On Making Weapons

I have been making my own bokuto for training since 2015 and I usually make two each year.  The process is similar for the other wooden weapons I have made, whether it is a tanto or naginata.  The first one I make doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it and with each iteration the results improve.

Perhaps the most basic weapon you can make is a jo.  Go to your hardware store, walk to the wooden dowel section and pick out a blank.  Take it home and cut it to length (approximately the height of your armpit), sand it down, and oil it.  Congratulations!  You have just made your first weapon.

What did you most likely learn?

  1. Commercially available wood sold at retail stores is light.  It is difficult to find a densely grained hardwood.
  2. The range of diameters available are usually too thin, or too thick, when compared to a jo you buy in a martial arts store.
  3. The grain is probably not straight and tight.
  4. Heartwood is ideal, but the available stock is mostly sapwood.
  5. Sanding the weapon is tremendously satisfying.
  6. The oil you apply can affect the surface of the wood and the ease in which is slides through your hands.
  7. It is a pleasure using a weapon that is made to fit your body.

In making my own bokuto, I get the benefit of training with a weapon that I made to my own specifications, and the deep familiarity that develops with using it is there from the first day.  I own every imperfection, but I also feel a connection with the details I put into the shape and balance of its movement.

My weapons are not perfect and invariably through use in training during the year, they develop cracks or start to splinter – rendering them only suitable for suburi.  This has forced me to use bokuto of different weights, lengths, and curves over the past five years.  It has given me an appreciation of how the weapon affects my maai and interacts with other weapons; which has given me a deeper appreciation for the sword as an extension of me.

Each year the design is slightly different.  Some of the changes are due to my understanding of the weapon and our art.  Others are due to the process of making the bokuto.  I start with an outline of the overall curve of the weapon and my desired cross section.  Then, I carve away parts of the wood to give me the weight and balance I’m looking for.  It is a very tactile process and I often swing the sword during the shaping process to get an understanding of how it responds.

Once the overall shaping is done, I move on to final carving with a knife and detailed hand sanding.  This is the point in the project when it feels like I am close to finishing, but I still have all the detail work to complete by hand.  It is all about how the weapon feels while I am holding it.  Is it comfortable?  Do the proportions make sense?  It may look fine but picking it up quickly reveals imperfections in the uniformity of the shape and whether it is the right scale.  Using a machine at this point could result in taking too much material away and it hinders my judgement.

Progress was slow this year. I picked out two nice pieces of reclaimed timber to use and they both had serious flaws and cracks only visible after I cut out the initial blanks. I had to go out and source more hardwood.  All the best timber suppliers had closed for the holidays, but I was able to find new  pieces to work with after an hour of sorting through wood at a retail store.

Sanding took twice as long as usual because I was too cautious and cut the blanks too large. The lesson for 2019 is: don’t leave so much fat to allow for mistakes. Trust that I can get it right the first time.

Joe O’Brien

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  1. Pingback: Broken Bokuto – Aikijutsu

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