Why are Japanese swords expensive?
I am often asked why traditionally made Japanese swords are so expensive. There are several reasons.
Making a Japanese sword is a demanding discipline. The beginning of a swordsman's career is interspersed with failures. Due to the high costs of material and equipment, this is not easy to overcome. Many aspiring swordsmen give up their careers before making their first katana. The time required to master the basics of the craft and the skills to produce a solid longsword blade is at least two to three years. Even after this period, the ratio of successful and unsuccessful attempts is dramatic. After five years of intensive practice practice, the swordsman is able to produce some blades. However, there is still room for improvement in the next ten years in terms of increasing the technical and aesthetic level of the blades produced.
The cost of making a sword. Traditionally made swords are forged from special tamahagane or oroshigane steel. This is reduced in a tartar oven on charcoal. Buying tamahagane from Japan is very problematic. The price of a kilogram of steel is around 100 USD, excluding postage and taxes. About 3-4 kg of this steel is needed for one long sword. A beginner will use it even once. Of course, this amount is needed even for unsuccessful attempts. The production of traditional steel is expensive. First of all, you need to have a furnace for ore reduction. The fuel is charcoal, the price of which is currently about 1 USD per kg. To reduce 10 kg of usable steel, it is necessary to burn about 120 kg of coal and add 25 kg of special iron ore. It is magnetite in the form of iron sand. It must be chemically very clean. It took me 12 years to find a source in Europe for a sufficiently high-quality raw material. The price of the ore itself is not high, a ton costs about 200 USD. Due to the high weight of magnetite, the costs of transport within Europe are quite high and must be included in the price of the final product.
The technological process of steel production itself is not seemingly complicated. However, mastering it to the level of producing quality usable steel requires considerable experience. The steel melting itself then takes about 12 hours, including the preparation of the furnace. (A modern reusable tartar. This furnace was custom made of refractory steel and cost around $2,000) When building a clay or brick furnace that needs to be opened after melting, the cost of smelting is even higher. Not all reduced steel is usable. It must be sorted and the lower quality steel remelted using the oroshigane method. Again charcoal, skill and time required for smelting.
The steel is subsequently processed in the form of blacksmithing. The steel package is cut in half, folded over and welded together at high temperatures. This process is repeated about 10 times. Charcoal is again used as fuel. About 100 kg of coal is needed to process steel into one long blade. Many problematic moments can occur during this process. From the burning of steel, to the occurrence of undercooking and the appearance of defects and unconnected layers in the packet. Excessive decarburization can also occur, thereby devaluing the entire piece of steel. There are many ways to completely devalue the work at this stage.
The attempt succeeds in going through all the pitfalls of steel preparation, the composition of the final package of steels of different qualities, the drawing of the bar and the forging of the blade, the most important and also the most critical step, hardening, is next. Leaving aside the sheer difficulty of mastering this step, we are left with risks. The biggest one (one of many) is the blade cracking during hardening. The blade bends significantly when it cools down and the hardened edge develops a lot of tension. As a result, the blade sometimes breaks. At the beginning of my fencing career, 80% of my production cracked like this. Excessive caution and lowering the temperature then leads to deficiencies in the hamon line. It may be interrupted, or it may not occur at all.
Undesirable deformations of the blade also occur during hardening. Side bends, too much or too little, or uneven bending. This needs to be corrected afterwards. When straightening the blade, its shortcomings may also become apparent and cracks may appear.
Blades take about a week to make. If it is successful on the first try.
Polishing the blade. If we use traditional polishing methods, the cost is high. It is a separate craft that requires several years of practice to master. The material is grinding stones. Fortunately, there are many synthetic stones to choose from these days that will do the job well. However, the final polishing is done exclusively on natural stones. Due to their scarcity on the market, their price is high. Prices range from $1,000 and up. The stones used to shape and grind the steel surface range in price from $60-$200. The basic set contains 6 types of stones. It takes about a week to polish a katana.
Japanese Sword koshirae. Again, this is a separate craft. Actually, several fields. Production of metal parts, production of wooden sword parts, painting, braiding of the handle. For the sake of interest, I will only mention the prices of some materials for the handle. Price of stingray skin for handle wrapping is $70-$300 depending on size and quality. (I don't use low quality at all). Handle braid , leather braid, costs about $50. A simple, unadorned katana kit takes about 2 weeks to make. In the case of an experienced craftsman. However, high-end sets take several months to create and often involve more than one craftsman.
Then there is one important aspect. It takes several years for a beginner to become a good craftsman. Mečiř studies his field all his life. Thanks to practice, he discovers small details that gradually raise the level of his works. When you want to buy a quality blade at a high level of craftsmanship and metallurgy, you don't buy three weeks of work. It is the result of many years of hard work and picking up bits and pieces of skill.