A samurai’s sword is his most sacred and prized possession. Not only did the samurai rely on his sword to defend him, but spiritually the sword held greater significance as the samurai actually believed his soul inhabited the sword. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the same discipline and respect in which the samurai wielded his sword, went into the actual making of the sword itself.
Swords weren’t simply ‘cast’ in a mould and then sharpened. A Japanese katana was made by an intricate process of heating the steel, hammering it flat, then folding it, then hammering it flat again, and folding. This process of repeated hammering and folding would be done many times (legends persist of up to 1000 times, but i have it on good authority that most blades were “folded’ around 25-35 times maximum), or until the maker was satisfied it had been done properly.
There are quite a few reasons for this labour-intense procedure. Firstly, any air pockets which might develop during the heating of the steel would be eliminated. Having an air pocket in a seemingly solid blade would be a weak point, and any weak point would be seen as neglect and any dedicated artisan would produce the highest quality blades as if his own life depended upon the very blade he was forging.
Secondly, in the repeated folding and hammering, what might be described as ‘layers’ were produced. Take a book and roll it up it parallel with the spine, these internal layers would look something like this, almost like the rings of a cross section of a tree trunk. This added much strength to the blade.
Also the natural strengthening carbon elements within the steel, as well as the steels impurities would be spread throughout the whole of the sword, therefore strengthening it in its entirety. When the blade came to be cooled it wasn’t simply quenched in water, another process had to be done first. When steel is been cooled, if it cools from a high temperature right down to cold in a short amount of time, the metal becomes very hard and brittle. Conversely, if steel is cooled slowly from a lower temperature right down to cold, the steel takes on more supple, even softer properties.
Because a samurai’s sword was used primarily as a slicing weapon the blades were subjected to a lot of shock upon impact on the enemy, therefore the blade couldn’t be made of the more brittle steel throughout else it would shatter like glass. But the sword had to retain its sharp edge, so it couldn’t be made of softly forged steel throughout else it would simply blunt. So a balance was struck using a very clever procedure.
What the Japanese samurai sword makers discovered was by painting on a clay formula onto the blade before quenching, thin amounts onto the cutting edge and thicker amounts onto the back, the steel could be made to take on two completely separate properties, thereby giving the blade the hard cutting edge it required, and the more supple back. Because of the different speeds in which the two halves of the steel cooled this also formed the beginning of the curve from which the sword makers would work to create the famous curved blade.