MASTER RICH CHEN
Would you like to know how to make a sword? Read on.
Master Rich Chen makes various types of blades. He does not have a factory to mass produce his knives and swords, but runs a small family type workshop with apprentices and people he has trained in various specialisations of Chinese and Japanese sword making. He first had to learn every aspect of sword smithing, before he could pass on his skills. But in the interview below, he explains this more clearly.
Master Chen: First I must say that we should start with the steel. It is very important. The Chinese first started making steel from iron sand. After all the smelting impurities are melted and drained away we have what is known as the sponge bloom. This link to my Zubeng Forge forum shows the processes I go through from the start to the finish. Each step is important. To the non-learned it looks like some things are not needed but all steps have a purpose.
Since we begin with what is mostly rust, the refining process is a long one. Each time the steel is heated and hammered it will lose a small amount of carbon and impurities. I know this and I allow for this loss of the carbon. For my steel I will hammer and fold about fourteen times. Each time it's in the fire it will be a whitish color and when taken out to hammer, it will oxidize and be black. As it goes through this process fourteen times this then creates layers in the steel like pages in a book. This is the way it was done in the past. So my efforts are to keep the traditions alive by doing the same. My steel is the same for all my swords and knives. I only use my jewel steel (tamahagane) for Chinese and Japanese swords. None is bought on the market. I personally make it.
Chinese Swords Guide: How has sword making changed in recent years?
Master Chen: At this time many factories in China and other places make cheap copies of traditional swords using factory steel. Very few outside of Japan can or will make a sword in the traditional manner. About ten years ago I started making swords and in the beginning I thought it was simple. But as I learned to make swords I also discovered the more I learn the more I need to learn. My first five hundred swords were not swords but only long pieces of steel shaped as a sword. Then to my surprise and God's gift I got the first one right. Five years and five hundred swords later I became a sword maker. I will say it was not pretty but it was a sword in the true meaning of the word. In all ways it was fully functional and worthy to be called a sword.
Master Chen: Now I have my son and my son in law learning the art and I have one man I am teaching to do the wood working. I have one that can polish well but he is still learning. I have one young boy that sweeps and does all the small things someone must do. I am also teaching this boy to hammer the steel. He also was taught to choose each piece of coal we use. I do not accept coal as a truck load. We go there to the coal yard and hand pick each piece I buy. The same is done for charcoal but in a little different way. I try to leave no stone unturned. I have cut up swords that most would have sold for a discount. Just a few months ago I cut up sixty one swords that did not have a nice enough hamon. They were well made and in fine working order but did not have a hamon I thought was pretty.
I must teach each apprentice to do his job. But first I must have the skill myself to teach it. Now I have asked a student to begin engraving. I also had to learn that first before I could teach him.
The polishing and grinding is very important. Swords made in the history of China were always made with convex bevels. This is a key element to a sword. It is egg shaped to make it structurally strong. Historical artifacts found even in old days, when the swords were bronze or brass on the outside, had a different core and a cone shape to make it strong, like a bridge.
Cheap modern factory made swords are made with flat bevels as they are machine made and the flat bevel is easier for a factory to do. Full convex is difficult. The traits of a full convex edge shape gives the sword a greater cutting lifespan.
CSG: People often ask where they can buy a custom made sword. Many expect to get one as cheaply as a factory produced sword. They do not understand how much time and skill goes into custom swords. Please would you explain, for our readers, why they have to be on a waiting list and why it is expensive to commission a sword from an expert such as yourself.
Master Chen: In Japan the traditional skill was historically passed down from father to son. Nowadays there are apprentices who must work for about ten years to learn the skill and have the name passed down. I studied by myself for that ten year period but no one in Japan that has studied as an apprentice has lost as many swords as I have lost - more than five hundred. I keep studying and researching how to make the perfect katana and Chinese sword. My son, my son in law and I are working together. I hope this can be kept in the family as it was in history so the name, Zubeng, will be known in three hundred years from now.
Before we can talk about custom swords, that term must be defined. Factory custom as opposed to handmade. Factory custom swords can be bought cheaply. Most people don't understand why a traditionally made sword is so costly. We handmake the steel from iron sand. It is the long process that makes the sword so costly and then we have a failure rate because the steel will sometimes split when hammered. If this happens it will not weld. All sword makers in Japan and the USA and China know there is a failure rate for handmade steel. Hence we have to made more than we need. If the steel is split then that is just a piece of junk. We can and do refire the steel and use it again. Nothing is wasted if possible.
( If you can please look at the photo outlay of the steel making process to the point that shows the steel billet that is where the factories begin but that is not my beginning )
CSG: What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Master Chen: I like to learn all I can learn and research everything. the final answer is equal to the cosmos its infinity. The learning is never ending.
CSG: If someone wishes to buy a sword from you, how would they do this?
Master Chen: Most times the best way is to contact me for purchasing. My first question for a new customer is do you know what a katana or Chinese sword is? I hope the customer has the knowledge to know the true meaning of a sword and its history. Respect for the steel and history is important. Each sword is very expensive and the customer must pay the money and he must work hard to earn the money to buy the sword. Even the price is low or high. I must, in my mind, return a value equal to the money paid for the sword. So I want the customer to know that I also work hard to make the sword and devote time and effort that is equal to his work and effort to afford the sword. I want the customer and I to each have mutual respect for the work performed. This is not only a business but it's a relationship and partnership, so to speak. We become friends with the sword as the link to each other. This is my way in life and in my craftsmanship.
I feel it's important for them to know what they are buying. It's not money that is important but we do not reject the money. We ask and require the customer to know that what we make is not for cutting trees or beating stones. It is an honorable item for keeping your life safe. This is not as important now as in the past history but in old times, it was.
When I sell a katana or Chinese jian I am not selling a product I am selling part of my life, part of my soul.
I teach Kendo and that is practice with a bamboo sword shinai. This is the start. It is then a natural progression to go to a real sword. So in my efforts to get affordable swords for my students I started making real swords from there on. When I began I thought it was easy to make a sword but as I got further into the making I learnt there is more and more to learn. I began to make swords and it was at least five years before I learnt what a sword is. When you know more, then you know there is even more to it than this. The more you know, the more you understand you don't know it all. So I will continue to study Kendo, Iaido, Chinese swords and swordsmithing until I die.
CSG: Is there anything else you would like to say about your swords, swordsmanship, or sword smithing?
Master Chen: Finally I want to thank many people. I want to express my thanks to all of them that have supported me morally and in sprit.
In the begining I had a lot to learn and I lost a lot of money but these people stayed with me. I want to honor them as best I can. They believed in me and my work and understood my dedication to the tradition and love of sword making.
Contact Master Rich Chen to order a sword from Zubeng Forge