Traditional polish

How to restore antique arms & repair practice swords.

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Traditional polish

Post by thenabi » Sat Jan 17, 2009 5:05 pm

Hi, I would like to know if anyone has a general idea of the historical/traditional polish and finish of chinese weapons - I'm most curious of the jian. There are millions of pages on Katanas and their careful polishing, but after a quick search here and google I can't find this information. Do we even know? Could the variations be so great?


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Peter Dekker
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Re: Traditional polish

Post by Peter Dekker » Mon Jan 26, 2009 5:00 pm


The level of finish varied, but there is no reason to believe that some of the best ones were any less finely finished as the better Japanese katana. Some of the better ones had intricate patterns that could only be made visible either by a very high polish alone or a combination of a polish and an etch. Many modern longquan makers would say they did not etch Chinese swords in the old days but I've seen some twist-core blades were treated in a way where the pattern can not only be seen, but also felt with the fingers. From what I know this can only be done with the use of relatively weak acids over a long period of time.

Most jian however were crude and not well-finished (while fully functional) but it was exactly the same for many Japanese katana. Nowadays the Japanese have taken their polishing a little over the top, but in the old days also the Japanese made a good number of not so well finished but functional and practical swords for the lower warriors. Collectors nowadays almost only marvel over very well-preserved examples that never saw use, and tend to forget those low-end practical work horses. Or they polish the crap out of a mediocre blade to make it look nice and presentable by modern standards, while it never looked that way during its working life.

(In effect, this is quite like sculpting a modern statue out of a mediocre antique statue to make it look presentable to the standards of today! The looks may be improved, but it can't quite be called "old art" anymore then.)

It is too bad that all traditional Chinese sword making lineages seem to have been severed during the 20th century. Any who claim to be descendants of old Chinese sword making lineages, boasting centuries of tradition, are putting up a marketing show. With all information going from master to apprentice, and no explicit text on the subject is known to have surfaced, a lot may have gone vanished forever. But at least there are some well-preserved antiques scattered around the world that give us a pretty good idea of their final finish.

Knowing is not enough, we must apply.
Willing is not enough, we must do.

-Bruce Lee
Antique Chinese Arms & Functional reproductions
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Philip Tom
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thoughts on polish

Post by Philip Tom » Tue Jan 27, 2009 10:55 pm

It's often hard to determine what sort of original, working-life "polish" antique Chinese blades may have looked like because so many of them have come down to us in well-worn, if not ratty and neglected, condition. Chalk that up to a century of turmoil and upheaval at the end of the Qing, and even worse conditions in the 20th cent. which saw not only war but the annihilation of almost the entire high culture of the ruling elite and a breakup of many of the old trade guilds and the intergenerational chains that perpetuated ancient craft traditions.

I have seen enough old swords in my restoration work, however, to note that good quality blades were indeed well-finished. A few have come down in good condition, with sharp ridgelines and fullers running true. Others have revealed this precision after a few strokes over the coarse stones -- like a man with a strong righteous character, the qualities of a good blade can be seen beneath the rust. Some, like jian, reveal precise bevels and a properly centered ridgeline in the hollow of the guard, untouched by amateurish attempts at sharpening over the decades and centuries.

Old texts such as Shen Gua's 11th cent. discourse on swords, and the 17th cent "Guangdong Xinyu" (both cited by Needham in his DEVELOPMENT OF IRON AND STEEL TECHNOLOGY IN CHINA) mention specific surface patterning in saber blades. Such patterns won't be visible unless some polishing technique was used to make them apparent to the naked eye.

Other blades, such as those made in villages for militias and lower-class civilian martial artists, are of greatly variable quality and even when they are well tempered, no attempt was made at a fine finish and their surfaces and contours are always a tad irregular. These were made, after all, in a milieu that produced mostly domestic hardware and farm tools. And there are the mass produced ones made under a decadent and corrupted Qing military procurement and supply system, many of those are simply rubbish. Ditto for the decorative swords made for the tourist trade at the turn of the last century.

The eye for exquisite detail in sword finishing and mounting in Japan grew to its present level of artistic sophistication, in great part, thanks to the country's 250 years of domestic tranquility during it's self-imposed isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate. China never had the luxury of hermetically sealing itself off and fighting no wars for anywhere near that period of time. Leon Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara, in their very informative book THE CRAFT OF THE JAPANESE SWORD, state that as late as the early Edo period, shirazaya or resting-scabbards were still rather crude and did not reach their current level of development until much later. Likewise, it is thought that earlier in Japanese history (especially during time of war), many warriors sharpened their own swords; Kapp et al say that "no one knows...what polishing in the Kamakura or Muromachi period was like because all the extant blades have been polished in much more recent times. The few written descriptions we have from the past are either vague or confusing." The fact of life that these authors stress is that steel will rust, no matter how well maintained. The Japanese say that even the best polish lasts only 100 years at most (use your sword for cutting grass mats, and you'll scratch up an "art polish" in one afternoon, no matter how good the blade is).

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Re: Traditional polish

Post by thenabi » Wed Jan 28, 2009 11:04 pm

Hi, this doesn't sound so surprising, but it's very interesting the bits about a possible serious acid etch in sword antiques. Also ironic about the ridge of the jian being straight where previously hidden. :roll: We all love to sharpen... I always wondered about the feasibility and practicality of maintaining the Japanese style polish on every sword. Thanks a lot for your detailed responses.

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