NOTE: This is not a detailed guide on caring for and maintaining a collection of Japanese swords nor a guide for the sophisticated collector (they already know how). It is intended for the individual, who for whatever reason, happens to be in possession of a Japanese sword and who wishes to know some of the basics of how to care for it. This is not intended to be a complete guide on caring for Japanese swords. When in doubt, DO NOTHING. Consult with someone knowledgable in the care and appraisal of Japanese swords.
If you need help in determining whether a specific sword is a genuine antique Japanese sword or a reproduction, please read Is It Real? - Is It Old?.
Remember that while a sword may be a beautiful work of art, it is primarily a weapon. Handling a Japanese sword is like handling a three foot long razor blade. Be alert and be careful. Do NOT test it for sharpness by running your thumb along the edge. Blood stains cause rust which damages the sword (not to mention what it does to your thumb). The sword is sharp - just believe it.
First a few DO NOT'S:
Do not attempt to sharpen the blade. The use of sharpening stones or (heaven forbid) a grinding wheel can cause the total destruction of the sword from a collectors standpoint. It takes special training skill and tools to properly polish and sharpen the sword.
Do not use sandpaper, emory paper, steel wool or any abrasive materials on any part of the blade including the tang (nakago). These will scratch the blade and detract from its beauty.
Do not under any circumstances do ANYTHING to the tang (nakago) of the sword. This is one of the most critical areas of the sword when it comes to identification. ANY ALTERATION of the tang - any cleaning, rust removal, anything at all MUST BE AVOIDED. If the tang is altered, it can make identification nearly impossible and can reduce the value of the sword by half!!
Do not ever use a power buffing wheel on ANY part of the sword or its fittings. The heat may cause the blade to lose temper and thus destroy any value the blade may have. Also, buffers over-shine the blade. The Japanese sword blade was never intended to have a mirror polish.
Do not use silver polish or any metal cleaner which has any type of abrasive in it for the reason given above.
Do not try to see if the sword will cut things - it will. The Japanese sword was designed to cut only one thing - FLESH! Cutting hard objects like weeds, scrubs, tree branches, etc will damage the sword, usually beyond repair.
Do not use ANY type of metal polish on the parts of the sword handle, guard or scabbard. The fittings on the sword are generally not supposed to be bright and shiny. A different art ethic is at work here.
Do not handle the blade with bare hands. The oils and acids from your skin can cause the blade to rust (in some cases it may stain almost immediately). Use a clean cloth around the blade to handle it, but be careful the blade doesn't slip- it is sharp.
Do not EVER grab for a falling or dropped blade. You can, and probably will lose a finger or two - or at least get a very nasty laceration. If the blade drops just get out of the way. (This does not apply to super, high grade blades - I personally would risk a finger or two rather than have a really fine blade be damaged by hitting a hard floor,etc. But that's MY feeling and MY fingers - you may not feel the same way. :)
Do not unwrap the handle (tsuka). The stories that prayer papers are inserted in between the ito (silk cord) and same' (rayskin) are pure fiction. The small papers are simple spacers to aid in positioning the ito on the handle (tsuka). The process of tsuka-maki (handle wrapping) is quite complicated. Consult with someone trained in tsuka-maki if you need a handle re-built.
If you are fortunate enough to own a Japanese sword, care for it. It is one of the finest types of sword ever made. It is intimately tied in with Japanese culture and history. The sword deserves respect. The sword you have is probably not a "National Treasure of Japan", but you may be well amazed at its value. Contact someone honest and knowledgeable of the Japanese sword for advice and, perhaps, a "ballpark" appraisal.
There are several avenues to get advice on your sword. There are numerous web pages for sword collectors. See the sword links page. The Japanese Sword Society of the United States (JSS/US) is the major organization in the U.S.; however, there are numerous similar organizations in other countries. There is likely a Japanese sword club if you live in a populated area - ask around, you might be surprised that someone you already know is a student of the Japanese sword.
And now for a few DO's:
Do care for your sword properly. It is a piece of the history and culture of Japan. Remember the Golden Rule of sword care above.
Do enjoy your sword. The trained eye can see marvelous workings in the steel and the artistry of the mounts is remarkable.
Do learn all you can about your sword. It may be possible to actually date the blade as to when and, sometimes even, who made it.
Do treat the blade with respect, both for its history and its artistry.
Do join a Japanese sword club. There is much to learn and a lot of great people to meet.
The NBTHK has prepared an excellent guide on caring for the Japanese sword. The guide includes directions for dis-assembling and re-assembling the sword, the tools needed for proper sword care and instructions on cleaning the sword blade.
Download a sword inventory record sheet. Use "Save As" and change the .htm extension to .txt to save sheet in ASCII format. It can then be printed out and/or modified for personal use with any word processing software.
Be sure to read the articles on the Japanese Sword Society of the United States website linked on the clubs page on sword polishing and the dangers of amateur polishing.
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