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What makes a good Tsuba?

What makes a good Tsuba?

It’s a title that might be asking for trouble but bear with me a while. At Samurai Art Expo, in the exhibition and on the commercial tables, visitors will have an opportunity to see tsuba and other fittings of high quality and great beauty. When viewing all these important pieces, I thought it might be worth pausing to consider what characteristics make one tsuba better than others.

With swords it is easier. It is generally accepted that much of the intrinsic beauty within a blade is a consequence of the smith trying to improve its functionality. It is a classic example of form following function. Thus the shape, the hardened edge and the welded pattern all contribute to its efficiency as a cutting weapon. With a tsuba the function is simple; it prevents the user’s hand sliding on to the blade when they are using it. This being the case, a simple iron disc would suffice. Clearly the design of tsuba goes well beyond functionality. It effectively becomes a work of art where the composition plays a major role in the overall quality of the piece.

Two of the key elements to consider in assessing fittings are material and composition.

Material- As with swords, a good tsuba requires good raw material. If the material used is sub-standard it is impossible to achieve the desired patination and finish, which contributes so much to the finished piece. If the raw material is bad, the resultant tsuba will be as well. Taking this to the next stage, the patination and finish of the piece is equally important: the richness of colour and lustre achieved contribute enormously to the beauty of the end product.

1.) Tadamasa Shiguretei
5.) Tomimatsu, Shigemitsu

Composition- While good material is essential, it is far from being the whole picture. There are many examples of fittings being made from top quality material that still fail to inspire the observer. Unlike swords, tsuba are far more about art than functionality. Assuming the materials to be of high quality, it is the composition that differentiates the great from the ordinary. This is of course very subjective and we all have our own ideas as to what constitutes a good composition. This is why there is such diverse range within tsuba manufacturing. However, there are some basic pointers to consider:

  1. Would it make a good painting? If the answer is yes, it suggests the balance of the component parts is aesthetically pleasing and works for the observer.
  2. There are two areas, in which Japanese artisans excel in regards to composition. The first is in taking a large subject and fitting it into a limited space. Whether this is a towering willow on a sukashi tsuba or a horse on a kodzuka, they manage to fit a vast subject into a very limited space without making the end result look crowded. The second key factor is the use of negative composition. They are not afraid to leave empty space within a composition. At first, this seems to contradict the first point, but in fact it compliments it. Some of the best examples of the art take a single object, reproduce it beautifully, then surround it with space. This approach creates a considerable impression of depth and magnitude.
  3. The final thing to consider in composition is the use of a partial subject. Recently described to me by a friend as the difference between starting with a tsuba and making a design to fit it or starting with the design and placing the tsuba within it. As with the points above, seeing part of a composition rather than the complete picture can greatly enhance the feeling of space and depth. It is a technique often successfully used in painting and one which adds greatly to the aesthetic of a tsuba.
Nami ni torii
3 copy

To summarise the above: the creation of tsuba goes far beyond their functionality. In many ways they are more of a work of art rather than a purely practical way to prevent losing your fingers.

As an artwork there are two key things to consider. Material (quality, colour and finish) and then composition. As with all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so what I like you might not and vice versa, but the basic rules on composition hold true regardless of subject. When looking at the very many fittings at the event, consider these factors and see if you agree.

By Paul Bowman

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Art Sword?

"The best way to understand what makes a sword special, is to look at the very best examples you can. Once you identify the features that make such blades special and valuable, it becomes easier to identify such characteristics in other swords and gain some idea of their quality and value."


When walking around the trade tables at Samurai Art Expo, you might hear comments such as “that is a beautiful sword” or “It’s just right” or “it is an art sword” and you might justifiably ask “What?” Describing weapons as a thing of beauty may at first appear strange. While it is true that some weapons, particularly firearms, are often exquisitely decorated. These terms are being applied not to any decorative effect, but to an edged piece of steel whose purpose is to cut in the case of Japanese swords, so starting out in this field and describing a cutting weapon as art or as beautiful appears counter intuitive.

When looking at swords, there are a number of features that help identify their origins and their age. These are, in order of examination: Sugata (shape), jigane/hada (the forging pattern of the skin steel) and hamon (the pattern of the hardened edge.) Each of these features plays a part in making the Japanese sword the most effective cutting weapon ever manufactured. However, it is well documented that smiths throughout history have regarded their craft as a spiritual calling. They have gone far beyond the making of a functional weapon. They have worked at their craft, manipulated the raw material to create something that, at its best, is not only a supremely effective weapon, but a truly beautiful work of art.

There is great diversity within the range of Japanese blades and all collectors have their preferred style of sugata, hada and hamon. One can argue for many hours about the relative merits of each pattern. However, it is the way these different aspects of a sword interact that take it from being a weapon to the realms of art. In the very best blades, these elements come together in perfect harmony, creating a visual landscape in steel -  something unique and stunningly beautiful.


The best way to understand what makes a sword special, is to look at the very best examples you can. Once you identify the features that make such blades special and valuable, it becomes easier to identify such characteristics in other swords and gain some idea of their quality and value.

The best, some would argue the only, way to fully appreciate the complex beauty of a Japanese blade, is to hold it and view it in a single light source.

Events such as Samurai Art Expo, offer the individual the opportunity to look at some of the very best examples of swordsmith craft. As a visitor you will have invested both time and money to attend, so make sure that you gain maximum benefit from the event by looking at as many works as you can and asking questions. Everyone at the show is there to promote the subject and to encourage people to join them in what is a fascinating field of study.

By Paul Bowman

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The rambling thoughts of a foolish hermit


The title above formed part of a sayagaki on a sword I bought many years ago. Needless to say the use of this title did not fill me with great confidence as to the authenticity of either the attribution or contents of the shirasaya. However, while sitting in an office in the far north on a very frosty morning to start something new, it feels somehow appropriate.

The objective of this blog is to try and stimulate thinking and ideas and to offer some pointers relating to the up and coming Samurai Art Expo event. Time is precious and the opportunities to take part in such shows as this, particularly in Europe, are few and far between. It is important that visitors gain the maximum benefit they can from the experience.

I want to start with a brief discussion on fittings. For more than 30 years I have been a serious sword collector and student. I confess that my passion for swords has failed to generate equal enthusiasm for tsuba or small fittings and I often ask myself why.

With swords, collectors and students alike are very fortunate, even sitting in isolation as I am, with a few clicks of a mouse it is possible to view exceptional examples of a swordsmith's craft online. Many of these examples appear on commercial websites where Juyo and Tokubetsu Juyo blades appear regularly and in many cases are beautifully photographed and displayed. I often click on to examples that set my pulse racing and stimulate me to research a particular school or smith. Fittings offer a different story. I can trawl through hundreds of examples on websites without seeing a single piece that excites me. I therefore decided I am not a fittings person!

BUT….. On rare occasions I have visited collectors and been fortunate enough to see some superb fittings. Looking at and holding a fine iron sukashi tsuba or beautifully crafted soft metal work created exactly the same excitement as seeing good quality swords. I left those meetings fired with fitting enthusiasm, trawled all the websites I knew and….. nothing, back to “I am not a fittings person”.

I believe the reality is that you rarely see really good quality fittings for sale on websites either in Japan or anywhere else. That doesn’t mean what is available is bad, far from it, but it does mean we are deprived of seeing the beautiful colours and textures achieved by top craftsmen in the best examples of their work. Why this is I don’t know, but for some reason you do not see top quality work on general sale. I also believe the quality of what is being sold is lower than in the past. A review of old auction catalogues confirms this, I think.

At Samurai Art Expo, alongside the commercial stalls, the NBTHK EU and Token Society of GB will have an exhibition, which will include some of the finest tsuba and other fittings from within private collections. I have been lucky enough to see some of these pieces in person and they are stunningly beautiful.

This exhibition and the lectures on the subject running throughout the day will offer visitors an unequalled opportunity to look closely at the best of the craft. Hopefully, it will help guide future study and purchases and enhance the enjoyment of studying this field of art.

by Paul Bowman