• Authentic medieval Japanese Tamahagane razor, 7/8 with sakura scales

    Bruno's Samurai Sword Razors.
    Birnando, Phrank and I are very lucky to have the three that were made.
    Mine shaves great.


    This is going to be a long story. I started writing it when I started the project of turning a 16th century katana into a set of 3 straight razors. You might think that I am insane and that that this is inappropriate, but it really wasn’t.

    Let me start with the beginning. Several years ago I decided I wanted to have a genuine tamahagane razor. There are several problems with that. The most pressing one was that I am not rich. The other problem was that even if I was, it is simply impossible to buy authentic Japanese sword grade tamahagane. Actually, Dictum has some available. It is just hideously expensive. And even if I could get it, I am no smith and working tamahagane is not for the inexperienced.

    That left me with 1 other option: to buy something made from tamahagane, and turn that into a razor. This of course poses other problems. The first is that if you buy something on the internet, you have no guarantee that it is actually made from authentic tamahagane. The second problem is that people owning the real stuff might not want to sell it for this purpose. And finally anyone selling something authentic would want to make a decent profit and we’re back to my original problem.

    Because of this, I contacted So Yamashita whom I had already done business with. I explained what I wanted to do, showed him examples of my previous restoration work, and asked him for advice in buying a broken sword or knife. As I expected, this is generally difficult for the reasons I listed above, and because there are plenty of Japanese who would like a broken sword for making a machete or something like that.

    But So was gracious enough to act as an intermediary, and helped me procure an authentic broken sword from a collector that he knows well.

    According to the information I got, this is a 16th century sword which was used in actual battle. As far as swords go, it is nothing special. It is like buying a second hand car. This isn’t a Porsche or Ferrari. It has 4 wheels and the engine still runs. But nonetheless, it is made from authentic tamahagane.

    On this project I also had the help from our Mike Blue who helped me tremendously by answering my dozens of emails with questions about working steel in general, and working with tamahagane in particular. So Yamashita helped me a lot as well. First by helping me obtain the sword, and then by sending me long emails about traditional Japanese tools, as well as the traditional ways to shape and polish them

    It is safe to say that without the help of these 2 extraordinary gentlemen, I would not have been able to pull off this project. A big thanks to both of them!

    Another thing that needs saying is that I specifically asked So to mention the purpose when buying the sword, because I didn’t want to do anything that the owner would not agree with. In this case, what I wanted to do is a ‘honorable’ thing (for want of a better word). A broken sword is not a ‘real’ sword anymore. By doing this, I give the blade a real purpose again and this always a positive thing. Perhaps some people might find this notion silly, but to me it was important.

    Of course, once I actually had this piece of steel, I didn’t want to mess it up because it was too expensive and difficult to obtain. To that purpose I made my other three razors: Elegance, Brightnail and Serpent. Each one of them tought me valuable things that were critical in this monster project. This also meant that I had to shelf this project until I had the necessary skills. As a matter of fact, this took 2 years. Much too long, really, but at least now I could start this project with some confidence that I knew what I was doing. We are still 3 years ago at this point.

    As soon as I started working this steel I decided that maybe I wasn’t there just yet in terms of skill. This stuff is irreplaceable, very expensive, and my grinding skills were not there yet. I shelved this project again until I felt confident to start again, many, many razors later. By then I had gotten into the habit of not keeping anything I make. Something happened to create the perfect opportunity to finish this blade for someone else. At least I'll get to shave with it once.


    As you can see, the blade itself was dirty with gunk, resin and paper. The gunk is dirt, and the resin and paper have been used sometime to protect the blade. My first job was to properly clean the blade so that I could see it properly, and cut it without getting nasty melted resin clinging to the blade and my tools.

    I first tried nail polish remover with limited success. Then I tried di-ethyl ether, and that worked well enough that I could clean the entire blade. It did stink up my workshop though. To my surprise, the blade was still very sharp when the resin was gone. Not razor sharp (that would be contra productive on a weapon) but sharp enough to cut through flesh without much effort.

    Deciding the shape

    As you can understand, this was hard. I only had 1 sword, which was just enough for 3 razors. With each blank, I had to decide which shape was hidden within the blank. To do this, I put the blank on a bit of paper, drew the circumference, indicated the location of the pivot, the heel and the toe, and then let my inspiration guide my hand.

    I also wasn’t able to really implement some of the wild designs in my head, simply because of the size of the blanks. On the other hand, I wanted to keep it simple, like the sword itself, which awes by absence of anything unnecessary.

    I decided to go with a simple tail, comfortable toe for resting the thumb against, and a mild Spanish point. After all, since this was a sword, it should at least be able to draw blood of the unwary shaver. The tip of the tail is also the original tip of the sword. I removed a sliver of edge steel where the tang was going to be. I used a dremel for this, and water for cooling. I sent the removed edge to Mike for testing, with the following results: Hardness is 61 HRC. Carbon is 0.7%, and the steel is very pure. It had no noticeable elements other than carbon and iron, and threw clean white sparks.

    Another thing worth mentioning is the hamon. I tried to see it, but couldn’t because the blade is not at all polished. There are parallel scratch marks all over, which is consistent with a blade that was intended just for use instead of aesthetics. However, as I was handling the blade, I noticed that the scratch lines all stopped suddenly near the edge. This would make sense, because the Rockwell hardness of the blade is about 40 at the spine, and then suddenly changes to 60 near the edge.

    By playing with the light so that the scratches reflect the light and the smooth parts don’t, I was able to capture the hamon fairly visibly, as you can see in this picture.

    Incidentally, grinding this was a real challenge. With a genuine sword, the edge steel is very hard, and the sides are dead soft. Mild steel with very low carbon content. If you grind this like a normal razor, the grinding belt tends to ‘dig in’, like a car getting stuck in the mud. So I had to work to prevent this from happening because a ceramic belt eating into the soft steel could cause irreparable damage quickly.

    After grinding the hollows with a belt grinder, I did the rest by using files and a lot of sandpaper and elbow grease. I purposely did not use a buffer or polishing compounds because I wanted the blade to have a satin look. The blade surface has many bigger and smaller welding flaws, and a mirror polish would look wrong imo. It would not work because you can't buff out a welding flaw, and the contrast between mirror steel on one hand, and welding flaws on the other would be ugly.

    The scales

    For the scales I wanted to go as authentic as I could. Given that traditionally, the Japanese use kamisori without scales, this required a bit of improvisation on my part. After consulting with So Yamashita again, we settled on wild sakura (Japanese Cherry), and So being So, he helped me obtain it. For the wedge I used ebony which is also commonly used in ornamental wood working details in Japan.

    The scales were coated with CA to waterproof them. However, I took care to make eas coating as thin and even as possible, so that I could skip the sanding and polishing steps I normally do with CA finish. This way, the CA coating has a wood like texture to it which makes the scales feel more like natural wood, rather than smooth epoxy finish.

    The makers mark

    Or rather, the lack thereof. After making the razor, I looked into adding a makers mark. Chiseling was not an option because the tang consists of hardened core steel. Acid etching would fade. Elektro etching would look horribly out of place on a centuries old blade. Nitric acid might have been an option but I have not yet experimented with that and risking it on this blade for a first was not something I was comfortable with.

    After consulting with the prospective owner, we decided to leave it off. My finished razors all come with a certificate of authenticity, so the lack of mark would not be an issue.

    What you need to know about Tamahagane swords

    A traditional sword is made from a soft outer shell that is essentially unhardened, with a strip of pure carbon steel in the center, which will be hardened. On top of that, it is differentially hardened, so the spine stays dead soft while only the edge is hard. In the day and age this sword was made, that was how you ended up with the best possible sword possible at that time with those materials.

    The differential hardening means that the spine is only 40 HRC. This means that you always need to hone it with tape to avoid wearing the spine. Also important to know, centuries old tamahagane has issues. Traditionally, tamahagane starts out as very high carbon nuggets with a lot of slag and impurities. The smith forgewelds those things together into a flat bar, and then folds it and flattens it again about 8 to 10 times on average. The purpose of all this folding is to squeeze out all the impurities and to create a homogenous bar of steel.

    This is all done without modern technologies such as flux or vacuum ovens. This means that there will inevitably be welding flaws where the material boundaries inside have not fully welded. For this reason, the smith always folds in the same lengthwise direction. This way, any welding flaws run lengthwise in the direction of the blade where they are relatively harmless, like wood grain. If you look at the picture, you will notice these short dark lines running in the direction from tail to toe in various places. This is harmless, and in fact they are proof to the provenance of the steel. Choosing this type of steel means that you cannot get a blade surface that is as smooth as you'd have with western or modern steel. There are no functional issues, just the cosmetic ones which you may or may not mind.

    It also means that I cannot grind this blade as superthin as I would otherwise do, because the more material is removed, the more chance there is of encountering a welding flaw where I don't want it: close to the edge. As a result the bevel will be a bit wider than a normal ground razor. Not dramatic (I still want to get as close as possible to a thin bevel), but more like a wedge instead of a hollow ground.

    The result

    All the hard work comes to the pics below. This was a huge project in terms of what I needed to learn and the skills I needed to acquire, and it was hard to keep my mouth shut about it for years until I was finished. Where I am now, and where I started out are so far apart it is almost unimaginable I went from there to here just by putting one foot in front of the other.

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Authentic medieval Japanese Tamahagane razor, 7/8 with sakura scales started by Bruno View original post