From Beatrix Kiddo’s brutal kills in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” to Samurai Shinzaemon razing a town of invaders in 13 Assassins, to Deadpool turning a goon into shish kebab, the katana is one of the most iconic weapons of pop culture. But behind the sword’s enduring popularity are centuries of painstaking craftsmanship and an ancient forging technique. The smiths of the katana strove to balance three seemingly conflicting properties: not break, not bend, and a razor sharp cutting edge.
The process of making a katana begins with a sheet of steel called tamahagane. The smith heats and softens the metal, then carefully folds it several times to remove impurities and even out its carbon content. Next, the blade is shaped—although it starts out straight, the varying densities of the different layers of the steel give it its distinctive curve. The smith then uses a series of files and planes to refine its shape, and gives the blade a rough polish.
After the katana is forged, it undergoes an essential heat treatment called yaki-ire. A clay slurry is applied to the blade, thicker on its body and spine, and thinner along the edge. The blade is then heated and quickly quenched in water, creating two distinct zones: a hard, sharp edge, and a softer, more resilient spine.
Once the katana has been polished, it’s ready for its hilt, guard, and scabbard to be crafted. These elements—often made by other specialized craftsmen—add to the sword’s aesthetic and symbolic value. In addition, the scabbard, or tsuba, serves to protect the sword from damage and to protect the owner from injury. Manga Katana collection