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Knife Maker’s Friday Five #18: Hamon Questions Answered

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Walter answers ten questions about hamons and knife-making from viewers. For those uninitiated, a hamon is the squiggly line seen on some knives and swords that marks the line between the hard and soft steels that make up the blade. Hamons are actually what got him started on making videos way back when.

The first question is, “How is hamon pronounced?” Walter says it’s “hah-mon” because that’s how it’s pronounced in Japanese, where the word originated. Next, “What is a hamon?” It is a visual demarcation between a hardened and a soft portion of a piece of steel. It’s not cosmetic, but it built into the composition of the steel.

Third, someone asked about the metallurgy behind producing hamons. Walter says the structure of the hamon comes from the structure of the steel itself. He shows a piece of high-carbon steel. When it is heated to a very high heat and then quickly quenched in water, the abrupt cooling process converts the steel into Martensite, a hard steel. Japanese swordmakers figured out how to make the edge hard and the spine soft through years of practice and techniques, which makes a blade more shock resistant.

Four, “How are hamons made?” There is a complexity to it, but the spine of the blade is coated with clay and the edge is uncoated. Quenching it converts the steel quickly, as mentioned. Five, “What kind of clay is used?” Walter says it depends, but traditionally in Japan, it was a composition of pottery clay, limestone, ash and so on. The combination should not be brittle or stick to the steel, and there are a bunch of modern materials available now.

Sixth, “Can you make hamons without clay?” Absolutely, he says, depending on the kind of steel. Seventh, “Can you get hamons when quenching in oil?” And Walter explains a bit about water quenching versus oil quenching. The short answer is yes, but it again depends on the kind of steel and the kind of quenching oil in use.

Eighth, “Does a hamon make for a superior knife?” The answer is they are shock-resistant while maintaining a good edge, but they have the tendency to bend. Ninth, “Can you make hamons with stainless steel?” Under normal circumstances, no. “How do make a hamon really pop?” This refers to polishing, and Walter says any old natural polish will reveal the hamon, but edging the blade can bring it out really well. Japanese sword polishers actually have more training than Japanese sword-makers, because a good hamon makes a good sword.

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