I bought my first and only katana when I was 20. I bought it after weeks of browsing the Internet and learning about how a proper katana is constructed, what it’s properties are, what the best retailers around were and what I could expect to pay. I really wish that I was rich enough to afford to be a collector of katanas, but unfortunately until my student loans are paid off I would currently be better served as a stamp collector.
Let me first preface this statement by acknowledging that I am not an expert of metallurgy or sword making and so I am open to corrections. In addition, please realize that this is a weapon that can seriously injure or kill and therefore demands respect and proper training as to its use before you decide to start swinging it around. That being said, I’ve amassed a list of a few questions to bear in mind when looking for a katana to purchase.
1. Are their blades machine stamped or hand-forged? In my personal opinion part of the joy of collecting these weapons is the care and dedication taken to create them in the first place. It is a difficult process and the end result is something more akin to art than engineering. Expect a certain amount of machine assistance in the forging process when purchasing a sword from a major sword manufacturer (although not necessarily when requesting a custom sword from a master craftsman). However, the key distinction is people using some machine tools in the forging of your blade vs. a machine stamping them out and sharpening them. You want people to be involved in the construction and shaping of your blade. Inquire with the manufacturer as to how the swords are produced.
2. What kind of steel is used? There are many correct answers to this question, but it certainly should be some form of carbon steel. You do not want a stainless steel blade as that essentially means that none of the traditional methods of creating a katana were employed to generate that blade. Also, stainless steel means that your blade is made of softer stuff and will not retain its edge as readily. If it is made of Tamahagane steel, then it is made of the traditional type of steel used to forge katanas in Ancient Japan. If Tamahagane is used, the blade should be folded steel in order to remove some of the impurities that exist in that type of steel. Some other types of steel do not necessarily require folding to still produce a high quality blade as long as the steel being used is of a high enough grade and being shaped by a real craftsman. Look up the kind of steel they are using online to get more information.
3. What are the credentials of the place or sword-smith you are looking into? In other words, look around the Internet to see if there are many reviews of the place you are looking into. Sword Forum is an especially good place to start. They review some different sword brands and their forums attract sword aficionados who can offer some excellent advice.
4. Are the blades differentially heat treated? This is what you want for your katana. A well crafted katana will have a Rockwell hardness of around 57-60 on the edge, giving it its sharpness, but around 40 Rockwell hardness for the rest of the blade to allow it some flexibility and reduce its chance of breaking on impact. The process of differential heat treatment will give it a wavy line called a hamon, near the edge of the blade. Some blades that have not been differentially heat treated will still stamp on a fake hamon anyway, or etch it in with acid, but those typically look more uniform and even, whereas a natural hamon is slightly more organic in appearance. A hamon will look uniform as well if they use a template to apply the shape of the clay. If possible, I would recommend requesting the hamon to be made without using a template, but this is ultimately a matter of preference to the sword owner.
5. Ask if they can give you any more information as to the process: (forging, folding, sharpening, polishing, fittings, any katana maintenance information, etc.)
My first katana was purchased from Kris Cutlery, and has been a good starting blade. As such it still ran me around $700. A custom made katana from a real master in the craft will run anywhere from $6500 to $50,000. Going with an American sword-smith like Howard Clark or Michael Bell will keep you on the lower end of that price range, but still its for now quite out of my reach.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the intricacies of the traditional process of forging a katana, check out these links. For more detailed information from people with more familiarity than I, I’d recommend browsing Sword Forum.