After my extended training month in Canada, I returned home pretty much exhausted and burned out. Well, in body at least, my mind still wanted more learning but my body was beginning to fail me after a steady diet of travel food and sitting upon mine arse driving. With all of this, you would think I would be smart and take some time to recuperate (eat healthy, work out, digest information, etc.) Most people would, right? I am either A.) Not most people or B.) Not smart.
I left myself just over two weeks at home before I needed to take off on my next journey, driving back to Dragonfly Forge in Oregon for two classes: koshirae and tsukamaki. For those of you reading this who don't know the Japanese terms, I'll explain, those who do can skip right over.
Other than taking three days to make the drive, instead of two, it was basically the same as before. I stopped in Reno, and had used some rewards points to get a dirt cheap room at Circus Circus. I'm glad I was planning to meet up with my buddy Mike Armour anyway, because it was a nightmare to wait in line and even get checked in.
It was good to see him again, but never try to match drinks with a professional sparky. At best, you'll want to die the next day. At worst, you won't remember the night and wind up somewhere strange. Not the best thing before 8 hours of driving. Still, it was R&R that I sorely needed.
As should be no surprise to anyone, I arrived safely. Probably because I couldn't write these if I died. Oh well.
I returned with the tanto I had previously forged with Fusataro (Japanese Bladesmithing 2016 article) and prepared the habaki and final blade profile under Mike Bell's oversight/instruction. Unlike last time, I wasn't the only student this time. But whereas I had a tanto, he brought an entire katana. Again, whereas I used the alder they had on hand, he brought a hunk of walnut. Now, to be fair, it was an absolutely gorgeous piece and I'm not so proud as to deny the overwhelming desire to take it.
But I didn't. I'm not THAT big of an asshole.
It's actually a deceptively simple and tedious process to make the koshirae, but I don't say that to diminish anyone who does them. This is because each step has tons of very precise nuances and fiddly details to ensure you do right, watch out for, etc. The overall "do this, then that, and this" process is easily explained. Since this isn't a "how to master koshirae making" lesson, I'll attempt to use descriptions and pictures to convey the process as much as possible, and encourage anyone interested to find printed literature about the process further.
Koshirae - Japanese Sword Mountings by Markus Sesko. This isn't a "How-to" style book, but will examine and discuss mountings through the various periods. Useful if you want to identify something, or replicate a certain style.
To start with you'll need a piece of wood, preferably something that is soft and easy to carve. The Japanese prefer honoki/Japanese magnolia traditionally, thought I've also heard people mention nurizaya as well. Since I don't have a source for either of those, and I rarely see it for sale anyway, I don't worry about finding it. Dragonfly Forge uses alder, and the piece I had was a pleasure to carve. I've also been suggested basswood by Vince Evans, and watched him rough carve a scabbard core for a dagger in a couple of minutes. I've also been told poplar is a good choice and a historically used material in European scabbards.
Once you've chosen your material for the project (in my case, alder) you need to rough cut out a blank for the blade. Because the nakago of a Japanese blade doesn't run a full tang length, this needs to take into account the spacing for your hand on the handle, as well as the scabbard length for the blade. This blank should be free of cracks, splits, knots, and other gunk. You want a section with fairly even grain that runs a continuous direction as much as possible, so you're not carving and planing against the grain.
I worked a lot with Gabe Bell, while my fellow classmate (who I'm not naming because I can't ask if he cares) worked heavily with Mike Bell. I like the way Gabe taught me to do koshirae, because it was also shirasaya up until a certain point. Let me explain.
The blank is split evenly down the middle with a handsaw, specifically a ryoba pull-saw in this case. You want the cut to be dead straight and as small as possible: if you're cutting for a shirasaya it will remain unlacquered and the beauty is in the grain of the wood itself. Once the blank is split you need to make sure it IS true flat with a hand plane; the whole thing had to go back together with zero gap at the very end.
Now you have a split and flat curved piece of wood. You're ready for stage one of SOUL CRUSHING HAND CHISELING! Also, fiddely detail #1 comes into play here: you don't want the cutting edge to sit perfectly in the middle fo the two halves because it can then act as a wedge and split the saya apart. Instead, you carve the channel to have the cutting edge completely inset to one side.
Some of you may be thinking of the wood chisels you find at hardware stores, the kind you cut door hinges and such with. Throw that image out of your mind and prepare to be introduced to your best friend in the wood working world: the saya nomi.
This is a specialty Japanese chisel designed exactly for this task. It's a very long, relatively thin, paring chisel that can be bought or made in a variety of widths. It has an overall curvature to allow ease of use by hand, and is in fact designed only to worked by hand. The edge is also gently rounded so that it begins cutting at the center of the blade, instead of digging in the corners and creating gouges. I don't know about you, but I tend to make ALL THE GOUGES when I use a flat chisel.
Taken from the website I purchase two of my four: "They are traditionally mostly used to cut the slots in wooden scabbards for Japanese knives and swords. The edge is slightly rounded and so begins cutting first in the middle of the iron, enabling a cut that is soft and very responsive to your hands. The back of the iron is lightly rounded as well, and so you do not find the hollow-ground back one sees so often in Japanese chisels. The third, hardly perceptible curve is over the length of the iron. The shaft is bowed up about 12 to 13 degrees in order to protect your knuckles. The iron is forged out of two pieces of laminated steel, the edge laminate is hardened to about 63-65 HRC. The handle is in Japanese Red Oak. This chisel, because of its long, thin, curved iron, and lack of a steel bezel at the end of the handle, is designed to be used under hand pressure only, or only very light blows with a small wooden mallet. They are forged by the smith Kawasei in Yoita, Niigata Province, Japan."
Have I gushed about how awesome these are, enough, yet? Well, too bad, because I have one more tidbit to share. I carved a wooden core for a 36" blade in an afternoon with these.
I'm done tool fanboying, sorry, moving on.
Sorry, not sorry, they're awesome. Get some if you're doing classic wood-core scabbards.
It's also specific you need to carve this precisely, the blade shouldn't rattle around at all. The habaki should fit snugly once the two halves are together (you can check with clamps before gluing for ease) but allow you to completely seat the blade. It's also wise to leave a little extra space beyond the tip so that any gunk accidentally getting inside has a place to settle that doesn't involve contact with, and thus scratching, of the blade.
The same logic, in regards to centering, also applies to the tsuka. With your tsuka and saya now rough carved out and fitted snugly, you'll want to glue them together so you can start shaping. Plain-jane Elmer's white glue is your friend here, though purists can always make a rice paste and go traditionally. A very light amount is all you need, this will be under pressure and any excess will squeeze out into the interior and interfere with proper sheathing. Clamp that sucker up and leave it, preferably overnight if you time it right.
If you oopsed and do have some glue inside, you can try and pick it out. They DO make a saya/tsuka file, I got mine from Namikawa Heibei Co.Ltd. Just be careful you're only removing gunk and not making the fit loose.
Your glued koshirae/shirasaya blank is now shaped. In the case of shirasaya, there is a specific "crushed octagon" shape it will need to be at the very end. Koshirae are rounded and have the oval shape most people would be familiar with.
As you can see, I was taught how to do the shirasaya shape first. Because I was going for a koshirae, specifically an aikuchi koshirae, this was a nice chance to see both shapes and practice. I also hovered at the other end of the shop watching the evolution of the walnut shirasaya; the work on that was very difficult as the wood fought every step. But it was also nice to be able to take a breather and just WATCH the process being done while I decompressed.
At this point, if it was shirasaya, it would get all the final work to the blade and saya done and have a mekugi fitted to hold it together. In my case, it was time to start breaking the corners of the shirasaya with the plane and make it into the oval final shape.
I've found that, with time on my side, I much prefer hand tools for precision. The grinder is great until a single wrong move or second of inattentiveness ruins the entire project and you have to start over.
With the oval shape complete, it's time to move on to making the fittings...fit. With this being an aikuchi style tanto I'm fitting, I didn't need to have a tsuba. It did, however, still get a fuchi. The ends of the tsuka needed to be trimmed down so I could fit the kashira (buttcap) and the fuchi (collar). The saya would be carved down to allow the koiguchi to fit. What might be more easy to imagine is that they are attached via mortise and tenon, the wood is carved down to be the tenon joint while the fittings themselves are the mortise.
The last piece to be added was the eyelet through which the sageo cord is tied. Now I'll move on to the tsukamaki part, prepping and then wrapping the silk around the handle. This I do have a book about that I like. It takes the place of my rather sparing pictures and notes (too busy actually working.) The Art of Tsukamaki by Thomas Buck is my reference guide.
There are two ways you can apply the same, the ray skin underlay, on a handle. One is to cut the same to the exact size of the handle so it wraps completely, and butts up to itself on the ura (back) side. The Emperor nodes of the skin should be on the outside (omote) where it will be seen while worn. The other style is to create two recessed panels of the same set into the handle; this is my preferred visual style because there is no seam running down the back side.
In my case, there was the careful cutting and shaping of the panels, so that I could then mark and chisel out the recess in the tsuka for them. The mounting hole for the mekugi pin should be in the tsuka by this point, before you apply the same. While it's not visible in the photos below, it is present.
The panels got glued down and allowed to set up for a little bit. With the same firmly on, the mekugi hole was reamed out carefully.
Mike had several colors of ito in his finish room, so we moved over there for a bit to dig them out and have a lesson about the silk wrap itself. I settled on a nice blue color that's still dark, but not plain black.
With a color settled on, the same tacked up, the next chore was to prepare a large quantity of hishi-game, little paper triangles that help lock in the shape of the silk wrap. It also gives support and backing in the areas around the menuki.
Infinity hishi-game prepared, came the long process of wrapping the ito itself. Thankfully, Mike had a little specialty clamp tool and some mounting jigs that made the whole process a lot easier on my hands.
The tang you see here isn't actually my blade. It's a holder that allows you to slide the tsuka-in-progress over and clamp in place. That way you can put pressure on the silk while wrapping it and not have an awkward monstrosity of silk and suffering held between hands and feet as you scramble to make it work.
The menuki visible there, even though it's wrapped already, is a dragonfly. Being as I was at the Dragonfly Mountain Japanese Sword Forging School this was very special to me; the dragonfly is their symbol. I'm not an apprentice of the school, or family, nothing more than an interested student taking a few classes here and there. Being permitted to use their symbol, and in fact the menuki came from them, meant a lot to me. But I'm a sentimental old fool like that.
Once the silk is all wrapped over the handle, it gets tied through the kashira and knotted into place on both sides. I have sketches and diagrams in my books about the knot, so I can reproduce it on other works, but I couldn't type out and tell you how to do it if my life depended upon it.
The saya needs lacquered and the sageo would need to be tied. Other than final fitting and adjustment of shape on the horn koiguchi that was the end of the class.
Other than probably butchering the Japanese terms I've used during this little article, I hope everything made sense.
I was really happy about how this turned out, and I enjoyed the small koshirae class and the solo tsukamaki class a great deal. It'll be in the 2018 content, but I did also head back there (so far) one more time and take a katana forging class from them. But that's another story...
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Bladesmith, fantasy author, martial artist, and outdoorsman.