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What Japanese swordsmithing has to do with razors
We can only imagine how much effort goes into producing the sharpest blade in the world. It was certainly enough to make us want to take a closer look at the traditional Japanese swordsmithing process. Especially because the manufacturing technique is similar to that of an everyday object: the Panasonic razor.
Is new always better? In a lot of cases, yes, but certainly not all the time. It’s not a coincidence that some traditions are alive and well for thousands of years. That’s where you find passion and quality. One example of tradition standing the test of time is in Japan’s traditional swordsmithing. Electronics manufacturer Panasonic draws inspiration from this technique for their razor.
Hold that thought. First we need to find out a bit more about the tradition that’s shaping modern manufacturing.
The samurai sword and its symbolism
The katana, a samurai longsword, is symbolic of all types of traditional swordsmithing and embodies more than just a weapon of war. It used to be and still is a work of art with a talisman element to it. First and foremost, it was a status symbol a brave soldier in pre-industrial Japan could only receive from their overlords like some kind of medal.
This would automatically grant him membership to the highest warrior class, namely the samurai. The sword gives its owner authority and can only be taken away from him by a battle to the death. That was until 250 years ago, when this tradition came to an end. Samurai had to hand in their swords on the instruction of the king, who wanted to build a modern society following the European model. This lead to a slump in craftsmanship, which is why very few people possess the skill to this day.
How the katana is traditionally made
Today there is only one process of smelting steel for katanas that has remained unchanged for over a thousand years. The result is called tamahagane steel. To make it, a smelter and his team need about thirteen tonnes of charcoal and eight tonnes of iron sand over just three days. They put these materials in the smelting oven at 1,500° where they can mix. It’s a tough job and one where you can never take your eyes off the flame.
To get to the produced steel, you first need to expose the white, glowing core of the oven. The elaborate manufacturing process makes this material 200 times more expensive than standard steel. In the middle ages, smelting was considered a sacred act, which would appease the goddess of metal.
Before the sword can get into the blacksmith’s hands, it has to be cleaned spiritually using prayer. As for the forging technique itself, the steel is heated and broken into small, flat pieces. This preparatory stage alone can take several hours. But it’s important and certainly necessary as it lets you see from the outer edges which parts have enough carbon content and are of a high enough quality to warrant further processing.
The parts that qualify are then stacked on a steel plate and covered with rice paper. During the forging process, they are kept topped with ash and clay water. This stops oxygen inclusion, which can later make the sword rust on the inside. The material is hammered on throughout for an even spread of carbon.
To ensure there are no impurities on the inside of the blade, the steel block is split and folded over and over. By the end of it, there can be up to 33,000 layers in a sword, which translate into a type of grain in the finished product. That’s why it comes as no surprise that it can take a good two weeks for the forger just to make a rough shape of the sword.
Hardening & sharpening
Once the shape has been forged, it’s time for hardening. This involves coating the blade with a mixture of clay, ash and grindstone powder. The clay layers are applied with varying hardness. This is what keeps the spine of the sword flexible and at the same time guarantees the thin edge can be sharpened to the maximum.
Afterwards, the blade is placed in the fire. When the sword is ready, it’s taken out and put straight in a water quench to cool. Then it’s onto the engraving and detailing phase to personalise the sword. You could say it’s like the forger’s thumbprint.
To complete the process, the sword is sent on to the polisher. Polishers sit in what looks like an uncomfortable position to sand the sword to perfection with various sandstones, granite and artificial stone. This stage alone can take eleven days and has to be carried out with care because of the risk of getting cut.
Taking tradition into the modern world
According to Panasonic, their new razor, styling and trimming products combine aspects of traditional swordsmithing with the latest high tech. In other words, their blades go through a similar manufacturing process to that of the katana. The difference being they’re made from Yasuki Hagane steel, rather than than traditional tamahagane steel.
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