to Polish a Japanese Samurai Sword by David Hofhine
is dedicated to trying to save Japanese swords from being ruined and
protecting sword owners from being taken advantage of.
Note: to the
very small handful of truly skillful and honest polishers working in
the US, I offer all of my respect and support. It is a
arduous and difficult way to make a modest living and the individuals
who have dedicated their lives to properly preserving these amazing
national treasures are greatly appreciated.
have been studying traditional
Japanese sword polishing since 1988. All work is done by me
personally working completely by hand using traditional Japanese stones
and methods. I often spend up to three weeks
a single blade. Most sword enthusiasts in the US are familiar
work and I do regular work for many of the top
collectors in the country. Many
of my clients actually feel
current work is superior to what they have gotten from Japan
and I am often asked to redo the finish on a blades that have just
come back from Japan or from other polishers. Click here to see head to head comparison.
As far as I know, I don't have a single
If you want it done right, I'm your
You can choose me or someone else to work on
your blades, but I would
encourage you to find someone competent, experienced and
professional to do the job. The number of competent
sword polishers working in the United States right now can be counted
on one hand and the number that are actually doing their own work is
fewer still. Remember NO polish is always
better than a BAD polish.
hoards of amateurs and frauds
are more unskilled amateur wanna be sword
polishers out there than I can keep track of. They pop up and
disappear like weeds, so it is impossible to keep
track of them all. Some of these are guys just work
sanders and acids and fancy themselves togishi.
There are also a few
less professional con artists who offer traditional work at low prices,
but in reality are just ruining blades and ripping off unsuspecting
sword owners on a massive scale. The
nightmare stories of damage done to rare, historically important
blades are endless. The majority of the blades I get in have
significantly damaged at one time or
another by bad
polishing or amateur
Some of the damage done by these
amateurs and frauds includes such
offenses as hogging off huge amounts of metal, ruining the blade's
geometry, rounding off angles, putting waves and ruts into the
surface, destroying the symmetry, or dissolving welds or stripping
patina from the nakago through the use of acids.
One of the most serious problems caused by amateur polishers is thermal damage.
Unfortunately most amateur polishers use power sanders and
grinders to do their foundation work to avoid several days of hard work
using water stones. The heat caused by such power grinding
actually anneal (soften) the surface of the metal causing the last few
millimeters of the cutting edge to be visibly and completely softened.
It can also cause the visible temper line to fade out if the
surface has been friction heated in this manner.
In the worst cases these fly by night
simply take off with your blades and money and are never heard from
again. Even amateur polishers who have been around for a
been known to simply stop returning peoples blades, phone calls, or
There has been a recent rash
of particularly unscrupulous wannabe
polishers taking pictures of my swords and my work from my website and facebook pages
and falsely representing these pictures to be their own work.
pages of my website and images I upload are copyright David Hofhine,
Anyone who would resort to such fraud to trick you into
shipping represents the highest possible level of threat to your swords
and money! Obviously if they had any talent at all, they could
show pictures of their own work and they wouldn't have to steal
pictures of mine. If you see someone with
really nice looking pictures
that are similar to mine, you might want to check my websites, facebook
page and even my old flicker account pretty
thoroughly or contact me directly to find out if their images are
you commit your money to someone else.
My email is email@example.com.
If you're talking to someone else, it's not me.
recognize and avoid the
enthusiastic amateurs, who may not
know any better and are just trying to make a buck, are not the only
ones responsible for ruining fine swords. The
owners who keep sending blades and money to the unqualified
are equally liable. Here are some clues for recognizing less
qualified sword polishers.
If they do not have a significant
waiting list, they are not doing good work! It can
weeks or longer to properly polish a single blade, so it only takes a
customers to keep a polisher busy for months. If
they do not have a waiting list of at least a year or longer, they
either have no repeat customers or they are all ready well known
publicly for doing bad
a well known polisher is not to be trusted if
he says he can take your blade right away. They are no doubt
farming the work out to less skilled students or subcontractors.
If a 'polisher' is
charging pennies on the
dollar, they are certainly not doing proper
traditional hand work and should not touch your swords. Ask
yourself if what they are charging seems like adequate compensation for
what may be up to 100 hours of highly skilled labor?
If you have not seen a lot of
quality first hand examples
of their work, don't give them your swords and money.
Some people who sell
have extensive websites, boasting all manner of impressive claims, but
do not display their work at shows and
any quality before and after
images of blades they have supposedly worked on. Disreputable
polishers often use pictures of other people's work.
Finally, avoid completely
on taking possession of your blade before
giving you any estimate of cost.
one stop 'do it all' online sword shops
are some online businesses that offer a wide variety of Japanese
sword restoration services. They offer everything from
to mounting, lacquering, handle wrapping, appraisal, grading,
shira-saya, martial arts lessons, etc. The quality of the
mounting work varies from excellent to poor. With their
polishing service, what you need to keep in mind is that only a
fraction of the
money you pay them actually goes to
the 'polisher'. Up to half
can be kept as profit for the business. So if you pay $900
for a discount
polish, what you may actually get is a
$450 polish from a no-name polisher who isn't good
enough to attract any work on his own. You and your sword
will probably not be very happy with the results.
important fact for the novice
NO polish is always
better than a BAD polish. Shiny
does NOT necessarily equal better. Just because your blade
comes back from an amateur
all shiny with the rust removed does not necessarily mean the blade has
been improved or made more valuable. The geometry is the most
important aspect of a polish and this is usually where the most
damage is done by amateur polishers. A rusty sword with its
geometry, lines and metal intact is more valuable than a blade that
has been crudely ground down to a shiny wavy stick with thermal damage
to the hamon. If you
can not afford to have a blade properly
simply keep it clean and oiled and preserve it as is. You
doing yourself, your sword, and posterity a great favor and saving
some money in the process.
Japanese sword polishing is
not a technical process like re-building a carburetor where you can
simply buy the right tools, follow the directions and have a good
result. It is high art like trying to paint
portrait. You can buy the finest sable
French oil paints, a professionally stretched canvas and get some
good books and videos on painting and try and paint someone's
portrait, but your first painting will look like a bad grade school
art project. In fact your next twenty or thirty paintings
equally sad and amateurish.
After a few
years with hundreds
of practice and some good professional instruction, your paintings
will finally start to look better, but any expert will instantly
be able to recognize the work of an amateur. Only after many
and thousands of hours of dedicated study and practice will your art
skills begin to have merit.
polishing is exactly like this. You
must realize that the first several blades you work on
will turn out badly, so taking the family heirloom or the prize of
your collection and trying to learn polishing on it is a guaranteed
recipe for tragic failure. If you do not intend to spend
of hours practicing and thousands of dollars on good polishing
stones, save yourself some money and grief
and don't even start. Instead use that money to have your
swords restored by someone who can do the job properly.
Finally, if you
study traditional Japanese sword polishing, remember a few basic rules.
Do no harm. You don't want to be one those people
who ruins old swords.
everything. Bad foundation work removes A LOT of metal.
Then even more metal has to be removed to try and restore the
lines and surfaces, greatly reducing the health and longevity of the
blade! The best finish in the world doesn't mean anything if
a foundation that has to be redone.
-Third: Work exclusively on
polishing to start with. It is a lot harder to ruin a sword
fine finishing stones than it is with the coarse foundation stones.
If you never master finishing, there will be no point in
to study foundation work.
Spend the first several
years working exclusively on non-art swords such as modern martial arts
blades or the blades coming out of China or maybe broken pieces of
-Fifth: Try to
competent instruction and
as much money as possible on the best quality natural
stones. You will never get good results with sand
and acid or junk stones.
Sword polishing is very interesting and rewarding, but it's a hard way
to try and make a living. Before you decide to devote your
to it or try and support a family this way, be aware that you could get
a college degree in less time and probably less effort than it takes to
become good at sword polishing. You could also make a better
living at almost any other trade (painter, plasterer, plumber, printer,
it takes so much time to do things right to get the results you will
need. Tendinitis and early onset arthritis are pretty
much guaranteed. The overhead costs and large number of hours
involved per blade can even drive your hourly income below minimum wage
on particularly hairy jobs.
There is a good reason why very few
people do this for a living.
I would say things have actually gotten a bit better over the years.
In the past, when even the most basic information was very
hard to come by, sword owners were completely at the mercy of whoever
they came across. Now, with the rise of the internet, it
is possible for even the most novice sword owner to do a great
deal of research into what they have, their sword's history, values,
options, or even the reputation of people they may be dealing with.
Modern digitial photography has also made it much harder for a crook to
get away with switching out high value blades and fittings for similar
but much lower value pieces. In the old days often all you would
have to positively identify your blades was a rubbing or drawing!
We have all ready covered the idea that generally speaking, Japanese
art sword polishing should be left to those who know what they are
doing, but there is another threat out there that you should be aware
of. There are some big dealers, collectors or
US based polishers who offer to broker or arrange various sword
polishing services in the US or to Japan.
Some of these are very honorable men, but some of them
(even the very well known ones) are not. Favorite polishing
scams include some of the following:
1) The one I'm hearing most recently is polishers in the US
Japan who take your sword and money in advance and then take YEARS! to
actually start on the work. I heard of one recently where the
owner had sent a blade and full payment to a polisher and then more
than 3 years went by with no start on work. The owner made a
day road trip to go collect his unpolished blade and money in person.
Another owner recently related sending a blade and full
to a prominent polisher and waiting over 4 years for work to begin!
Both of these blades eventually ended up coming to me for
I let everyone keep their
blades and money until I am
actually ready to begin work, usually just a few weeks lead time
to allow time for shipping.
2) It is common for people selling polishing services over
the internet to use random fake pictures of other people's work to
represent their polishing. The polish you get will
be nothing like the fine art swords depicted on their websites.
That is why I post a LOT of before
and after pictures and recent
pictures of my work. I am also constantly posting
new content on Facebook
including client feedback to accurately represent the quality
of my work.
3) They will promise you the very highest quality polish from
top experts in Japan and usually charge you $3,000 to $5,000.
They will then send your blade off to some four fingered meat
head (often not even to Japan) for the cheapest polish they can
possibly find, sometimes just a sandpaper
and acid job from a local
butcher. This leaves them with a several thousand dollar
profit and you with an empty wallet and a ruined blade. Being
promised the "best polish" and delivered "the cheapest possible polish"
is so common it is almost the rule more than the exception.
4) A big name polisher in the US or Japan will use their name
reputation to get you to send them your blade and pay absolute top
dollar for what you think will be the best work of a well known
artist. They will then hand your blade off to "Junior
#3" to do all the actual work. This is somewhere between
bait and switch and outright fraud. The end result is poor
quality work at the highest prices.
In contrast, I personally
do 100% of all of the work on every blade that I accept for polishing.
5) This one is also common. A dealer or broker will
you one total price for polishing and take your sword and
money. When the
done they will claim
that the polisher is demanding another
$1,000 or whatever for "extra work" and will tell you that if you don't
pay up you will not be able to get your sword back.
If you do not pay their extortion, you will never get your
blade back and you obviously won't get your money back either.
To avoid this, I
always give total final prices (including any
shipping costs) up front and in writing to my clients before any work
6) One I just heard about. A somewhat
collector was told by an 'expert' at a recent major sword show, that
his nice, but medium quality blade was an ancient and
"priceless" treasure and required a
special "$500 per inch" polish to "grow the value".
If the owner had fallen for this, he would have been out more
than $10,000, most which would have ended
up in the expert/broker's pocket.
7) Of course the most basic fraud is someone just steals your
swords, sword fittings, money, etc. and is never heard from again.
8) Not really polishing related, but always
much information as you can and be very careful when you buy or sell
anything. There are a few very sharp individuals that have
their entire collections by taking advantage of elderly vets when they
ripping off novice collectors when they sell. It is also not
for a person to claim rank or office in a very official
sounding sword group or organization to gain the trust of an
owner, so be careful.
9) Click HERE
for more information on scams and frauds.
some of this info has been helpful,