Using and Maintaining Wooden Weapons Responsibly
by Royce G. Coffee, 4th dan Aikido, 4th dan Tae Kwon Do, 6th dan U.S. Marine Martial Arts, 2nd dan Okinawan Kobudo, 3rd dan Matsukazi Ryu Jujitsu
Training with weapons' fulfills an important role in many martial art disciplines. Learning to use a weapon for personal defense or to defend against someone with a weapon is an obvious benefit, but there are individual responsibilities that accompany the use of weapons in training.
To train with weapons requires the participants to shoulder certain responsibilities. The care and maintenance of weapons are some of those responsibilities.
There is a common sense requirement to keep your weapons in proper order. Proper order in the context of this article means your weapon should be defect-free and in good working order. If a weapon used in training has structural problems, there is also a safety concern that must be addressed.
Keeping your weapon in optimum working condition is part of the training. In the setting of a dojo, your personal safety and the safety of someone you are training with are dependent on using weapons that are both functional and safe.
I have been in dojos that proudly display weapons, but have little training that actually involves weapons. I have been in dojos where each individual is required to bring their personal weapons to every class. I have also been in dojos that do not teach weapons at all.
The debate of training with weapons or not in an Aikido dojo has gone on for many years, and is not the subject I am writing about. Assuming that the dojo's training program includes weapons, there are several care requirements that are associated with the responsibility of use.
First and foremost, safety is paramount. Using a defective jo, for example, in contact training puts everyone involved in jeopardy. If you have ever seen a wooden weapon shatter you will understand how important it is to develop and adhere to weapons safety procedures.
Dojos that provide weapons for students' use should have an established process to ensure each tanto, jo and bokken are in good shape and ready for individual and partner practice. If the students provide their personal weapons to train with in the dojo, they should have their own process for weapons maintenance.
Before using any weapon, there should be a safety check conducted. All weapons should receive an inspection that checks for cracks, splinters, or breaks. Any weapon that has a defect such as a splinter or crack must not be used. Weapons that have visible cracks or breaks must be retired if they cannot be properly repaired.
Each time I pick up a Jo or bokken, I tap the weapon on a hard surface and listen and feel for unusual vibrations. This will quickly indicate whether a weapon has a crack or a break. Then, I look at the weapon and see if there are any noticeable splinters or rough spots that could injure me or my training partners. If there are any defects at all, I set the weapon aside to either fix it later, or to retire the weapon.
I emphasize to each weapons class I teach that the weapon being used must be considered as a real weapon and should be respected and used with individual and partner safety in mind. Horseplay with weapons is not allowed. Training with a wooden bokken is a safer way to train when compared with the inherent dangers of training with a steel sword. However, there should still be a safety process in place which addresses potential injuries caused by using a weapon that is marginally safe or totally unusable.
If a safety mind set is established and sustained in training, particularly when weapons are involved, the student can learn more and practice without fear of unexpected injuries.
First, I look at the weapon and see if there is any obvious damage. If there is a splinter or if there is visible damage, then I follow the process I have used for many years. I don't run my hand down the sharp edge of the wooden blade until I have visibly inspected the weapon. When I run my hand down the weapon, I do so lightly in case there is a splinter I didn't see when I initially looked at the weapon. The same applies to the jo and tanto. Accidents in inspecting a weapon aren't usually anticipated, but they can occur in the blink of an eye. Don't injure yourself when inspecting a weapon. This sounds pretty basic, but I have gotten painful splinters in my hands by casually rubbing a weapon instead of carefully paying attention to the task at hand.
Minor splinters and rough spots can usually be corrected with sanding. The process begins with sand paper with enough grit to correct the damage and then proceed with finer and finer sand paper until the desired smoothness is achieved. Grading of sand paper varies by country, so think in the terms of rough to fine. Using the U.S. grading system of sand paper, I may start with 100 or 150 grit paper for some defect and move on to 220 or even 400 to get a smooth finish. The final finish should be one that is most desirable to the individual using the weapon. Having personal weapons allows one to put the weapon in the working order that is best for the owner to use.
Personally, I do not like weapons that have been coated with a substance such as varnish or stain. My hands sweat and the varnish has a tendency to stick in my hands. Stain that has been applied to enhance the look of the weapon hides the beauty of the natural wood grain and can also cause unnecessary hand friction.
When I get a weapon that has been coated, I sand off the outer layer so that the natural surface of the wood is exposed. Recently I bought a bokken made out of kamagong. I found it in a bin inside a sporting goods store that did not sell martial arts equipment, but had somehow ended up with one bokken. I liked the weight and balance and purchased it for those qualities. The appearance was not something I considered, until I was able to see the wood in good light. I noticed that someone had put a dark stain on the wood for no particular reason. I sanded the entire bokken down to its natural surface. What a surprise! I was rewarded for my efforts by finding a beautifully grained kamagong bokken under the stain. It was nicer to look at and it was easier to handle without the stain.
Some damage to wooden weapons is not correctible with sanding. Too much sanding can cause a flat spot in the weapon and could negatively affect the handling of the weapon. If you are uncomfortable with the feel or balance of a weapon you should seriously consider not using that weapon at all. With safety as the number one concern when teaching or learning weapons, it does not make sense to use a substandard weapon.
After achieving the desired finish with sanding, it is time to move on to the next step in the maintenance process.
Wood has differing amounts of inherent natural oils, depending on the type of wood, before processing for final use. How the wood is cured makes a difference in the durability of the weapon over time. Some kiln dried woods or woods that are primarily destined for cabinets or fixtures are not the best choice for wooden weapons, as the drying process tends to reduce the natural oil and make the wood brittle. Regardless of the curing process, all wood (with a few exceptions) can dry out, become brittle, and are unsafe to use in contact training. To a degree, regular oiling of the wooden weapon can return some of the original strength of the wood.
Many years ago I was taught to use a certain formula in the oiling of wooden weapons. My teacher, Arsenio Advincula, showed me how to prepare a mixture of boiled linseed oil and mineral turpentine in a 2/3 boiled linseed oil to 1/3 mineral turpentine ratio for application to the wooden weapons. The addition of turpentine helps in the drying process.
My teacher's method of applying the oil was to hand-rub the concoction into the wood. The pressure and heat from the hands contributed to the penetration of the oil into the wood. He would let the weapon dry for several hours and then wipe off any excess. Time consuming for sure, but there was a certain enjoyment and connection with the weapon that occurred. To be accurate, it was enjoyable for the first weapon or two, but soon cleaning all of my teacher's weapons became a chore. If you have numerous weapons to maintain, I suggest you space out the "pleasure" so that you don't get bored with the work.
I have done quite a bit of research and experimentation on the best oils to use, the proper mixtures, etc. but I personally prefer using the original recipe I was taught.
In the interest of providing a wider view of oils that are suitable for the oiling of wooden weapons, I am including additional information on several types of oil.
Boiled Linseed Oil differs from raw linseed oil in that is has certain chemical dryers added to make it cure in about a day with the excess removed. Raw linseed oil takes much longer to cure (weeks, in some cases) I do not use it for oiling wooden weapons.
Linseed oil comes from dried ripe flax seeds and is clear to yellowish in color. It can stain white wood yellow, such as Japanese white oak, and this should be taken into consideration before applying.
It is a so-called drying oil, which means that it hardens upon exposure to air. Most applications exploit its drying properties, i.e. the initial material is liquid or at least pliable and the aged material is rigid but not brittle.
When used as a wood finish, linseed oil dries slowly and shrinks little upon hardening. Linseed oil soaks into the pores of the wood, leaving a shiny but not glossy surface that shows off the grain of the wood. Wood treated with linseed oil is resistant to denting and scratches and is more easily repaired, but the surface is not as hard as a modern varnish, and the wood will slowly absorb moisture if allowed to stay wet.
Linseed oil is a traditional finish for gun stocks and is used as the traditional coating for the raw willow wood of cricket bats. It is also used on pool cue shafts and in place of epoxy on surfboards.
WARNING: Rags used to wipe linseed oil on and off can spontaneously combust. Care must be exercised in the disposal of any rags or cloth used in applying linseed oil!
Tung Oil is processed from the nuts of the tung tree and is used for making superior water-resistant oil
Tung oil is difficult for some people to use by itself as a finish. Tung oil is applied the same way linseed oil is applied but you should sand tung oil after every coat, not just after the first. It can take five to seven coats, allowing several days drying time between each coat to achieve a smooth, attractive sheen.
A friend of mine who custom made martial art weapons from wood used a plastic tube filled with tung oil and capped on both ends with the weapon being oiled inside. Everyday he would turn the tube over so that the oil would evenly coat the jo or bokken. His method proved very effective in allowing the tung oil the time to soak into the wood. Once he gave the weapon to his customer, he recommended regular (monthly or so) coats of tung oil or boiled linseed oil.
I use Lemon Oil as a quick method to nourish the wood and maintain the natural beauty and functionality. Lemon oil is specially designed to replace the lost natural oil in wood and prevent moisture absorption. Moisture absorption can cause wood to crack, peel, or discolor. Lemon oil is lighter oil and is not as effective as linseed or tung oil, but serves well in applying routine maintenance coats. Lemon oil has a pleasant fragrance and will leave your weapon smelling fresh and clean. A downside mentioned by some that use linseed or tung oil is the slightly rancid smell. I read that one person mixed a bit of food-quality orange oil into the tung oil or linseed oil to eliminate the smell. As many things about weapons end up being personal choice, so will the type and mixture of the oil you ultimately decide to use on your weapons.
I have tried combining linseed and tung oil, and the mixture seems to work fine, but I still prefer the boiled linseed and mineral turpentine mixture. A little experimenting will help you to settle on the best combination. The important part is that you use some type of oil to keep your weapon in the best condition you can.
Once you have decided on the oil of choice and you have applied it to your weapon, take the time to let the weapon dry and then wipe off any excess oil. Take care in the disposal of any rags used, as oil such as linseed oil can self-combust.
Humidity and temperature changes can have an effect on whether or not the weapon becomes sticky in your hands. The oil or the combination you use may contribute to the stickiness and if so, you need to adjust either the type of oil you are using or the entire oiling process. In the hot and humid environment of the Philippines, for example, I have been pleased with the result of using lemon oil as a monthly maintenance coat and have not experienced any stickiness when practicing.
Proper storage of your weapons can prevent warping. I find the best way to store my bokken and jo is in a horizontal or vertical rack or laying flat on a level surface. Leaning a jo or bokken against the wall for a long period of time can cause the wood to warp.
I leave my weapons in a protective weapons bag and store them flat on the floor if I am not going to use them for a protracted period of time. I have not experienced any noticeable warping so for me, this system works fine.
Whatever your method of storage is, take the time to check your weapons frequently to make sure they are staying straight and true.
Take the time to develop a routine that you will follow in caring for your weapons. Remember that when you step on the mat with a personal weapon or one that you have borrowed from the dojo, you are responsible for the weapon being defect-free and safe to train with.
I have found that cleaning, sanding (as required), and oiling my weapons once a month is adequate and easy to do. I also make the sometimes hard decision to retire weapons, even though they have served me faithfully, so that I am not guilty of using an unsafe weapon in practice. I have seen some people that have used weapons past their normal life due to sentimental attachment or being too cheap to buy a new weapon. Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable to use a weapon that is not defect-free and safe. Make the tough choice and get rid of inferior weapons and only use those you would want someone else to use in practice with you.
OWNING YOUR OWN WEAPONS:
Although the dojo you train in may provide weapons for anyone's use, there are tangible benefits for acquiring your own weapons. By using your own weapons for training, you can be assured your weapons are in top-notch condition and safe to use.
Having your own personal weapons also allows you to practice outside of class. This is especially important if your schedule prevents you from attending classes for a period of time. Following a regular training program increases your knowledge retention and prevents skill atrophy.
My Aikido teacher in Hawaii, Ralph Glanstein Sensei, established a personal goal of handling a bokken every day. When he was in the hospital, he got lectured by the nurse for taking up a mop and using it for his bokken training. Buying, maintaining, and using your own weapons will provide you training opportunities that far outweigh the cost.
When transporting your weapons to and from the dojo, I recommend using a weapons bag. Using a bag will prevent possible unwanted or unpleasant conversations with authorities. It is usually not a good idea to walk down a public street or through a parking lot with a sword in your hand. Weapons bags can be homemade or purchased from a variety of sources and, like buying your own weapons, the benefits are worth the expense.
Weapons are a great addition in the training curricula of many martial arts. Like any other piece of equipment, weapons must be routinely and regularly cared for.
Here is the process that I use:
About the author: Royce G. Coffee is a retired United States Marine Corps Sergeant Major. He has studied a number of martial arts, including, of course, Aikido. He also helped develop the U.S. Marine Martial Arts Program of close combat. He currently teaches at the Makati Aikido Club.