Japanese swordsmiths dedicate their lives to learning how to make a katana worthy of its legendary status as a national treasure and the epitome of Japanese sword craftsmanship. It’s an elegant bladed weapon, and making it has spiritual underpinnings.
That doesn’t mean you cannot make a katana in your backyard, garage, or makeshift workshop. Although the homemade sword might not gain Japanese experts’ approval and certification, you can still produce a katana worth displaying or wearing in cosplays.
But how? Consider yourself lucky because we’ll outline the steps to make this Japanese sword as close to the original as possible. Let’s start.
Traditional Katana Swordmaking: Not for Everyone
The katana. Japan’s national pride and treasure. A symbol of unparalleled dedication to masterful craftsmanship, attention to detail, and an unequaled understanding of “beauty in simplicity.”
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese government and the Society for Preservation of Japanese Art Swords (Nihon Bijutsu Token Hozon Kyokai or NBTHK) consider high-quality katana as works of art deserving the classification “National Treasure.”
Becoming a katana swordsmith isn’t as straightforward as other blacksmiths globally. You need to ask permission from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Science, and Technology’s Agency for Cultural Affairs. Once you get the government’s nod, your path to becoming a katana smith begins.
The next step is for the aspiring blacksmith to undergo apprenticeship under a Prefectural Public Safety Commission-licensed katana smith (katana-kaji) for at least five years.
This requirement is vital because only a master katana-kaji can teach an apprentice the correct techniques of forging tamahagane steel and the history and cultural significance of making a katana.
It’s worth pointing out that traditional Japanese swordsmithing is generational. From Masamune to Gono and Awataguchi, Japan’s ancient swordmaking tradition lives on, with masters handing down centuries-old know-how to disciples.
And in case you’re wondering about the number of licensed katana-kaji, it’s 188 as of 2017.
Katana-kaji take their craft seriously. They can submit their creations to the NBTHK for evaluation, allowing them to receive one of four classifications.
- Hozon (yellow certificate or “origami”) – the katana is worthy of preservation
- Tokubetsu Hozon (brown origami) – the katana is especially worthy of preservation
- Juyo Token (oshigata rubbing of the tang or nakago and/or paper photo) – the katana is an important work
- Tokubetsu Juyo Token (oshigata rubbing of the tang or nakago and/or paper photo) – the katana is an especially important work
Juyo Token (left) and Tokubetsu Juyo Token origami. Images by New Unique Japan.
Note that a single katana-kaji can submit ten katanas and only two will receive a Tokubetsu Hozon designation. Of the 10,000 Juyo Token-classified katanas, only 700 are Tokubetsu Juyo Token.
No wonder these swords can fetch thousands of dollars.
These figures underscore Japan’s strict requirements and how they reflect a katana-kaji’s expertise. The lesson? Just because you have a PPSC license doesn’t automatically translate to NBTHK-certified katanas.
How to Make a Katana DIY Style
Making katana in Japan is not easy. The learning curve is stressful enough. Add to this the stringent regulatory requirements, and you have the perfect recipe for a rare skill set. Not to worry, though. You’re not in Japan, and you can create a katana without undergoing apprenticeship and submitting the sword for NBTHK evaluation and classification.
Step 1. Choose your materials.
Katana-kaji use tamahagane steel to make katana. It’s a rare iron ore from precious ironsand (Satetsu) found only in certain regions of Japan. Japanese swordsmiths combine the Satetsu with pine charcoal (Matsuzui) to produce an odd-looking black-grayish mass called “bloom of steel.”
Making tamahagane steel is a 36- to 72-hour toil of Satetsu addition every 10 minutes, smelting, and turning. Moreover, katana-kaji use a special, single-use clay tub furnace (Tatara).
Using tamahagane to create a DIY katana is out of the question. Hence, the following alternatives will suffice.
A favorite of many DIY katana makers, carbon steel mimics tamahagane’s hardness and strength. However, katana craftsmen must pick the correct carbon steel to produce the best Japanese sword replica.
Here’s a tip. Carbon steel has a four-digit rating (i.e., 1045 and 1095). You can disregard the first two numbers and focus on the last two, signifying the carbon percentage in the steel. For instance, a 1045 carbon steel has 0.45% carbon, while a 1095 version contains 0.95% carbon.
Authentic katana with tamahagane steel often contain 0.5% to 0.7% carbon. Hence, a 1060 carbon steel should be perfect.
This katana replica material differs from carbon steel with the extra silicon in its chemical composition. It gives the sword exceptional malleability and flexibility. You have two choices: 5160 and 9260 spring steel.
5160 spring steel contains little silicon and chromium alloy, giving the sword commendable durability and strength. On the other hand, 9260 spring steel has more silicon. This composition allows the steel to retain its shape even after bending it to 90 degrees.
Tool steel is the way to go if you want to create a tough katana that holds its sharp edge superbly. Unfortunately, these metals are pricey.
The T10 is perfect for katana makers requiring an abrasion- and scratch-resistant Japanese sword. This tool steel features tungsten, giving the metal its impressive characteristics.
Although the priciest tool steel, L6 Bainite beats the T10 in toughness because it contains few alloys.
You can also check out Damascus steel or other folded steel types. These metals’ striking patterns can make for a one-of-a-kind katana. Unfortunately, adding too many aesthetic elements to the katana can detract from its “simple-but-beautiful” ethos.
Some katana enthusiasts say stainless steel is an excellent katana material. While its luster is unparalleled, stainless steel blades exceeding 30.4 centimeters or 12 inches are fragile. They could break easily on impact. However, you can still use stainless steel if you promise to keep the katana ONLY in the display stand.
Here’s the thing. The Japanese katana blade spans 23.86 inches (60.6 centimeters) from the tip to the tang. That’s about twice a stainless steel’s acceptable limits.
Ideally, you will want the katana steel lengthy to allow adjustments during smithing. We recommend a single steel block measuring half an inch thick (1.27 centimeters), two inches wide (5.1 centimeters), and 40 inches long (101.6 centimeters).
Step 2. Prepare the furnace.
Learning how to make a katana is challenging. Even the best katana-kaji will need 12 months to finish a single sword, half of which focuses on the blade (Nagasa) and tang (Nakago). Another six months is necessary to apply aesthetic touches, making the katana worthy of NBTHK certification.
A hot and fiery furnace is essential to forging a katana, whether you’re a katana-kaji or a DIYer. You need sufficient fuel to maintain a scorching 1,600-degree temperature (about 870 degrees Celsius).
A katana-kaji preparing the furnace. Image by Japan Endless Discovery.
This temperature is crucial for “softening” the katana steel, allowing you to forge and remove “slag” or impurities. The idea is to bring the metal to a hot-glowing yellow-orange look. And you can only do this with uber-high temperatures.
There’s no shortage of fuel for a katana making furnace. Some use coal because blacksmiths can thrust the steel into the fiery-red coals before hammering and shaping. But coal is costly, leaving wood a suitable alternative for budget-conscious DIY katana makers.
With the furnace in the correct temperature, you’re ready to forge.
Step 3. Forge the steel.
This step is the most challenging. Seasoned katana-kaji spend at least a dozen weeks to forge tamahagane into an object resembling a katana in the rough. You don’t need that long to create a katana.
- Heat the steel in the furnace until it creates a bright orange-yellow glow.
- Place the katana steel on an anvil and strike it with a hammer. Remember to turn the metal bar as you forge the katana. If hammering doesn’t change the steel’s appearance or is no longer glowing, reheat it in the furnace.
- Bend the heated, malleable steel to create the katana’s characteristic shape.
Note this Japanese sword has a curved Nagasa. Imagine a line running from the handguard (Tsuba) to the Nagasa’s tip (Kissaki). Now, measure the distance between the blade’s backside (Mune) and this imaginary line. You will get about six-tenths of an inch or 1.5 centimeters. That’s the Sori or curvature.
- Focus your hammer strikes on sections one at a time, adhering to the ideal katana proportions.
- Forge the Kissaki once done with the katana’s basic shape.
- Work on the bevel and Sori. The katana has an iconic two-toned look – a thick and dark spine (backside or Mune) and a light and sharp cutting edge (Ha). A bevel separates the two.
- Hammer the blade’s end opposite the Kissaki to form the tang.
Note making katana (forging) requires constant heating, hammering, shaping, and reheating to achieve the desired form. Hence, seasoned blacksmiths can take days to forge a katana, longer for newbies.
A katani-kaji forging a katana. Image by Nippon.com.
Step 4. Shape the blade.
Hammering alone will not give you a katana’s characteristic look. Hence, you’ll need other tools to refine its shape.
You can use a combination of file and grinder to form the blade into its “near-ideal” shape. A picture of a katana should help you “mold” the Nagasa into the correct form.
Step 5. Temper the blade with clay.
A unique feature of the katana is the Hamon, demarcating the line between the soft yet sharp Ha and the flexible but sturdy Mune. Katana-kaji use clay and charcoal to produce this katana attribute.
Get a lump of clay and cover the blade’s thick spine or backside, thinning the substance toward the Ha. Leave the cutting edge uncovered and return the blade to the furnace.
The clay-covered section heats slower than the uncovered Ha, creating a softer, more flexible core (Mune).
Step 6. Quench the katana steel.
Quenching the blade facilitates cooling and hardening. The Ha cools much faster, allowing it to contract and pull the hot Mune into a reverse curve or bend. As the Mune cools, it contracts, creating tension in the Ha and strengthening its welding into the Mune.
Ideally, you would want to immerse the Kissaki and Ha in water or oil before the Mune. This technique strengthens and hardens the leading edge, while giving the Mune the ability to absorb or block strikes from opponents without breaking.
Step 7. Temper the katana blade.
Tempering further strengthens the blade and is a crucial step in learning how to make a katana.
Reduce the furnace’s temperature to about 204.4 degrees Celsius or 400 degrees Fahrenheit and reheat the blade immediately after quenching. Allow the katana to cool naturally at room temperature.
Step 8. Polish and sharpen the katana.
Remove the clay-charcoal coating from the Nagasa and use a whetstone or sandpaper to polish the katana. You can also grind the Ha to give it a razor-sharp edge.
Inspect the katana and sand or file sections with imperfections for a more refined look. Don’t forget to drill two holes at the tang to secure it to the handle or hilt (Tsuka).
Step 9. Create the katana elements.
You will need a handle (hilt or Tsuka) and a handguard (Tsuba) for your katana.
Most katanas have a circular Tsuba, although you can create a square with rounded corners, ovoid, and other shapes. Create a slot in the Tsuba’s center big enough to pass the blade through.
Meanwhile, the Tsuka must be sufficiently lengthy to accommodate two hands. After all, a katana is a two-handed sword. Most katana DIYers use alder, yellow poplar, or other hardwood for exceptional strength. Drill holes for anchoring the tang.
Design and create the endcap or pommel (Kashira).
Step 10. Assemble the katana.
Hold the blade and insert the tang through the Tsuba’s slot and the Tsuka. Secure the tang with copper or brass pegs and apply industrial-grade adhesive to prevent the tang from dislodging.
Wrap the Tsuka with a leather strip or any other material. Attach the Kashira, inspect your work a final time, and apply other finishing touches you want.
Learning how to make a katana is easy with the DIY style. Although elbow grease is necessary, the finished product should be rewarded in itself. You now have a piece you can display at home, show off to friends, or even use in cosplays.
Of course, you can always buy a katana replica or imitation sword from trustworthy shops and save yourself from the heat, constant hammering, and the risk of creating a Japanese sword unworthy of the legend.