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eBay Buying Guide: Cautionary notes and advice on buying samurai sword supplies and accessories

I had, for the first time, written a buying guide for eBay, largely in response to the sheer amount of cheap, poor quality, Chinese tat that was, and stil is, flooding the site. Wouldn't you know it? eBay suspended their Buying Guides programme. This seemed to me to be a bit of a disservice to less-experienced eBayers, so I include my efforts here. Much of it has since been subsumed by the FAQ. However this is specific to eBay, and I can always hope that Google will pick up on it being an eBay Buyers Guide, and that it will therefore be of service to those who are new to the field and thinking of buying something on eBay.

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I have been running my own business professionally restoring Japanese and Japanese-style swords, and supplying anything to do with the subject, for over ten years now. We are well-respected in the field. Over the course of those ten years I have frequently been asked questions by eBayers, and where I’ve been able to help I have done so. The following are answers to a few persistent queries that have come up.

Yes, you can buy tsukaito, sageo, and sword cleaning kits on eBay really cheaply – but as always, you don’t get Lamborghini performance and quality at Datsun Cherry prices. A cleaning kit, for example, might be very cheap, but do you really want to put clove-scented engine oil on your blade, or clean it with bathroom talc? Because that's what you're paying for. If you're going to do that, you'd do better with a can of WD40 and some Johnson's Baby Powder, but it still wouldn't do the job that choji and uchigumori powder will do.

With a cleaning kit the worst case is that the oil will soak into the saya and cause the wood to swell whilst the chalk can mess up the polish. There are however potentially worse consequences with cheap tsukaito.

Proper tsukaito and sageo are forms of kumihimo made using top quality Japanese silk or cotton. In the case of tsukaito they use a weave that was specifically developed for binding the handles of Japanese swords. There is a nice series of videos on Youtube showing kumihimo. Not surprisingly, the technique doesn’t lend itself to the mass production of tsukaito and sageo, and I’ve occasionally had to wait a week or so whilst my supplier weaves new stock. They are, after all, still making it in the way that tsukaito has been made ever since it was first invented and used to wrap tsuka.

By contrast the cheap Chinese tsukaito and sageo are mass produced on the sort of machine used to make bootlaces and other braids. Indeed, nihonto collectors often refer to such items disparagingly as ‘Chinese bootlaces’. Such tsukaito might be made out of silk – though very poor quality silk - they might be synthetic (though sometimes passed off as silk), or it may be a cheap cotton. You’d be well advised to do a burn test to find out if what you’d bought as silk was actually silk. 

As for the sageo, I’ve seen ones that have obviously been cut off a long roll – possibly 100 metres - and some weren’t even finished with tassels. A number of listings even proudly show the roll that it is cut from. Unless you finish such a sageo yourself, it will soon unravel. As a result, be very wary if a picture of a sageo doesn’t show the tassels at the end; it may not have them. There are a number of listings that I've seen over the years that are very careful to avoid showing how their sageo terminates. I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to find that they end in raw, cut, edges. Of course someone who is new to the field may well think that's how a sageo is supposed to end.

I’ve had more than a few customers who admitted to having previously bought cheap Chinese tsukaito to rebind their tsuka because they thought it was a good deal. According to them they then had the bindings fall apart on them a few months later, after which they came to me to buy silk or cotton tsukaito made the correct way using the correct materials and technique, and the right weave. In contrast to their experience with cheap tsukaito, I have seen the bindings on tsuka wrapped in Japanese silk last a century without fraying when looked after. When not looked after, they might last sixty or seventy years. A fair number of the high quality cotton bindings from the Pacific War period are still in good condition, though cotton doesn’t last as long as silk.

There is however another side to this which often goes unrealised unless you’re in the business of restoring swords and understand the mechanics involved. The bindings aren’t just ornamental; they are an essential structural element in the construction of the tsuka. Unless the tsuka is fully wrapped with samekawa – and most aren’t – the tsukaito is the only thing resisting the forces exerted during cutting that are trying to split the tsuka core along its seam. Traditionally made tsuka are glued with rice glue, so the applied pressure from the tsukaito is important in keeping the tsuka intact. The consequences of using worn inferior tsukaito can be a dramatic and scary failure of the tsuka. There have been reliable accounts - including firsthand accounts - of people using swords with cheap fraying tsukaito for tameshigiri suddenly having the tsuka disintegrate on impact in their hands, resulting in a sharp blade whirling in an uncontrolled and unpredictable manner through the air. This is fortunately rare, but it is a possibility. I myself have seen worn bindings fail and the seam of the core split badly during training. Fortunately we were only cutting air and the student felt the tsuka go in his hands. After a brief inspection he carried on with a bokken. Had we been cutting targets, the story might have been very different.

As for synthetic tsukaito – they stretch, and keep on stretching. At best, they’ll eventually come loose and slide off. At worst – see above.

I have occasionally been asked why our eBay store doesn’t stock ready-made habaki. Well, the same safety argument can be made. Each habaki has to be made to closely fit the sword on which it is to be used because it takes the shock of a cut, and transfers it, via the seppa and tsuba, to the outside of the tsuka. Very little of the force goes through the mekugi, which is why it doesn't break despite being made of bamboo, and the forces involved being large enough to break the mekugi if it had to deal with all of them. Now almost nothing about Japanese swords was standardised; there are variations in depth and thickness at hamachi of non-traditionally made shin-gunto, let alone gendaito. This means that a habaki made to fit one sword will probably not fit another properly, even though you can slide it into position. If it doesn't fit closely enough you may have a potential safety issue; too much force may go through the mekugi, eventually causing it to fail. If you're using the sword in a dojo this can mean, and has meant in one case of which I am aware, that the blade leaves the tsuka and flies across the dojo with potentially fatal results. We therefore don’t stock ready-made habaki. When we restore swords we’ve no idea if you intend your sword to be part of a collection, or whether you’re using it for iai or backyard cutting, so we assume the latter and make sure that it is safe for such a use. This means not skimping on any aspect of a repair, restoration or customisation, and not selling components that we know are a bad idea to fit to a sword.

I’ve noticed ready-made saya are also becoming a thing. Unfortunately Japanese swords differ from each other in terms of depth and thickness at hamachi, depth and thickness at the kissaki, length, sori (curvature), and types of sori (e.g. koshi-zori vs tori-zori). The chances of getting a perfect fit (i.e. one where the sword doesn't rattle or fall out of the saya when you invert it), or even being able to get it in the saya at all, are low. Then again, you may get lucky. Who knows? You pays your money and takes your chances. I have run across a fair number of swords with saya that didn't fit, and couldn't be made to fit even with the judicious use of a saya file. I recently had to tell one customer that the saya that he'd bought on eBay would never fit the sword that he bought it for, and that he'd wasted his money. He got us to make a new one for the blade. As for the one bought on eBay - maybe one day he'll find a sword to fit it, but I doubt it. It may wind up in the bin, or as firewood.

Best advice? Do not buy a saya that hasn't been made for your sword unless you enjoy the high possibility of wasting your money.

The same applies to ready-made tsuka. I have run across any number of tsuka that have been put on with a hammer because they didn't fit, splitting the tsuka and breaking the wood. The only thing holding the whole tsuka together were the bindings which also concealed the damage. If the bindings are of inferior tsukaito that leaves you with a potential safety problem. If, on the other hand, the tsuka is too loose and the tang can waggle around in the tsuka - and I've seen those as well - then you’ll get increased wear on the mekugi which can then lead to failure of the mekugi during a cut, and the blade departing the tsuka like a missile. Tsuka, like habaki and saya, have to be made to closely fit the sword on which they are to be used. Everything has to be snug, not wagging around like a dog's hind leg.

I have even come across cases where an owner, finding the new, ready-made tsuka still wouldn't go on even with a hammer (often because the tang was too long), decided that the best way forward was to butcher the tang. This has happened to antique nihonto, and reduced their value to zero. As I said to one individual who was considering butchering his nakago with an angle grinder, "I suggest that you take £4,000 out of the bank, pile it up on the kitchen table, and set fire to it, because that is what you're suggesting doing." Fortunately he decided that I was, on reflection, right and asked us to make him a tsuka that fitted. The new, ready-made tsuka from eBay went in the bin.

You can fix a tsuka that is too tight or too loose, but unless it is a minor adjustment the best way of doing it is to remove the tsukaito, split the core along the seam, and adjust the inside to match your tang exactly. That's the proper way to do it, and I have done it several times in the past. Of course, you then have to reglue the two halves of the core, and rewrap the tsuka. Unless you're really skilled you'll probably have to get a professional to do it. The cost of the work, plus the original cost of the ready-made tsuka, will be about the same as getting a new tsuka made from scratch. You will, however have a rock solid tsuka that won't fail.

All in all, it is simpler to get the tsuka made for your sword than buggering about fettling a tsuka that was designed around some vague ideas of the approximate dimensions of a katana tang. It costs the same, and is less frustrating as well. You just pay someone who knows what they're doing to do the work and at the end you get a nice new tsuka, made to your specifications and exactly fitting your sword.

So there you go. You get what you pay for, and only what you pay for. If you buy something for peanuts, you can’t expect it to perform like a quality item. Of course that may not be an issue if your idea is to hang the sword on the wall, or buy another 'beater' the moment the current one starts to look a little battered. Some people do, after all, treat 'beaters' as disposable items. In other instances though the quality of what you use on your sword may be a very important issue, particularly if safety is involved. Caveat emptor.