Interview with Swordsmith Walter Sorrells

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Knowing that you have a backgound in various japanese martial arts, how or when did you decide it was time to start making japanese sword ? There are a lot of folks out there with a great interest in both martial arts and swords but I don’t think many of them are ever thinking about trying to make their own katana…

Walter at work

I was always interested in Japanese swords. We practiced iaido as part of our training in the school where I studied karate. Later I took up shinkendo, but that actually happened at about the same time I started making blades. So my sword-making and sword-wielding skills developed together.

As it happens, the initial impetus for my sword making was that I was writing a novel about a swordsmith. So I thought, “Well, I’ll do a little research and get my hands dirty so I can make the character seem authentic.” Sadly, the book died. But I caught the blade-making bug pretty badly and have been making blades ever since.
In terms of why I would actually go to the extreme of smelting steel in my back yard and all doing all this stuff: it’s just fun to me.

I’ve always liked painting, drawing, woodworking and generally working with my hands. So this is just an extension of that. Martial arts happened to be a doorway into this particular craft. If I’d been into historical reenacting, I’d probably be making European style blades today.

Speaking of your background, what many people might not know is that you are also a successful novel writer. Are these 2 completely different jobs or are they somewhere crossing some lines every now and then ?

Yeah, I alluded in the earlier question to the fact that I’m a writer first and a sword maker second. But I try to live an integrated life – meaning that I try to do work that I enjoy, and to work at things that I do for enjoyment. Work hard, play hard. All the activities and intellectual pursuits of my adulthood were pretty much in place by the time I was about thirteen years old. To put it another way, I guess I have a permanently adolescent view of the world.
I’ve been fascinated by weapons, history, crime and story-telling since I was a kid. So it’s all connected in one way or another. We’re all the hero of our own story, right?

Like many others, you started out with making stock removal swords but there’s still a huge difference between that and forging them. How did you obtain the necessary knowledge for that or was it rather an “I try , fail and start over again until it get’s better” process ?

I’m kind of an information sponge. I’ve read pretty much every word that’s been written in the English language about blade making. I’m exaggerating a little, but, yeah, my approach is to throw out as wide a net as possible, gather as much information as possible, then go into the workshop and bang away. The internet is really helpful, too. I can’t exaggerate the importance of forums like Don Fogg’s in my learning process. Going to hammer-ins and conferences and knife shows and Japanese sword shows are all useful sources of knowledge, too.

But ultimately you have to fail a lot in order to improve your game. Every sword I make is a disappointment to me in some way…but that’s what makes me keep coming back. If you just reached a certain level and then kept doing the same thing over and over, you might as well work in a factory.

That said, from the moment that I started messing around with blademaking, I was aiming to work on Japanese style blades. As soon as I got started, though, I realized that I needed some foundational skills before I tackled Japanese-type work. I just didn’t know enough. So I spent several years making hunting knives and folders and things of that nature, learning about heat treating, hammer control, grinding, and so on. But I always saw that as kind of a transitional phase of my training.

With all the modern (made in China) katanas, there are a lot of discussion about ‘this is not a traditional made’ sword. For most people , the definition of a traditional made sword stops when a hamon shows up and or when the blade is folded for several times and a hada is visable. What’s your definition of a traditional made katana ?

I have found very few smiths who find this to be an important issue. It’s mostly sword buyers and collectors who start all these idiotic flame wars about the question. I mean, the most strict definition of a traditionally made Japanese sword is that it’s made from tamahagane produced in Japan by the NBTHK, and is forged by a sword maker who has completed a Japanese apprenticeship, and is licensed by the Japanese government. Can an American (or a Chinese guy, for that matter) produce a functional equivalent of such a blade? Absolutely.

But ultimately I find this to be an uninteresting, backward-looking question. I’m really interested in the Japanese sword making tradition. One of my goals (not yet realized) is to make swords that are indistinguishable from the best traditionally made Japanese blades. But to me that’s not the end of the line. It’s just one interesting thing that a bladesmith can aspire to. I find the Japanese tradition inspiring…but I’m not trying to “be a Japanese smith.” I’m Walter Sorrells. I live in America. When they play the Star Spangled Banner, I stand up and salute the flag. To try and somehow “be a Japanese smith” seems like a kind of misguided notion. I just like Japanese blades and am interested in how they look and how they work and how they’re made. It’s a challenge, but it’s not an existential goal.

Likewise, for a collector or buyer of swords, you want to be aware of the methodology used by the sword maker and you want it to match up with your goals as a buyer. Do you want to hang it on the wall? Do you want to use it for iaido? For tameshigiri? Do you only have 45 euros to spend? Do you want a blade signed by a famous Japanese guy who died eight centuries ago? As long as everybody’s participating in the game with a full knowledge of how the blade was made and what it was made from, then everybody should be happy. There’s no right or wrong way to play the game.

To continue on the traditional subject, how different would the katana world lok like today if smiths in ancient times had the same sources of steel as today ? I can’t imagen they would have refined or even ever started to fold their blades or use different kind of laminations to make it stronger. Perhaps the whole culture aspect around it would be non excisting ?

You’re absolutely right. If performance is the sole metric, then a blade made from monosteel is clearly superior to a traditionally made blade. All kinds of armchair smiths out there will dispute this. But I’ve personally tested a great many swords and as far as I’m concerned this is a settled matter. Smiths a thousand years ago were making weapons. If they’d had billets of W2 steel available, they wouldn’t have bothered folding the stuff. Folding was done to refine primitively smelted steel into something that was useable. Period. This is not a matter of debate; it’s simple fact.

Now, there are people who think that making the claim that modern steel is functionally superior somehow undermines the supposed “perfection” of traditional smiths. This is moronic. The achievements of traditional smiths must be seen in the context of their historical era. They used great skill and extremely primitive equipment to make objects of exceptional durability and functionality and beauty. That is an achievement that stands entirely on its own, and dwarfs anything I’ll ever do in my shop.
The esthetic issue is different.

I think that folded steel (in particular folded steel made from primitively smelted raw steel – i.e. tamahagane) is obviously more complex and esthetically interesting than monosteel. Personally I find that both function and esthetics offer interesting challenges, so I play the whole field. Where does tradition end and modernity begin? To me those are just little boxes. Yoshindo Yoshihara uses a power hammer. Does that make him some kind of modern fraud? Not to me. Ultimately all that matters to me is that when I pick up one of his blades, I go, “Wow! This is beautiful.”

Modern steel billet

For what it’s worth, my definition of a “traditionally-made blade” is a blade forged from primitive steel, folded, forged to shape, differentially hardened, and roughly falling within the bounds of the Japanese tradition of sword geometry and construction. That’s why I like to say that my work is “Japanese-inspired.” That means I feel free to draw from, imitate or reject anything within that tradition on a case-by-case, blade-by-blade, client-by-client, whim-by-whim basis. If you buy a sword from me, you’ll know exactly how I made it…and then you can put whatever label on it that you want.

A lot of people argue over these issues. It all seems a bit ludicrous to me. The fact that these arguments are frequently conducted by people with very little knowledge only makes the situation more grotesque. I mean, at the end of the day, we’re just screwing around. Swords have precious little relevance in modern times. If making and using swords isn’t fun, then why do it? As a craftsman, of course you take your work seriously. But, come on, lighten up a little, guys. We’re not curing cancer here!

Does a smith need to be ‘into’ a sword drawing arts (a practitioner in other words) to be able to make a good functional sword for a practitioner ? As a follow up, is there a difference between making a sword for a collector and for a practitioner, assuming they both want a descent blade but the first one (collector) doesn’t actually want to use it.

I don’t think there’s any required background for a smith. But I do think that Western smiths do need consider their blades as functional tools first and foremost. High level Japanese smiths don’t have to worry about function because nobody pays twenty, thirty, forty, fifty grand for a sword and then goes out to chop up floor mats with it. Western smiths, on the other hand, have to presume that somebody will eventually use every blade they make.

Particularly in the United States, with its aggressive liability laws, you don’t want a blade flying apart and stabbing somebody in the face. Also, ethically, if you make a tool, you want it to function safely and effectively.

So anyway…all of that said, people who train with swords will necessarily have a leg up when it comes to performance issues. My sense of proportion and weight has changed a lot over time, and it’s happened entirely because of my experience using my own blades.
As a result of all that, I don’t think there should be any difference between a collector blade and a user blade, per se. All collector blades should be functional.

Most of your blades show a very eye catching hamon (Your Mount Fuji hamon is one of them I’m thinking of right now). Is there some type of steel & technique you prefer above another to create them and does different kind of hamons affect the overall (cutting/performance) ability of a blade ?

Mount Fuiji in the mist hamon

Mount Fuiji in the mist hamon

I find hamons to be really interesting to make. I view them as primarily an esthetic component of the sword. For functional purposes, the best hamon would probably be a medium suguha. But I don’t find that to be all that fun to make (especially on monosteel blades where there’s no hada to take up the esthetic slack). I like using 1050 and W2 best. They both yield fairly detailed hamons.

On lot of cheaper (and even more expensive) production blades, the machi doesn’t line up and the mune machi is usually placed a bit higher. This is probably done to keep costs as low as possible or because the lack of proper knowledge but can it be considered as a flaw and even dangerous when the sword need to be used for cutting exercises ?
It seems reasonable to think that would be the case, but this is one of those things where you really can’t know the answer without a lot of testing. Obviously it’s an esthetic flaw…but I’ve never tried beating up a blade with a misplaced machi, so I can’t really say for sure if it would be significantly more likely to break.

Do you have an all time favorite blade you have ever forged throughout your smith career and why ?

Well, I still don’t feel like I’ve quite hit my stride as a smith. I’ve done a couple of tantos that I thought were pretty nice, including an osoraku tanto that I just finished. But I’ve had a backlog of orders that I’ve been trying desperately to get rid of for about three or four years and that puts a lot of pressure on me to just get swords finished.

Obviously you’re not going to ship blades that have significant problems. But sometimes you just think: I wish that was better. I’m really looking forward to just making blades for my own pleasure again – without any feeling that by putting excessive amounts of effort into one customer’s blade, I’m screwing everybody else in my order queue. I think you’ll see my work hitting a new level in about two years. So I guess what I’m saying is that my favorite blade is a blade I haven’t made yet.

You’ve done a number of instructional videos for teaching various aspects of the craft of bladesmithing. Tell me about how you got into that.

I’m a huge believer that there shouldn’t be secrets in a craft. Artistry and hard work can’t be taught…but they are what distinguish good craftsmen. The tricks of the trade are just that: tricks. My dad was a college professor and my mom was a minister, so I was raised to believe that people should share and communicate knowledge rather than hoarding it.

Anyway, I think my most obvious strength as a smith is my hamons. As a result I used to get a lot of email from people who’d basically say: “How do you make your hamons?” It got a little burdensome answering all the emails about the exact same question. Moreover, there’s no way to do justice to what is really an honest and reasonable (but complex!) question in a three paragraph email. So I thought that I’d make a short video and sell it for a nominal amount just to cover the cost of the thing.
Once I started making the video, though, I got obsessed and have now finished a whole set of video’s.

I’ve seen a lot of really crappy instructional videos and I just felt like I owed it to whoever was watching the video to provide clear and accurate audio, careful editing, a scripted voice-over, close-ups of significant details, decent lighting, a camera that didn’t wobble, and so on. Once I made the decision to do all of that, I realized I was sort of crossing the Rubicon on this project and it would end up being a much more serious and time-consuming endeavor than I’d originally intended. I invested in a bunch of video production equipment and off I went.

Making Hamons video cover

Anyway, once I was done with the hamon video I got a lot of response from people who basically said, “This is the best knifemaking video I’ve ever seen.” But I saw a lot of ways I could improve on that first one. So I went on to make a polishing video, then a mounting video, then a forging video. With each of them, I’ve tried to improve every aspect of production, moving to Hi-Def, improving my set, my lighting, my microphones, etc. Basically I try to make the videos that I wish I had been able to buy back when I first started making blades.

I’ve got one more in the works. It’ll be about the construction of habakis, fuchi/kashiras, etc. Not about decoration (a subject about which I’m not even vaguely qualified to teach anybody!) – but just the physical construction of the fittings, so that if somebody wants to mount their own blade, they can make functional fittings themselves.

I’m still looking to interview other Western (Japanese) Swordsmiths , Tsukamakishi, Togishi, etc, who would you send me to and do you have 1 question for him (or her) ?

Well, I’m friends with Chris Osborne, who has really been developing as a polisher. I think he’d be a great person for you to talk to. He’s very exacting, very serious about what he’s doing, and a hell of a nice guy. Another person to talk to is Rick Barrett. He’s so good with a grinder that every time I see him I want to punch him in the face. In all seriousness, I think he’s the best pure craftsman among Western smiths working in the Japanese tradition.. The sugata on his blades is very good, too. If you look at the nakago on one of his blades, you’ll see that it’s just perfect. That’s a sign that a guy is sweating all the details. Also a nice guy.

Walter’s Video gallery

[tubepress]

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