Differences between a $200 and a $5000 Katana?
What is the difference between and economical entry level katana and a sensai grade sword? This is a great question without a simple answer but if their was one, it would be easiest to say “you get what you pay for”. There are many different things that directly affect the cost of a katana, from the type and quality of materials used in it's construction to the experience of the person producing it. I will begin this multi-part answer with many of these things listed in point form (in no particular order) to make sure I don't leave anything out.
1 - The Sword Smith
2 - The Blade Material
3 - The Tempering Process
4 - The Level of Polish
5 - The Type of Polish
6 - The Details of the Hamon
7 - The Edge Creation
8 - Blade Shaping
9 - Type of Warranty
10 - Handle Material
11 - Samegawa Quality
12 - Tsuka Ito Material/Quality
13 - Sageo Quality
14 - Mekugi Pins
15 - Furniture Material
16 - Furniture Production Method
17 - Furniture Finish
18 - Furniture Pieces Included / Excluded
19 - Furniture Final Fit
20 - Saya Material
21 - Saya Fit and Profile
22 - Saya Ornaments
23 - Saya Cap Material and Fit
24 - Where it is Produced
There you have it, Only 24 reasons minus the ones I'm sure I've forgotten and will be reminded about as soon as I have published this article. Now lets have a look at each of these in a little more detail.
1 - The Sword Smith
The person, forge or company producing your sword will have a large effect on the price. It goes to say in any field or specialty that the more experience and passion the producer has the better the end product will be and there is a premium to be paid for that expertise. When using top sword smiths they know how to select the best of materials and waste the least so where you pay for their ability you save a little in lost materials. A good maker can also use less expensive materials and return a far better result than a less experienced smith. For example, If I had premium ingredients for an omelet and gave second grade ingredients to a professional chef, their creation would still be far superior to my crunchy shell surprise.
2- Blade Material
This area produces significant changes in the cost as well as directly affects the final result of the sword depending on what materials are used. High end swords may be produced from rare iron sands known as (tamahagane) directly from Japan which is rare and will be more likely mined outside of Japan in China. The material is nearly identical to tamahagane and is known as orishigane. This is generally smelted by the sword smith himself rather than purchased in billets. This type of material is very authentic and expensive to produce. To produce a sword with sand iron the blade smith must fold the steel to remove the impurities as it was originally done in feudal Japan. High end and mid range swords can also use high carbon steels which are less expensive and don't require folding. These refined carbon steel billets are already 99% pure, saving countless hours of labour intensive work. Low end or economy swords by no surprise use the least expensive carbon steels available. For example, a Japanese forge producing Katana from Tamahagane submits a formal application to acquire it from the government annually because of it's rarity and cultural significance. If accepted based on the reputation of the forge they will allow you “X” number of billets. If X=14 then that Japanese forge will only produce 14 swords that year. A forge or factory producing a low end katana simply need to back up a truck to the nearest “metal supermarket” and purchase as much steel as they desire and then call in for a second truck if it is on sale.
3- The Tempering Process
Katana are usually deferentially tempered or through tempered with the former being the most traditional. This is done by packing a special clay on the blade at different thicknesses to control the heating and cooling. This will determine the type of hamon (hardened cutting edge) and the Sori (curve) of the blade. A differential sword is forged straight and it is during this process that the steel will naturally curve by controlling the rate which each part of the blade cools. The final result is a blade with a harder cutting edge for edge retention and a softer spine for shock absorption. After polishing the two hardnesss will produce a visible hamon line which depending on the level of sword smith can be aesthetically stunning. The through tempered blades also referred to as mono-steel blades are forged with the desired curve and then heated and cooled at an equal controlled rate to achieve the same harness throughout. Depending on the material used this can still produce an optimal cutting edge while retaining enough flexibility. This will not produce a genuine hamon. Often one will be mimicked with polishing tricks or acid etching on the blade. Both of these techniques are found from low end to high end swords but the results differ greatly because of the steel being treated. Often the lower end katana will be a little soft making them only suitable for light target cutting.
4-5 The Level of and Type of Polish
Ill start with the low end sword in this segment because all that is required is a buffer, buffing compound and someone that can operate a power tool. Simple, the more they buff the shinier it gets. The higher the level sword the more attention is paid to the smallest of details. Mid-range swords can be polished using specially outfitted machinery and then finished by hand but most are done traditionally by hand from start to finish with varying degrees of stones. Polishing a sword is as much of an art form as forging the blade itself and the ability and experience of the polisher will also command a price. A poor polish may make a blade shine but can hide the details that were purposely created by the blade smith. A good polisher will use finger stones as an artist uses a brush to enhance the details of the hamon, the folds of steel, the changing angles between the boshi (curved edge) and kissaki (point) or the shinogi (ridge) and ha (edge) with varying degrees of depth and detail. The polisher will also create the sharpened edge by finely polishing it to the desired sharpness.
6 - The Details in the Hamon
As mentioned earlier the hamon is produced by the clay tempering or differential hardening process. The Hamon can vary depending on the smith producing it and can be the most distinguishable part of the blade. If it is done poorly or by less experienced sword smiths the hamon will usually be very straight and appear uninspired. This is the simplest hamon, the quickest and easiest to reproduce. Once you step up to mid-level katana you will see the hamon start to take on some character. A favorite will appear like a calm ocean with larger evenly spaced waves. Some will take on the appearance of sharply ridged mountains, soft billowy clouds or even a violent lightening storm. It is at the discretion of the blade smith and the ability he possesses. With an expert blade smith and an expert polisher the results can be priceless. Through tempered swords can also vary quite greatly in quality when producing an artificial hamon. Low end pieces may choose to just quickly buff the edge with a course grit compound so the light reflects differently then the rest of the polish to give the illusion. Some mid-range swords will use the same finger stone polishing techniques as the high end swords to create a beautiful authentic looking hamon, without the different hardened steel underneath. Another technique is to use an acid to create the appearance of, or enhance the appearance of the hamon on a deferentially tempered blade.
7 - The Edge Creation
The high end katana edge is obtained during the polishing process of the blade using varying degrees of stone until the edge is sharp. The same is true of mid-range swords however some are also produced using the same concept as the hand stones but with specially modified sharpening equipment to reduce time an cost. There are several different convex and concave profiles that may be accomplished depending on what the sword is being designed for. The low end katana is normally simply finished with either a flat or hollow ground edge produced by an industrial belt sander, stone wheel or some other type of modified factory equipment to make it sharp as fast as possible, reducing cost even further.
8 - Blade Shaping
The beautiful part about high end swords is the incredible attention to details. This was largely due to Japan's culture who achieved perfection in even the smallest or most mundane tasks. The details of the sword was even greater because of its importance throughout the samurai culture. The high end experienced sword smiths make sure every part of the blade meets these standards by properly defining yokote, shinogi, hi and mune. (dividing line, blade ridge, groove and back). The transitions will be perfect. The high end sword smiths also pay close attention the details not thought of on lower end swords. The shaping of the mune and ha-machi (notches) that separate the blades furniture from the blade are shaped in a way to reduce wear. The yasuri-me (file marks) cut into the tang to better grip the tsuka (handle). The end of the tang is shaped as to not to cut into the handle during vigorous sword drills.
9 - Warranty
Warranties vary greatly from covering only manufacturer defects to guarantees on cutting tatami or even bamboo. These types of things aren't important to everyone but have great value in some scenarios especially on a sword you paid thousands for. I have seen high end sword makers go as far as designing a sword custom for an individual to improve it's performance based on his size, experience and cutting style, to replace a sword that was not correct for him. This is a rare case, but good warranties on high end swords have great value. The most common warranties you find will protect you against defective materials and workmanship only and most economical, low end swords offer no warranties at all.
10 - Handle Material
This adds a minor difference in cost depending on the type of wood used to construct the handle. If you have ever compared the price of different woods in recent years you will have noticed that the price varies greatly. High end swords and sword makers will always use premium aged hardwoods to ensure that their katana will have longevity. It is important that the handle material will hold up during vigorous use for not only the reputation of the forge, but for the safety of the user and those around them. You have probably already guessed given the trend, that economical swords will usually select lower cost materials at every turn because low pricing is their reputation not longevity or durability.
11 - Samegawa Quality
The Same or samegawa is the strip of material under the tsuka-ito (handle wrap) that can been seen between the ito layers. It is traditionally made from ray skin because of it's natural texture to prevent slipping of the ito and it's aesthetic qualities. Like any natural product, some will be more attractive than others in consistency, patterns etc. The more attractive the higher the price. There is also an alternative synthetic samegawa that can be used as well, which is more cost effective and is normally found on entry level to mid-range swords.
12,13 - Tsuka Ito and Sageo Quality
I am going to include these together even though they are different but the details and explanation are virtually identical. The Tsuka-Ito, is the handle wrap and the Sageo is the material tied on the scabbard. Some forges will tie them in such unique and beautiful knotted patterns that most of us couldn't re-tie it, if we used it to wear the sword on our waist as it is intended for. The materials vary in quality greatly for both of these from cotton to very expensive hand woven Japanese silks. There are several man made synthetics and specially blended fabrics that can be used as well. The selected material can literally change the price of a sword by a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. When comparing the low end solutions to the top quality silks that are used. It is not easy to explain to someone who has not seen both. So, just try to picture the most luxurious piece of material you can think of. It is aesthetically stunning, with every tight weave identical to the last and is soft and silky to the touch yet as strong and durable as woven steel. Then tie a dirty old boot lace around your economy sword and start cutting :) . Ok, maybe slightly exaggerated but I think you understand the point I'm trying to make.
14 - Mekugi (pins)
These are the pins that hold the handle on the sword. There are normally two but some times only one is installed. One is traditional but modern forges generally add a second for safety. If one wears out or falls out their will still be a pin to prevent the blade from flying out of the handle. These are very small and don't generally effect price much if at all but I thought they deserved mention from a quality stand point. Quality mekugi are not cylindrical like some of the cheaper ones I have seen. They have a slightly larger diameter on the one end . This enables them to wedge into place to prevent them from slipping out as I had mentioned. Some forges go as far as specifically selecting aged materials specifically for creating the mekugi. This is rare and not really necessary but can be appreciated on the highest end swords. When you purchase a top quality sword, they want to ensure that no detail is missed and treat every part as though it is as important as the last.
15- 19 - Furniture pieces, material, production, final fit and finish
The furniture replies to all the fittings and pieces found throughout the katana. The kashira (buttcap) or kabuto-gane (pommel cap), fuchi (collar), tsuba (guard), menuki (ornaments) shitodome (saya ornament), seppa (spacers). Depending how the katana is furnished can effect its value greatly. Most katana will include all of these pieces mentioned with exception to the shitodome. This piece is a nice decorative element found on the saya that the sageo passes through. Many martial artists remove them from their katana as soon as they purchase it, because when wearing the sword regularly for practice some shitodome designs will start to fray the sageo. For this reason some forges that are very martial arts driven opt to not include them on their swords.
The range of materials used to either cast or carve the furniture can range from cheap alloys to real gold. Obviously katana made to be economical will avoid using high end pieces. Casting is a less expensive method for producing these parts and the level of casting ranges from poor to exquisite. The initial casting work if done properly followed by careful finishing work can yield really good results and will be found on most mid- high end katana.
Some of the nicest work found will be produced by hand. This method is the most expensive and requires great artistic ability and time to produce. Hand hammering and chiseling every little detail from simple patterns to full scenic views of samurai charging into battle is very time consuming but breathtaking once complete. Some forges will put in up to 90 hours of work to complete only one custom tsuba. This type of work is normally only found on the highest end swords. One element of the furnitures construction that is often overlooked is the individual weight of each piece relative to it's position on the katana. High end sword makers will account for every part of the sword from initial blade forging to the final piece of furniture to ensure that it will balance perfectly for use. Even a few ounces off and the entire performance of the sword will suffer and require modification before it leaves the forge. To put into perspective, simple cast fittings out of alloy are very inexpensive and a factory can easily produce hundreds in one day. A high end set of properly weighted fittings hand made by an expert can take hundreds of hours or weeks, to perfect only one set.
20-23 - Saya profile, material, fit and finish
There are several types of finishes that can be achieved on a saya. It may be finished in multiple coats of natural lacquers or special painting processes. Some will include inlays of rayskin, have metal or gold flake throughout the paint. It may be high gloss to bring out the depth of the finish or done in a practical non finger printable mat finish.
A proper saya will be outfitted with a Kojiri (scabbard tip), Koiguchi (scabbard mouth) and kurikata (the knob that the sageo goes through) These pieces can be crafted out of many materials (wood, bone, cast synthetic) but most often it is carved out of buffalo horn. Many lower end pieces will omit the kojiri and use synthetic materials for the koiguchi. Mid -High range will almost always use horn in this area of production.
They will also pay close attention to the fit of the saya. When a blade is produced there is always slight variances in the blade. It is very controlled but no two blades will be identical. This is why you won't find many generic replacement scabbards for swords. Each saya should be produced after the blade so the blade itself can be used as a template to ensure a proper fit. To mass produce scabbard cheaply the variance are accounted for and the inside of the scabbard is channeled wide enough to account for them. This makes sense from a production standpoint but the result is hit or miss and often there will be excessive play or rattle when the sword is sheathed.
24 - Where it is Made
As for any product, where it is produced can have a great effect on it's value. From a straight labour point of view, employees wages vary greatly from country to country having a direct effect on anything they produce. Exchange rates may have an effect of the value as well if produced outside of the country. Having a sword produced in Japan and then exported out of Japan is very expensive to do. Once you go through exhaustive paperwork and approval process to even export a katana, a piece of Japanese culture and pride. You will pay in the neighborhood of $15000- $20000 USD from a Japanese sword maker. For this reason you will find many sword smiths training under Japanese sword smiths and moving to places like China, where they can follow their craft with less restrictions, producing comparable swords for a quarter of the cost of Japanese steel.
Well you've reached the end of the differences between low end $200 katana and the high end $5000 katana. To wrap it up, I hope this helps clarify some of the cost differences associated in the katana so you have a better understanding of what you are looking for. One miss-conceptions we hear often is that if you pay more you will get a stronger sword which depending on the other options this may not always be true. There are so many great katana available with infinite combinations of options that we are happy to help you sort through to ensure you get a sword that is right for you. Just remember, you will truly get what you pay for, the real question to ask yourself is ,what is it that you are really looking for?