A Few Harsh Words On Amateur Polishers

by Grey Doffin

Recently I've heard a lot of talk about amateur sword polishers. This topic has been covered often in the "Newsletter" and it would be nice if the problem had been put to rest, but since it hasn't, let me take another crack at it.

Apprenticeship to become a swordsmith in Japan takes 8 years; apprenticeship to become a polisher takes 10! Not only does a polisher have to master his craft, but he has to be an expert at kantei. He has to be able to look at a blade and tell, whether it is signed or not, just exactly what it is. Only then can he know the proper shape for the blade, if the kissaki is intact or if it has been reshaped, how thick he can expect the skin steel to be, which stones are most appropriate for the blade, and a myriad of other considerations that untrained polishers can't begin to understand.

There is a limit to the number of polishers a Japanese sword can endure. Eventually the skin steel will be polished off and the sword will no longer be a work of art. One of the chief skills of a properly trained polisher is to remove only that steel necessary to restore the blade, and no more. Amateur polishers can remove too much steel, exposing the core and damaging the blade. What's more, an amateur polish forces the next proper polish to lower the entire surface of the sword down to the lowest of the mistakes (improper shape, dips in the surface, untrue lines, etc.) of the amateur. An improper polish can go a long way towards killing a good blade.

No one who claims to appreciate the art of the sword should polish without proper training, and none of us should give amateur polishers swords to polish. I've heard the arguments: "I only polish my own blades." None of us own these swords; we only hold them in trust for future generations of collectors. It is our responsibility to take very good care of them. "I only let amateurs polish my unimportant swords." You don't know for sure which are the unimportant swords. I've been wrong on this, I've seen seasoned pros be wrong on this, and you too can dismiss an important blade as not worth a proper polish. Also, you don't know which blades will be important in the future. How many of us would have guessed ten years ago that blades with arsenal marks would be displayed in the Meibutsu room at the Chicago show? "A professional polish costs too much and takes too long." I don't agree with this; I think a good polish is a great bargain considering the skill involved. However, if you can't wait a year or if you don't want to spend $2,000 for a polish, then either leave the sword as is or sell it to someone who will have it restored properly. If you aren't willing to treat Japanese swords with the respect they're due, you aren't a serious student of the art and maybe you would do better to collect something else.

I would never give a sword to a polisher who hasn't been recommended by someone whose experience and judgement I trust. You shouldn't either. And a final word to the amateur polishers out there. I don't care how careful you are, how many articles on polishing you've read or how many videos you've watched, you have no right to practice your hobby on Japanese swords. If you keep at it, sooner or later you will damage a work of art. To my mind that is unexcusable; you should be ashamed of yourselves.