As everyone knows, steel rusts very easily and salty human sweat in combination with training swords is a very bad combination if you don’t take care of your sword quickly. Most guides for sword maintenance are aimed at sword collectors of more or less expensive swords that see little “action”. With this in mind, here are a few tips for HEMA fencers.
But first a tiny bit of info about rust: The most common type of rust we face is regular red/brown rust which occurs quite quickly in humid, salty and oxygen rich environments. This is the kind of rust we fear the most.
The other type of rust is black rust, or magnetite, which grows in low oxygen environments, for instance in a muddy river bed or underneath a thick layer of red rust. Once black rust has evolved the rusting process has actually stopped and no more damage is done to the steel. This process is actually intentionally used for rust prevention and blueing of gun steel is one example of this, black cast iron another. This is quite rare on our everyday sparring swords though, and nothing to worry about for the most of us.
For actual maintenance you will need to take different actions depending on how the swords have been handled:
Swords hanging on a wall.
Unless you live in a very dry area your swords will rust just from hanging on the wall. This means you have to keep them well oiled with a thin layer of oil, and keep on applying new oil once a month or so.
If you happen to live in a very humid area and especially with a salty ocean nearby, you might even have to do this once a week.
Use gun oil, like e.g. Ballistol, that is not too thin. Otherwise the oil will evaporate too quickly and you will need to reapply oil much more often. Regular 5-56, for instance, will evaporate very quickly and is basically only good for removal of rust and quick fixes. Again, Ballistol works really well and you will learn to love the, shall we say very special smell of it.
Of course, special products like Hanwei Sword Oil also work perfectly fine.
Remember to check the condition of your swords regularly, even those ugly ones hidden behind the pretty ones.
And don’t go overboard when applying oil to your swords. Having them dripping of oil does not protect them more than a thin layer does.
If someone touches the blade.
The only thing you really need to keep in mind here is that you need to take care of this the same day, preferably as you come home from practice so you don’t forget it. Otherwise, red rust will appear on the blade within 2-3 days.
So, simply clean the blade with a rag, a Scotch Brite Hand Pad or simply a paper towel. Remember to clean lengthwise, especially with the coarser tools like the Scotch Brites.
Use a tiny bit of oil for additional maintenance and protection.
Nicks and burrs.
The blades should be checked after and before each training session, double-checking to make sure there is nothing than can cause a dangerous threat to your opponent. Some swords have a tempering that causes very sharp and possibly dangerous chips that can cause bleeding wounds, so this is quite important.
Never use Power Tools. I can’t warn enough against that. Such tools cause too high heat in the blade and the tempering may be ruined. Also severe mistakes are very quickly done since the tools have such a fast and large effect.
Instead, for handling these issues you need a ball-peen hammer and a file. I’ve been told that hammering of the edges can actually improve the durability to some degree through cold-hardening but to be honest I am unsure of if this actually has had any measurable effect on the already hardened blades.
However, first hammering down on the nicked and burred blades and then filing down sharp chips and edges in the nicks is the order in which I take care of this problem and it works quite well. Don’t go crazy with the hammer though. Moderation is the key.
Also be careful with the file so you don’t scratch the flats of the blade. Remember to work at different angles and in both directions on both sides. Use a rounded file for evenening out the sharp corners of the larger nicks.
Removing rust / polishing steel.
The basic concept for removing rust and polishing things is to start with coarse grain in your tool and step by step move towards finer and finer grain.
Coarse, medium and fine Metal Abrasive Papers, nylon sanding sponges and Scotch Brite Hand Pads in various forms and steel wool work very well for this purpose and can be found in most hardware stores.
For the extra shine you can use steel wool and if you want an even nicer shine use the wool with some oil and finish everything off with some softer scotch brite sponges. Use long hard swipes.
Preferably you should run the sanding pads/sponges lengthwise along the blade to avoid scratching it. For rare instances I go against this advice, for deep damages, but I do it very carefully. Generally though, it is much preferable to take the time needed and do things slowly and carefully.
The coarser pads will cause scratching, but don’t worry. They will disappear as you move towards finer and finer pads. Remember to use long swipes along the blade.
Clean with water, dry carefully and add a thin layer of oil.
Polishing brass, copper etc.
If the brass has oxidized then you can use lemon juice mixed to a paste with salt or baking soda. The latter two will work as a light abrasive so do not press too hard or you may scratch the brass.
If possible, try to run the polishing tool lengthwise along the object and avoid circling motions or cross-patterns. A toothbrush can be used to clean any details or engraved parts.
Again, steel wool gives a nice shine, especially if used with oil, as does softer Scotch Brites.
Clean with water, dry carefully and add a thin layer of oil.
Below is an image that shows the results after having worked for about 15-20 minutes on the completely brown brass basket of a Swedish Military Cavalry Sabre m/1893.
Wooden and Leather grips.
For leather the basic advice is that if it already looks good, then just leave it alone. However, if it is beginning to look dry or even has begun cracking then you can simply use some leather wax paste. Remember to not use too much. You don’t want to see your sword flying away due to your grip being too slippery… You just want to keep the leather revitalized every now and again. Also, the leather is often shrink-wrapped onto the grip and using too much wax may actually cause the leather to come a bit loose.
Also, remember to keep the steel oil away from the leather as it can cause the leather to rot away quite quickly.
If your sword has a wooden grip then treat it regularly with a light film of lemon or tung oil or boiled linseed oil. Once or twice a year is enough.
Wire grips can be buffed to a nice shine using some steel wool and that is really all that is needed.
Storing your swords away.
Never store your sword in a leather scabbard. It might very easily give you a nasty surprise when you pull out your sword after some time. Instead, for long term storage, coat your sword liberally with Vaseline and wrap it up in rags, keeping it in a cool and dry place. There are also specific products like Renaissance Vax designed specifically for long term storage.
June 27, 2012
A small update:
Yesterday I bought some Autosol Cream Chrome/Metal Polish that is a very fine abrasive and light protective agent that can be used on steel, glass, porcelaine and laquered surfaces. The polish it adds to the steel is truly amazing and applying it to the brass sabre basket shown above and below was like night and day when it comes to results. The brass comes alive in a way that I didn’t think was possible.
The Autosol Polish cream is said to remove rust & oxidization and fine scratches and also to be “protective” through an invisible wax coating. To what degree it protects against rust remains to be seen though. Possibly, this should be used with another wax-based product like Renaissance Wax, or regular car wax.
Also, using synthetic or natural chamois leather for polishing the wax/polish works really well.
I just went over all swords with Renaissance Wax. After having polished them with Autosol about three weeks ago I didn’t treat them with any oil. Some of them have in the time that has passed began to rust a little bit, probably from me touching the steel and especially the crosses when hanging them on the wall, but the protection from Autosol obviously helps rather little.
The Renaissance Wax was put on very thinly and smoothed out with chamois leather. It removes a little bit of the amazing shine that the Autosol gave, but that matters little. I will let the swords hang for a month or two and see what happens.