A Very Special Daisho
The Juncture of East and West
As collectors, admirers, and craftsman, we are driven to seek out quality swords. There are many swords of different qualities ranging from factory mass production, to individually custom made blades by top international craftsman. Quality therefore can become a matter of case-by-case examination with only a few factors that will define what "quality" really means. To be specific, materials, workmanship, performance, and provenance determine what differentiates one sword from another. What is important to one individual versus another will dictate how this matter is viewed also. The practitioner of martial arts will first and foremost be concerned with performance, while the collector will be more focused on aesthetics. However when juncture of all the factors is reached, the quality will speak for itself. In most cases, the only way to obtain it is to commission custom work.
Personal taste plays a dynamic factor in any custom project. The shape, measurements, mountings and activity are always under the scrutiny of some, and the admiration of others. A particular characteristic that might be deemed as "untraditional" could still be exactly what another really enjoys. Specifically, the boldness of the pattern in these presents the viewer with an almost overwhelming amount of grain and interaction to look at that would be indicative of Western forging. It is this boldness that is the subject of the swords character and the element that contributes western influence, while the shape of the blades and the character of the mountings alludes to the eastern philosophy of quiet confidence. Without a doubt, they have regardless, proven their intended purpose as effective, reliable weapons.
The story begins four years ago, when Master Blade smith Howard Clark of Morgan Valley Forge created a Daisho Sword pair of unique character and deadly efficiency. These swords were not the standard for Howard's Japanese styled works, but were of a bolder character, and show his ability to be creative and diversified. He already had a well-founded reputation as a talented, creative blade smith with a spirited nature that gave him the license to create "outside the box" that emphatic purists considered traditional. The results of his work are renown for ingenuity, beauty, and incredible performance.
This Daisho started as part of a larger order placed with him by an enthusiastic and seemingly reliable customer. Howard forged both blades as a set from the same stock comprising 100 layers of 1095 and 15N20 Steels. They were differentially heat treated, as is the Japanese norm, and shaped to the form of a Shinogi-zukuri Katana, and a Shobu-zukuri Wakizashi. Once the blades were rough ground and shaped, they were ready for their new owner to send on to the other various stages of finish work. Upon the completion of the blades, the customer was unable to pay for them. The order was farce, but the product was now reality. Since the appetite of the forge must be fed with funds, the blades were separated for individual sale. The Daito, or Katana, was sold to Big Tony Alvarez, and the Shoto, or Wakizashi, was sold to Bugei Trading Company.
I introduced Big Tony Alvarez to Howard during the 1998 Atlanta Blade Magazine show. Howard had brought the Katana to the show to sell it since the ordering individual had no intention of completing his end. Tony needed a new blade for his regular practice and competitions. His working blade at that time was a large blade made by the recently departed Bob Engnath, and Tony thought it best to retire it from regular Tameshigiri practice. Tony examined Howard's sword, loved it, and was thrilled at the thought of training and competing with it. It was suggested by myself that Howard and I sponsor Tony, and so it became that Big Tony would carry our work. On another positive note, Howard and I had our very own sword tester. Tony then handed the sword to me after return from the show for mounting. Howard had already done the polish when Tony purchased it. The mounting was completed some time later, and Tony commenced his practice and competition with this Daito.
He found the blade to be a superb cutter, and continually increased dimensions of the targets that the sword would cut. Tony used the sword for the Tameshigiri Demonstrations at Blade Show in Atlanta and Blade Show West the following year. It continued to serve him well and he was rewarded with medals in competitions at tournaments such as the Shimabukuro Taikai in San Diego, and The Seattle Taikai in Washington State. Even within the dojo in which he trained, it out performed some swords that had gained reputations of their own as being some of the best in the school. Tony has cut extremely large diameter targets of Goza, Wara, and beach mat some of which included 1 inch oak dowel in the center of the targets. Over and over again, the blade performed flawlessly and never received any damage whatsoever aside from the marring of the polish such targets will normally inflict. This was a testimony not only to the workmanship of the blade, but also the dynamic cutting skills Tony demonstrated. It served Tony well until hedecided purchase another custom sword with different dimensions.
The Shoto was shipped to Bugei Trading where it was given to me for polishing and mounting in 1999. It was completed for inventory and shown at their showroom in San Marcos, California. There it was seen by it's current owner, and subsequently purchased. I had only just prior to this learned from Howard that this sword was originally half of a Daisho, the Katana of which Tony had purchased. So when the new owner of the Wakizashi commented that he might like to have a longer companion made, I told him that it not only already had one, but a friend of mine was the owner. He immediately expressed that he would like to reunite the pair by purchasing the long sword that was intended for it, rather than making another to replace it. However, at the time Tony was avidly using the sword, and enjoying every moment of it. A standing offer to purchase it was made, and Tony promised a first right of refusal should he ever offer it for sale. Some time later, Tony approached me, and said that if the gentleman were still interested he would be willing to sell the sword. Tony wanted Howard to forge a sword made to his specification, and would commission it with the funds from this sale. A call was made, and a deal was struck. In the autumn of 2000, the Daisho was reunited! Now, new plans were in order to construct matching Daisho Koshirae that would fully define them as a pair.
Creating a Koshirae
The present owner now discussed with me the planning of a truly unique and custom set of fittings that would not only be unlike any others, but also would define and complement the quality of the swords they held. It seemed to me only natural that Howard Clark should be the one to forge the fittings to accompany the blades he made and in February of 2001, the plans began. I sketched out a set of drawings for the fittings I felt would give balance to the Daisho and be a milestone to the craftsmen involved. The difficulty was balancing the swords with a design for fittings that would be inviting and not exaggerative at a distance, yet upon closer inspection define the style of the blades. Measurements were carefully considered with regard to both the dimensions of the swords, and the demands of the customer. Still, even though drawings and specifications were made by myself to guide Howard, it was always understood that the creation would also have his input, and was subject to his own judgments as well. Somehow, we all found balance in our tasks and never had to modify the original plans in any great detail.
The fittings were made from finely forged Damascus steel and nickel, and heat patinated to deep shades of blues and purples with gold hued strands. Gold rope highlighted rims would give elemental accents, and add to the sum of the whole without overpowering the senses. Simplicity was key. Considerations in the design of the fittings were carried to the extreme in some cases. Planning of the fittings was not solely focused on how they appear today, but also how they will age over the coming years. How they will look after they have been handled was considered, as the gold would wear from contact with the hands. Shakudo was used as a base metal for the rope accents. This Shakudo base metal will patinate to a deep blue black and combine with the colors already present on the Koshirae.
I received the finished sets of fittings from Howard in late spring 2002. The task was mine to finish. What remained was the wood elements, polishing, choice of colors, Tsuka ito material, and related issues. The polish of the Daito had been marred from its use in cutting over the previous years and even though it had suffered no damage, it would have to be polished again to refinish it. Damascus style steel has quite an elaborately different activity on display. I decided to polish the swords to match and define all the blade's patterns had to offer, with less insistence on a bold hamon. Normally the Japanese swords are burnished in certain areas to a mirror finish, and bold activity is brought to balance through submission of its direct appearance. Damascus patterns should be seen on all the surfaces entirely and the interaction of pattern throughout the blade. Burnishing and pushing down the bold patterning would detract from the purpose of the steel, so it was left out, and instead the blades were defined as what they are; Differentially heat treated Damascus style steel. The result is a combination of Eastern and Western blade influences, which hold a marvelous amount to study in a way not normally associated with either tradition individually. They are shockingly enjoyable to see for the first time.
The finish of the saya was also carefully thought out. The finish is a high quality automotive paint applied by hand in several layers. The color is designed to look completely black in low light. Then as the level of light is raised or the saya turned, half of the saya to the kojiri turns a deep rich purple of a shade mirroring the patination of the fittings. In addition, there is an extremely faint hint of gold dust floating in the purple to carry the balance of colors to the saya end, all without disturbing the quiet nature of the saya resting in a stand.
The Sum of Parts
I believe this Daisho defines for itself the word "quality" for completely custom swords. A "completely custom" blade is not all that uncommon in the knife-making world, but in the domestic American following of Japanese styles, it is hard pressed to find. Custom often means that the blade itself is custom, but the parts around it are those that have been available through normal avenues for many years. This is not a Western notion, and was comparably true even in old Japan. The individuality of the craft can suffer from this if one truly desires a completely custom sword, but it also comes at a cost of both time and monetary consideration. This Daisho has had invested in it, the components of material, workmanship, performance, and provenance that give it a quality all its own. It is a product of dedication, and an understanding that unique character and true quality brings its own intrinsic value in many ways.
This is not the end as there is yet opening for a sequel. Believe it or not, this is one of two Howard Clark Daishos that the same man has united with my help. The second Daisho are two of the earliest Sanmai style blades that Howard created. The Sanmai Wakizashi displayed on this website is the Shoto to this set. The Daito will be available for viewing soon. We will begin the planning stages for the mounting of this Daisho shortly. The hardest part for any craftsman is to grow from previous creations and continue to push for improvement. I have a feeling the planning of the second will be both fun and frustrating. The character it has will lead me to new sources of inspiration. With that task ahead, I still would rather have it no other way. As craftsmen, our best should be next.