words Joshua,

I'D be lying if I said I didn't need to look up some of the names while writing my post haha.

I'M trying to learn more about japanese blades, but for every term I understand two New ones seem to emerge.

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Good work there Pieter-Pauld. I kept having to turn to this to follow you too :ph34r:.

"The way we win matters" (Ender Wiggins) Orson Scott Card


Nos qui libertate donati nescimus quid constat

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