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In general, if you are thinking about buying a sword for some reason, you discover that there are three kinds of swords in the world. First, there are the kind you can't buy. They are in the hands of museums, private collectors, and possibly angry people. Next, there are the kind are really worth owning, if you care about quality at all. A wide variety of swords in several quality levels are available, from a number of reputable dealers and individuals. Lastly, there are the swords that don't cost thousands of dollars.
The bind is, of course, that if you don't really need a sword, you definitely don't want to spend thousands of dollars, but if you care about quality at all you know that you are stepping into a minefield. Plenty of reasonable blades at reasonable prices are available from reputable dealers, but how do you know what you are really getting and if it's worth what you are paying?
I saw this dealer last week at Origins - DragonSong Forge
They appear to have a bad reputation on the Internet because the guy in charge has a bad habit of shooting his mouth off online. On the other hand, they have a number of satisfied customers. In person the guy in charge is mostly nice, at least if you make it clear you are in the market to buy. Judging by their booth, they also make most of their money selling anime reproductions and things like that, but that's neither here nor there to me; gotta stay in business somehow.
If you only judge them by their web site and some videos you can find on YouTube, they are a total cheese fest, but again, in person they act more serious. The guy in charge is very opinionated about what manufacturers are worth buying or not, and he will "discuss" it with you if you disagree. He badmouths his competitors a little more than I like to see in a professional. The buying guidelines he has at this page seem like mostly good advice, so promotion and trash talk aside, he does have thoughtful things to say.
The core of their business is interesting to me, too. Most places I see online only sell completed weapons. DragonSong buys all their parts separately, and will assemble a weapon from the parts you choose This kind of service is available from merchants of high quality blades, and you could definitely save a lot of money learning how to do it yourself in any case, but this is the only place I've seen (in person) that does this high level of service at the same level of the market as the people selling the aforementioned anime blades.
I'd be hesitant to buy through their web site, but if you see them at a show of some kind (They appear to travel to conventions quite often.) you can carefully examine the blade and all the parts beforehand, and decide if you think it's worth what he's charging.
I bought a tanto (Japanese dagger) from him. It wasn't a custom job, but he claimed to have assembled it himself. He could have done a better job gluing on the rayskin. In my opinion, the blade is (to my limited ability to discern) in the "not complete crap" class, but not great. I certainly didn't pay for "great". I think I paid enough for "OK", and I'm pretty sure it's OK. It has a defined hamon, the wavy line just back of the edge that indicates the blade has been differentially tempered to produce a hard edge with a more flexible backing. Some cheap swords will have these marks applied with a wire brush or grinder. In many cases, the dealer is even honest about that. Some people just want a cheap sword that looks good for costuming. This hamon appears to be part of the blade as it should be, and not just on the surface. The fittings are attractive, and include a horn kurigata (the cord attachment point on the saya (scabbard)) and brass (plated?) menuki (handle medallions). The price was OK, but not amazingly good. I guess I saved some money not having to pay shipping.
I still have a little bit of "I bought a weapon at a convention" embarassment. I think the last time I did that was the time I bought a cheap knife (on purpose) at Philcon back in 1994. Anyway, here's a picture.
2011.06.30 at 12:00am EDT
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