Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Iaito Reborn As A Wakizashi Part 1

I've been wanting to put up some project posts here for a while now, so I guess today is the day I finally got off my derrière...

This first project happened out of circumstance, with that circumstance being an individual breaking Ron Plumsteel's iaito, which was resting on the ground, with an errant basketball.  Ron, like the true Buddhist that he is, let it slide. 

It just so happened that I have been shopping for a wakizashi (short sword) version of an iaito to match my katana-length iaito.  Sure, at our school of iaido and at our level, we exclusively use the katana, but let's just say it's for science.  Unfortunately, wakizashi iaito are pretty hard to come by, and the few vendors who do carry them sell them for almost the price of a full katana-length iaito.

This is because fittings are the major variable behind iaito prices; the blades are usually of the same quality material among the different models. Even though less material is used for the blade, saya, and tsuka, the fittings on a wakizashi is not really much different than the katana version, so the price isn't that much cheaper.

Fortunately, no one had the heart to discard the broken blade, and Sensei was nice enough to let me have it when I proposed my project to him (BTW, we all chipped in for a new blade for our Buddhist member.).  Using traditional Japanese techniques like the Dremel, this blade will enter its next life as a wakizashi!

Lastly, my project posts are riddled with Japanese terms.  Although I try to throw in the English translation once in a while for laypeople, I'm too lazy to translate the terms every time, so please Google it, OK?

Here is the blade lying in state. After a suitable period of mourning of no less than 30 days (be sure to tell your boss first), it is time to outline the length of the nakago (tang) with a sharpie. It's also a good time to plan out your tsuka (hilt) length, fittings, # of tsukamaki (hilt wrap) "diamonds", etc. as well.

Cut out the nakago shape using a Dremel cutting wheel or work with a file. 

Remember that you are making a nakago out of the blade itself, so that the end of the nakago will actually be thickest part of the blade.  You do not want this, as having the end of the nakago thicker than the rest will make the blade impossible to slide in and out of the tsuka should the need to disassemble the sword arises.

Therefore, don't forget to reduce the thickness of the nakago, or even introduce a very slight taper towards the end, using a file. Be careful of the angle you are filing, as you'll need to preserve the cross-sectional profile of the nakago as much as possible.

For the parts of the nakago that are still nicely polished, I like to slightly rough it up with the grinder wheel to help the nakago grip the inside of the tsuka. (And I do mean SLIGHTLY, since the inside of the tsuka will get shredded if the nakago is too rough!)

Finally, don't forget to bevel the edges of your newly-made nakago to avoid them cutting into and splitting the wood of the tsuka.

Another thing you do not want to discard is the habaki (that collar thingy that helps snug the blade onto the scabbard). Unfortunately, in my case, the habaki was repurposed for the replacement blade, which is just as well since I wanted a habaki that matches the iaito that I'm using for practice.

Oh wait, that thing's made of pure silver.

For those of you who need a replacement habaki but don't need one out of precious metal, you can find a lot of them for cheap on eBay - antique and new. The beauty of working on an iaito is that you can grind the blade to fit the habaki rather than the other way around!  

Then again, if it's a cheap eBay habaki and not one used by Miyamoto Musashi, it's also possible to shape a habaki to fit a blade, but the size of the habaki has to be correct in the first place

If you're an uncompromising schmuck like me, the only other choice is to make one. Time to open up the old wallet (which is only thick due to membership/point cards and ATM receipts) and dig deep between the sofa cushions for change to order up some Art Clay Silver.  This is easily the most expensive part of this project.

Go figure that my first time working with this stuff, it's for a precise-fitting component. Art Clay Silver can be challenging to work with, because it's either wet like rainy day mud, or dry and crumbly like Play-Doh after leaving it in its container as instructed. There is no happy medium.

Worst of all it SHRINKS, and the shrinkage can vary 8-10%. This variance can be significant for something like a habaki. I used masking tape to add thickness to the blade in order to factor in this shrinkage (better to err on the side of caution and be a little bit generous).

Believe it or not, it took me 8 hours of work and waiting for things to dry to get to this point, and that's not including the time it took to watch and make sense of the instructional Japanese DVD that came with my starter kit. Time to enjoy the fireworks show I so richly deserve.

Go ahead and pick it up with your bare hands. It's only red because of the colour!

Since I'm already working with Art Clay Silver, I might as well make the menuki (those ornament thingies that get wrapped into the hilt). I found a cool one on eBay, but unfortunately it only came as a singleton and I wanted a matching pair. Nothing that a mold made of polymer clay can't fix.

And voilà! Menuki offspring! There will be some loss in detail due to the molding process, but that is acceptable. Using pickling solution to add an antique finish will help bring out whatever details are left.

Moving on to the saya (scabbard). Windsor Plywood, a local vendor, usually carries a good selection of woods by the ft/m for such projects. The traditional wood is honoki, a type of Japanese magnolia which you can only obtain off the internets.

Because my bank account was depleted by the Art Clay Silver, I chose poplar because it is said to be a good approximation and easy to work with.

Not only do you need to trace out the blade to carve out the inside of the saya, but you also need to use the curvature of the blade to trace out the overall shape of the saya.

Oh, and in case you can look closely enough to notice, I know the habaki didn't exactly turn out  to be perfect. But then again, I could very well be the first person to ever fashion a habaki out of Art Clay Silver so cut me some slack!

It helps a lot to first use an Xacto knife to cut out the outline of the blade for the inside of the saya, so that you can chisel it out precisely. The chiseling can be painstaking, but I found it to be easier and less mistake-prone to carefully work the edges first before carving out the main part.

That being said, it is a good investment to buy a proper wood carving chisel, which you can get for less than $30.

And yes, this is why you don't sell your MBA and science textbooks back to the bookstore for a pittance.


That's it for this first installment of my first project post.  Stay tuned next week when I continue working on the saya and get started on the tsuka!

On to Part 2