The Iaido Journal  Apr 2002EJMAS Tips Jar

Katana First Aid Tips I

Copyright © Kathleen D. Fowler 2002. All rights reserved.

This month we present the first in a series of articles written by Kathleen D. Fowler, a Lecturer in the Department of English at Kagoshima Immaculate Heart College. So now, an introduction by the author:

Since a major part of keeping equipment in proper working condition is general maintenance, the first five tips below are on how to keep a katana from needing repairs in the first place.  The next section will be on simple (and sometimes not so simple) ways to fix common problems.  Topics I hope to cover include: making good mekugi, repairing a worn koiguchi, and fixing split sayas, along with stopping the annoying rattling that plagues some older iaito.

Part I: An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Cure

    The first day I walked into the dojo, I came with a borrowed iaito that rattled every time it was touched.  One of the older members took it apart and fixed it with a piece of old photograph, and thus began my introduction to temporary katana repairs, first aid techniques to keep a sword in working order until proper repairs can be made by an expert.  Most of the techniques to be covered are simple remedies for normal problems that occur through training. Others are more involved, requiring specialized equipment and a little more skill and patience.  All have been learned through experience.

Tip #1 - Cleaning

The most important way to keep any katana in good condition is to clean it properly.  A basic cleaning kit should contain the following:

Oil:  Traditional, Japanese clove oil known as choji abura is best; however, a fine grade of camellia oil, tsubaki abura, may be used as well.  Avoid any heavy oil as it will have a tendency to collect inside the saya and gather dust.

Soft cotton cloth: Soft, white flannel works well, but be sure to wash it before using it.

Small container:  This is to hold the oil cloth so that it doesn't make a mess inside the cleaning kit. Any small container with a tightly fitting lid can be used: film canisters, clean compact cases, pill boxes with the dividers removed, etc.

Cleaning paper:  Japanese washi, also known as nugui-gami can be bought which is especially designed for this purpose, but it can be expensive.  Any soft facial tissue that is fragrance and lotion free may be used as a substitute.

Uchiko:  Made from finely powered polishing stone, it comes tightly wrapped in a cloth bag attached to a stick.  Some sources suggest using substitutes, but as uchiko is now readily available on the market, substitutions are not wise.  Even the real thing badly ground can scratch a blade and ruin the polish; therefore, it is safest to buy only the best quality uchiko and not to risk any possible damage caused by materials not originally designed for sword cleaning.

WARNING:  Never use uchiko on an iaito.  The abrasive action of the powdered limestone will eventually wear the finish off the blade.

Mekugi-nuki: This is the little hammer-shaped tool that is used to insert and remove retaining pegs.

There are many different variations on the exact way to go about cleaning a sword.  These variations are based either on the teachings of different schools or on the personal preference of individuals.  Yet, however much the details may vary, the basics remain the same: remove old oil before applying new.  The following is the method that I was taught.

Step 1:  Sit in seiza.  Place the cleaning supplies in front of you within easy reach and in such a way as that they are ready to use.

Step 2:  Hold the tsuka with the right hand and the saya with the left hand near the koiguchi.  The blade edge (convex side) should be up, and the saya-gashira ( the butt end of the saya) should be pointed diagonally towards the left in front of you.

Step 3:  Slowly and carefully, unsheathe the blade.

Step 4:  Holding the saya upright, tap the koiguchi against the top of the thigh a couple of times to remove any dust or debris which might be inside.  Never tap the koiguchi against any hard surface as this will damage the wood and chip the lacquer.  Lay the saya  gently to your left with the convex side towards you.  The koiguchi should be pointing to the rear and the saya-gashira to the front.

Step 5:  Holding the katana firmly in your right hand, pick up the cleaning paper with your left.  Starting at the base, place the mune (the spine) of the blade top of the paper and pinch the paper around the sides of the blade, being careful not to cut yourself on the edges.  Slowly draw the paper towards the kensen (tip) of the blade and past it.

Step 6:  Repeat step 5 two or three times.  Always use long continuous strokes.  Never rub the paper up and down the blade as this is dangerous for you and bad for the blade.

WARNING:  Omit steps 7-8 when cleaning an iaito.

Step 7:  Continuing to hold the sword firmly with the right hand, pick up the uchiko with the left hand and gently tap it three or four times against both sides of the flat of the blade and along the mune.  The powder is designed to absorb any oil remaining on the metal, but it is also abrasive because it is made from the polishing stones that are used in the final stages of sword polishing.  A little goes a long way, so it is not necessary to cover the entire surface of the blade.  Doing so does not clean the blade any better and only succeeds in abrading and wearing down the metal.  Think of it as fine grain sandpaper without the paper, and use it sparingly.

Step 8:  Use a new piece of cleaning paper to remove all of the uchiko powder from the blade using the same method as that described in steps 5-6.

Step 9:  Inspect the blade carefully to make sure that all of the oil, powder, and other foreign particles have been removed.  This is also a good time to make sure that the mekugi is still in good shape and firmly seated in its hole.
Step 10:  Using a piece of cloth on which several drops of choji abura have already been placed, wipe the blade several times as in steps 5-6.  Be sure that all surfaces of the blade are covered evenly with a thin coat of oil, but be careful not to get any on the habaki.

WARNING:  Oil on the habaki will rub off onto the inside of the koiguchi, saturating the wood and allowing the katana to slip too easily from the saya, a dangerous situation.  To avoid this problem, do not oil the habaki during routine sword cleaning.

Step 11:  Pick up the saya again with the left hand near the koiguchi and with the blade edge (convex side) upwards.  Carefully, place the kensen inside the koiguchi and slowly resheath the entire blade.  Do not allow the koiguchi to strike against the tsuba.

Steps 1-6 and 9-11 should be done before and after each practice session.  Steps 7-8 are used only on shinken after practice.  If a katana is not used to train on a daily basis, keep in mind that it still needs to be cleaned regularly: once a month in dry climates and once a week in humid climates.

Tip #2 - Cleaning the Tsuka

Sweat and oils from the hands during training accumulate on the tsuka, eating away at the tsuka-maki and providing a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty little microscopic creatures.  To avoid this situation (and still continue to practice), clean the tsuka periodically with a hot, damp towel.  Be sure that the towel is not so hot that it will burn the skin or so wet that it will drip water.  Wrap it around the tsuka and squeeze it firmly over the entire surface of the handle.  Repeat several times, then allow the tsuka to dry thoroughly in the open air before replacing the katana in its bag or carrying case.
Tip #3 - Protecting the Koiguchi

A katana should fit snugly within its saya.  If the fit is too tight, the sword is hard to draw.  If it is too loose, then the katana slips too easily out of its sheath, thus increasing the probability of injury to oneself and to the sword.  Since the condition of the koiguchi is important in determining how well it grips the habaki, to insure a good fit, one should follow a few simple precautions.

Do not jam the habaki into the koiguchi as this damages the wood.

Do not oil the habaki during routine cleaning.  The oil will rub off  inside the koiguchi, saturating the wood and decreasing its ability to grip the metal firmly.

Do not force the koiguchi and the tsuba to come into actual contact, because this action increases the friction between the habaki and the koiguchi, wearing down the wood and loosening the fit.  Instead, only insert the katana into the saya far enough to insure that it is seated firmly in place.  This should allow a small space to remain between the koiguchi and the tsuba.

Use spacers between the koiguchi and the tsuba while the katana is not in use.  Various kinds are available on the market, or they can be made at home from leather, felt, soft wood, bamboo, etc.  As long as the spacer protects the koiguchi from harm and does not scratch any other part of the saya or katana, then the material from which it is made and the design depend on personal preference.

How to Make a Simple Spacer:

Materials: stiff, thick felt (available from most arts and craft supply stores), scissors, marker.

Step 1:  Using the marker draw a circle a little smaller than the size of your tsuba on the felt.

Step 2:  Cut out the circle.

Step 3:  In the center of the circle, draw a teardrop roughly the same size and shape as your habaki.

Step 4:  From the edge of the circle, cut a straight line to the point of the teardrop.

Step 5:  Cut out the teardrop shape.

After practice when you have finished cleaning the blade, slip the spacer around the habaki and re-sheath the katana.  If one spacer is too thin, more than one can be used at the same time to achieve the necessary thickness.

WARNING:  Always remember to remove the spacers before beginning the next practice session.
Tip #4 - An Extra Safety Measure

While the katana is tied safely in its bag and/or carrying case, it is unlikely to slip out of its sheath; however, bags and cases do not stop the blade from rattling around inside the saya during transport and causing unnecessary wear and tear on the koiguchi.  An easy way to avoid this situation and increase safety (just in case the unlikely does happen) is to immobilize the sword in its sheath using the sageo.

Step 1:  After cleaning the blade and slipping the spacer into place, return the katana to its sheath.

Step 2:  Pull the sageo tautly, but not tightly up to the tsuba and hold it in place with the thumb of the left hand.

Step 3:  With the right hand, wrap the sageo clockwise around the fuchigane  twice then bring it back up to the edge of the tsuba.

Step 4:  Wrap the sageo two or three times clockwise around the saya  between the koiguchi and the kurigata.  On the final wrap form a loop and tuck it under the sageo in the remaining space next to the kurigata.  Be sure that the end of the sageo is free.

To unwrap the sageo simply pull on the end of the cord and unwrap it counter-clockwise.

Tip #5 - Protecting the Finish on a Natural Lacquer Saya

Even though natural lacquer is extremely durable, it still requires special care to keep it in prime condition.

Do not leave natural lacquer in direct sunlight or expose it to fluorescent lights for extended periods of time.  Ultraviolet light will cause the molecules of the lacquer to break down, producing a fine network of tiny cracks which dull and fade the finish.  Such damage is permanent and results in the lacquer becoming soluble in water, so sweaty hand prints, if not wiped away immediately, will soon also become permanent.

Do not expose natural lacquer to extremely low or wildly fluctuating humidity.  The wood of the saya expands and contracts with the humidity, so very low or rapidly changing humidity will cause lacquer to crack and flake.  To prevent this from happening a constant humidity of 50-60% is recommended. However, this is often difficult to achieve, especially in dry climates.  Therefore, in order to protect an expensive, natural lacquer saya and keep it in prime condition, it might be wise to invest in a humidifier.  The same holds true for cold climates.  Heating homes in the winter causes the internal humidity to drop very low, so again a humidifier might be a good investment.

Kathleen D. Fowler is a Lecturer in the Department of English, Kagoshima Immaculate Heart College
TIJ Apr 2002