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Iron clad katana WIP

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1 hour ago, Brian Dougherty said:

Francis, dude, you are really starting to piss me off.  Your work is fantastic, and covers such a broad range of techniques. :P

I am truly impressed!


Thank you very much for the kind words, at this point I'm trying not to mess up what I got so far ^_^

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Back to the tsuba.


It took me a while to decide on the actual design for the reverse side. I knew I wanted 1) a mirror image of the moon, waxing instead of waning, and 2) a young bamboo to contrast with the mature bamboo on the obverse. This is to tie this katana to her sister blade, a wakizashi I made last year that featured a young and a mature bamboo on the sides of its habaki.


I worked on the mirror moon and clouds while still mulling over the young bamboo design:





My issue was that a young bamboo meant thin shoots and slender leaves, which would have been quite difficult to pull off as an inlay. I considered thin wire inlay, but the leaves were going to need to taper very thin, and I didn't think I would be able to sufficiently undercut the channels (not to mention the wire would have needed to taper as well since the background shibuichi is somewhat soft and wouldn't allow 'smooshing' the wire in).


I could think of two options: 1) 'nunome zogan', similar to damascening, in which I had zero experience, or 2) katakiri, or single chisel cuts carving.


I had a pre-existing interest in the latter, some limited practice, and a scary experience with the fuchi. So that's what I chose :P


I started with quite a bit of practice, to hopefully hone the strokes I'd need and also have some fun with on-the-fly composition. Here's a short video of one session (my self-critique here: strokes are not great but okay, composition is way too busy).



Ultimately I felt that the reverse side should also be quite a bit more muted than the obverse. When it came time to settle on a design, I chose to keep it very simple, and just aim for clean cuts and good balance.


I really did not want to ruin weeks of work, so I practiced the design about a dozen times on copper before I was in "the zone" and felt the impulse to go for it. This is 19 chisel strokes later:




And here's the whole reverse side, complete and mounted:




I know it doesn't look like much compared to the other side, but in a way, I am prouder of this side. For the other, I was able to make and fix several mistakes, but there would have been no good way to fix one here. I am growing very fond of katakiri, it almost feels like sumi-e painting.


Next, patination.

Edited by Francis Gastellu
spelling, thank you Charles dP ;)
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This is an astonishing amount of work and that katakiri engraving is really well done, that style is so difficult to pull off.


I might be a bit blasphemous, but I have always liked the fittings more than the blades on katana, and you don´t often see westerners trying to make them.

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On 5/19/2021 at 9:12 AM, Francis Gastellu said:

and slander leaves

bastards; all of them.

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8 hours ago, Francis Gastellu said:


Ah, yeah, slender! Forgive me, my native language is French :P

No worries, appealed to my sense of humour. Your English is much better than my French.

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I said patination was next but I guess I lied, I resumed work on the tsuka (handle) first. I took it to the belt grinder and thinned it down by about 1/8 inch on each side to make room for the ray skin and the ito wrap.




When working on my wakizashi last year, I had drilled the "mekugiana" early (the hole in the blade handle), right as I finished the blade, picking an arbitrary spot that I thought to be balanced/pleasing to the eye. This caused me much headache later on when laying out the plan for the handle because there are many (*many*) variables to align, and that set one in stone that didn't need to be. For this blade, I delayed that step until now.


I still spent an inordinate amount of time with Illustrator planning the position for this hole alongside the rest of the layout. Ideally, the peg is at least partially hidden by the wrap's folds on the "omote" side (the side that faces outward when being worn). The ito wrapping cord is 10mm for katanas and stretches down to around 8mm, give or take. This gives some wiggle room in the layout to "slide" the folds up and down the handle (stretch more = slide the folds up, stretch less, slide them down). There needs to be an odd number of wraps (because of how the wrapping starts and ends), and of course the available space for the wraps is determined by the size of the handle minus the heights of the fuchi and kashira (we can't end of a half wrap, obviously). To make things even more fun, the "emperor node" (the largest node from the ray skin) should be located halfway between two folds (also on the omote side), which can be made more tricky if the skin itself puts constraints (for instance, if it has defects to avoid, which mine did, or if it has secondary nodes that we're attempting to align between the next two folds).


Long story short, I settled on a layout. The emperor node is a little high (the circle on the right in this schematic) but it'll do. The ito will need to be very tight.




I laid down a print of this on the handle, carefully marked the peg hole on the tsuka core and drilled it. I then put all the fittings on the sword and used a transfer punch to mark the location of the hole in the tang. I shifted this position up ever so slightly such that driving the peg in would tighten the fit, and finally drilled the blade handle.


Here goes nothing... if I messed this up, I'm going to be mad :P




Time to cut the samegawa (stingray skin). I left a generous margin on all sides.




The stuff is incredibly stiff. 




20 minutes in the water softened it so I could wrap it around the handle, using my template to locate the emperor node. I wrapped a cord tightly around it and let it dry overnight.




Once dried, I used a small abrasive cutting wheel in a dremel tool to cut the excess. I left a little gap (though you can't see it on this photo, as this is the first of two passes).




The skin then goes back into the water, causing it to expand slightly again (closing the aforementioned gap). As it dries, it tightens again and provides strength to the core. I used diluted elmer's glue in lieu of rice glue to secure it, wrapped it tight again, and let it dry for a couple of days.


Once dry, I trimmed and sanded the excess on the ends so the fuchi and kashira would fit again.




... and then I found that my handle did not fit my tang any longer, instead, it was binding about an inch short.


I had a "fun" couple of hours working the handle in and out, over and over, with the sword locked into the vise's soft jaws, until it finally fit all the way in again. Close call, there was a point where I did not think I could fix this without making a new handle.


On to patination. I had been eager to get to this step as it would finally tell me what my fittings would look like in the end. This was very exciting :) 


The main ingredients: Rokushō, copper sulfate, daikon radish, plus a copper pot and a plastic basket.




I also used a pinch of borax and a pinch of alum, following Ford Hallam's advice (I'd link to the video, but unfortunately I don't think it is public). I also did an initial wash in Fantastik as suggested by Jim Kelso.


For powdered abrasives, I used 120 grit pumice and 800 grit aluminum oxide, using two different horse hairbrushes I made. I confess I did skip Ford's charcoal powder step.




Once clean and after a 3m daikon bath, there goes the tsuba in the niage solution (I used 2g rokushō, 2g copper sulfate), and manual agitation for about 25m.




I was not disappointed. I did get some yellowing on the silver, but it buffed out easily. This is right out of the niage bath:








And here's a sneak peek of how it's going to look once all assembled :)



(oh yeah, I added a full moon on the other side of the fuchi at some point, I forgot to take pics)


I can only conclude that Rokushō is magic in powder form.

Edited by Francis Gastellu
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15 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:

That came out even better than I was expecting.  Nice!


Thanks Alan, it was a bit of a shock to be honest, I was hoping for a dark shibuichi, but it was difficult to find good info about what I'd be able to get with this specific Ag/Cu ratio. I was expecting something lighter so I was very happy, I think it works very well with the night bamboo theme.

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Nearly there!


I'm not a big fan of menuki. From what I read they are supposed to improve the grip, but in my opinion they make handles bulkier than they should be. Perhaps this is because I have really small hands. 


I also don't want to skip them, there seems to be a consensus that they really *should* be there, so I chose to have them very thin and narrow, so they only minimally impact the grip.


I carved a couple of bamboo trunks out of copper, I figured they will add a bit of color on an otherwise black and white handle.




I still didn't have a hole in the handle wrap, a burr and a tapered reamer solved that.




It was time to finally wrap it up, pun intended.




I mentioned way back I'd engrave the habaki, but I decided against. This sword is plenty busy with the rest of the fittings already, so I filed a simple line at the 2/3 mark, just so it wouldn't be entirely plain. Similarly I toyed with the idea of adding an inlay to the kashira, but it didn't really need one, and I'm done pushing my luck.


Only one piece missing, the mekugi (peg). Since the entire sword is bamboo themed, I figured it deserved genuine susudake (japanese smoked bamboo) :P




After four months (started January 25th) and 244h of work (not counting research and practice), I am finally done :)

This thing is really hard to photograph, I would need a pretty large lightbox to do it justice, but hopefully those pictures give an idea.


I call it Katana of the Midnight Bamboo.





Like its sister blade, it features a young vs mature bamboo dichotomy, representing growth. The night theme was an opportunity to tie it to the waxing and waning moons, as opening and closing chapters of our lives.




The nightingale reminds us that in the meantime, we should sing and enjoy life.










And here it is next to its little sister, Wakizashi of the Iron Bamboo.




I admit to being exhausted from working on this, I do need a change of scenery, but I had been thinking about this blade for a long time, and I am thrilled that it is now real. Cliche alert: I've also learned an incredible amount along the way, I really mean that. Now I get to apply that to new projects (hopefully with fewer mistakes).


Thank you for following along :)

Edited by Francis Gastellu
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Wow. Simply wow. Thank you for sharing this experience Francis.

Edited by Charles dP
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"The way we win matters" (Ender Wiggins) Orson Scott Card


Nos qui libertate donati nescimus quid constat

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2 hours ago, Charles dP said:

Wow. Simply wow. Thank you for sharing this experience Francis.


Thank you Charles for following along :) 


I'm still somewhat new at this so I have to say that the positive comments you've all given me mean a lot, especially considering how incredibly talented you all are. Very kind of you, guys. 9qADonr.png

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Thank you Janel and Larry!


Addendum: someone outside this forum asked for clarification on the sunobe calculations for how much material to use to account for the tapers. I shared the spreadsheet I made and I thought I'd share it here as well for anyone else interested. This will obviously not translate to all types of blades (especially the tang/nakago aspect), but should still be applicable to most smooth-tapered blades, especially if all one's interested is in figuring out how much material to start with. It is essentially doing the same calculations as detailed in the video I previously linked to, with additional consideration for the losses in material along the way.




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I am quite impressed. Great way to make a modern interpretation of a katana. You have a lot of the non-ferrous work nailed. That is the stuff that we all struggle with. It is becoming more and more enjoyable to solder, saw, engrave, file, etc. I have to practice inlay.

Seriously, great stuff. Thanks for documenting it so well.


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