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Shirasaya—I’m making one


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One of my rescues (nangamaki naoshi - wakizashi) came with a sad saya (with a crack along the seam, but still a beut), and ill-fitting koshirae.  The blade needs a proper storage scabbard. 

 

Pics to follow.

 

I did some research and found out that you have to trade an arm and a leg for Japanese ho wood, aged 10 years, and decided to go with poplar. Those in the know will tell you this is to avoid any caustic sap other lumber may excrete over time. 

 

I began this project about three weeks ago. Right now, as we house hunt, we live in an apartment, having moved from CT to TX last year. I had to give away almost all of my power tools, hand tools, and everything else precious and make the move with bare-bones essentials (we drove to TX). I did get a decent orbital jig saw at a pawn shop. I also had to invest in a Guitar Brace wood chisel (cheap saya nomi, or traditional Japanese bent paring chisel—it’s the angle people, the. angle.), a Japanese 42mm block plane (Kanna), which I had to modify to become an compass plane with a rounded bottom so that I can work the curves (otherwise $138 - the standard block plane was $26), a kiridashi (Japanese single bevel utility knife, claimed to be hand forged), and a cheaper sharpening kit to keep the above tools up to snuff (and remove skin from fingertips). I have an orbital sander (did not use on inside of scabbard!!), an oscillating multi-tool, and other usual hand tools, including a hand-dandy Stanley hand saw and sawing block (GOD I MISS MY MITER SAW!!).  

 

So, mistakes first:

- the poplar I picked is fine, but most sayashi take a plank of ho wood and saw it in half lengthwise, then carve the two insides, then glue the two sides back together. This is to prevent the saya from popping open when humidity changes (how the wood grain runs, etc.). The rice glue is strong, but not strong enough (by design) to damage the wood when splitting forces happen. So, this being my first, experimental saya, I will adjust fire and move on.

- I did not appreciate the subtleties of carving the inside cavities. I realized, after a lot of work, that the blade really touches the saya only at the habaki, to seal the blade into the saya, and across the mune side to the tip, where the reservoir is for any excess oil. Therefore, the point of focus and perfect carving should belong to the habaki fit and the tip. I now know more! 

- I cut the blank for the saya a bit too soon, and once I referenced an old, split apart saya (maybe 200 years old), I realized I should have saved more space for the tip end of the saya. 

- I had to work extra, once I compared my work to the old saya, to smooth the inside cavity. I should have started with a narrower chisel at the mune part of the cavity, then work my way, ever increasing the width of the chisel, to the ha side. Once I did this it worked like a charm. 

- I have worked with power tools and hand tools all my life, professional setting and as hobby. Japanese tools are SHARP!!! Especially after you hand sharpen them to a high degree, like I did (hence bandaged finger in the pics). 

 

What went right:

- Poplar is great to work with. It’s much easier than hardwoods I’ve worked with and not as “juicy” as fresh pine. 

- After some trial and error, using the altered kanna plane was like magic (especially after re-sharpening the factory sharpened blade, which didn’t last long). I can whittle with that sucka! Outside of a belt sander (I wish), I can’t think of a better tool to whittle down the blanks to shape. The last part I will use sand paper on (only the outside and the holes for the nakago and blade will be sealed to avoid the dreaded sanding material scratches) to finely create the final shape. 

- Attention to detail is key, so is prior experience. I have made wood core scabbards for my Albion Regent (hollow ground blades are a bitch to make snug-fit scabbards for) and a couple of other European swords. Also a history of working in construction and some other mild carpentry got me ready. 

- After having doubts about how the shirasaya will turn out, having roughed out the nakago part (tanto) and seeing it ready for gluing, I feel more emboldened. 

 

So, I guess i’ll keep this post updated as I progress. 

Again, I’m dealing with some serious restrictions on the labor and tools. If you guys have any insights it’s appreciated, especially sourcing ho wood or/and tools. There are some “antique” tools on ebay straight from Japan, but spending $25 on a decent saya nomi, then $40 on shipping - uh . . . no. 

 

Pics to follow. 

 

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I decided to detail work on the nakago part first, then transition to the rest, using the nakago dimensions. (Crossed Heart Forge on youtube helped out a lot, so a big shout out to Dave and jealousy over his skills compared to mine.)

 

The Ura side (below my Kanna) and the Omote side. The Omote side seats the tang more than the Ura side, following the traditional design. 

74BD45B3-2776-432B-B729-46D8D1FAEF3B.jpeg

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Looks great! 

The $25 chisels from Japan are a pretty good deal compared to the $180+ Kawasei saya nomi that are floating around, you'd just need to buy a bunch assuming you find exactly what you want/need to justify the shipping cost I suppose. I'm not a huge fan of the $180 option as the neck of the chisel is made out of particularly soft metal and bent rather easily. This was corrected by zip tying a chop stick to add rigidity but still I felt I should not have needed to do that given the price point. I suppose I should reach out to see if this is just a fluke, I assume the company would back up their product.  

My biggest learning point was taking off the majority of the scabbards meat prior to gluing it together so I won't have to worry about sanding/planing the exterior too deeply when it's glued together and I cannot reference the internal cutout. 


Poplar has been my go to as well in lieu of more traditional Hinoki wood, the process of selecting appropriate wood in of itself is pretty fun. I try to find pieces with the straightest grain possible.
 

Here's a saya I've been slowly but surely working on. The outer shape is a bit unorthodox but I'm attempting to replicate (albeit poorly) a scabbard I have with a rounded kojiri 

Habaki fitment is something I still struggle with, the koiguchi of my saya is typically a bit wider at points more than necessary. 

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 I have found this place to be useful and have bought off them a few times. They take pay-pal and are OK dealing in English, and do ship abroad. 

 I just checked and they are currently sold out of Honoki, which happens from time to time. Which is why I bought some last time, so I would have it when I needed it.

https://www.namikawa-ltd.com/product-list

 

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Tackling a katan length, huh? That's no easy task.

 

I can't believe that expensive chisel bent! Try the Two Cherries Brand curved bevel edged chisels (top one in pic). I have their 16mm one and am contemplating on getting the 10 and 20mm to round out my set. The one I have has works like magic.

 

I also have a WoodRiver  1/4" bent paring chisel, but the angle is less than ideal, and as you can see in the pic, the Two Cherries one has just the right angle "dip". Holds the sharpness too (Deutsch engineering!) 

 

The habaki area was a challenge, but I think I got it to fit snugly. I've been contemplating on the contact between the koiguchi and the flat of the tang part, and thinking I might make the koiguchi concave and the handle convex. My old shirasaya has this feature and I wonder if it's an additional seal against air and particles.   

Also, I think my mekugi-ana is a bit off when I insert the nakago, so I might have to do some fancy wood inlay to correct it. 

Note how the old shirasaya doesn't have a reservoir for oil at the tip.  

 

chisels 1.jpg

saya tip.jpgOld shirasaya

chisels and shsaya.jpg

saya habaki.jpgold shirasaya

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29 minutes ago, Dave R said:

 I have found this place to be useful and have bought off them a few times. They take pay-pal and are OK dealing in English, and do ship abroad. 

 I just checked and they are currently sold out of Honoki, which happens from time to time. Which is why I bought some last time, so I would have it when I needed it.

https://www.namikawa-ltd.com/product-list

 

 

David - I'm on Namikawa at least once a week. I yearn for the day when their honoki is back in stock. I've bought from them and they've done a great job, with expedient shipping (at least here to planet Texas).

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51 minutes ago, Brian said:

Someone once said that some of the items from Namikawa may show out of stock, but if you ask them, they may have some stock. Worth a try.

 I too have been told this, by a little birdy. 

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After rechecking the nakago fit and mekugi alignment, I decided it was time to see how good I am at making Sokui. (Using example from Crossed Heart Forge).

I ran into pre-cooked rice at the store the other day. It wasn’t as sticky as overcooked rice, but adding water while I smushed it helped make it very sticky. Also, as I was making the paste I kept thinking “how could this possibly get as sticky as it should?” Well, it did, and it’s very sticky! 

 

What didn’t work:

- We have cats. Cats climb and rub on everything, especially something new like a freshly carved shirasaya. Ergo, I had to clean off the surfaces of the tang section as there was cat fur on everything. 

- I smushed and made the rice paste on a wood surface. On reflection I realized it was a section of pine. It was pretty dry, but I need to mix my paste on poplar next time to avoid any contamination from sap. 

- Paste could have used a few more drops of water. Fixed it by rubbing a slightly damp finger across the surface to be glued.

 

What worked:

- Making the paste was stupid simple. 

- My handy-dandy wood spatula for smushing and applying the paste.

- The shims I carved from left-over poplar to tighten the binding around the glued parts. 

- The weather is actually pretty dry today (shocking, for the Houston area), so hoping a couple of days is enough to set the glue

- On seeing the pictures, it looks like my paste isn’t wet enough, but it gooifyed as I squeezed the two halves together. 

 

 

 

 

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Ordinary rice is usually not good enough for a decent glue. I use Sushi rice and overcook it from fresh. Another issue is if the pre cooked rice is already salted, and I don't need to tell you how that can be a problem! Sometimes there are other additives as well, like veg oil to give the grains a shine, and aid separation.

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On 4/9/2022 at 6:19 AM, Dave R said:

Ordinary rice is usually not good enough for a decent glue. I use Sushi rice and overcook it from fresh. Another issue is if the pre cooked rice is already salted, and I don't need to tell you how that can be a problem! Sometimes there are other additives as well, like veg oil to give the grains a shine, and aid separation.

 

Well, as Dave has said, the ordinary rice did not hold fast. It didn't help that I realized only after gluing that I had wanted to saw off the tail end of the tang part. It was probably the sawing while glued, and the inferior rice, that led to the two parts separating. 

 

Lesson learned. 

 

The poplar grain is starting to be an issue, now that I'm down to finer detail whittling and kiridashi knife planing. In either case, this experimental first shirasaya is turning out better than I thought it would. 

 

 

two halves.jpg

weak glue.jpg

split.jpg

tang cut off.jpg

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Also, if the 2nd picture in your last post is the cut offs after they split post glue up, you shouldn't be seeing all that rice paste. A proper glue job is 2 pieces of wood in total contact with an invisible glue line, not 2 pieces of wood with a bunch of glue separating them. The joint you picture is doomed to fail even with the proper rice.

Years ago at one of the Minneapolis shows Chris Bowen and Larry Klahn put on, I watched a Japanese saya-shi make shirasaya for a tanto. I was surprised to see him work almost entirely cross grain with a small knife, not along the grain with a bent handle paring chisel.

Grey

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 In the past when reshaping or making from scratch I have improvised a "hag's tooth router", it might not be the authentic way, but it works. It also helps if you are not practised, or have issues with your hands as I do nowadays.

 

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7 hours ago, Brian said:

Tsuka is the wrong shape. Best to make a new one.

 Oh, yeah, I know. This is the experiment. I call it my Koi Belly tsuka. :glee:

 

 

3 hours ago, Grey Doffin said:

Also, if the 2nd picture in your last post is the cut offs after they split post glue up, you shouldn't be seeing all that rice paste. A proper glue job is 2 pieces of wood in total contact with an invisible glue line, not 2 pieces of wood with a bunch of glue separating them. The joint you picture is doomed to fail even with the proper rice.

Years ago at one of the Minneapolis shows Chris Bowen and Larry Klahn put on, I watched a Japanese saya-shi make shirasaya for a tanto. I was surprised to see him work almost entirely cross grain with a small knife, not along the grain with a bent handle paring chisel.

Grey

 

Grey - Yeah, the sokui was very suckie. Believe it or not, after drying there was hardly a gap anywhere, except on the cut-off section, hence the separation and "paste". 

 

I'm also noticing that I'll have to pay particular attention to the to the contact faces of the two sides. When I scraped off the glue residue, even though I was careful I must have bit a little into the surface. It's a small oopsie, about 1/2 mm, but now my joining surfaces are off and there's a gap between the tsuke. I'll have to do some serious micro-planing to re-create the invisible seam. Joining is an art onto itself. 

 

 

 

2 hours ago, Dave R said:

 In the past when reshaping or making from scratch I have improvised a "hag's tooth router", it might not be the authentic way, but it works. It also helps if you are not practised, or have issues with your hands as I do nowadays.

 

Awesome video, Dave! That antique metal router plane he's messing with at the beginning looks almost like the fullering tool the smith apprentices use to carve out the hi on fresh blades. 

I've had to improvise a lot, due to my limited circumstances and lack of power tools, but I am learning to appreciate the art of precise hand tools. That being said, once we buy a house, I'm getting a damn router and going modern on a shirasaya. Traditional is great, but if I can create a shirasaya in context of modern times and tools, well so be it. I've had carpal tunnel surgery on both of my wrists (thank you construction work in my formative years) so my hands do tire out faster and are prone to some weakness. 

 

 

Thank you for all the advice! 

 

 

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Hey folks,

 

Putting this project on pause, but for a good reason. 

 

We just bought a house (finally!) after moving to planet Texas. It’s brand new—in fact it’s so new it will finish building and ready to move in at the end of June. Lots of talks with mortgage brokers, real estate agents, and packing, packing, packing. The upside is that I’ll finally have shop space and shelves for wonderful, shiny, new tools! 

 

Until then, stay tuned. If I can make time, I will make actual sukoi and post pics of my Koi belly tsuka-monster, but no promises. 

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