Featured: What I Learned from Making My Own Bokken by Stella Fuentes

bokkenI had a friend. He lived just a street away from where we lived and practiced. He loved aikido. He practiced everyday. Mostly the bokken exercises. A bokken is a wooden sword that we practice with.

Whenever I had questions about bokken exercises and use, I felt very comfortable asking him for his input and his help. His legacy to me and the dojo I practiced in was to guide us in using the bokken for practice and how to make our own bokken. This is my tribute to him.

Have you ever made your own bokken?

If anyone of you has, maybe you might like to introduce that skill to your new students. It is an exercise in patience and planning. Making your own bokken: Choosing the wood. Tracing the shape. Cutting carefully a rough approximate. Sanding by hand. Steadily increasing the sandpaper number gauge to smoothen the wood. Sanding in the direction of the grain. Making sure the bokken is curved in the right places and straight in the right places. Maintaining the balance of the bokken. Making your own sealing wax for the finished product. Making its own case. Until finally being able to use it in practice, seemed a silly undertaking but silly never deterred me from trying.

Making our own bokken sprung from a need to own and practice with a good one. Since we could not find or buy local, and the imported ones were exhorbitantly expensive, we decided, why not make one from scratch. That was all. necessity is the mother of invention, indeed.

So on we went researching what kind of wood would make a good bokken. Everywhere we looked, it was almost always white oak, cherry wood or some other temperate country kind of wood. We decided on a strong tropical wood. Kamagong (Black iron wood? ) was too hard and since we were just beginning, quite expensive if you did not know where to source it.

We said, why not Malaysian or Philippine mahogany (narra)? It was relatively easy to procure and it was abundant in our area. It was reasonably strong, did not expand or contract too much, had good grain and took a good polish and hard beating quite well. We knew the wood and trusted its qualities to serve our purpose.

So, we went to our local lumber yard. Talked to the lumberyard foreman cum manager. Asked for his expert opinion on the woods available for us to choose from and he was very accommodating in showing us his scraps. We told him what we wanted the wood for, and he confirmed that our choice was a sound one, in fact, the best.

The next step was fashioning a rough shape from the long scrap we each had bought for ourselves. Measurements were taken, and we based our project on a pre-existing white oak model as well as research on the internet.
After tracing its full size out on the scrap, we went back to the lumberyard to have them saw it into shape for a small fee of 40 pesos (Approximately $ 0.92 cents). We went home lugging our shaped blocks of wood. I bought several gauges of sandpaper, from the rough 60 to the superfine 1000 and 1200, and started to work on it.

My block of wood looked impossible to get into my ideal shape.

If I had let the amount of work needed deter me from working on it, I probably would not have started at all. But, again necessity necessitates and you overcome obstacles because of what you need. I put the paper to the wood.

Scratch, scratch, scratch. We worked on our individual swords everyday. Our hands got splinters, dried and cracked up, but we scraped away at the wood. Every once in a while, we would call each other up, compare progress, change the approach to the shaping of the wood, but we kept at it until we felt we had a good reproduction of the model upon which we based our bokken. You wanted to be slow but thorough. You wanted to make sure that it curved in the right place and was straight in the places where it should be straight. You also want to keep checking how it balanced well in your hand.

When it was done, I polished it with the finest possible grade of sandpaper and sealed it with wax to keep the moisture out and protect it. I also made its own carrying case. My very first hand crafted bokken brought me a lot of unexpected benefits. It still does. I know its every mark and swirl in the grain. I know the feel of every inch of it. So we used it for practice and brought it along to seminars. And after that, I made about 3 more on my own. Now, while working on these wooden swords, I noticed a few things and learned a lot.

You sand wood with the grain . Never across the grain. Sanding with the grain develops a smooth and high polish. What else would you go with and never cross? When you find an unexpected pattern in the wood, it takes on a character all its own. My first bokken had two knots where the tsuba is supposed to be. She was a beauty! So much so that people at the seminars kept asking us where we got our bokkens.

What did this project teach me? What did I take away from this exercise?

When you make something beautiful out of something ordinary, you grow to respect the material you are working with. You know its properties and limitations. You pick them exactly for these inherent qualities to serve their function satisfactorily. You develop an affinity towards the material and the equipment you are working with so closely.
I went for form and function. The beauty that came out of it was the sum total of the hours I put in working on it, from its inception to its fruition. I can say that it grew into a beauty because I worked on it. After my first bokken was finished, I can believe that a part of the craftsman’s spirit passes on to the work they put their heart and soul into. I can understand that there are objects that can inspire or inflame a person because every time I use that first bokken, it is like working with something you have known all your life. (Or all its life). It feels comfortable, natural and friendly to the hand. My hand, to be exact.

It feels like under all that ungainly block of wood, that sword had been waiting for me all along to become that bokken for my practice.

Now back to why I am suggesting that you might want your new students to try making their own? I noticed that the ones who made their own bokkens stayed in the art. It put me to thinking, what do we absorb in the process of making something your own? Why have the students who made their own swords for practice stay in the art until the present day? And why have those who have never tried, not all of them stay? Does the process subconsciously help us understand that it takes work to become a polished work of art, that achieving the finished product requires hours of scraping, sanding, and polishing? That stepping back to take a good look, making a few mistakes and knowing everything that looks this good actually also required a lot of hard work and attention to detail? It might. I have to retest that theory just to be sure.

A few years ago, my friend decided it was his time to go. And being the ultimate uke that he was, he went on his own terms. I haven’t made a new bokken from scratch in a long time. I haven’t found the right wood to inspire me to make one again. Yet, every time I see the ones I made, I remember the process, my friend, and his legacy. Requiescat in pace.

Hmmm….Maybe, if we built a dojo from scratch, with our own hands…just thinking….

This article was submitted exclusively to Aikido no Sekai by Stella Fuentes. You can also submit Aikido or Peace related articles to Aikido no Sekai via email: aikidonosekai@gmail.com.

Stella Fuentes started Aikido in 1994 in the Philippines and obtained Shodan in February 1998, Nidsenstelan in February 2004 from Hombu, Japan. She has a dojo in the Philippines, which is presently maintained by her brother since moving to Woodbridge, Virginia in 2007. She currently holds the rank of sandan, and is an instructor in Dale City Aikikai.

She worked in the field of peace and conflict transformation while in the Philippines, using Aikido as a medium of understanding and instructing basic peace/conflict concepts and strategies.
She is a homemaker, and the better half of Paul.

(Please also see: ““Kyu Grades and Beginners” by Stella Fuentes“)


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