Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tomiki, Judo and Aikido

Below is an excerpt from a post at Aikido Sangenkai. The full article may be read here. You will certainly want to see the original article as there are several worthwhile downloads available there.

Kenji Tomiki (富木謙治) began training under Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu in 1926.  He was largely responsible for the compilation and editing of the text in Morihei Ueshiba’s 1933 training manual “Budo Renshu”  (published in English under the name “Budo Training in Aikido“), and was later appointed to be Morihei Ueshiba’s representative at Kenkoku University in Japanese occupied Manchuria.

At the time that he started training with Morihei Ueshiba he was already a student of Judo – an uchi-deshi (“live-in student”) to Judo Founder Jigoro Kano. He was encouraged to visit Ueshiba by a fellow Judo student at Waseda, Hidetaro Kubota (who later changed his name to Nishimura), who had trained with Morihei Ueshiba in Ayabe during the 1920’s.

In 1936 Tomiki left Tokyo to become a part time instructor at Daido Gakuin in Japanese occupied Manchuria. Before he left he went to pay his respects to Jigoro Kano, and was told:
“Tomiki-kun, the Kodokan needs the kinds of techniques that you learned at Ueshiba-san’s place. Because the jujutsu of the past, they all do the same kinds of things that Ueshiba-san does. But it’s how to practice those things that is difficult!”

This was Kenji Tomiki’s conundrum after the war, just as it was a conundrum for JIgoro Kano, and even Kisshomaru Ueshiba – namely, how the older arts could and should be modified for popularization among the general public (there’s a little about the changes in post-war modern Aikikai Aikido in “The Ueshiba Legacy, by Mark Murray“) .

In 1954 Tomiki published a book called “Judo Taiso” (“Judo Exercises” – the book is available for free download from the article “Kenji Tomiki: Judo Taiso – a method of training Aiki no Jutsu through Judo principles“). This book represents some of Tomiki’s earlier work at integrating the work of his two teachers and then presenting the results to the general public.

When Keizou Yamamoto (山本敬三) went to train with Kenji Tomiki at Waseda University in 1957 he encountered that book:
Although I had gone to Waseda University with the intention of learning Aikido, we were given a booklet called “Judo Taiso”, and we did the Judo exercises that Sensei had invented. I understood at last, years later, that Sensei had deeply respected the late Jigoro Kano Sensei – “The way that I see Aikido is through Judo”, he said. In the forward to that book that Tomiki Sensei wrote was the following:
“I was introduced to Kodokan Judo some forty-five years ago, when I was in elementary school. Leading to the present day I have received instruction beginning with the late Jigoro Kano Sensei, and then through many Sempai. From around thirty years ago I was taught Aikido by Morihei Ueshiba Sensei. “Judo Taiso” was born through the comprehensive study of both of these people, with the structure based on Aikido technique. The movement of the body has been transformed to modern gymnastics and with this the unification of power developed through the “Principles of Judo” and the management of the body can be practiced.”
Tomiki further discussed some of the issues surrounding this problem in this interview with Aikido Journal, in which he was asked about some of the spectacular feats that Morihei Ueshiba was able to perform with his internal skills:
This problem is one of modern physical education’s muscle training. It’s called isometrics. That is to say, by pushing or pulling you train either the outer muscles or the inner muscles. When you get perfect at this form of training you can hardly see any muscle movement at all during the exercise. When you can’t see any movement you are using the muscle very skillfully. But, in the educational field if you demand a similar level of perfection then you are making a big mistake. If anyone trains sufficiently it is possible to do it to some degree, but, of course, there are limits what a human being can do. Perfection is a problem of belief. Can we call it religious faith? If we have to disrupt our partner’s psychological state through some hypnotic technique it would not be a matter of religion as we usually think of the word. I for one, take the normal point of view that education appropriate for the general public is correct and I think aikido should be something usual, or normal, as well.
Tomiki wasn’t alone in these sentiments, his teacher Jigoro Kano also wrestled with the problem of balancing his desire to preserve the traditional arts of Japan with the his desire to create an art that would be suitable for the modern educational system and the general public:
The pioneer who modernized the feudal era schools of bujutsu and brought them to into the context of modern physical education was Master Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo. When I say that he modernized ancient bujutsu, what I mean is that, first of all, he categorized and arranged the techniques so that they transcended schools. The main feature of this rearrangement was organizing and categorizing the major techniques according to the form of combat, so as to make tournaments (shiai) possible. 
– “On Jujutsu and its Modernization” by Kenji Tomiki
And Kano dealt with similar issues as well – according to Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu (新道楊心流)  Menkyo Kaiden Toby Threadgill, there was a point in time when the entire Internal Power (内力の業) training syllabus of Shindo Yoshin-ryu was included in Kodokan Judo textbooks – a chapter that was removed from later editions. Here he speaks a little bit about that section of the training:
They are solo exercises that inculcate the proper balance, movement and muscular application utilized in our greater curriculum. These types of exercises are actually quite ubiquitous in Japanese jujutsu schools of the Edo Period, although they are rather unfamiliar to those outside the membership of specific Nihon koryu. According to Yoshin ryu lore, this form of body training was introduced to Japan from China in the mid-Edo Period. In the case of Yoshin ryu, the Nairiki no Gyo were specifically created adaptations of Chinese practices intended to augment the study and application of specific body skills required in Yoshin ryu’s greater curriculum.
– From “An Interview With: Toby Threadgill, Menkyo Kaiden, Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu
In the end, Tomiki opted to follow Jigoro Kano’s thinking and introduce a form of competitive Aikido:
I introduced Randori Aikido so that students could make their techniques more effective by ‘free play’. These techniques originate from Kata and can develop through Randori to competition. In order to teach the spirit of Budo in a modern educational system, it is necessary to introduce it as a sport. The reason I developed Randori Aikido from Kata Aikido is because I wished to follow the method and thinking of Dr. Jigaro Kano in which he evolved Judo from old style Jujutsu

Monday, September 26, 2016

Getting over Plateaus in Your Martial Arts Training

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at The Art of Manliness. It specifically talks about getting over plateaus when it comes to doing push ups, but I think that the article can be applied to any type of exercise, including martial arts.

The full article may be read here.

Push-ups: the manliest and most foundational strength exercise for the upper body. They’ve been turning boys into men since the dawn of physical fitness. I won’t bore you with their benefits (i.e., they require no equipment, they’re great for the whole upper body, etc.) — you already know all that! Rather, I’ll be answering the question, “Why is it that even though push-ups produce amazing results in the beginning, I stop seeing any serious progress after a few months?”

No more soreness, no new muscle-gains…you don’t really feel as if you’re getting or looking any stronger. All you get is an increase in repetitions, and that’s the problem! Most of you can do too many push-ups after a certain point.

But you might ask, “Isn’t that good? Isn’t doing more repetitions a sign of progress?”

Well, it depends. If you’re trying to break the Guinness push-up record, then maybe yes. But, if you want a stronger and more defined body, it’s definitely the wrong way to do them. Here’s the thing: if you can do more than 20 repetitions in any strength-related exercise, it simply means that its intensity is not challenging enough for you anymore. You’re not stimulating your muscles to any serious extent, and that’s why you’re not building any more muscle and strength. All you’re doing is building endurance at pushing yourself up and down off the floor.

Utilizing the Mind-to-Muscle Connection to Get More Out of Bodyweight Exercises

Instead of wiling away your time doing push-up after push-up with no real benefit, there is a muscle you can use to make this exercise as challenging as it felt when you were first doing it.

Not only that, but by using this muscle, you’ll also be getting a chest pump like you’ve never felt before! Which muscle is it? The strongest one you possess: your mind! By learning to master the Mind-to-Muscle Connection, you’ll be able to increase muscle tension and do fewer, but more qualitative, repetitions. Below, I walk you through this connection, and then give tips on how to use it to maximize your push-ups.

External Cues vs. Internal Cues

External Cues

Most people focus on external strength-training cues. These are all those training characteristics that are a) measurable (i.e., reps, sets, resting times, etc.), and b) obvious to the naked eye (such as using good form while executing the exercise). External cues are very important. They should be the first thing one focuses on getting right as a beginner. But, once you’ve mastered them, and once the exercise stops being challenging, combining them with internal cues is key.

Internal Cues

The Mind-to-Muscle Connection (MMC) focuses on internal cues, which are the inner sensory feedback your body gives during your training. For example, one internal cue is the muscle burn you feel during the last reps of an exercise. Another one is the muscle pump you feel after a set. Internal cues can help you make the exercise more difficult — without having to add extra weight — allowing you to keep making progress in terms of strength and muscle development.
Another great benefit of utilizing internal cues is that you can do strength-building exercises without stressing your joints too much. This can be especially helpful if you’re over 30, when joints gradually become more sensitive and prone to injury.

To Build Strength, Choose Quality Over Quantity

Mind-to-Muscle techniques are not going to help you do more reps, or lift more weight in a strength-related exercise. On the contrary, they make each exercise more difficult to perform. It won’t be easy in the beginning — you’ll have to put your ego aside, since doing fewer reps feels, well, less manly. But doing fewer, more challenging reps, will build greater strength than doing a ton of easy reps. Strength and muscle development comes more from quality, than quantity. Plus, utilizing MMC cues will give you a greater feeling of control over your body, minimize injury, and help you experience your workouts at a deeper level. Once you learn to apply it to bodyweight exercises like push-ups, you won’t feel like doing them any other way again!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Budo with a Small 'b'

"Philosophy practiced is the goal of learning." - Thoreau.

As a young man I trained pretty intensively for a while in Yoshinkan Aikido under Kushida Sensei. For Kushida Sensei, Aikido was a beautiful study of Budo. I like to think that I learned a little bit about Budo under his tuteledge.

Strictly speaking Budo is the study of a Japanese martial art as a vehicle to learn "the Way."

There are a lot of paths one can take to study "the Way" that aren't Japanese or martial at all. One of these is running. I call these "Budo with a small 'b'."

Over the past several years I have become a distance runner in my own modest way. I find that there is a lot in running that I found in Aikido.

Below is an excerpt from a post made by Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy. The full article may be read here.

Before we get to that article though, I'd like you to take a quick look at an article on Wikipedia about some Buddhist monks who use running as a part of their practice, and a 1000 day challenge. The article is here. Their practice includes a 1000 day challenge (my personal best has been a little over 700 days in a row).

I’ve run nearly everyday since 2005. Before that there was four years of cross country and track, and before that two years of middle school track and field. I didn’t really enjoy it as a kid, and didn’t treat it seriously for a lot of reasons, so I don’t count those years. Just the last decade or so, because my running has been voluntary.

More than that, it’s been my lifeline.

I’ve run everywhere. New Orleans, London, Manhattan, Austin, Tahoe, Riverside, Montreal, San Francisco, San Diego, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Vancouver, Miami, Vicksburg, Dallas, Oslo, Graz, Tombstone, Tucson, Seattle, Helsinki, Joshua Tree, Dublin, Toronto, Chicago, DC, Vegas, Perth, and who knows how many other places. It’s the first thing I do in most cities–pull out my shoes and a map and see the sights.

I’ve run in the snow, in the rain, in 100+ degree heat, through cities, on military bases, in shitty hotel gyms, along highways, beside beautiful lakes and rivers, through castles, across bridges, on battlefields, up mountains, with holes on the back of my heels so big that my socks were healing into my skin, at two in the morning, on no sleep, when I’m sick, with friends. I’ve got courses in cities I’ve lived in or visit a lot. I’ve traveled to those cities sometimes for almost no other reason that I crave that course.

I run because I love it. I run because I need it.

In the book What Makes Sammy Run? the main character runs everywhere–though not necessarily as exercise–because he has to get away from the baggage of his past. A friend of mine once joked that it’s not enough for triathletes to run away from their problems, they have to swim and bike from them too.

That’s not me at all. Running is how I face what I need to face. It’s when I turn everything else off and am forced to deal. It’s my time to meditate, it’s when I feel flow but not in a work or creative capacity. There are work benefits of course–some of my best ideas have come popping into my head when running (in fact, chunks of this post came on a run), but that’s not why I do it.

Running is instead the time I set aside to not work, no matter how busy or overloaded I might be. Time to step away and be able to look at things fresh, knowing that whatever baggage you bring to a given situation has no place on other people’s shoulders or in their laps. Only your own. It’s a designated place in my life where I unload and disassemble, before it piles up unmanageably high. A lot of people do things because they can’t bear to stare into the void. This is a weakness. We run, to quote Murakami’s famous What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, to “acquire a void.”

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Taichi and MMA

Below is a post from StudyMartialArts blog. Is it by an ex UFC-MMA fighter who has since taken up taijiquan. I found it very interesting and think that you will too. The full post may be read here.

After my last fight for the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in 2010, I didn’t know whether I was going to fight again, so I was afforded the luxury of easing off the punishing training regimen that having an upcoming fight forces you to endure, and instead I could focus on training purely for the love of it once again. I found myself drawn to Tai Chi and immediately began noticing all the imbalances in my body, and it took about two years to undo most of the significant damage I had caused to myself from years of sparring and pushing myself to the limits in training.

The beauty and depth of the internal arts

Once I’d realized the efficiency, beauty and depth of the internal martial arts, I was 100% committed to its mastery. Having a somewhat obsessive-compulsive personality when it comes to doing what I love, I immediately devoured all the texts and videos on the subject matter and began my travels to learn from various masters around the world. I took three years off from sparring, and instead focused on moving as slowly and smoothly as possible. It was both a beautiful and humbling experience to feel like a complete beginner again, and this helped me realize that, more than anything, it is the learning that I enjoy. I love a challenge, and when I read claims that Tai Chi Ch’uan takes 10 to 20 years to master, my imagination was instantly captured and I knew what my future had in store for me. I had to completely “empty my cup”, detaching from my previous training methods, which is no easy task! As my brain was attempting to rewire itself to learn this new language, most of my old habits were actually in direct contrast to what I needed to be doing in order to evolve further in this new direction. The concept of doing less to achieve more is certainly a tricky one for Westerners to wrap their heads around!

Changing beliefs

And now today, when I try to pass on what I have learned to my friends in the MMA community, I encounter two common scenarios. The first is the confused look as I try to explain a concept which is too alien to their current way of thinking, one that does not harmonize with – indeed, even threatens – their limiting beliefs, or the way they see the “sport” of martial arts. The other is simply an inability or unwillingness to “start over,” to throw away the old to make way for the new, even if they can see the value. People too often feel that they have invested so much energy for so many years that they would be doing themselves a disservice by starting anew. As I see it, our attachments can become our downfalls, and adaptation is the key to longevity and harmony.

After years of study on everything from nutrition to philosophy, anatomy to alternative health systems, as well as the classic texts on war and peace, every aspect of my training has shifted dramatically from what it once was. A significant moment came when I felt I was no longer just following what everyone else was doing, or what my coaches were telling me to do. I was coming from a place where I could draw on my own experience and research – and, more importantly, I was following my intuition.
Over the last three years, my main training partner has been my son Shen, who is now three. Becoming a father forces you to adapt in so many ways, and in order to fit the daily amount of training hours in, one is required to make changes both to lifestyle as well as the type of training. Motivations change too. Now I am inspired to lead by example and I have to be more consistent and thoughtful with my approach. Shen is of the age now where he can spot anomalies and he loves nothing more than to ask, “Why, Dad….?”

Four ounces to move a thousand

Tai Chi Ch’uan talks of using four ounces to move a thousand pounds, so when I wrestle my son, it’s not a case of the strong and experienced versus the weak and unaware. Instead, I make it so I literally use as little effort as I can, and would have to say that he becomes the stronger of the two of us. I constantly play around with his balance, trying to affect it so subtly that he is unable to grasp what is the cause of his instability.

Taichi principles in training and life

From my many years studying ground fighting, I am well-versed in the best offensive and defensive techniques; but I have yet to teach any to Shen. Instead, I just put some weight on him, pinning him to the ground or against something upright, and ask him if he can get out. Then I let him try and wiggle and squirm his way free using movement and the principle of finding space. Sometimes he says he is stuck and I give him a pointer on which part of the body he should move to free himself up. He has become blocked, limiting his own movement through lack of awareness. We all do it, becoming attached to one way of thinking; and when that doesn’t serve us, if our vision has become too narrowed, then we are unable to come up with any new, creative ideas because we are drawing from memory instead of feeling in the present.

A Karate friend of mine recently asked Shen to punch his hand and was surprised that I hadn’t taught him “correct technique” yet. But that will come later, and it will come easily and quickly once he knows how to move correctly and has cultivated a mind which stays open to assimilating new information. Besides, I don’t really want my three year old knowing how to punch just yet!

Shen’s favorite film is The Jungle Book, and there’s nothing more he likes doing than climbing on me. Even my 10-month-old has started joining in, crawling as fast as he can across the room to get in on the action. We mimic animal movement, moving primally across the floor like gorillas, monkeys, snakes, bears…

Aside from our training together, just observing how a baby navigates this world is enlightening for those of us obsessed with movement. From the first few months when you can feel the strength of their grip and how all limb movements originate from the dantien, to when they begin to perform deep squats and exhibit perfect posture. Getting to feel true softness, noticing how their pliant muscles can move freely around the bone, and realizing what is actual full-joint mobility.

It can be an awakening experience knowing that we all once moved like that, and somewhere along the line we picked up some bad habits, and are continually paying the price for it as we age and strive to unlearn, simplify, return to our youthful ways.

When I was a boy, my friends and I would regularly dare each other on, challenging one another, pushing our boundaries in the quest for new experiences and overcoming fears. I find myself continuing that tradition with my son. When we come across some cold water and I ask Shen if he wants to go in, I’m really asking myself if I want to go in. Without him there, I may not always verbalize the idea, which brings it one step closer to reality. Like all good training partners, you find ways of fitting more training into the day and bond through the shared experiences.

I am a believer in the saying, “Do one thing a day that you are scared of.” It is an excellent way to prevent the mind from calcifying. When the mind begins to set, this is a sure way of letting fear creep in, and it only needs one foot in the door. The mind is like a parachute – only useful when open!

When carrying Shen on my shoulders, it forces me to adopt more and more efficient posture. With him constantly growing a little heavier, it reminds me of the old story of Qing-Gong training when one jumps out of a hole every day and each day the hole gets made 1cm deeper.

When he climbs on my arms as I am sitting, my structure is tested and I strive to apply all the principles that Zhan Zhuang practice cultivates – keeping the shoulders down, elbows heavy and spine tall.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

All About Wooden Weapons for Martial Arts

Today we have another guest post by Jonathan Bluestein. Today's topics covers pretty much everything you wanted to know about wooden weapons.

All About Wooden Weapons

Which Woods, Where to Buy, and How to Care

By Jonathan Bluestein

Being a lover of wooden weaponry and a teacher of the traditional Chinese martial arts, I found the issue of wood types and their qualities challenging to research. Having delved into this subject, studied and tested it for many years, I sought to write this article in order to aid fellow martial artists learn more and understand it better. This article shall begin discussing woods, their qualities and which is preferable for use as weaponry. Later I will provide you with recommendations for where to purchase wooden weapons, and finally with instructions of how to care for them.

This article is very long and comprehensive. Feel free to skip forward if only one of the subjects being discussed is of interest to you.

To begin, I should first recommend all readers to make the website a new favorite. For all intents and purposes, this is the ‘IMDB for woods’. It is the go-to website for all wood related base facts. Unfortunately for us however, like nearly all wood-related websites, it does not take martial artists and their needs into account. This is why this article will help you ‘translate’ the language of such websites into practical information for our uses.

In the picture: Cherry wood. Nice looking. Absolutely worthless for making wooden weapons, as it is too light and too fragile for such a purpose. First lesson earned – the way it looks does not indicate the way it functions…

Are the hardest woods best?
The biggest problem with choice of wood for weapons is that there are no clear parameters for “what is best” or “what is most suitable”. Woods are most commonly used in construction and woodworking. Because of this, the common measurements for the qualities of different woods reflect their relevance for these types of endeavors, rather than for suitability towards the practice of the martial arts.       

Consider for instance the widely used Janka Hardness measurement – which is available for every wood on the Wood Database. The Janka number is usually between 500 and 5000, and is available for most types of wood you can find. To measure this ‘hardness’, a small metal ball is embedded into a wood plank. They measure how much power was required to make half the ball sink into the wood, getting a number - usually between 500 and 5000 - which represents ‘hardness’.
But is Janka hardness really a decent measure of how wood will sustain impact? Not as much as you might expect. Consider that in fact, one wooden weapon hitting another is a very different experience to a small metal ball slowly being driven into a flat piece of wood. The speed, vibrations, shape, materials meeting – all of these are different. It can be safely said, that anything below the Janka hardness of 1000 - like
Pine, Spruce and Cypress - will break easily. But over 1200, and especially over 1500, the advantage of hardness diminishes, and often does not at all predict how well suited is a wood for impact.

Classic examples:  Ebony wood species, which are all very heavy and exceedingly beautiful, are usually of a Janka hardness of over 3000 (which is considered rare and very high). Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum officinale), one of the strongest, densest and hardest woods in the world, has a Janka hardness of over 4300 (which is extreme). Oak species, on the other hand, tend to fall in the range of 1100-1600 on the Janka scale – usually less than half the ‘hardness’ of Ebony, a third that of Lignum Vitae. Yet, it is well known that Ebony weapons will break easily and Lignum weapons will also not last long, while Oak species, especially Japanese White Oak, are very durable and impact resistant. On the Ebony’s part, its grain structure and excessive hardness actually make it brittle. However if we were to examine another exotic species, Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), which has a Janka hardness of about 3000, it will prove to have decent impact resistant, which while not as good as Oak’s, is still better than that of an Ebony. 
Here we see the problem with the Janka scale. It would have worked for furniture, where pressure is applied with slow speed over many points of contact. So a Lignum Vitae table would be much stronger than an Ebony table, which would be superior at times to a Cocobolo table, and all of them would by far exceed in quality, beauty and strength a simple Oak table. Yet when these woods make weapons, the Oaks win the day.

All that being said, hardness does often predict raw weight. Therefore, if a wooden weapon is not intended for impact and is sought after for strength training, the harder woods do deliver. Woods such as Ebony, African Blackwood and Lignum Vitae are not only beautiful – they are also very heavy. On the internet and also the Wood Database you can find the ‘average dried weight’ of many wood species, but in my experience that ‘average’ weight will not predict well the weight of the weapon made of a certain wood. Luckily when purchasing from experienced artisans, we can simply ask them what our custom piece is likely to weight in their experience, or know it already if purchasing a weapon that is already available for sale.

In the picture: Ebony tables and other furniture pieces are highly sought after, but will not make for good sparring swords.      

How about other measurements, then?      
Sadly, although there are several other types of measurements for woods, these are actually often even less relevant than the Janka hardness scale. For example, “crushing strength” measures how much power is needed to break a piece of wood, when it is pressed on both ends. But this is not how wooden weapons are usually used – you do not pull a staff, spear or wooden sword on both ends and try to break it – that is not how it is used in training or combat. Therefore measuring such a thing does not necessarily predict how good the wood is as a weapon.                        
Then we have something like Specific Gravity – a measure of how dense the wood is compared to water. In simple terms – how much a wood will float or sink in water. This too is not that relevant for wooden weaponry.          
One interesting measure that the Wood Database came up with, is dividing how much a wood will bend (Modulus of Elasticity) by how easily it will break (Modulus of Rapture). In other words – how flexbile,       divided by how prone to rapture, yields a number predicting which woods are both flexible and resilient. This number, called the Bow Index, is a great predictor of wood suitability for making bows. But carryover to melee wooden weapons is not necessarily guaranteed. For example – one of the best woods for bow making on the planet is the North American unique
Osage Orange. The suitability of this wood for melee wooden weaponry is disputed as far as I can tell, and I will address that later in the article when discussing this particular wood. Another wood, Field Maple, is high up on the best bow woods list. But with a Janka hardness of less than 1200 on average, I would doubt it can sustain blows well. Same goes for English Walnut, which albeit beautiful is not used for weapons for good reasons.     

One thing that is important and is measured is a wood’s durability to decay. A lot of woods, usually the oilier exotic hardwoods, are very rot-resistant and hardly decay, if ever. This is important for people who care whether their piece of wood will last for many years, perhaps even past their lifetime. Yet the same woods tend to be those high on the Janka scale, and many of which are too hard and brittle for their own good to be used as an impact weapon. Also of importance is the resistance to insects, especially termites and woodworms. This is less of an issue in some countries, while in others that can be critical to ensure the survival of wooden items.       

It appears that many factors are in fact involved in how well suited is a wood for weaponry. Combined are parameters like hardness, weight, flexibility, durability, grain structure, shock absorbance, and more. So how can we tell the best woods for weapons, anyhow? Just like with everything else in the martial arts - based on our own personal experience and that of those who came before us. Luckily, wooden weapons are very popular worldwide and great information is available. Here below I have summarized for you lots of crucial knowledge concerning various wood species, based on my personal experience and a whole lot of information I have been exposed to over the years.

The Bokken Review tests         
First, some semi-objective data from a now famous experiment. There was once a guy who went through a financially insane ordeal for the sake of all of us.  He decided to test the resilience of many different woods in order to decide which are best for the construction of a Bokken. He ordered several dozen bokken, each made of a different wood and from a different manufacturer, and attempted breaking them all. He took each piece and smashed it forcefully against a thick tree in his yard until they cracked and broke. The weapons, being very thin compared with the large tree and not intended to sustain that sort of impact, eventually gave way and broke as predicted, but each species and weapon took a different number of beatings and time. The results were published in written form, with pictures and videos, on a blog called ‘Bokken Review’.      
Among the woods tested were: English Brown Oak (Quercus petraea), Honduras Rosewood, African Rosewood, Lignum Vitae, Wenge, Ipe, Osage Orange, Brazilian Ironwood (Pau Ferro), Purpleheart, and some others . By the end of the experiment there were only three woods made it ‘to the finals’:  Appalachian Hickory (made by Kinfisher Woodworks – more on them later), which the tester could not break though he tried for two months, even against concrete; and Japanese White Oak and Brazilian Ironwood, which were said to have suffered little denting and took a whole lot of time to break under very unfavorable conditions. No doubt, all woods tested, as especially these last three, would have fared much better and lasted far longer in normal martial arts related use.

Amdur Sensei’s project  

Shortly after I first published this article, Allis Amdur sensei commented under it. For those who do not know, the man is a foremost authority respected worldwide for his knowledge of traditional Japanese martial arts. Apparently, as I was working on this article, Amdur sensei himself set up a website dedicated to examining the best woods for martial arts weapons. This is his website’s address:  . This article was and will be updated further based on some of Amdur sensei’s knowledge of the subject as well. On Amdur’s website you would be able to find a much broader selection of woods than discussed on this article alone.

One interesting theory of Amdur sensei’s relates to the relationship between wood and climate. A known quality measure for wood workers is what is called in professional lingo “movement in service”. This term relates to how much a wood will change shape – shrink, enlarge, crack, etc. – as a response to weather changes. Because all woods have the quality of trying to balance themselves with the level of moisture in their environment, some can be severely affected by absorbing or losing a lot of moisture, especially when this happens within a very short time. Eucalyptus for instance is notorious for that. A piece of Eucalyptus not dried very well for years is going to warp and crack quite easily, because the wood from this tree is built to accommodate itself to extreme changes in weather – this is what makes the tree so resilient, but also the wood poor for woodworking unless treated carefully.    
Amdur argues that a lot of the exotic woods are not innately ‘brittle’ or ‘problematic’, but that in fact what makes them vulnerable is that they grew to accommodate weather conditions in places like South America and Africa – blow the equator, but most of those who try using them for weaponry live above the equator – in the upper Middle East, North America, Europe, China, Japan, etc.   

My own experience and observations  
I will now go into woods which I have personal experience with, to provide my observations, knowledge and anecdotes.         

White Waxwood (Bái Là Mù 白蜡木; Fraxinus chinensis Roxb)             
Also called ‘Chinese Ash’. This wood is extremely popular in China, widely utilized for all manners of sticks, staffs and spears. It is unique among the woods used for weapons in several ways:

-          The entire stem, which grows thin and is usually between 1-5cm, is used as the body of the weapon, rather than a segment cut from a large t runk.

-          The tree grow very quickly, reaching harvesting size within a few short years, and occupy groves numbering thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, all packed together in relatively small areas and in close proximity.

-          Though I have not the Janka measure for this species, it is supposed to be quite low – likely less than 1000. In fact, the interior of this wood can be cut even with a very good utility knife!
-          It is the most flexible wood used for weapons that I know of.
-          It is also the wood most vulnerable to wood worms (Powder Post Beetles). Use the product Timbor to protect the wood in advance. Two coats of it, diluted in water, are enough to last forever.
The bulk of a Bai La trunk is made of two parts: Bark and Underbark. The bark is very resilient and hard. A bai la weapon with a thick bark still on is extremely durable in terms of striking, and will take a hit from just about anything – metal weapons included. There is in fact a greater chance of this type of weapon damaging a metal weapon, than the opposite. Depending on growth period length, thickness and density, the strength and weight of this wood can vary considerably. Weapons still bearing the bark tend to be stiff to moderately flexible, but can be vibrated with good fa jin. Those with the bark taken off tend to be very flexible, and will dance around like a whip. They also become more vulnerable to dents, breaking and the elements by the bark removal.
De-barked Bai La. The smoothness almost pops out the picture:
Like Oaks but even more profoundly, the Bai La wood readily absorbs fluids and moisture. The weapon will take a bend in 24 hours or less if left leaning rather than standing erect or lying flat. It can be reshaped by wetting it. This also makes such weapons, again like Oaks, highly absorbent of human sweat. This is a good thing. The weapon will gradually change color from light cream to dark cream, and eventually to brown, the more sweat it absorbs. In this process, some weapons become near indestructible, and may last for decades. However, it can take a few years of dedicated practice for a weapon to make the full ‘color transformation’.
The feel of the wood with the bark on can be too rough for some, chiefly because of the post-branch protrusions, but may be smoothened a bit with sandpaper. With the bark off, it is almost unnaturally smooth at first, but balances out after a few practice sessions with the aid of rubbing and sweat.
In the picture: plantation of juvenile Fraxinus chinensis Roxb trees, of the size used for thin and smaller staffs and spears.
Bai La weapons are very cheap in China, and moderate expensive abroad since they are imported. It is important to buy a weapon with the bark still on, if possible. The tree has a male and female variety. You want the female one, which is far stronger and more enduring. It is recognizable by the small protrusions on the bark, where branches used to connect. The female trees have these grouped in pairs along the trunk – quite easy to observe. Bai La should therefore be purchased from a reputable and responsible seller, and not be too flexible or too light.
This wood will make for great long weapons which are not meant to be 100% stiff. It may prove too light for some people in smaller diameters. It may make for a great bokken, but it will be too light as well. This is a great wood for kids and beginners to work with. Friendly, often light, and forgiving of mistakes. Though I have not tried it, this is probably a great weapon for Nunchaku as well, because it is very light – an advantage for that type of weapon.
Bai La with the bark still on:

There are many species of Oak. The two usually used for weapons are Red Oak and White Oak. The better one for all intents and purposes is the White Oak. I therefore see no reason for anyone to use Red Oak, which is only slightly cheaper to its superior cousin.   Among the Oaks, the best are grown in Japan. Therefore, make sure the White Oak weapon you want to purchase was made from wood that grew in that country.
I personally find Oaks boring, but they are a safe and time-tested choice. The Japanese have been using them to make weapons for thousands of years. They can take a beating and are known to last for years, rarely even decades. Like most wooden weapons they will eventually break, but they will outlast most others. They are also more dent-resistant compared with other woods.
Like the Bai La, Oak is very porous and readily absorbs human sweat, changing colour from white to dark cream to brown over time.
The best thing about Oaks is that they are cheap and widely available. Even the Japanese variety is easy to get. They are in fact cheap enough for a school to buy in bulk for student’s casual training. This is important as you would not want to bash more expensive woods all the time. More uniquely shaped weapons like the Okinawan Eku are also readily available in Oak.    
Oak – time tested excellence:

There seems to be a growing consensus that Hickory is the best wood for most martial arts weapons. This was also the result of the semi-objective experiment of the Bokken Review detailed earlier. At least two prominent weapons workshops – Kingfisher Woodworks and Raven Studios (more of them later) have made Hickory the primary (Raven) or only (Kinfisher) wood used for their weapons construction, as they consider it the most durable and suitable for impact training. Also, the most reliable in terms of the amount of difference between various trees.
When I speak of Hickory I am referring to Appalachian Hickory, which is lumber originating from the North-American Appalachia region. Even more specifically, this pertains to three species of Hickory:  Shagbark Hickory (Carya Ovata), Shellbark Hickory (Carya laciniosa) or Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis). I write this as there are many other types of ‘Hickory’, and often people who sell lumber or make wooden weapons will not specify the species. So for instance, the quite common Pecan Hickory (Carya illinoinensis) is not suitable for weapons making. Kinfisher Woodworks have their own special ‘Enhanced Hickory’ which I shall discuss later.
Alas, not all Hickory are created equal – not even within the same species. But with Hickory, because it is white and clear, it is easier to notice irregularities and flaws in the grain structure – especially with thicker weapons. Therefore, if you seek to purchase a pre-made weapon, ask for high-resolution photographs and compare the item in question with other Hickory weapons you own, have seen before, or have found searching online. With any purchase in general, do not hesitate to ask the seller about the wood being used to create the weapon.

Appalachian Hickory is also very popular for handles of garden tools, axes and such:
Hickory is not as absorbent as Bai La or Oaks, but it has another useful trick up its woody sleeve. For most types of wood, their fibers weaken gradually with every impact, until they eventually give way and break. The Hickory fibers, if able to sustain an impact, actually condense with each strike and become stronger. Because of this, many recommend a ‘breaking-in’ period for Hickory weapons, during which the weapon is used for only light striking practice. One can also induce this breaking-in with a wooden mallet, a bone object, or other means. Eventually the Hickory is supposed to become much tougher this way, with only little and few markings to show it had been abused prior. This type of conditioning is called ‘Burnishing’.
Hickory is very ‘woody’ to the touch, quite natural and relaxing. It is not as smooth, sticks to one’s hand quite well. That is because it cannot take a polish like woods higher up the Janke scale – many of its fibers are left bulging and can be felt. Comparatively speaking, in my opinion this makes Hickory better for grips that require stability (swords, nunchaku) than those requiring mobility (staffs). I still use it for staffs also nonetheless. The weight of Appalachian Hickory and White Oak is roughly the same. They are both slightly heavier than Bai Lai and lighter than exotic hardwoods like Ebonys, Purpleheart, African Blackwood and members of the Dalbergia species – the ‘Rosewoods’.
I have in my possession several Appalachian Hickory weapons (Miao Dao, suburitos and medium staffs) and they all perform very well. None have broken or dented in a visible manner. The wood is quite popular for other applications, too – drumming sticks, baseball bats, walking canes, hiking sticks, etc. The only thing going against Hickory is that it is, objectively speaking, somewhat bland and unimpressive compared with other woods. Yet judging its worth based on appearance alone would be a grave mistake.

Purpleheart (Peltogyne) 
Many custom weapon makers nowadays offer this wood as an option. People buy this one for the colour, which indeed is quite nice. Starts light purple, turns dark purple for a long time, and with UV light exposure will become dark brown within 3-10 years (left indoors with no sunlight, it will remain purple). This wood is quite heavy – too heavy for all types of weapons when beginners are concerned. You need at least a few good years of training in martial arts to handle Purpleheart-weight weapons. It is a good ‘gateway wood’ if you seek to prepare the body for the real heavyweight exotic woods.
There is no consensus as to how well it can take strikes. I have seen it dent but not break. My friend, shifu Neil Ripski, has a staff from that wood which has been lasting many years and still has not failed him. The Bokken Review guy managed to break his bokken made of this wood by bashing it against a tree. Despite the hit-resilience being debated, it is known to be a very stable wood when glued. Because of this people have found innovative ways of including it in their designs while still playing it safe. It is often seen used as the core, spine, guard and/or handle of a wooden sword. Commonly the rest of the weapon is made of hickory or ipe. The colour contrasts are wonderful.
Purpleheart has one shortcoming in that, at least for me, it is not as nice to the touch as other woods. But it will keep one’s grip firm for sure.

Amdur senesi suggests that Purpleheart, like Hickory, can also benefit from the process of burnishing the surface, which is said to make it stronger.

Purpleheart is a very popular wood for all kinds of woodworking:

Katalox (Swartzia cubensis)        
Great wood. Purpleheart-purplish to black in colour, but with a grain far nicer than the bland mess which Purpleheart features. Extreme hardness on the Janka scale – over 3500. In my opinion, this wood has the best feeling in one’s hands for staff weapons. Can break, but will take light to moderate beating for a time. Currently difficult to get in boards thicker than ¾ inch, which means most Katalox weapons are made from at least 2 laminated pieces. Lamination is said to make wood weapons stronger, but I find it depends on the species involved. Being an exotic oily wood, Katalox requires good gluing to make the lamination work for it.
Katalox has two close relatives which are just as good, if not superior to it in performance, whom I have yet to test myself. These are Brazilian Panacoco (Swartzia panacoco) and Wamara (Swartzia Benthamiana / Swartzia Leiocalycina). The first among them has been tested rigorously by some craftsmen and is said to withstand heavy striking with ease. By the look of the pictures of these two species, I would bet the grain and feel of these two additional woods are just as lovely as that of Katalox, although they sure miss its royal purple charm.
Katalox is one of my favourite woods:

Bloodwood (Brosimum rubescens)     
Another exotic winner. I have a large staff made of this wood and it has yet to break or even dent. The wood has a unique feeling in the hands, nicer than Hickory and Oak but not as nice as Katalox. Mildly smooth. Pieces vary greatly in colour. Find a piece that is bright red. It will age into an incredible dark wine red over the years with exposure to light. Rumour has it that when this wood breaks, it produces sharp, needle-like splits from the grain that can injure. This apparently happens to woodworkers that work with Bloodwood. But then again, it does not break easily. Smells nice, too.
Bloodwood can really be blood-red:

African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)            
One of the loveliest-looking woods on earth. A most incredible specimen. It is jet-black with faint hints of brown patterns in the background. One of the heaviest woods out there, the rhino of the lumber world – three times as heavy as Oaks, sometimes more. I lie to you not when I say: this wood smells like high quality chocolate pudding! Delicious indeed, and expensive accordingly. Good luck finding a piece of that wood big enough to make anything beyond the length of a Hanbo (90cm). You probably need people right there in Africa harvesting that stuff for you to get bigger chunks. Fortunately, smaller pieces are available. This wood would make for an amazing choice creating a tanto, dagger, sword handle, pommel, Nunchaku (if you are extremely strong), kobutan, and similarly small objects. Likely cannot take as much beating as required of Escrima sticks, but is available in that size for people with the cash to make that experiment happen. It is supposed to be difficult to glue because it is very oily, but an expert can make it work. Be sure the craftsman knows what he’s doing if mixing it up with other woods. African Blackwood takes the best finish imaginable of all woods, probably. Sanding it to a really high grit results in something so smooth and fantastic, you would not want to hit anything with it.  
Unmatched beauty in the black department:

Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa)      

Got the funds for an African Blackwood but need something bigger yet no less beautiful? Then perhaps you would be interested in Cocobolo. Another popular Rosewood, this one is endangered, so you would have trouble shipping it outside of an origin country. But there is still lots of stock out there of this wood in the USA and elsewhere, and within one’s own country it is perfectly legal to buy and ship.               

Cocobolo can look like muddy lava made into a wooden weapon. The better pieces ought to be in museums. Red, orange, black and brown mix together here to create something special. It is reported to be able to take a beating, but it is not as enduring as Hickory and Oaks. Can be nearly as heavy as African Blackwood. It is notorious for being difficult to glue, so it is preferred that you keep Cocobolo pieces pure and without other woods attached. Further, for this wood in particular, lamination might not be the best of ideas because of the gluing issues.   

Amdur sensei and other people had bad experiences with Cocobolo, breaking or cracking easily on them. Like other exotics, it seems to depend on how fine a piece the weapon was made of – this can make for a great deal of difference for this wood. Amdur adds that this is not the best wood in the shock-absorption department, too. However, it is very painful to be hit by, too. Amdur puts the Janka hardness of this one around 1300, but to my knowledge it ought to be in the area of 3000, like most other rosewoods.
Cocobolo is popular with musical instruments, too:

African Padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii; African Redwood)           
The softer yet sexy child of mother Cocobolo and father Bloodwood. Despite its large pores, it can be sanded to a really nice and smooth shine. Too gentle for taking hits – will dent easily. But makes up for it by being very stable in gluing and seasonally maintains its shape well. Use this wood for scabbards and handles – you will not regret it!  Otherwise, will make for a great piece of any weapon if hitting is not involved. Weighing in slightly less on average than Oaks and Hickory, it is a joy to wield and maneuver. The wood is bright orange when fresh, quickly turning red. Some pieces darken into dark brown. Get the most reddish pieces to make sure the final colour reached is closer to red than to brown.        

The scabbard and handle of this custom Miao Dao I own were made of African Padauk. The dog is made of fur, fluffiness and love:

Osage Orange        
A most beautiful and unique wood. Very high on the Wood Database ‘Bow Index’. Best bow wood native to the American continent, most probably. Difficult to get this lumber out of North America, and a different species called ‘Argentine Osage Orange’ is commonly used as a replacement. In Europe its natural substitute for bow making and other uses is Yew. The wood starts bright, glowing yellow, and over years will turn brown. On the Bokken Review experiment detailed earlier in this article, the Osage Orange Bokken was broken quite easily when smashed against a tree, into two cleanly cut pieces. However it is possible that this occurred due to a knot or irregularity in the wood grain where it was struck, which was a specific flaw in that piece. The raw data suggests this is perhaps a superb wood for melee weapons after all, and I hope that future reviews will provide a more concrete answer as to this question.
Nothing spells YELLOW quite like Osage Orange (image from ):

Lignum Vitae and Verawood (Guaiacum officinale and Bulnesia arborea)  
Though not from the same species, these two woods are considered close enough in their specifications and appearance to be considered suitable replacements for each other. Both are threatened and thus illegal for export. Lignum Vitae (‘Tree of Life’) is still considered the superior among the two. It has countless uses, from woodworking to medicine, which is why it became scarcer. This wood is legendary for its durability and resilience. It has perfect rot and weather resistance. It can survive in saline water and has been used for ball bearings in ships and even for propellers in nuclear submarines. Without a direct attempt to destroy it, a piece can last hundreds of years. Needless to say, this makes it and its cousin Verawood quite expensive. Oh, and they are also quite beautiful and heavy, too. Though considered “the world’s densest woods” in the past, nowadays a few woods exceed them on the Janka scale. Still, with a rank over over 4000, some specimen can be nearly 4 times as hard as Oak and feel as solid as high grade concrete.

But how good are these woods for wooden weapons, really? For pieces not intended for contact practice, these are probably the best woods imaginable, if you can handle the weight. For weapons requiring impact, opinions remain divided. Several woodworkers whom I have spoken with ruled out this wood outright for any sort of collusion-impact, stating that the excessive hardness must make this wood too brittle, as even lesser high-hardness woods such as Ebony species fail. However, as you can imagine, that has not stopped many martial artists and craftsmen from trying, because of the obvious temptation. A few workshops still offer this wood as a choice, too. The results vary. Allis Amdur sensei had much long-term success with Lignum weapons. The guy from the Bokken Review experiment, on the other hand, managed to break his thick Lignum Bokken on the first attempt to smash it against a tree. Likewise, some craftsmen consider these woods to be ‘impact-grade’, while others caution and recommend moderation in contact with these species. The results here are likely to be related to the manner in which the wood was dried and aged.  Being that these woods are so thick and oily, they probably require thorough, slow, carefully moderated and years-long traditional air-drying (rather than quick kiln-drying as is more common). I have a piece of Lignum the size of a small box which has been seasoning gradually over 50 years, and it is by far one of the hardest materials I have ever touched. I doubt I can dent it with a hammer. 

Other wood choices        
Cherry, Maple, and Pine though popular in woodworking, are too light and fragile for wooden weapons, but can work well for children. Walnut can perhaps be excellent for children and weak persons as it is both light and beautiful, but it too cannot withstand impact. Other woods which people commonly recommend for weapons are Wenge (very though), Ipe (extremely tough), Lignum Vitae (Genuine and Argentine, both make break easily), and Jatoba.

Further considerations for wood purchase, for those looking to buy their own lumber              
Some woods have prohibitions placed upon their trade by the UN or other organizations. Such prohibitions may be enforced by mail authorities. Sometimes the prohibitions are simply for the raw lumber. Other times, they can be for anything whatsoever which has that type of wood in as a part of it (like a weapon or a piece of furniture). It would be wise to research this issue when looking to purchase an interesting wood. Usually these sorts of legal limitations are specified on the Wood Database.
Financially, it is wisest to purchase locally available lumber. In the event that this is impossible for you, or when ordering a wooden weapon from abroad, attempt to discuss with the seller the cheapest shipping option. That would usually be regular mail, rather than shipping companies such as UPS and DHL. Regular mail is slowest but safest. It might even avoid customs. Find out above what amount of money your country collects taxes for packages arriving from abroad, and have the seller declare the value of the package a few dollars below that amount. I would recommend anyone ordering with a shipping company to avoid TNT, which charges its clients with a wide array of additional fees as ransom once they have your item. DHL are good. UPS have the best service, but are more expensive. EMS can also carry some hidden fees like TNT, and depending on one’s country it might not prove as reliable and certainly not as quick as DHL and UPS.
Some countries have restrictions on ‘untreated lumber’. That can also be an issue for raw lumber. At the least, have the bark removed before shipment.
Those harvesting their own lumber should cut it to pieces as small as possible for their project as soon as possible after the tree was cut. Immediately after making cuts, preferably within minutes and no longer than 24 hours later, the ends of the cut wood (‘endgrain’) need to be sealed to prevent moisture escaping and the wood eventually cracking open entirely because of it. The ends can be sealed with carpenter’s glue (better a water-resistant variety), liquid rubber, wax, thick mud, and other materials that seal well. Use one material and use enough to cover it tightly. Throw that lumber somewhere shaded outside at least a foot above the earth. The lumber dries at a rate of an average square inch per year, so you would likely need to wait a few years to use it. Lumber used before complete drying will crack after processing. Wood is dry enough for working when reaching 10% or lower. After reaching roughly 15-20% you can move the wood inside a building for further, better drying. Measure the dryness with a digital meter. Some of these are available for very cheap prices.
Wood can be dried out in the air, or inside special chambers called ‘Kilns’. Kiln-dried lumber takes a few months to mature to woodworking suitability. Air-dried wood can take years. Still, air-dried wood is always considered superior in quality to kiln-dried wood. The longer the drying, the better. Wood which was drying on a shelf for 3 years is better than 3 months, and 50 year old wood is better than a 3 year old piece. The process of continuing to dry wood past reaching the required humidity percentage is called ‘seasoning’. In the process of seasoning, the wood will undergo chemical alterations, becoming denser and stronger over time.

When working with hardwoods, use only the heartwood of the tree for your projects (Hickory being the exception). Lumber when dry can be taken to somebody with a lathe or a wood CNC machine to process the wood into a weapon. Use Timbor to eliminate wood worms if present buy discard overly infested woods which you cannot control if the worms threaten the heartwood during the drying process.


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Where to buy custom weapons?
Below are detailed several workshops and companies which I am fond of and can recommend. Although I am biased as I have been their customer, for the sake of objectivity I have not contacted any of these workshops prior to the publication of this article. Neither did any of them bestow upon me a special discount or any other benefit to appear here… But it would be really nice if they offer to return a favour sometime.

The importance of making a purchase from a trustworthy, reputable seller cannot be emphasized enough. Professional and serious craftsmen will only sell you woods which were legally purchased, without damaging the environment. Woods are living things, so each tree and the lumber harvested from it will be different, and may vary significantly from the statistics you have read online. A reliable expert can judge, based on experience, which lumber is suitable for the weapons you are looking for – a judgment you are likely not qualified to make yourself. A time-honoured craftsmen are a guarantee for quality control and will be responsible for what they make and sell you. Finally, it is important that we in the martial arts community support fine craftsmanship, as opposed to mass-produced production, to ensure the survival and proliferation of these arts which enhance ours.    

Oh, Tozando. I would have bought a car, a dishwasher and a house made by Tozando. Japanese craftsmanship is known worldwide for its high standards. This company is no exception. I have ordered from them several times, and was always pleased with the results.
Tozando is THE place for any Japanese martial arts gear. For wooden weapons, it is the place to get Oak items. The prices are great for the quality. They have free international shipping on most of their products, and it is via UPS all the way to your home. For people living outside of the East Asia, the total price Tozando offers for the product with the shipping cannot be beat.
Now, as for non-Oak wooden weapons… It depends. I would not doubt that anything this company makes is high quality. But for anything other than Oak, the prices rise sharply. They further greatly increase if the item in question is supposed to be substantially longer or thicker than what is considered “standard”. So if your design demands are ‘traditional’, you are lucky. Any major changes, and you will pay big time. They do have their own choice of interesting (and more expensive) Japanese woods which are not normally seen elsewhere, but selection is modest.
Tozando wood type chart – up to date as of the year 2016 (recommended that you download the picture to enlarge it):

This is basically a microcosm of the Japanese culture, in a single business model. We give you the best we can, with accordance to tradition. We can give you better too, for a price. However, being that they are Japanese, you cannot really go crazy with any design requests or preferences. The profoundly kind and courteous people at their customer service will however meet you half-way if they believe there is a possibility for them to somehow make your preference happen and still maintain their high standard.
A good example in the following story: one time I wanted to order three staffs which were to be tapered – shorter on one end than on the other. This was not an option on their website, so I asked politely over email. After consulting their woodworkers, they agreed. These Oak staffs came out with incredible precision, astonishing to say the least, and I was not charged more beyond what they would normally cost for their thickness and size. I was impressed, but not surprised.  

Blizniak’s Bokken   
In sharp contrast to Tozando Japanese traditionalism, stands American wood pioneer Dan Blizniak. He is perhaps the most open minded and diverse artist of all those recommended in this article.
Mr. Blizniak single-handedly created a website quite unique in the business, allowing the customer to select and articulate detailed custom designs. On the order page on his website one can choose between no less than 14 types of weapons and 24 types of wood! Then, the weapon of choice can be made of 1-3 layers, each from any of the woods listed. The woods themselves have dedicated pages each, explaining their different qualities and relevant statistics. The interface of the order page will then manifest a general sketch of how the weapon will look like when made, and will determine roughly how much it will weigh, also coming up with the appropriate price for that sort of job. The weapons can further be customized and adjusted in terms of size and other aspects to their build.
Dan also offers the sale of special 3D printed guards for Japanese swords, and very cheap sanding and polishing kits with instructions.
All of these features are unique to Mr. Blizniak’s business at the moment, and are to be appreciated! Beyond them, and true to his novel approach, Mr. Blizniak is open to suggestions and other unique requests by customers. He is certainly the man to go to for special projects, but not only.

The quality of the work here is not as robotically accurate as Tozando’s (few are), but is on par with them with everything else, often surpassing their products by far because of superior insight into construction and a personal artistic vision. Mr. Blizniak is very dedicated to his work and will stand by his promise for quality products. There are rarely any issues. One time he made me a Katalox staff from two laminated pieces. After much abuse, the staff broke. I contacted him and showed him the pictures. Without having had to ask, he made me a new staff and sent it to me, free of charge! Quite admirable. It turned out that the glue he often used for other woods was not enough for the Katalox to take a serious beating with, which caused the malfunction. Having changed the glue, there were no further problems. The Bloodwood and Appalachian Hickory staffs I have purchased from him are also exquisite.       
In short, the great selection and customization options here cannot be matched. For many of the woods and designs, the prices are among the cheapest in the trade too, yet the quality remains high. His international shipping prices, I found fare and far more reasonable than those of other workshops. Dan explains that the mail authorities can be talked with to get better shipping prices, but most do not bother to make this effort for their international customers, and due to ignorance of mail regulations may cost as much as double and triple to ship some items.
Since Mr. Blizniak and I are on good terms, he is offering a 15% discount on all weapons for people who have come to him through this article! Use coupon code  ROMADISCOUNT   when checking out your shopping cart on his website to receive the discount.

Sei Do Kai       
This is a shop run by an energizer bunny named Kim Taylor sensei. He apparently REALLY loves his woodworking, because he keeps making dozens of new wooden weapons available for sale all the time. Each design is unique and different to the others. You can get these or order a custom piece.
Taylor sensei’s take on wooden weapon designs, and especially laminated pieces, is beautiful and unique to him. He is a woodworker gone wild. Some of his weapons are quite exotic in appearance; many do not even fit into any specific traditional ‘martial art’. These include crazy war clubs and other weird and interesting experiments. Would make for fantastic gifts!
Although Sei Do Kai probably offer a selection of wood and options nearly as large as Dan Blizniak’s, their website is not as user friendly. It is quite a mess, like an old martial arts shop. There is even some charm to it. Things are just scattered all over the place, and you pick and choose. Want anything else? Something special? You just talk to the owner and he will take care of you… Like Tozando, Sei Do Kai offer better prices for more traditional designs and measurements. Overall the prices are decent, about on par with Blizniak’s Bokken.
I have a single Appalachian Hickory suburito, laminated with Purpleheart in the middle, made by Sei Do Kai. It is not the best Hickory out there, and not as nicely made as the Kingfisher Hickory pieces for sure. Yet for the price, it was a bargain. It also handles very well and takes a beating. It once flew out my hand and bounced into the wall and floor. Barely suffered a scratch. I am quite happy with that purchase.

Raven Studios
The lovely Carrina Cirricione is a community favourite. A zealous practitioner of Wing Chun and a gifted artist, she has got her hands full with orders! So full in fact, that you now have to wait several months to get a weapon made by her. Yet despite the long wait, everyone seem to want to get her weapons nowadays. She has a great reputation as both an artisan and a human being. 
Carina has few wood choices at the disposal of customers, with Appalachian Hickory being the stable wood making for the bulk of each weapon.    It can be exchanged with White Oak. The rest of the body, the lesser bulk of each weapon, can sometimes be made of Purpleheart or Jatoba.

Raven Studios’ choice of designs is however the most diverse among the workshops detailed here. She offers no less than 29 Chinese weapons, 11 Japanese weapons, 5 Filipino weapons, and 15 Western weapons! No less than 60 different design choices!! These are also further available for modifications. That is very impressive, to say the least. Many of these weapons are very hard to find as wooden designs elsewhere. These include the Guan Dao, Miao Dao, Wing Chun knives, Kriss and War Hammer. Talk about skill, huh? No wonder Carina garners much respect among many in the martial arts community… Her best works though are no doubt the special custom projects, two of which can be seen in the pictures below.
Raven Studios is also the only one among these workshops building Wing Chun Wooden Dummies – from either PVC with wood or Hard Maple. The wooden dummies, while expensive, I find to be ‘cheap’ relative to their mass and how much work goes into them. Weapon prices are on par with Blizniak’s and Sei Do Kai.
Several years ago I bought 4 Miao Dao from Carina. Handed two as gifts and kept the other two. Hickory body with Purpleheart guard and handle. They are tough and well made. Can hardly dent and take hits with ease. Balance is excellent, also.          


Kingfisher Woodworks   
These people have been in the business for decades. The made the wooden swords for the film The Last Samurai and several additional Hollywood productions. Their many designs are based on the exact specifications of Japanese Koryu arts. They also make hiking sticks and special display stands for wooden weapons and real swords. Many years ago, they used to offer a broad wood selection. Nowadays they work solely with Appalachian Hickory, which they consider the best wood for wooden weapons, period.

For those willing to pay some more to get a lot more, this is the place to go. The better Kingfisher weapons cost about 1.5 – 2 times the price of equivalent weapons made of the Hickory by the other workshops. They are worth it. These people know their Hickory. They get it from local mills in the Appalachia area. It is air-dried rather than the inferior kiln-dried wood which almost everyone uses. They grade the lumber they purchase into four categories:  grade 3, grade 5, grade 7, and the best of the grade 7 – for items made with hands tools and without sandpaper or machinery (called ‘hand cut’). Prices are according to grade. For comparison what I believe to be the quality of Hickory other workshops use is usually what Kingfisher would call ‘grade 3’, and sometimes ‘grade 5’ if you are lucky. Apart from River Reed Crafts (workshop to be discussed later), I do not know of another business beside Kingfisher which delivers purely hand-cut weapons. There are likely such small workshops in Asia, but not that I am familiar with online.              

Kingfisher invented a process of impregnating Hickory wood with a plastic polymer through pressure. The weapons made out of this ‘enhanced Hickory’ are, for martial purposes, indestructible, and will last forever. I was not fond of the idea of getting synthetic materials into woods and suspected that the material they use might be a carcinogen (caner-causing). I openly discussed the issue with Brad from Kingfisher over email. He assured me these products are perfectly safe and sent me serious documentation proving this synthetic material poses no harm to humans in any way. I am now convinced of this. The ‘enhanced Hickory’ weapons are 30% heavier, and change the wood texture somewhat. Overall the weapons look nearly identical to pure wood weapons.
Funny how Kingfisher felt the need to even invent the enhanced Hickory, as their regular Hickory weapons are already ridiculously tough. Their Hickory bokken was the only piece which the Bokken Review guy could not break, though he tried for months, even against concrete. I have read testimonies by people who have been using Kinfisher Hickory weapons for over a decades with no issues. 
I have one staff made by Kinfisher. I love it. I will probably buy more items from them in the future.

River Reed Crafts   
Easily snatching the title of ‘most beautiful weapons’ from the rest, this custom workshop by James Dinh specializes in elite wooden sword designs for the savvy clientele. These weapons cost much more than the rest – several times more. Are they worth the price? Yes, if you are willing to pay it. Here are the Ferrari of the custom wooden weapons, for those taking their practice way too seriously (guilty!). James’ workshop is the only business on the list I have not purchased an item from, but I have known him personally and have been following his business for quite a number of years. You rarely see this sort of dedication to craft in our time. Every single weapon is carefully made with hand tools to a standard above and beyond all other makers, apart from Kingfisher Woodworks’ hand-cut pieces.

James differs from other makers in several of his professional choices as well. He is the only craftsman to solely use Brazilian Panacoco (Swartzia panacoco; a close relative of Katalox) as the main wood for the larger bulk of each weapon. Then, the handle, guard or other parts may be reinforced with the rare and expensive African Blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon), which is very strong and stable. The swords can come with matching scabbards, which at this time (year 2016) is still a rarity in the world of custom wooden weapons. The various swords have a realistic balance to them, and the overall design is closer in appearance to metal swords too. Mr. Dinh guarantees his weapons are capable of withstanding heavy-contact sparring.

What not to buy     
- Avoid American Red or White Oak weapons – buy Japanese Oaks instead.       

- Avoid Hickory weapons if you cannot find out which sub-species of Hickory they were made of, or cannot make sure they were grown in the Appalachia region.         

- Avoid any wooden weapon in general which does not specify type/species of wood.             

- If the wooden weapon you are buying is a replica or imitation of a metal weapon, avoid buying weapons significantly heavier or a lot lighter than the metal weapons you may be training with. A transition from 1000 grams to 1300 grams may not sound like a lot in terms of weight, but that actually a 30% increase! Further, in terms of handling, it makes for far more than mere 30%, because the weight is distributed along the entire length of the weapon, and the mechanical lever makes it much more significant than you would think. Additionally, the balance is greatly affected. So in the use of weapons, 300 gram increments can be said to change the handling quite a bit. By a 600 gram difference you are already going too much above or below.
- Relating to that last article, also concerning wooden weapons which are replicas of metal ones – avoid purchasing a wooden weapon with a balance which is too different to correct balance of the metal weapon (unless used for strength training purposes alone).  

- Avoid buying weapons which are too cheap. In woodworking equipment and art, you usually get what you paid for when being cheap. Paying less will cost you more. Research what serious craftsmen like those linked to above charge for various types of weapons. Do not make purchases for less than what these workshops charge. The cheap weapon is probably shabby in construction and the wood inferior.
- Do not buy weapons just because they are beautiful or appealing, unless for the purpose of collecting them. For actual usage in training, be absolutely sure to order weapons which suit the needs and specifications of your martial art.
- Do not buy a type of wood not suitable for contact if your weapon is going to make contact. Weapons that break do not simply waste your money. Parts can also fly off and injure people, yourself included.

Caring for wooden weapons   
Do attempt to avoid hitting one type of wood against a different type of wood in weapons practice. This often ends in one or both weapons denting or breaking. That is almost certain to happen to at least one of the weapons in the event that one wood is very high on the Janka scale, and the other much lower.         

Sanding your weapon
The level of smoothness of a wooden weapon is controlled by how finely sanded it is. Sanding can make a weapon smoother than you received it, and also smoothen out dents and imperfections. Sanding wood is really easy in general. Various types of sandpaper are available for purchase everywhere in hardware stores for very cheap prices, or otherwise ordered online. In woodworking you have sandpaper grits usually going by these numbers:  40, 60, 80, 120, 180, 220, 280, 320, 400, 600, 800 and so forth. When sanding weapons you take a piece of sandpaper and rub it hard and well against all parts for even amounts of time.
40# is the roughest sandpaper (sometimes 20s are available) and removes lots of wood when rubbed against it. Therefore, never use something like a 40# sandpaper on a weapon – it will easily and quickly change its shape. The softer the weapon is on the Janka scale, the quicker it is to be affected by sandpaper, and the harder it is on the Janka scale, the slower it is to sand and affect. For moderate hardwoods like Oak and Hickory, start with 220# for major sanding or 280# for minor fixes, since less than that would be risking changing the shape of the weapon too much and too quickly. For harder woods of over 2000 on the Janka scale you can try starting with 180#, but be careful! Too much sanding can ruin a weapon, and 180# is slightly rough. Sometimes all that’s needed is just 10-30 second of good rubbing with the first grit used to fix an issue. Other times it may take a few dozen minutes to sand a whole weapon. After the first grit is used, you will need to follow up by sanding the same area you just worked on, or the whole weapon if you wish, with the next several grits in line – up to at least 320#.
Do not ‘skip grits’. Sand first with the lowest grit appropriate for the wood and the project. Then use the next closest grit you can get your hands on. Smooth transition for a very hard wood like Ebony or Cocobolo, would be, for example:  120# (just a bit!) >> 180# (a bit more time spent but not a lot) >> 220# >> 280# >> 320# (spend more time here) >> 400# (spend yet a little bit more time here) >> 600# (you can spend a lot of time with this one). Very few woods commercially used will benefit sanding going over 600. Only extremely hard woods will feel different when sanded over 600 to begin with. The number 600 should be last for Oak. Woods over 2000 Janka can sometimes get a real nice polish over 600, especially Ebony species and African Blackwood. Grits go up to ridiculous numbers like 8000, but frankly no wood can be affected in a major way, in my opinion, with over 1000# anyhow.  Now, remember I told you not to ‘skip grits’. Each grit of sandpaper ‘eats away’ more imperfections in the wood. The higher the grit, the smaller the imperfections it can smoothen. The problem is that each grit is best suited for certain size of imperfections. So say you used 180# and then immediately used 320# (skipped the grits in-between) - the result will be that the 320# and all the higher grits after it will not be able to ‘eat out’ and smoothen some of the imperfections in the wood that the lower grits you skipped were supposed to take care of, resulting in a surface with tiny cracks and valleys which feels uneven to the touch. The same problem can also arise if you had been impatient and used too little time with some of the grits. Even time, even attention to each spot, and patience, are key to your success. The process is real easy though, so fear not.
You can sometime ask the person who made the weapon what is the last grit they used in their sanding process. This can save you time and effort. Say the last number they used was 280#. Then perhaps, if you wish to correct an imperfection you can attempt to start at 180# and see whether that works well enough, thus saving the time and money to be wasted on doing the lower grit. Also, if you simply wish to make the weapon smoother and the last grip used by the artisan or manufacturer was, say, 320#, then you can immediately begin at 400# and take it from there.
Another use for sanding can be for cosmetic fixing after changing the length of a weapon. Sometimes you purchase a weapon already made a certain length and wish to shorten it. Stick the weapon into a firm spot and make it immovable. Take a good jigsaw or saber saw and cut off the small unwanted chunk. Use sandpaper to smoothen and round the newly cut wood segment. For this purpose alone, you may begin with 80# sandpaper at times (for just a few seconds), and keep progressing from there.  

Finishing your weapon   
Be sure to not apply one finish on top of another finish – that usually turns out badly. Get the previous finish (if it exists) off the weapon before applying another one (explained shortly).
Does a weapon even require a finish? That is a controversial question! A finish is used to make a weapon shine once more like new, and also help the wood preserve better. A finish gives a wood a ‘wet’ look and makes the grain patterns stand out. Some exotic woods such as Ebony, African Blackwood, Lignum Vitae and Cocobolo are so durable and rot-resistant due to their natural oils, that no finish will ever be required for them for any purpose. Other woods like Oak and Hickory do benefit quite a bit from application of some finish.
For a display piece, they would greatly benefit a decent finish. Shellac can work well for display weapons and collectables, although it requires some expert hand to be applied well. Easier to apply but perhaps requiring more maintenance over time are Danish Oil and Polyurethane-based finishes. Shellac is made from the Lac Bug and is an all-natural substance diluted in alcohol. But Danish Oil varieties and Polyurethane-based finishes are made with many nasty chemical which you may not really want to be rubbing your hands against millions of times. Choice is up to you.  

Many wooden weapons, especially those produced by large companies and factories, come already covered with synthetic lacquer such as Polyurethane. These types of materials protect the wood from the elements quite well and can last for at least several months, often years, especially if most or all training is done indoors.  
My personal preference is to get rid of these artificial nasty materials and use other things instead. They screw up the natural feel of the wood, interfere with proper handling of the weapon, and some and suspected as carcinogenic. Use a 400-600# sandpaper (no more or less!) and wipe the entire surface of the weapon for a few minutes. You will see a difference in colour between area of plain wood versus those still covered by the chemical. The fine grit sandpaper will remove a very thin layer of material, 1mm (0.039’’) or less, getting rid of the foreign influence without causing any other changes. In fact, if anything, the weapon will feel nicer to the touch if it had not been finished well prior.
For weapons being used on a regular basis, there are three good and safe options for a finish: Boiled Lineseed oil, Tung Oil and Sweat.
Many people, myself included, find Human Sweat to be the best finish. Seriously. But it has the ‘disadvantage’ of not making the grain ‘pop’ as much and does not create a ‘shine’. But it keeps many weapons decay-resistant and durable, sometimes for decades. The natural salts seep into the wood and stay there, accumulating with time. Works best for Ba Li, Oaks and Hickory. Does not work with exotic oily woods since the sweat cannot sink much into them. It is also not the best choice for all types of weapons. Staffs are held and rubbed throughout their length, so they receive an even treatment of the sweat finish. But many other weapons receive little or no contact on their other parts, and thus much of their structure remains ‘unfinished’. This has to be taken into consideration.
Boiled Lineseed oil is used instead of regular Lineseed oil because it is quicker to polymerize (‘harden’) inside the wood after application. Some people swear the best method of applying this oil is to through the weapon into an enclosed container with it for a few months. I have not tried it since I prefer the next option.
Tung Oil is nice and sweet-smelling. Like Lineseed oil, it will polymerize inside the wood within a few days after application. The smell lingers quite a while after application, too. You need to apply the oil with a generous dose between several times the first 2-4 sanding grits when re-sanding the weapon. Rub the oil into the weapon well. Wipe the excess oil. Let the oil dry inside the wood for several hours before sanding with the next grit in line. No need for more than 2-4 applications. For an unfinished weapon already sanded, find out what the last sanding grit used was. Then apply Tung Oil and use the next sanding grit in line. The reason for sanding again after this oil is applied is that it has the tendency to ‘raise’ the hairs of the wood fibers. Despite taking some effort, it is probably the best choice after human sweat. Also, good application of Tung Oil renders a weapon almost completely waterproof. This oil requires re-application every few months or so, based on personal feel. Be sure to only get PURE Tung Oil, undiluted and without additives. Danish Oil is a generic name for Tung Oil (or similar oils) mixed with various chemicals. Pure Tung Oil, once hardened, is considered ‘food safe’ and non-toxic. It is also safe to handle with one’s hands as oil as long as it is not ingested, and can be washed easily with soap and water. In comparison, Polyurethane is difficult to wash off, and Shellac is a sticky disaster which requires a whole lot of Turpentine to take off from either one’s hands or wood.


Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. For more articles by shifu Bluestein, his books and classes offered by his organization, visit his website at:

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