Keeping hilts tight on reproduction swords and sabers

How to restore antique arms & repair practice swords.

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Philip Tom
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Keeping hilts tight on reproduction swords and sabers

Post by Philip Tom » Fri Dec 08, 2006 3:37 am

One comment I hear quite a bit from martial artists is that the handles on many of the new weapons from China (and this includes the higher-end products as well, not only the "wushu specials") tend to loosen easily after a lot of use. This seems to be due to two principal factors,



1. The common use of a threaded tang and nut to secure the pommel to the grip (and thus keep all the hilt components tight on the blade's tang).



2. Rather sloppy manufacturing tolerances, with a less-than-precise fit of the tang in the grip's central channel.



Let me address each in turn.



First, the threaded nut is a poor way to secure a blade into a hilt. It's OK for parade or regalia weapons, such as those carried by army officers or the Knights of Columbus, but that's it. I've encountered very few historical examples of jian with threaded nuts, so there has to be a reason for that (not that the Chinese were ignorant of screws -- they made them to hold guns and clocks together for centuries). The only really secure method I've encountered using a threaded tang was that devised by the Russians in the 1880s and used through WW II, but that requires two nuts (one internal), one of them with reverse threads, and it's getting too complicated already so let's not go there.



If the threaded tang on your sword goes entirely through the nut (i.e. the end is exposed), you can easily remedy this. You will need:

a. A bench vise attached to a sturdy work table

b. Padding for vise jaws (sheets of lead, or pieces of thick shoe-

leather are fine)

c. A sharp flat file; mill-bastard or fine teeth are good (the type of

file that you use to sharpen garden tools will do)

d. A small ball pien hammer

e. Small adjustable wrench, or "channel lock" pliers

f. Safety goggles.



Disassemble the sword by unscrewing the nut and sliding the hilt components off the tang. Now is a good time to check the wood grip for cracks or defects (these must be repaired, or the grip replaced, before the weapon is put back in service). See following paragraphs for what to do if the grip is unusually loose. If everything is in order, you need to ensure that a sufficient amount of blade tang "stands proud" of the nut when everything is in place. If this is not the case, you need to file the nut thinner so that the tang sticks out. Placing the file flat on the tabletop, rub the nut along it to shave off metal (the nuts are usually brass and stock removal is easy). The tang should protrude at least 3/32 inch (or about 1.5mm) above the surface of the nut when the hilt is cinched down tight. Re-assemble the sword, and clamp it vertically (point down) in the padded vise jaws. Using the ball pien hammer, tap the end of the tang to "mushroom" it over the nut so that the nut will stay in place and not back off.



Second, let's address the problem of poor blade-to-hilt fit. This is a common fault with some repro Chinese swords (along with tinny, easily distorted pommels and guards). The problem is worsened by the use of cheap, packing-crate lumber to make some grips. Short of having a new grip made (which should be considered if the existing handle has a grave, unrepairable defect), a too-loose handle can easily be tightened with epoxy.



You will need:

a. Epoxy adhesive (the two-tube variety commonly sold in

hardware stores will do), get the hi strength and not the quick

5-minute stuff

b. small piece cardboard and a coffee stirrer or popsicle stick

c. rags and rubbing alcohol (for clean up)

d. latex or rubber household gloves to protect hands.

e. (optional) mold release agent, or paste furniture wax

f. vise/padding/workbench/wrench/hammer, as explained previously



Before applying adhesive, do what you need to do to the pommel nut to ensure that you have enough tang sticking out to peen over (see the previous tip). If you are working on a jian, make sure you do a test fit (without glue) and mark with masking tape the side of the blade/guard/hilt/pommel that will be aligned (believe it or not, some of these repros are so irregularly crafted that the components are not strictly symmetrical!). If you are at all concerned about wanting to disassemble the sword again in the future, apply the mold release agent (or paste wax) to the BLADE TANG ONLY and let dry. This allows the epoxy to "form fit" against the metal without making it stick. However, if you don't envision taking the weapon apart again, you can omit this step. Whatever you decide, begin the gluing process by affixing the blade vertically, tip down, in the padded vise jaws. Lay the hilt components within easy reach nearby. First place the guard onto the blade. Mix your epoxy, and carefully coat the tang and put some inside each end of the grip. Slide the grip onto the tang, pushing it snug against the guard. Apply epoxy to the inside of the "skirt" at the base of the pommel, and slide it onto the tang and grip. Wipe off any excess that "squooshes" out with alcohol soaked rag. Screw the nut down tight on the tang, and clean off any excess glue. When adhesive is set, peen the tang over the nut in a "mushroom" as described previously.
Phil

Philip Tom
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additional advisory

Post by Philip Tom » Fri Dec 08, 2006 4:01 am

The above instructions of course apply to currently made REPRODUCTION weapons. Working on antiques raises a number of conservation issues, and since the vast majority of martial artists will be training with modern-made swords, the subject will not be touched upon here.
Phil

josh stout
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Post by josh stout » Tue Jan 09, 2007 3:43 pm

Thanks for the information. I had tried using wood to pad the vice, and it did not work at all. My uncle suggested that some people use lead sheets as you mentioned, but he also suggested brass works as well without the issues of working with lead. I have not tried it yet.

Do you have suggestions for working with the partial antiques that come out of China? These come in a range of qualities, but have an antique blade, antique or reproduction fittings, and new wood of varying quality. Very often the guard and pommel show signs of being epoxied in place. The epoxy often becomes unstuck from the guard after use or in shipping. I have not tried to take any apart, but I am not sure it is even possible. Any thoughts?
Josh
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-Suhu

Philip Tom
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disassembly of composite antiques

Post by Philip Tom » Thu Jan 11, 2007 1:38 am

Hi, Josh
For secure and safe clamping of blades, my favorite jaw liner is thick leather, like that used for shoe or sandal soles (I don't recommend salvaging material from an old shoe -- ground-in dirt and debris can ruin the polish on a blade). A shoe repair shop might sell you a small piece or two of new stuff for next to nothing.
If your vise has reversible jaw plates, put the serrated side out. The serrations will grip the leather firmly, and the hide will compress around the blade, holding everything nice and tight without marring the surfaces.

Now, for those partial antiques you are talking about. They generally don't have threaded nuts holding the pommels; the tangs are mushroomed like the genuine old swords are. You need to carefully file the mushroom off so that the hilt parts can be slid off the tang. To disassemble, clamp the blade horizontally in your vise after filing the mushroom off. Using a small piece of wood (such as a short length of broomstick) and a mallet, carefully tap the pommel off. Check the grip to be sure that there are no crosswise pins, or tubular bushings in the lanyard hole. These have to be driven out with a drift punch (be sure to support the hilt carefully on your bench, and secure the blade so that it doesn't move around and cause an accident). With the blade clamped in the vise, use a large brass drift punch or a suitably sized piece of hardwood and a mallet to tap the inside of the guard until it and the grip slide off the tang.

Yes, a lot of these "mishmash" antiques have hilts glued in place. It's done because many of today's Chinese farmers-turned-"restorers" lack the skill to fit everything carefully. They use glue for everything like some people in America rely on duct tape. If, as you say, the glue has loosened (you can feel the play in the components if this is the case), you can often just go ahead and disassemble as explained above. If not, epoxy releases at temps between 220-250 degrees F. Gentle heating of the metal fittings with a propane torch (low heat, and keep the flame moving, and away from the wood if you want to save the original grip) will generally get the glue to soften and release. The problem is the type of glues used in China. There are a lot of funky synthetics, they can be stubborn, and they smell nasty when heated (I'm sure that they might contain toxins that will fry your brain cells so wear a respirator and do this with good ventilation). Keep the kiddies away so they won't hear you cussing. And good luck.
Phil

josh stout
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Post by josh stout » Thu Jan 18, 2007 10:59 am

Thanks for the info on semi-restoration. Up till now I have been using the stopgap measure of wrapping thread under the guard which works relatively well but still leaves a little play. None of my semi-antiques have been pegged at the handle so that is not an issue, but may be part of the problem. The tips on how to loosen glue are very helpful. It reminds me of how Indonesians take the handle off a kris.

I once saw someone comment that antiques loosen due to the shrinkage of the wood handle, or that on some there was once a leather washer keeping the guard in place. Would adding a leather washer be helpful? I have never seen the remains of one. I do have three examples of antiques that have stayed tight. In all three it was done with small iron wedges, but in three different ways. My suspicion is that the wedges were added later after the fittings had developed some play. On one saber the wedge was placed vertically next to the blade on the topside of the guard, on one the wedge was placed horizontally between the guard and handle, and on a Yi saber with no guard, wedges were placed vertically between the blade and handle. On the Yi saber, I am pretty sure the wedges were added over a long span of time as they show differing oxidation. I have a "first do no harm" policy on antiques, but for the semi-antiques it seems that little wedges might be a good way to tighten things up in a traditional way without having to take things apart. What do you think?
Josh
hidup itu silat, silat itu hidup

-Suhu

Philip Tom
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shrinkage

Post by Philip Tom » Thu Jan 18, 2007 3:51 pm

Yes, shrinkage is the primary reason for loosening of handles and/or guards. Any grip installation which stabilizes the hilt parts via pressure exerted by the grip material will loosen to some degree if the grip is made of an organic material subject to shrinkage. Shrinkage is inevitable as materials age and lose moisture. Changes in climate are also factors. This will happen whether the material is wood, horn, ivory, etc.

The use of wedges as you describe is a good stopgap, it's worked in the past, but of course these wedges can always fall out during use unless glued tightly in. You might want to think twice about gluing these wedges in an antique hilt if you forsee the eventual need to remove the hilt in a conservation or restoration procedure.
Phil

josh stout
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Post by josh stout » Wed Jul 18, 2007 1:34 pm

Well I have now experimented a bit with stabilizing the handles both with medium to low quality restorations and the militia jian I posted elsewhere. I didn't feel confident about taking things apart as the one time I tried that it didn't go well. The end of the tang started to split when I tried to peen it tight. It looked like a wooden tent peg that has been hit with a sledgehammer. It developed a mushroom shape and splits all around the edges. I have heard that you can heat the end of the tang to avoid splitting, but I didn't like the idea of burning an antique. So I went with the more expedient technique of using metal shims. My Uncle, who is a retired jeweler, sent me thin brass disks of various thickness to use. I bent the thinnest of them in half, and then in half again, creating a pointed pie wedge. I then used a cold chisel and hammer to tap them into place between the blade and the guard. The point of the wedge slid into place, and the thin brass at the top spread out to fill the gap. It has worked like a charm. I have now tried this with three swords, and with a few minutes of work for each, I easily made them completely tight. So far there is no indication that the wedges will fall out. They are also completely hidden from all but the most careful inspection as the cold chisel can push the entire wedge into the crack. I did not feel that there was any kind of danger to the antiques, and the process is entirely reversible. The only disadvantage I can think of is that the crack is not closed, but left open. However, it is hardly noticeable.

If you don't have access to thin bits of brass, aluminum would work the same way, cut from a can. It might be slightly more noticeable, and would be obvious as a modern fix however.

I hope this is useful to someone.
Josh
hidup itu silat, silat itu hidup

-Suhu

Chris Fields
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Post by Chris Fields » Wed Aug 08, 2007 8:51 am

What most people don't realize, is that all swords come loose over time, even the old peened over tang swords. Every once in a while, the sword owner would have to take a ball peen hammer to the bottom of the pommel where the tang is already peened over, and hit it a few times to tighten it up, this was quite common.

On modern screw tangs, I find the biggest problem is that the screw used is too small in diameter, often 1/4 inch or less. The amount of force compressing the handle delievered from such a small screw is much less than the peened over tang design of similar diameter. I have done some research and found that the screw needs to be at least 3/8 inch diameter for a steel nut and screw or more for a brass nut. This is due to the thread fatigue on the screw. The threads on the smaller screws will fatigue and slighly deform under the required torque, causing the handle to become loose. Having a larger screw that can hold a higher torque will fix this. Also, using a higher strenght material for the nut, such as steel, will help this as well.

As for peening over the nut, It will definitly work, but you not be able to get your blade back apart for a good cleaning if water or sweat gets down into the tang. And if you file off the peened section to get your blade apart, you'll have to shorten your handle next time to get it back together so you can peen over it again.

What I do, and I may even do this with my Huanuo Dao, is cut the small diameter screw off completely. I then use a 3/8" cobalt drill to drill a hole 1" up from the bottom of the tang, centered on the tang. I then take the blade to the band saw, and do two cuts from the bottom of the tang to the hole i drilled, making a 3/8" slot. I then weld in a 3/8" stainless steel 3/8 - 16, threaded rod. Becareful to keep as much of the blade cooled in water as you can so the heat from the weld will not spread and cause the blade to loose it's temper. I then open up the holes in the handle and pommel slightly, and reassemble everything back together with nice decorative acorn nut or square nut. And torque down tight using a short handle socket wrench. A long handle wrench can sometime give you too much torque and you can strip the treads. A lock washer helps too. Leather makes a nice lock washer.

If anyone would like this done for them, and can not do this by themselves, I can help.

One thing, this will only work if the handle is made of a fine hardwood. Alot of chinese handles use a relatively soft wood, and in that case, the wood will just give to force of the screw, and may still come loose. For this, I would replace the wood with a fine hardwood. Again, I can help with this. May knife kit places sell blocks of the finest hardwood for handles now a days, and it is a nice way to customize your sword. Fine hard wood blocks range from $5 to $25 in most places, so it's not that expensive either. Some place sell Horn and Bone as well, although it's harder to work with and slightly more expensive, it definitly gives a unique look.
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