Connor Gray’s craftmanship transports customers back to ancient Japan, offering them the rare opportunity to handle historical weaponry, respectfully restored to its original beauty. However, the restoration process starts a little closer to home- in a workshop hidden between the South West hills; a familiar backdrop adorned with his father’s artwork, and its floors littered with the confetti of fine-grit paper. Despite his busy schedule, Connor has kindly agreed to sit down with The Badger and discuss his role in maintaining cultural history through the art of Japanese weapon restoration.

Like many others, Connor reminisces about a childhood rich with outdoor adventures and a deep appreciation for the world around him. His interest in traditional crafts is rooted in his father’s carpentry, a trade Connor attributes to having “instilled an engineering mindset within [him].” Whether dismantling household items to uncover their inner workings or constructing Scrapheap Challenge-inspired sculptures, Connor consistently demonstrated a profound affinity for approaching life through a creative and mechanical lens.

Connor became “obsessed with weaponry” and at a crossroads regarding where this new interest may take him. He states, “For those intrigued by conflict and the weapons that facilitate it, there are two tangents in which their research can take. Some are drawn to a historical standpoint, whilst others delve into what makes weapons efficient for battle, adopting a more mechanical approach.” Connor interestingly notes, “[I] never found enjoyment in what weapons did, but more for the beauty in how they were made. Sadly, some of the greatest minds were put towards war and conflict; what they made was beautiful; however, their actions were not.“. 

Remaining faithful to his enduring passion for restoration, Connor found himself learning how to restore Japanese swords, known as Nihonto, setting him on the path towards becoming a skilled Togishi. 

“Like a piece of art, each blade carries a unique provenance, historically linked to a family, dynasty, or specific samurai. Every blemish, therefore, narrates a story, from battle scars to arrow damage, so preserving these characteristics is crucial in keeping the blade’s narrative alive. It is paramount that the geometry [of the blade] is maintained. My goal is to make everything homogenous and consistent. I take the blade back to its ‘bare bones’, removing rust and previous polish, with the primary objective to keep everything balanced. What I do to one side of the blade, I must do to the other. I undertake this first part of the restoration process using a belt linisher and Dremel”. 

Traditional crafts struggle to keep pace in an era dominated by rapid technological advancements and automated processes. The restoration of Nihonto is no exception to this trend, yet Connor’s work has brought technology to the forefront of traditional practices. By providing a commercial polish, Connor follows in the footsteps of traditional Togishi, albeit with the integration of machinery in lieu of sole manual labour. This adaptation not only streamlines the process, making it more time-effective but also ensures the continuation of a time-honoured practice in the modern world.

After the preparatory stages, Connor adopts traditional hand-polishing methods to smooth the blade’s surface. However, instead of using ancient whetstones, he uses small pieces of fine paper, passing them over the blade in a series of incremental polishes. Within this aspect of the restoration, distinguishing features of the blade appear, such as a visible hamon: “a clay temper line at the sharp edge of the blade, between hard and soft steel, which varies in pattern according to its forger.”.

Among the final steps in the restoration process is the application of polishing compounds similar to those used to polish diamonds and precious stones. However, this aspect of the restoration is unique to every Togishi. Therefore, like the times in which the blades were forged, this step remains a closely guarded secret, shared only between the craftsman and his workshop.

Connor’s work can be found in private collections across the UK.

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