October 16, 2020
By Ryan F. Sullivan
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In our last article on Japanese swords, we covered a lot of the fundamentals, but left one area in particular unexplored. Specifically, the area under the grip. As we had mentioned, the ability to deconstruct and reassemble a Japanese sword is what distinguishes these blades compared to typical European designs. By safely taking a Japanese sword apart, insight can be gained into its origin and age; in contrast, taking apart a rapier with hand tools most likely just gets you a broken rapier.
Before proceeding, we should revisit the warnings from the last article, plus two more that are relevant to this article:
A. Keep your unprotected fingers off the blade, especially the edge; both human sweat and blood are bad for the finish. Any handling of the blade should be done at the back, well away from the edge, and with an appropriate material between skin and steel.
B. Be mindful of your surroundings, especially anyone who may be in close proximity to your work area. Interested observers can (and very likely will) try to maneuver in closer for a better look, and may not be fully aware of the danger at work.
C. If at any point in this procedure you lose control of the blade and it starts to fall, LET IT DROP. Yes, the fall may damage the blade, but if you try and catch it in midair you're probably going to cut your fingers, and now the blade is hitting the ground and covered in blood to boot. If you were a good enough ninja to safely catch a falling blade, you wouldn't be learning how to take apart a sword from a stranger on the internet.
D. The hilt and guard of a Japanese sword are traditionally made from a number of individual, loose components, and it is physically possible to reassemble them in the wrong order, the wrong orientation, or fail to reinstall them at all. Doing so can make the sword look visually unappealing, introduce undesirable play to the fittings, or physically damage the parts in extreme cases. When removing parts, be mindful of the appropriate order. A good way to keep track of the parts is to first stick the pin or pins back into the grip once it has been removed, and to stack the guard components from lowest (closest to the grip) to highest (closest to the blade) on the work surface, which allows you to stack them up in the order they are removed, and then reinstall the pile from bottom to top when the time comes.
E. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CLEAN THE TANG! The natural oxidization, rusting and pitting of the tang belong there. They are the natural indicator of the age of the blade, and among the best tools for knowing just how old a sword is. Trying to make the sword look “better” by removing them is akin to trying to give someone a makeover by ripping the teeth out of their head.
Now, a question of materials. In addition to the items from last article, you will also need something to drive the pin (also known as the mekugi) out of the grip as well as a small mallet, both for driving the pin and for applying light force to other parts as needed.
For an “official” answer, many cleaning/maintenance kits include a small multi-function brass tool with a head suitable for striking and a pointed handle for pin driving. While useful, this specific tool isn't mandatory, and more commonly available drift pin and mallet sets (particularly brass drifts and rubber/plastic headed mallets) work very well for the task at hand. A heavier rubber mallet can be handy for dealing with parts that haven't been removed for a long time.
Step one is to remove the pin or pins. One pin is traditional on swords and knives, but alternatives include multiple pins, and threaded bolts; the latter are more often seen on wartime “non-traditional” swords and may require additional tools. The pin is typically made of wood and tapered on one end to a degree that should be externally visible. Sometimes, the thin end of the pin will be concealed by the wrapping of the grip, and can be exposed by gently shifting the wrap to the side. You should not need to unwrap the grip to do this. Gentle pressure with your drift tool, with a few light mallet taps if needed, should be enough to drive the pin out. If it puts up more resistance than that, it may be due to shifting of the grip on the tang, which in turn binds up on the pin. To correct this, hold the sword oriented tip up, and gently strike the bottom of the grip with the aforementioned mallet.
Once the pin is removed, proceed with caution, because the only things holding the hilt onto the tang are friction, hope, and perhaps some light swelling of the wood core. The amount of force needed to dismount the blade could fall anywhere on a scale from “near zero” to “audibly cursing,” and you won't know which you’re getting until you’ve started. This next step is best performed at a table or workbench, starting with the sword held in your strong hand, blade oriented either parallel to the work surface or oriented with the tip slightly upward; this will reduce the risk of the blade dropping if resistance suddenly fails. Have a few pieces of lint free paper nearby, to hold the bright section of the blade when it starts to come loose. The preferred opening technique is to use your off hand to strike your strong arm immediately above the wrist. By doing so, you can transfer force to the hilt without having any tools directly striking the sword, while the blade’s own inertia tends to keep it in place while everything else goes into motion. Once you have a good amount of movement (as little as a half inch can be enough to break the initial friction), you can grab the blade (CAREFULLY, using appropriate material and keeping your fingers away from the edge) and gently pull the grip the rest of the way off.
Keeping the warnings from earlier in the article in mind, be mindful of the order the parts are coming off the tang, so they can be reinstalled properly at the end. Assuming all pins are out, and nothing is damaged, this technique is very good for dismounting the fittings, and unless the hilt wrap is physically shredded or eaten away it is the safest technique for the sword. Less so for the person doing the technique; if you didn't wear a jacket that day and the sword puts up a fight, or there are a number of swords that need to be taken down, you might have an unsightly and tender red mark on your forearm before it's all said and done.
From here, there are a number of techniques that can be applied, each one escalates the force being applied to the blade and the fittings. In turn, this increases the danger that some part of the sword could be blemished or damaged by the attempt, so one should always use caution when deciding to use greater force. Before turning up the heat, recheck your work; there could be an extra pin that was overlooked, a retention mechanism that is binding up against the tang that is causing the trouble, or some other obstruction that was overlooked. Additionally, before escalating to a new, higher level of force, ask yourself just how much you want to see what's under the wrapping. For a sword with a particularly fine set of fittings, it could very well be a case of the juice not being worth the squeeze.
If the sword doesn't respond to the first technique, the next step up is to apply force directly to the sword itself. This should be done with great care (keeping in mind that putting the mekugi back in and walking away is a perfectly valid option) and with a non-marring tool. The small brass mallet found in traditional kits is good, but for substitutes from around the house consider small rubber/plastic mallets, wooden dowels in conjunction with a standard hammer, and similar implements. My personal go-to is a small brass/plastic mallet that came with a pin punch kit. The main target for striking is going to be the guard/tsuba, which sticks out far enough from the surrounding fittings to make a good target. Reversing the procedure, the sword is held by the blade either parallel to the work surface or oriented slightly tip-down, again to reduce the chance of parts suddenly falling off when resistance fails. Using the tool, light strikes should be applied to the top of the guard, parallel to the blade, alternating between the right and left sides to reduce the chance of the parts shifting at an angle and binding or scraping against the tang. Start gently, and work your way up in terms of the amount of force being applied, keeping in mind that a small amount of movement should be all that is needed to free up the fittings. You won't need to drive the parts all the way off the tang, just a quarter or a half of an inch will get you what you want. Once a bit of wiggle room is established, you can pull off the parts by hand in the same matter as the first method.
The final method (or at least the final method we would actually suggest anyone try) is a variation on applying force to the guard, but it’s a little more extreme. Instead of orienting the blade roughly parallel to the work surface, you go tip-up, gripping the blade and resting the back of the grip on the work surface. The guard is struck in the same alternating fashion as the last technique, but instead of holding the blade stationary you pull up slightly during impact. With the blade in motion, it contributes its own momentum to the action in addition to the force being applied to the guard. This technique can be very effective with stuck blades, but should be used with caution, as should any technique that involves holding a sword by its blade and moving it around. It presents a small but unavoidable element of danger to the user and observers, should be carefully considered before use, and is best treated as a last resort.
Japanese swords are very interesting, not only are they a symbol of the power and might in Japanese culture, but they must be delicately preserved and cared for to not completely ruin them. While it is possible, and even fun, to treat these swords at home, extreme caution must be practiced so that serious injury can be avoided. Please take care and be mindful of surroundings as well as others nearby. As always, please contact Rock Island Auction Company for any questions or advice on how to properly handle, store, and restore traditional Japanese swords. With great care, these treasures can, and do, remain in pristine condition for centuries.
Rock Island Auction Company is no stranger to traditional Japanese swords, and they can be found in our next Premier Auctions from December 4th-6th. If you are interested or curious about consignment opportunities, please contact us through the company website.
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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