There is a useful
application and a fair market value for production blades. This
is not always readily apparent to a beginner in iai or sword collecting.
This page is intended to educate the introductory Katana/Iaito sword
buyers on the role and value of production blades.
We define the
general categories of katana swords as follows:
Katana Swords (Nihonto)
- Modern Crafted
Katana Swords (Shinsaku, Shinken)
- Modern Production
Training Katana Swords (Iaito)
- Modern Production
Display Swords ("Wall Hangers")
The swords most
used for functional iaido practices are usually within category
2 and 3.
Swords cost a minimum of a few thousands of dollars and are too
expensive to risk damage in most practical application. Swords intended
for display purposes are too fragile to sustain the rigors of cutting.
katana swords by know smiths represented in catefory 2 can vary
greatly in costs and quality and are usually for higher ranked iaidoka.
Since we cannot generalize the characteristics of this category,
we will only discuss characteristics of the modern production blades
Info on Production Iaitos:
blades today are manufactured in China. A production iaito can be
either functional (sharpened for cutting practices) or not (unsharpened
for "kata" practices - sword forms). Unsharpened swords
used for kata can be made of either carbon steel or zinc/aluminum
alloy. We will limit our discussion here to the sharpened functional
katana constructed of carbon steel since this is sought after by
a much broader segment of the market.
The lower end
pricing of a functional katana is currently in the neighborhood
of ~$200 while the higher end will range in the low thousands. High
end production swords are almost always from well know sword maker/company
who are willing to attach their company name to their product. Smaller
companies or non-name brand swords almost always come up with inferior
products of this category with attempts to lower their production
If you are purchasing
a high end production sword from a well know company and have a
budget of several hundred to thousands, odds are, you already know
what you are looking for and are facing relatively little risk.
However if you are limited by your budget to a few hundred, this
is where the dangers of sorting through the mess of low end production
There is a broad
array of offerings with varying quality among the low price (~$200)
iaitos on several auction sites. Most forges in China has the capabilities
of making a functionally sharpened blade using material ranging
from stainless steel, carbon monosteel, to high carbon folded steel.
Someone new to iaido or sword collecting will have an impossible
time trying to differentiate the quality of metal and to determine
if a sword is suitable for a specific purpose.
As a beginner
shopping for an introductory katana in the ~$200 range, it is difficult
to sort through the jewel from the junk... especially if your choices
include individual sellers from places such as ebay.
sellers takes advantage of beginners by making false claims that
could not verified. Many times, the seller themselves has no idea
what they are claiming and are just copying texts from other similar
items that are selling successfully... even if their product is
inferior (representing a display piece or a replica as a function
sword). This is especially a large risk if you purchase from a seller
in China directly, which is happening more frequently nowadays.
If you think
about the fact that individual sellers are not looking to build
brand name, you can see that their ultimate objective would be to
complete a sale at the maximum amount of margin possible. This is,
more often than not, accomplished by minimizing production costs
through use of the cheapest materials possible.
In order to
protect the beginners from the unscrupulous sellers, the sword community
generally conveys a cynical view towards production blades.
This is not
to say that there is no place for a production sword or that they
are always a bad deal... Just that you have to be cautious in your
purchase, be certain that their applicable function is in line with
your intended use, and know their fair market value.
Application and Fair Market Value:
of a production blade is dependent on its material and construction.
Some high end production katanas with high quality steel and unique
alloying agents, such as chromium, makes blades which are suitable
for many types of uses. However, lower end production blades constructed
of slightly softer steel with no major alloying agents and better
suited for light cutting only. This is especially the case if the
blade is narrow or adopts use of bo-hi to lighten the weight.
We define the
quality of a blade by the following characteristics:
- Ability to
- Degree of
flex a blade can withstand and still return to center
- Degree of
flex a blade can withstand without shatter
- Ability to
maintain a cutting edge through use without rolling or chipping
Some production blades are only suitable for display. This includes
all blades constructed of stainless steel, low carbon content steel,
blades with thinned out nakago (tang), rat-tailed tang, and tang
whose length is less than 2/3 of the length of the tsuka (grip).
Also, there are some blades that are semi-sharpened (partial sharpening),
or sharpened from display ("wall hanger") swords... these
should not be used for practical cutting. (Many dojos will outright
ban the use of non suitable swords so save yourself an unpleasant
Swords suitable for light cutting (defined as occasional cutting
of forgiving targets such as beach mats, pool noodles, water bottles,
etc.) include blades with Rockwell hardness of approximately RC
40 to RC 50. (+/- 1045 carbon steel depending on quench and/or alloying
Swords suitable for medium cutting (defined as regular cutting of
light targets and occasional cutting of tatami omote) include blades
with hardness of RC 50 to RC 60. (+/- 1060 carbon steel depending
on quench and/or alloying agents).
Swords suitable for heavy cutting (defined as regular cutting
of Tatami Omote and occassional cutting of heavy targets such as
3"+ bamboo, multiple rolls of tatami omote, or mats wrapped
around an oak dowel) are usually constructed with higher tolerances
and AQL levels using higher grade of steel (i.e.. 5160, 1090, etc.)
and will generally exceed the ~$200 to $300 range. Very few production
blades are suitable as heavy cutters and will be in the neighborhood
of the $1000 price range. It is fairly safe to assume that if you
are looking for a blade within the couple hundred dollars price
range, you are not looking for a heavy cutter.
If you are purchasing
a production blade in the light and medium category, keep in mind
of their limitations and make sure that your intended use is within
the listed parameters.
when purchasing from an individual seller, non-branded production
blade, or swords with unknown metal construction, they will fall
within one of the first three categories listed above. There are
very few exceptions to this and most swords would have a market
value in the neighborhood from of +/- $200 to $300.
In order for
a manufacturer to keep the cost of a production blade down, there
are selective sacrifices that will need to be made that will deviate
the construction of a sword from an authentic katana. The real question
is where the particular manufacturer is making these sacrifices
to keep their costs down... does it effect the functionality of
the blade or not?
A common places
where sacrifices are made with minimal impact to the functionality
of the sword is the way the kissaki is finished. To finish a kissaki
correctly requires a certain amount of technical knowledge and manual
labor. As a result, many lower end production blades will have kissaki
geometry and finishing method that is a bit "off".
fittings may be another place where sacrifices can be made without
too much impact. (This is not necessarily the place that every seller
makes their sacrifices though... many beginner select a sword based
on tsuba design over blade construction and the sellers know this.)
All of the information
stated above is only applicable when the seller is knowledgeable
about the product they are selling and are honest in their representation.
Unfortunately, this type of dealer seems to be rare to find these
problem with buying a low cost iaido is that you will run across
everyone who will say anything to close a sale.
Nearly all of
the etched hamon on auction sites are represented as real hamon.
Protect yourself by learning how to identify an etched hamon. Take
a look at our "ETCHED HAMON IMAGE REFERENCE
PAGE" to see how etched hamons look. If a seller is
trying to pass an etched hamon as a real hamon, you KNOW that they
are not trustworthy.
the nakago (tang) can be etched by a professional carver for a minimal
cost per character. The presence or lack of a signature does not
determine the value of a sword.
If you suspect
that the seller is misrepresenting a certain feature on their sword,
you would be better off not buying from them since you don't know
how many more misrepresentations there are.
This is not
to say that you can't buy a good production blade at great value.
With a little research and diligence, you can still find some gems