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How to Polish a Japanese Samurai Sword by David Hofhine

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This page 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.

dotWhy choose Dave?

    I 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 working on a single blade.  Most sword enthusiasts in the US are familiar with my work and I do regular work for many of the top collectors in the country.  Many of my clients actually feel that my 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 dissatisfied customer.
    If you want it done right, I'm your man.  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 professional 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.  


dotThe hoards of amateurs and frauds

    There 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 with belt sanders and acids and fancy themselves togishi.
    There are also a few more or 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 been significantly damaged 
at one time or another by bad polishing or amateur cleaning.
    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 will 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 operators simply take off with your blades and money and are never heard from again. Even amateur polishers who have been around for a while have been known to simply stop returning peoples blades, phone calls, or money.

dotPhoto Fraud WARNING!

    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.  All pages of my website and images I upload are copyright David Hofhine, Kensei LLC.  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 stolen before you commit your money to someone else.
    My email is davidhofhine@gmail.com.  If you're talking to someone else, it's not me.


dotHow to recognize and avoid the butchers?

    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 blade's owners who keep sending blades and money to the unqualified are equally liable.  Here are some clues for recognizing less than qualified sword polishers.
    If they do not have a significant waiting list, they are not doing good work!  It can take two weeks or longer to properly polish a single blade, so it only takes a few 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 work.  Even 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 high quality first hand examples of their work, don't give them your swords and money.
 Some people who sell polishing services have extensive websites, boasting all manner of impressive claims, but do not display their work at shows and can't produce 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 anyone who insists on taking possession of your blade before giving you any estimate of cost.

dotThe one stop 'do it all' online sword shops

    There are some online businesses that offer a wide variety of Japanese sword restoration services.  They offer everything from polishing 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.


dotAn important fact for the novice collector

    NO polish is always better than a BAD polish.  Shiny does NOT necessarily equal better.  Just because your blade comes back from an amateur polisher 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 original 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 restored, simply keep it clean and oiled and preserve it as is.  You will be doing yourself, your sword, and posterity a great favor and saving some money in the process.


dotDo it yourself?

    Traditional 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 someone's portrait.  You can buy the finest sable brushes, 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 will look equally sad and amateurish.
    After a few years with hundreds of hours 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 years and thousands of hours of dedicated study and practice will your art skills begin to have merit.
    Sword 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 thousands 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 absolutely must study traditional Japanese sword polishing, remember a few basic rules.
   -First:  Do no harm.  You don't want to be one those people who ruins old swords.
   -Second:  Geometry is 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 it is over a foundation that has to be redone.
   -Third:  Work exclusively on finish polishing to start with.  It is a lot harder to ruin a sword with fine finishing stones than it is with the coarse foundation stones.  If you never master finishing, there will be no point in going on to study foundation work.
   -Fourth:  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 older blades.
   -Fifth:  Try to find some competent instruction and spend as much money as possible on the best quality natural finishing stones.  You will never get good results with 
sand paper 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 life 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, etc.) because 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.



dotSword Polishing Scams!!!

    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.  

    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 even 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 and 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 two day road trip to go collect his unpolished blade and money in person.  Another owner recently related sending a blade and full payment to a prominent polisher and waiting over 4 years for work to begin!  Both of these blades eventually ended up coming to me for polish.
    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 and 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 Assistant Trainee #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 quote you one total price for polishing and take your sword and money.  When the work is 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 is started.

    6)  Of course the most basic fraud is someone just steals your swords, sword fittings, money, etc. and is never heard from again.

    7)  Not really polishing related, but always get as much information as you can and be very careful when you buy or sell anything.  There are a few very sharp individuals that have built their entire collections by taking advantage of elderly vets when they buy and ripping off novice collectors when they sell.  It is also not uncommon for a person to claim rank or office in a very official sounding sword group or organization to gain the trust of an unsuspecting sword owner, so be careful.

    8)  Click HERE for more information on scams and frauds.


Hope some of this info has been helpful,

David Hofhine

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davidhofhine@gmail.com

davidhofhine@gmail.com


Please note, the blades featured on this web site are not currently in my possession, do not belong to me and are not for sale as far as I know. An absolute minimum number of blades (usually just one or two unmounted and unpolished) are kept on hand at all times to minimize liability.  -David Hofhine

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