Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Billy Crystal in Fernando’s Hideaway

And this is from my heart
Which is deep inside my body:
It’s better to look good
Than to feel good

Fernando

This article is a little longer and more roundabout than your most humble and obedient servant’s previous posts, but I wanted to share with you some of Japan’s history, and examples of this country’s most fabulous practical art as produced by its blacksmiths and professional sharpeners as background of the Japanese mindset regarding sharpening steel tools. But before I get into that, I would like to share some relevant words of wisdom from Hollywood’s wisest man.

The handsome gentleman in the picture is Fernando. He is neither a blacksmith nor a sharpener of tools or weapons, but his insight into physical beauty and words of wisdom about happiness are pertinent to sharpening, as we shall see below. If you are not familiar with ‘Nando, I suggest you google him or view a video or two on BoobTube.

So what does our dapper Latin Lover have to do with sharpening? And swords?

As ‘Nando taught the world, a wise person will not equate looking good with feeling good. Likewise, you would be wise to not confuse a blade’s appearance with its performance. Indeed, a blade that looks as sharp as the skinny end of nothing may not actually cut very well in some applications.  A good example is Japanese swords. Let me tell you a true story to illustrate my point.

When I was a university student in Japan, I was privileged to be entrusted with a number of swords that belonged at the time to the late Dr. Walter Compton, Chairman of Miles Laboratories and the inventor of Alka-Seltzer. He was a wealthy man who had a huge collection of swords obtained while an officer for the US military in Japan immediately after the war when Allied forces required the defeated Japanese people, on pain of death, to surrender all swords, civilian and military. Of course, many valuable and rare family heirlooms were surrendered or forcefully confiscated. Supposedly they all went to the bottom of Tokyo Bay in bunches, or were melted for scrap. But we know better, don’t we.

Towards the end of his life, Dr. Compton put a lot of money into having his better swords professionally sharpened, new shirasaya scabbards and furniture made, and formally evaluated in preparation for donating them to the Boston Museum of Art, where many of them reside in obscurity today. Sadly, due to progressive dementia, some were auctioned off without his permission. “The feckless sons of wealthy men” is the operative phrase in this case, I fear.

I assisted Dr. Compton’s representative by transporting over 70 of these swords to and from Japan and performing the necessary legwork to accomplish these goals inside Japan. During those years I held in my hands and feasted my eyes on rare and beautiful blades of great historical value several of which would have easily been designated National Treasures if they had been intended to remain in Japan (“National Treasures” may not leave Japan). 

During those years I spent a lot of time meeting, questioning, and requesting services of the best sword sharpeners in Japan, and learned a lot about swords, stones, and sharpening. Dr. Compton’s reputation was such, and his swords were of such rarity and high quality, that I had no difficulty persuading the very best craftsmen to work on them and speak with me, including a famous sword polisher named Mr. Okisato Fujishiro.

Interestingly, in Japan such craftsmen are called “Togishi” (研師), an unambiguous word that can only be translated as “sharpener.” However, in the West these same Japanese craftsmen are called “ Sword Polishers.” In the post-war context, this actually may be more accurate than the Japanese term. In a post-war world it’s certainly more politic.

A very subtle, high quality sword tip brought to life by the arts of the Sword Sharpener. Notice the peaceful elegant hamon (wavy milky pattern at the cutting edge oriented towards the top of the photograph), the grain of the steel just below the hamon, and the burnished polish surrounding the fuller. Notice also the clean delineation where the blade tip, the “boshi,” begins. Very nice work.

Before the elimination of the caste system Japanese society had 4 main divisions labeled  “Shi No Ko Sho,” meaning, in descending order, Warrior (samurai) Farmer, Craftsman, and Merchant at the bottom. The Emperor, Court Nobles, and Shoguns were above these strata, although of the three, only the Shogun possessed any actual power. The man with the sword makes the rules, and those without weapons do as they are told and quickly, or they go away permanently. Thus it has always been because both fool and wise man leak red sticky stuff.

Blacksmiths and sword sharpeners were both in the craftsman caste, but the sword sharpener was above the swordsmith in rank. Depending on their support among the warrior caste, and with the generous application of yellow metallic lubricant, both swordsmiths and sword sharpeners occasionally obtained noble rank, an honor to which most other craftsmen, farmers, and merchants could not aspire. My point is that sword sharpeners, while of low caste, often had a perceived rank higher than their craftsman position would suggest.

Why was the Japanese sword sharpener of higher rank than the swordsmith? I haven’t seen documentation from back in the day confirming it, but I suspect it is because the sharpener turns the swordsmith’s plain steel blade into a thing of jewel-like sculptural beauty that almost seems alive. One only has to see a sword blade fresh from the blacksmith’s shop and compare it with the same sword after the sword sharpener’s ministrations to understand.

The Nikko Sukezane sword, a designated National Treasure of Japan
Related image
This sword is known as the “Nikko Sukezane,” Nikko for the temple commemorating the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康, January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616) where it is stored, and Sukezane (助真 meaning “Aid the Truth) for the name of the smith who forged it for the Kamakura Shogunate (1185~1333). The blade’s shape and crystalline pattern above the hamon are characteristic of Sukezane’s work. This sword’s brother was in my care for about 2 years while it was being polished and appraised in Tokyo.
大般若長光-画像2
This sword is another of Japan’s National Treasures. It was forged by a swordsmith name Nagamitsu (長光)during the same time period as the Sukezane above. The tang (nakago) is corroded by exposure to bare hands over a period of around 700 years. Multiple holes were drilled in the tang to accommodate a variety of hilts during its lifetime. I also had a sword by this same smith and of very similar appearance in my care for about one year, although it was not owned by Dr. Compton.
A different Nagamitsu sword, also listed as a National Treasure. An unusually healthy example.

I have even witnessed a skilled sword sharpener create a beautiful hamon (a pattern formed on the edge of a sword by the steel’s crystalline structure) on a sword forged by a famous smith that had lost the crystalline structure necessary to form an actual hamon. While a deception of sorts, the intention was not to deceive for profit (the sword was donated to a museum), but to return an unusual and historically important sword to its former beauty, a glory that would have been lost but for the sword polisher’s exceptional skills.

A dramatic chouji midare hamon in a modern sword. The pattern exists not because of a lamination or some silly pattern welding but because of the changing crystalline structure of the blade that results from the differential heat treatment process performed by the blacksmith. It only exists because of the swordsmith’s skill, but it is only visible and beautiful because of the sword sharpener’s stones and his skill with them. Is the blade sharp? Don’t judge a blade’s performance by its polish.

If we liken the swordsmith with his forge and hammer to the quarry worker cutting marble from the mountain, then the sword sharpener is Michelangelo cutting the Pietà with his chisels and files. Both craftsmen work on the marble and blade respectively, and both are essential. The sculptor uses steel to bring stone to life, while the sword sharpener uses stone to bring steel to life.

chojimidare.jpg
Another dramatic hamon in a modern sword. This pattern is a surface manifestation of the steel’s crystalline structure as created by the swordsmith, but revealed and made glorious by the polisher

But despite these artistic abilities, modern “Sword Polishers” have no interest in and put forth no effort to actually make a sword blade cut well. Indeed, in some cases, they actually intentionally dull the blade so it can’t cut, thereby making it safer. This intentional vandalism is called “habiki.”

A different style of hamon pattern on a blade with a different grain pattern. Notice the different colors and lines inside the hamon. All these crystalline details are categorized, have names, and are studied intensely by aficionados. All things equal, this sort of pattern and color is considered to be more elegant and desirable than the two more dramatic hamon pictured above. An extremely deep rabbit hole, I assure you. Please watch your step!

Here’s the key point your humble servant wants Beloved Customers and Gentle Reader to grasp: Despite the long years of apprenticeship, advanced skills learned, and gallons of red sticky stuff unintentionally leaked by sword sharpeners, the frank sword sharpeners I have spoken with all admitted that, of all the craftsmen in Japan that used edged tools, woodworkers like carpenters, cabinetmakers, and joiners routinely create sharper blades despite those blades not appearing to be as sharp as swords. This is consistent with my direct experience of handling over 70 swords before and after being worked on by sword sharpeners.

While there is great pleasure to be found in polishing a plane or chisel or knife blade to levels of great beauty, do not make the mistake of equating appearance with performance.

Appearance aside, and looking strictly at cutting performance, will a chisel or plane or knife blade skillfully sharpened on a 15,000 grit stone cut better and longer than if sharpened on an 8,000 grit stone? In the case of woodworking blades and kitchen knives, no it won’t. In fact, due to higher levels of friction the higher degree of polish produces in the cut, it will certainly not cut wood as well. More on this subject later.

An oiirenomi by Hidarino Ichihiro Oiirenomi. The hazy silver of the hard steel hagane lamination and the cloudy grey of the softer iron jigane lamination, combined with the shape and upward curvature of the corners of the lamination are indicative of excellent craftsmanship by the blacksmith, superior skills of the sharpener, and wonderful stones. Such details are considered sublimely beautiful to tool connoisseurs. But will the edge cut well? We can’t tell from this photo.

Keep in mind that the stones used to apply the beautiful polish and accentuate the hamon on Japanese swords are different from those used to sharpen woodworking tools. For instance, the uchigumori stones sword polishers use are small slices of soft stone glued to paper using urushi lacquer adhesive, and are only 3,000~5,000 grit. These small slips of stone are rubbed on the sword blade using thumb and fingertips.

Here is a link to a blog showing Mr. Fujishiro, son of one of the sword sharpeners I employed back in the day, making and using these thin slices of stone.

Tools are designed to perform specific tasks. Although it could do the job, more or less, you wouldn’t use a crescent wrench to stir spaghetti sauce on the stovetop would you? A longish spoon just might work better.

Does a sword’s edge need to be extremely sharp to cut the enemy effectively? No, it doesn’t because the sword’s speed, impact force, and the swordman’s technique influence its cutting effectiveness much more than simple sharpness. So sword sharpeners have always been more focused on edge durability, resistance to chipping, and appearance than absolute sharpness. In modern times, when swords are almost never used to cut living flesh outside of Saudi Arabia, the blade’s appearance may be critical, but sharpness is not a practical concern.

Another example is food preparation knives. A chef’s knife looks terribly sharp, and as it slices tomatoes and fillets fish we can see that it cuts well. But how sharp is it really? In comparison with a joiner’s plane blade, not really that sharp. But both tools are exactly suited to the job assigned them.

柳刃包丁(刺身包丁)
The sashimi knife’s blade is made long and thin to facilitate draw-strokes that cut the fish cleanly. The chef applies little downward force during the cut because excess pressure would rupture the cells ruining the flavor of the tuna sashimi. Yes indeed, a properly sharpened knife and expert technique make a difference in flavor, just another reason why the Japanese are obsessed with sharp things.

The chef’s knife is most effectively used in slicing or drawing motions, much as expert swordsmen use their weapons against enemies. In this style of cut, a smooth and uniform cutting edge does not perform as well as a more ragged, serrated edge as seen at the microscopic level. Therefore, there is little if any practical benefit (assuming beauty is not practical) to be obtained by sharpening a kitchen knife beyond 1,000~3,000 grit. In fact, at least in Japan, these are the upper-limit of stones in daily use by professional chefs of all varieties. Yes, and that includes sushi chefs.

But don’t misunderstand my point: In the case of both swords and yanagiba hocho knives, the bevel angle must be correct for both the blade being used and the material being cut, and the microscopic edge must be a clean intersection of planes. If you get these two factors wrong, a crescent wrench might work just as well.

The other point I want to make is that, while I enjoy using high-level skills to give a beautiful appearance to extremely sharp blades, such a blade will not perform better than an identical blade of equal sharpness but with a less polished appearance, and the extra time and money spent on improving outward appearance is wasted on bread and butter work. 

Since Hollywood celebrities have the answers to all the world’s problems (at the cost of other people’s money, labor and freedom, of course) perhaps our quest for the sharp edge can benefit from the wisdom of the famous Latin lover ‘Nando, Tinseltown’s most elegant star. ‘Nando once shared his father’s advice that it is “better to look good than to feel good.” Accordingly, perhaps we should all go crazy nuts and polish our blades like beautiful but dull museum swords and wear waistcoats and cravats as we cut sliding dovetails and plane door stiles. After all, one must be ready for every photo op. In this way, our woodworking blades may be worthy of ‘Nando’s highest praise: “You, dahling, you look mahvelous, absolutely mahvelous.”

Fernando Lamas in “The Merry Widow.” The crease in his pant leg could slice bacon.

No, on second thought, while there is much one can learn from Fernando’s elegant philosophy, his standards of beauty and suffering are too high for me. I would rather be a simple joiner or cabinetmaker in stained work clothes that has the ability to make a blade exceptionally beautiful but chooses not to expend the time and cost required to do so most of the time, rather than someone who doesn’t because they can’t.

Although Fernando has a pressing appointment for a tango lesson (discretion prevents me from naming the young lady he will be pressing) and won’t be providing further insight today, our adventures in sharpening Japanese woodworking tools will continue in Part 5 of this series.

Let’s meet at Tsukiji for sushi afterwards.

YMHOS

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Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Always ready for battle

“A wild boar was sharpening his tusks upon the trunk of a tree in the forest when a fox came by and asked, Why are you doing that, pray? The huntsmen are not out today and there are no other dangers at hand that I can see. True, my friend, replied the Boar, but the instant my life is in danger, I shall need to use my tusks. There will be no time to sharpen them then.”

Aesop (621~565 BC)

It’s nice to have a philosophy on a subject because it helps one distill random thoughts down to the essentials.

Allow your humble servant to explain his philosophy about sharpening woodworking tools, not because it is charming and unique, and not because you should emulate it, but because it will provide insight into the things written in this blog and elsewhere. Use it to calibrate your BS meter. It is often neck-deep when people talk about sharpening.

My philosophy regarding sharpening was shaped by my experience as a carpenter, contractor, commercial cabinetmaker, and joiner working under pressure, against a clock, sometimes with a boss watching with eagle eye, and often in front of customers, not as a hobbyist fiddling around in a garage workshop. Married young with a growing family to support, I quickly discovered that children eat constantly and in ever-increasing quantities, so efficiency was and is important to me. 

Efficiency was also important to the Clients who hired me. Sharpening and maintaining tools is, of course, part of the job, but from the Client’s viewpoint, it’s wasted time, so it’s important to minimize time spent fiddling with tools during the work day. Accordingly, I followed the example of craftsmen I respected and started the day with sharp tools in good working order, and kept spare planes and chisels sharpened and ready to go as backup.

Self-employment hammered into me the monetary value of time. It also taught me quality sharpening stones and tools are expensive and wear out, and that to feed wife and babies every day I had to work efficiently to minimize time and money expended on maintaining tools, while maximizing the amount of work I accomplished between sharpening sessions. 

I developed a strong dislike, nay hatred, for blades that fail, dull quickly, or take too much time and effort to sharpen. I loathe them not just because they are irritating, but because they waste my time and money. Even considering the higher initial cash outlay, the cost-effectiveness of handmade, professional-grade tools in helping my mind and hands do good work and feed the family became as obvious as a burning road flare on a midnight highway.

You, Beloved Customer, may not feel the time and financial pressures that professionals do, but owning professional-grade cutting tools and learning how to sharpen them in an efficient and professional manner will make woodworking less frustrating, more profitable, and more enjoyable.

What is your philosophy?

Sharpening a chisel at the jobsite, then back to work, jiggity-jog.

The journey will continue in Part 4 with wisdom from a celebrity and pictures of pretty swords.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may I never finish the journey.

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” 

Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

Life is neither a race nor a competition, but a hard journey along many paths all leading to a single gateway. What matters are the friends and family that journey with us, the kind deeds we do, the joy we share, the things we experience and learn along the way, and most importantly, the quality of our souls at the journey’s end, for these are all that will pass through that last gateway into eternity with us; Nothing else matters a hill of beans.

Woodworking can be a wonderful diversion and even a source of joy during this journey, one that can make our lives and the lives of those around us more pleasant. For many it is a way to keep body and soul connected. For those that rely on their tools to feed their families, the efficiency of that work, and the joy they find in doing it are not trivial matters.

Thoughtful woodworkers on this path learn early that dull tools are an impediment to making excellent wooden products regardless of the skill of the hand and eye that manipulates them, because, being an extension of the user’s mind and hands, a dull tool will often darken the mind and leaden the hand of even an accomplished woodworker.

Sharpening has always been the most important woodworking skill. It is no coincidence that for millennia the first thing apprentices were taught once they were permitted to handle valuable tools was how to sharpen them properly.

In our time the prevalence of machinery with built-in precision and blades driven by motors and sharpened by others has made it possible for those lacking even basic sharpening skills to represent themselves as craftsmen. Although they may be skilled artisans, I believe such individuals are less craftsmen in wood and more machinery operators.

Those thoughtful souls who aspire to become accomplished woodworkers, and not just machine operators, must obtain minimal sharpening skills. Untold thousands of years of human history verify the truth that all other woodworking accomplishments flow from this bedrock skill.

I believe, perhaps because the men I learned from and respected also believed, that free-hand sharpening is the way a skilled craftsman maintains his tools. My experience and observations over many years have confirmed the the efficiency of this technique. It is consistent with my work-driven philosophy about sharpening which I will explain in more detail in the next post in this series.

Sharpening a blade free-hand is a zen-like activity. It requires observation. It requires muscle memory. It requires consistency. It requires composure. It requires meditative focus. And at the pinnacle, it requires one to feel and hear work being done in a place we cannot see, a place where destruction creates order; where nothing becomes something.

Some will disagree with my beliefs about free-hand sharpening, especially the machinist-types, the scribblers and gurus promising instant results in a few hours for the price of a book, DVD, or class, and the purveyors of sharpening jigs disinclined to work without “training wheels.” No mystery there. So I won’t even try to please everyone, just professional woodworkers.

When professional woodworkers gather in the presence of edged tools, they often talk about sharpening techniques and rare stones, and they are always curious about the quality of other men’s tools. In Japan, it is considered rude to pick up another’s tools and examine the edges, or even to look at them too hard, but the desire is always there nonetheless because it is human nature to compare oneself to one’s peers. 

Indeed, much can be learned about a man’s quality standards and his skills from his blades. Perhaps the condition of one’s tools gives a tiny glimpse into the owner’s character.

What do your tools say about you? Some are terrible gossips, you know. (ツ)

The journey will continue in Part 3 with wisdom from a celebrity and pictures of pretty swords.

Tianmen Gate, China. 999 steps to the natural gateway above.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may I never finish the journey.

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series