This month we'd like to introduce the readers to the rather esoteric art of sword polishing, and specifically to one of the top sword polishers in Canada, Mr. Doug Blain from the University of Guelph. Doug is a Sword Polisher (Togishi), Manager, IT Security, U. Guelph and Chair of the Professional Staff Association, UG
Doug could you please tell us a bit about your background.
A humble birth in Leamington Ontario, grew up in Windsor. Studied Ishinryu Karate there (got to 2nd brown). BA in Asian Studies at U of Windsor. Joined IBM and moved to Toronto. Joined UoG in 1990. Hobbies included lapidary, silver smithing, astronomy, bonsai.
How did you get involved in sword polishing?
Originally I was thinking about smithing blades, but found out there
were a large number of blades already in existence, but they were lacking
a proper polish. Foolishly decided to pursue sword polishing since I thought
my related experiences from my hobbies would overlap. This turned out to
be somewhat true (polishing gems, telescope mirrors, and so on required
What was your training in the art?
Entirely self-taught, which is considered mainly impossible or highly improbable. I started by reading all available documents on the subject (2 days maximum) and then found a video on polishing published by a polisher (Konno) from Seattle Wash. Watched this hour long documentary hundreds of times and started to apply what I saw to some very poor blades. Trial and error has been the main educator along with observations based on other blades that have been polished in Japan and the US.
How do you feel about being self taught?
It has allowed me to adapt techniques that are more suited to my physique, temperament and the availability of resources and materials. It is interesting to see the fabulous collections of polishing stones some of the Japanese polishers own. Some of these are passed from their teachers or readily available in Japan. This means I need to take what I do have and make it work. There is another polisher in Canada, Don Myrna from Vancouver (http://www.islandnet.com/~gaijin/guide.htm), who had some formal training and has taken the adaptation of western material to new heights. He is publishing several informative and entertaining videos on sword restoration that are interesting since we have come to similar solutions in complete isolation.
Do you ever run into prejudice from collectors who believe only polishers from Japan can work on Japanese swords?
There are some Western collectors who are horrified that anyone other than a fully trained Japanese polisher would touch any blade. There is no use talking to these characters (although they have probably seen enough disasters done by amateurs with grinding wheels, to justify some trepidation). There are other collectors who realize that certain blades can never be financially justified for the full cost of a Japanese polish but still are interesting enough that some restoration is justified. They usually have had sufficient experience with western polishers to know their limitations and experience and farm out work to them. Then there are those who abhor the whole monopoly that surrounds Japanese arts and would never consider letting the blades leave the shores of North America. My clientele fall into the latter two categories. Interestingly enough, many of the Japanese are far more open to western polishers than some of the North Americans
I understand you once got some validation of your work from a well known Japanese sword polisher, can you tell us about that?
Two blades I had polished were being presented to Kotoken Kajihara, a well known Japanese polisher, at his shinsa that was being held in Toronto several years ago. I was asked by the owners to accompany them to the shinsa. During the inspection, the translator (David Pepper, a friend and long time sword expert) let Kajihara know that I had polished the blade that he was examining. He looked at the blade again and commented that the work was very good and wondered who was my teacher. When he was told that I was self-taught, he put down the blade and walked over to me and shook my hand. He commented that he wished some of his students would show the same dedication to study and self-improvement. I can think of no higher praise and felt a tremendous sense of validation for all the work that went into my studies
Do you have any apprentices yourself? Are you passing along your knowledge?
I don't have any apprentices, but certainly I am more than willing to pass along any information I have to anyone who is interested. I did teach a course several years ago to two sets of students, but it is very hard to compress all the activity into several consecutive days.
Are there many sword polishers in North America?
There are two active in Canada (Don and myself). There was a polisher in Ottawa, Chris Lau, but he seems to have dropped out of sight recently and any attempts to contact him have failed so far. In the US, there are a couple of formally trained polishers in residence. One is Jimmy Hayashi from California and another, Jon Bowhay (he may have moved back to Japan). There are about a dozen others ranging in skills and many have web sites advertising their services.
I understand that there are different types of polish that can be applied to a sword, can you tell us a bit about them?
Two main types of polish are sashikomi and hadori. All swords receive the same foundation polish that cleans up scratches, rust and nicks (when feasible) and establishes the geometry of the blade to make sure the lines are sharp and properly proportioned. The finishing of the blade is where the two techniques are applied. Sashikomi involves using magnetite (and other) based suspensions to highlight and color the steel grain and whiten the hardened edge (hamon). Hadori uses iron oxide suspensions (iron flakes from the forging of blades is baked and ground to a fine powder called kanihada) to color the steel and then uses a small finger stone to whiten the hamon.
How would you decide which polish to apply?
Most North Americans prefer sashikomi polish since it allows for a better
examination of the fine details of the metallurgy. The hardori hides some
of the very fine detail, but can also hide more serious flaws that may
detract from the appreciation of the blade. I always prefer a sashikomi
polish but some blades are simply too tired to look acceptable. Almost
all (95%) of the Japanese polishers do a hardori polish since the major
sword authorities in Japan (NBTHK and NTHK) expect hadori finishes when
being judged and papered. This is an area of dispute currently. I feel
that a blade, warts and all, should be displayed for all to see. Some hadori
finishes (it means makeup) is applied so heavily, it is a struggle to examine
the blade, but it
looks spectacular at first glance.
Would it be a good investment for Iaido students to get a full art polish on their shinken?
Only if you like to rip the heart out of your local polisher. A good art polish is very fragile and it is very hard to prevent scratches and scuffs detracting from the blade. The first clash of swords, sweaty thumbprint or scratch from cutting will ruin an art polish. If the blade is fully deserving of an art polish, you may want to question its suitability for use in iai. Culturally significant blades should be protected and viable alternatives are now available to give the student some choice. There are some polishers (me for example) who cannot let any blade pass from their hands without giving it every step towards a full art polish. Visually it is nice, financially it is a waste.
What do you think about the homogenous steel blades from China that we see being used for iaido? What sort of polish should they receive?
The primary problem with some of the Chinese blades is the fundamental shape. The shinogi (ridge line) is sometimes too broad and usually the boshi (point) is not properly shaped. Reshaping these blades is the primary job needed. The finishing techniques that work well on the Japanese swords often do not work well with the steel of the Chinese blades. Paradoxically, the Chinese blades use a better flux to forge the steel compared to the Japanese smiths. This tighter bonding doesn't mean the blade is stronger or better, just that the demarcations between layers don't become apparent from the use of fine abrasive, but may be more responsive to etching to bring out details. Some of the strength (and beauty) of the Japanese blades results from the inclusion of extraneous material and the polishing techniques make use of this to bring out the details.
What sort of polish should blades that are used for tameshigiri receive?
Often this is called a white polish and basically uses a foundation
polish taken to the last stone (a nagura stone) that leave a fine
whitish scratching on the surface. This level of finish provides a sharp
edge, but the finish is not so fine that additional scratches would detract
Do you work on either of these types of blade?
I have done a few, but there is far too much art polish that is waiting to be finished. Currently I think I have about 1 years worth of art polishes awaiting me, so Iai polishes would likely take a back seat for now...
What do you think is the role of the polisher in relation to the swordsmith?
It is felt that the polisher should respect the wishes of the smith and present his sword in the best possible light. Now how you can interpret the intentions of a smith who died 500 years ago is difficult, but other blades from that era provide clues about how the blade should look. The smith's blade cannot look its best without a good polish and you cannot make a poor blade look better than it is (although you can hide some faults, but that is more of an ethics question)
Which do you feel is the more important to the finished product?
Of course the polisher is more important....
Would you suggest that iaido students try and find an antique blade or buy a, generally more expensive, newly made blade?
Most westerners are larger than the Japanese, so getting a proper sized antique blade is difficult. If this is not an issue, then you need to start looking at the quality and reliability of the antique blade. Will it stand up to stress and repeated drawing, etc. A blade that breaks during cutting is very dangerous. However the fact that the blade has lasted this long might be an indication that it is solid and well tested. I think the best answer is to ask your sensei.
What advice would you give an iaido student who finds an old blade and is considering its purchase?
Read, read, ask others, read, read, think again, read, read. Many collectors are willing to give their opinion on the historical quality of a blade, but again take this with a grain of salt. Their active indifference ("let me take that worthless blade off your hands") may be based on less than noble intentions. Then again the price may be in a range that makes the risk negligable.
I'm sure most Iaido students would not want to use a museum quality blade for iaido, how would a student get an honest opinion on a blade if he or she suspected they had such an item in their hands? Or is it even likely that such a thing would be available for less than its true value?
If the blade is obviously a WWII blade (Stainless steel, acceptance stamps, serial numbers punched into shinogi, for instance), there is little chance the blade will be historically significant, but it is still a good idea to get a second opinion. There were a few high quality blades made during the war and some of the smiths later became very well respected, so it may depend as well on the signature on the blade. If you know of a reputable collector, they are usually more than willing to pass judgment on a blade. If they are not sure, they will at least know more authoritative resources that can offer an opinion. Where this gets to be tricky is an unsigned blade (or shortened) that is unpolished or rusty so that the fine details are no longer visible. Again clues can be gathered based on the shape of the blade, accompanying fittings and so on, that might provide clues to its quality. If the blade has good quality fittings, high quality habaki, and signs that previous polishes were well done, these are obvious clues that the blade was at least valuable to the previous owner.
How should iaido students care for their blades on a day to day basis?
Mineral oil is a wonderful protectant against rust and will not stain or corrode the steel. I think it is better that choji oil and cheaper. Apply only enough to lightly film the blade. Clean the oil with uchiko periodically and replace with clean oil.
Is there any polishing (sharpening) that tameshigiri or iaido students could do on their own without ruining the geometry and polish on their blades?
A natural nagura stone from Lee Valley (around $12 CDN) can be used to lightly dress the cutting edge. Just be careful and don't repeat too often...
Any final words for our readers for this month?
Buy as many books on swords as you can. Study is the first step to understanding the sword....
We'd like to thank you for sharing your time with us Doug and we
hope to hear from you again soon.