The second class I attended this year was a combination: kajioshi and habaki making for Japanese style blades. This one was held out on Oregon at the Bells' Tomboyama Nihonto Tanren Dojo, or Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword School for those of us not proficient in Japanese. Since I had the chance to do a week-long workshop with a Japanese swordsmith I thought it would be interesting to learn how to mount and finish it myself.
I'll talk more about the class with Fusataro in a later entry, because I was fortunate enough to have the chance to repeat the course in what would be his final time teaching in North America. Still VASTLY more convenient and affordable than going out to Japan and doing it.
Counting the combination class as its two separate entries, I've had the privilege of taking four classes over the combined time of a month. I'm going to restrict my pictures and my review to the first one to keep a semblance of a chronological order to this series.
I've made long trips in a car previously, but until this class, my longest solo drive was approximately 10 hours. So, unlike the relatively short drive to Albuquerque for the Mokume class, OR is about 21 hours drive from home. I decided to break the drive up into three days since I still had to take the class after the long trip. The drive consisted of starting in northern Arizona, passing through Nevada into northern California, and crossing into Oregon itself.
Nevada isn't a terrible place to drive through, and I intentionally didn't stay the night there or allocate any time to get into a casino. While I may not be a great poker player I do enjoy it, and time can vanish quite rapidly if I'm not careful. I do have family that spends some time at a house in Vegas, so I tried to meet up with them each time I went out to the Bells' for a class; managed to miss each other every time.
Northern California was quite beautiful and I enjoyed the scenic drive through it much more than I had thought I would. There's something refreshing about trees and lakes and limited human contact. Now, Oregon was absolutely gorgeous. I fell in love on my drive through and my time up there to a degree I would have moved out there in an instant if things had worked out differently.
After getting confused and turned around in the wrong driveway, I was able to locate the proper turn and get up to the house and shop fairly well; it's a rough uphill road and I was very glad to have brought the truck out for the class.
It was the encouragement and a "gentle nudge" from Allen Rozon that finally set me on the path to Oregon. We talked multiples times about his stay with Michael Bell and his respect for the man as both a craftsman and a person. Obviously, this lent me a positive bias towards Michael and his son Gabe; I was not disappointed in the slightest.
I met the Bell men first thing in the morning the first day of class, and they were immediately welcoming and friendly towards me. We sat on the couch while they finished the last bit of breakfast and some morning coffee, just socializing like old friends. A short time later I got to meet the family matriarch, Mike's wife Anna. It was lunch the first day before I met Gabe's wife Mia, but both of the Bell women were just as affable (if not more so) than their husbands.
Gabe and I had a little bit of an instant bond, as we were both former Forged in Fire contestants and able to jabber on about our thoughts and experiences from the show. He, like me, was the first man eliminated on his episode; but unlike me, he had a "redemption" episode and went on to take the prize there.
Part of the offering for their classes include homemade lunch, and it differed day to day. One day was curry, one was sandwiches, another pasta; but every meal was delicious. More importantly, every meal was like a family gathering with jokes, pleasant conversation, and good company. Since I was the only student in this class, this relaxed atmosphere continued on into the workshop as well but didn't interfere with accomplishing the tasks at hand.
There is a great deal of nuance and detail relevant to the water stone polishing process, but most of it had to be learned on a trial and error basis. One thing that I feel important to note is that my tanto had to be reshaped a little, having a hefty belly more akin to a skinner. At first, Mike was very gentle about suggesting that the blade should be reshaped "a little."
I told him that I was there to learn and he didn't need to spare my feelings, and then he was more comfortable in saying it needed some significant work. As suggested, we used a belt grinder and reshaped the cutting edge profile and then ground the new-found thickness down.
This was when I was introduced to the concept of the circle diagram: taken from an older book called Sword and Same that shows said diagram. It explains that the parts and angles of Japanese blades line up to the circumference of a circle (though not all of the same diameter.)
What followed was a tedious but relaxing couple of days adjusting the final outline and thickness, as polishing to bring out the hada (folding and welding lines forming a pattern) and the hamon (differential phases of steel due to clay heat treat.) Routinely Mike would check on my blade to see if I was using correct technique, merely from the pattern of scratches made by the stone. As needed he would redemonstrate or correct where I was making mistakes.
I only reached a level of a "satin finish" I would do normally on a western knife during this process. During the habaki making there were a few more scratches obtained from my incautious handling and I had to start the polish over in my free moments.
Before moving on to the habaki-making phase, I did put the file texturing into the nakago. I didn't, however, sign the blade because I don't have a "swordsmith name" in kanji to go that traditional.
The habaki is a very important component of a traditional Japanese blade; it allows the friction fit of the blade into the saya and keeps it centered to prevent the blade from scratching on drawing and sheathing. Plus, it can be very ornamental as well, though mine was made from a simple piece of copper.
Making a habaki is a fairly simple and straightforward process, but missing a step can be disastrous. Just like the lesson of using a file instead of a belt grinder to shape metal; take your time and pay attention and it will come out well.
The first step is to make a paper template including a notch for the munemachi (notch between blade and tang on the spine) and fit that to the blade. When the shape looks accurate for the size of blade you're working with, then you have your template.
With the template, you'll go to the material you're using for the habaki and start to shape it. There are numerous ways to do this depending on the tools you have, your experience, and patience. In the case of this class, I used a block of copper that was hammered into the roughly rectangular shape of the template. A jeweler's saw and files did the stock removal to bring it into final (rough) shape to begin fitting.
What's really handy for that is a wooden v block and a chisel, so you can center the habaki-to-be and start forming it to fit over the nakago (tang). From the vblock, your u shaped piece gets fitted to the nakago by cycles of gentle hammering and fitting. While it's quickly described, it takes a good deal of time to do it correctly.
Once you have something that looks more like a habaki and is folded over the nakago, there's another piece you have to fabricate called a machigane. Basically, it's a small triangular piece of your base metal that gets soldered into place and acts as a stop for the hamachi (shoulder on the blade side) so the whole thing will sit even and not wiggle.
Habaki and machigane are fitted, fluxed, and wired together. Then you solder it into place carefully and cleanly which can be a pain depending on the solder you're using. How much of a pain, you ask? Until we switched to "better" solder I had to make three separate habaki because the first two would split during the final fitting. Good practice though!
Final fitting involves a lot of the same as before; gently tapping it with a hammer to get the metal to conform to your nakago and slide all the way to the machi. Once it's fitted into place in the proper location, and snug enough not to rattle, you begin to file it down more. This will clean up all the oxidation from soldering, as well as any loose flux floating around. But it also refines the final shape of the habaki itself, taking it down from your bulky (comparatively) staring thickness.
I enjoyed the class and feel like I got an excellent foundation of skills to continue mounting and finishing of Japanese blades in my own shop. The later post about the koshirae and tsukamaki classes will cover the saya making and handle wrapping respectively, and I'll be lacquering at home with a substitute for the traditional urushi (I like not being a miserable ball of itchy suffering so I stay away from the original).
Gabe and Mike were excellent to work around and spend time with while I have to admit there might have been a pleasant bit of mothering from Mia and Anna. If anything in their curriculum interests you, and you have the time and money to do it, I would suggest doing so. Afterall, I made the trip out their twice.
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Bladesmith, fantasy author, martial artist, and outdoorsman.