I set about learning everything I could about Shibuichi and Shakudo. These are traditional Japanese metal alloys used to create sword fittings like Tsuba, Fuchi, Kashira and Menuki, and typically adorn expensive antique swords, or are made into fittings which are in their own right works of art that are highly praised by collectors. Shibuchi is a simple alloy of Copper and Silver, while Shakudo is an alloy of Copper and Gold. The big challenge for me was that I live in Cape Town, South Africa and not Japan. The info on these metals is also something extremely difficult to come by and typically is the type of knowledge passed from Master to Apprentice in Japan. Once again however, Ford Hallam was a beacon in the night for me. The knowledge shared from his social media channels as well as his forum was the proverbial gold mine.
I opted for using Shibuichi because although it is still expensive, its a lot cheaper than Shakudo, and this being my novice attempt at even trying this, I didn’t feel the expense would be justified. I had wanted to make the Shibuichi myself, but the equipment needed to make this special Japanese alloy just simply wasn’t available to me. After some searching I found help from Rockhill Forge based in the UK. Matt very graciously offered to make me some Shibuichi ingots to my size specification. Shibuichi isn’t commonly available as an off the shelf product – and when it is found its usually in very thin sheets used by Jewellers. I needed pieces 5mm thick which meant working with ingot sized pieces. Matt used the traditional method to create the Shibuichi ingots, and the metal was water cast. A process which is by its nature imperfect, the ingots had to be cast a couple of times before they resulted in a usable piece of Shibuichi. Even so, the ingots had some minor air bubbles in them, an aesthetic concern for Matt, but for me this gave me some idea of the direction I wanted to take for the final look and feel of the knife.
While I was waiting on the Shibuichi I began work on the blade. This was my first time working with Aogami steel and it came with a learning curve. I had a very different feel to it than I was used to, and it felt different on the grinder. Of the two blades I made, only one was good enough to be completed. The heat treating of the blade itself came with some added learning. It took several attempts, working with a professional heat treating plant, before we got the steel to harden properly – despite instruction from the supplier. In the end our best results came from quenching in cold oil.
When the Shibuichi finally arrived from the UK I felt like the final stages were in motion. Little did I realise that this would be the longest and most difficult part of the whole project.
By this time months had passed and I still didn’t fully have a complete picture in my mind of exactly what this kind would look like. I had been in touch with Craig to discuss some of the colour choices regarding the Tsukamaki. He settled on a Black Silk on an antiqued Samegawa (raw hide sting ray skin) as the very traditional look of it appealed to him.
I set about trying to get to work with creating the Shibuichi fittings. The trouble with Copper and therefore any Copper based alloy is that it work hardens extremely fast. I knew this going in, and had worked with Copper a few times so I was really quite surprised when the Shibuichi dulled a few of my expensive drill bits. It took some further research and some direct advice from Ford Hallam to figure out how to anneal the Shibuichi so that I could continue working with it.
A workshop move, and COVID-19 lockdown then threw a massive spanner into the works. What was supposed to be 2 weeks of lockdown turned into 2 months of not being allowed to leave my home and travel to my workshop.
When I finally was allowed to go back to work I had decided that I was going to devote all my time to getting Craig’s Ibara finished. I was the only person in the workshop, alone with my work and my thoughts. The lockdown break had also given me ample time to reflect on just exactly what I wanted to do with the handle from an aesthetic point of view. It gave me time to learn and research further into the Tsukamaki techniques. I decided I wanted this handle to be the most perfect and closest interpretation of a traditional Tsukamaki handle wrap I had done to date.
I set to work finishing the Shibuichi fittings. Once shaped I began the labor intensive task of what Ford Hallam calls “creating a skin” on the metal. I don’t have all the correct tools for this kind of work and had to make-shift myself a chisel to create the ground. Tapping with a hammer I began adding thousands of divets into the Shibuichi. Layering them onto the pieces to create a very subtle eroded texture around some of the now visible air pockets from the imperfect water casting process.
While I had wanted to go the route of using traditional Japanese Rokusho to etch the Shibuichi, Lockdown made acquiring the chemicals needed for this process next to impossible. I opted for using heat to add colour to the metal. While it wasn’t my original idea the result was actually rather pleasing. The Shibuichi took on a deep bronzy-brown colour, and I very soon had some finished handle scales ready to be wrapped.
Tsukamaki has been close to my work for some time, and it has become a recognisable feature of my work over the last few years. I have really tried my best to push the boundaries of what is being done in the Knifemaking world when it comes to Tsukamaki. I use only the best Silk Ito cord, typically the same quality as is used on Antique Nihonto, and I source raw hide ray skins which I lacquer myself to apply colour. It was a natural progression for me to then take it the final steps and begin adding Kome-Kami (a style of Hishigami) made from Washi Paper, and create neat and clean Ura and Omote termination knots.
Craig’s Ibara is the first knife I made which has the Kome-Kami carefully inserted under each twist of the silk cord, as would be done on a traditional sword handle. I am extremely proud of the Tsukamaki on this knife.
With the handle set, all that was left to do was sharpen the blade on Japanese water stones to create the final polished edge, and sheath it.
Little over a year later the knife would be finished, and a couple of months after that (thanks again to COVID19 Quarantines) the first ever Ibara would arrive safely with Craig.
I am eternally grateful to Craig for not only taking the chance on a relatively unknown knife maker like me. I am acutely aware that my experience is no where near that of many of my contemporaries. I have so much yet to learn. I’m also extremely thankful that Craig was my patron and not only allowed but encouraged me to push my craft and to do the things I always wanted to do. Many people tell me I am an artist, and what all artists need is a patron who allows them to grow and push the boundaries of their medium. I am blessed to be able to call a man of this caliber, experience and expertise a patron.
Thank you for the patience and support. This is a milestone for Ironside Edge Works and I only hope I can continue to live up to my own, now much higher, standards.