Tsuka Ito Maki - Notes on Wrapping a Sword Handle
©1997 Kendall Kelsoe
For those of you that like to do things yourself, I present this basic introduction to wrapping the hilt of your sword or knife. Because it is important to be familiar with all known types of ancient weapons, I offer here information for both Japanese and Western swords.
The Katana is a two-handed sword wielded with tremendous amounts of force, not to mention an even greater degree of skill. Like so many of the products Japanese make, a good Katana is a marvel of workmanship. It entails a great deal of craftsmanship and artistry for every single part and stage of production of swordmaking. Swords were produced in ancient Japan using many artisans that were specialists. A Tsuka, (hilt, or handle) was just one part of the Katana that only hinted at the dedication it took to create a quality sword. Without a doubt, the Nippon To (Japanese sword) is a work-of-art in it's own right, and justifiably so.
ELEMENTS OF THE TSUKA
While not strictly a part of the handle, it is important you know what the habaki does and that it must be fitted to the blade and tsuka correctly. The habaki kept dust and rain out of the saya (scabbard), and helped prevent the polished blade from getting scuffed when withdrawn and returned to the saya.
This is the hand guard that prevented the hand from slipping from the tsuka and inadvertently grasping the Ha (edge). Commonly decorated with artwork expressing the owner's spirit or attitude. Tsuba are also works of art in their own right. Simple, straightforward unadorned tetsu (iron) tsuba were also popular.
These are metal washers that fill in the space between the fuchi, tsuba and habaki. Useful when the wood in the handle shrinks from aging.
This is the metal collar with a shaped ana (hole) for the nakago to fit in. Helps prevent the handle from splitting and helps thwart the effects of wear and tear.
This is the wooden handle custom fitted to the nakago. The Tsuka (handle) must be properly crafted so that there is no seam directly in line with the Nakago (tang). Very difficult (and expensive) to fit in the traditional manner. If you are going to wrap it in the traditional style, the tsuka should be thin to allow space for the ray skin and silk wrapping. If not going to be wrapped in the traditional method, it should be shaped to fit the size of the owner's hands.
This is known in the west as a pommel cap. This metal cap fits on the butt of the tsuka and like the fuchi, helps prevent splitting. The kashira was often pierced with shitodome (cord holes), and the tsuka ito was knotted and passed through to the other side of the tsuka, then again in a terminating knot.
The most recognizable style for wrapping the katana, tanto, and wakizashi utilizes same, the belly skin of a ray (Rhinobatus Armatus). Sometimes Sharkskin was used to cover the hilt. This skin, after being properly cured, is very stiff and hard. The surface of the skin is similar to very coarse sandpaper and provides an outstanding combat grip combined with silk wrapping (tsuka ito). When soaked in water, same becomes pliable and will assume the shape of the tsuka after drying. Very expensive, but a must for anyone interested in an authentic and traditional handle.
This is the peg that fits into the mekugi ana (pin hole). Sometimes made of bone or precious metals. I do not recommend anything but take (bamboo), because it is a major pain to remove a metal pin that has been bent from strenuous use.
Decorative ornaments that are thought to improve the grip. Each menuki should correspond to the practitioner's fingertips when gripping the sword right handed.
This is the braided silk wrapping that goes over the same.
Something to consider...
Rayskin serves to keep the tsuka ito in place, so that it does not "pack down", or work loose under constant use. The silk absorbed sweat and blood to provide a non-slip and comfortable grip for a bare-handed user. Katanas were traditionally worn thrust through the obi (sash or belt) edge up. The side of the tsuka closest to the wearer when worn in this fashion was called the "private" or "personal" side. This is where the wrapping begins. The silk is crisscrossed around the handle, then twisted and folded 360 degrees. This produces a beautiful series of "diamonds". Traditionally, tsuka ito required wraps that produced an even number of these diamond shaped openings that exposed the same. The mekugi (peg) should be exposed and not covered by the tsuka ito. Tsuka ito came in various widths, to better fit tantos, wakizashi, and Katana. The silk came in many colors that allowed personal expression of the individual's sense of taste. While the most common colors were blue and brown, bright colors such as red and purple were not unheard of. My wife Connie, who is very knowledgeable in arts and crafts, showed me an article about weaving tsuka ito and silk cord for lacing the plates used in Japanese armour. I built her a loom so she could take a crack at it, and it is, to say the least, tedious. By experiencing the process, one gains an appreciation and respect for the effort, time and patience it took for a Japanese craftsman to produce the materials for a fine weapon. There were several methods of braiding used throughout Japanese history, not just the one described here. Silk was not the only choice for wrapping the sword handle. Snake skin was used in the style known as hebi gawa tsunami maki. The Yagyu Ryu school used leather wrapping in a technique called hira maki. World war two Shingunto swords for NCOs had the wrapping molded in aluminum to save time and lower the cost.
First off, the Europeans realized the importance of wearing gauntlets (gloves). There were many different versions of this hand protection. Some were merely soft leather with long cuffs. Others had plate armour. The Guanto di presa was a glove made of heavy canvas, ring mail, and iron bars. This glove was designed to allow the user to safely grasp an attacker's blade, then twist it out of his hand. When wearing gauntlets, the hilt of the sword could be wrapped with spun wire. If used bare-handed, this textured grip would quickly shred skin when used strongly. As the popularity of armour waned, hilts began to appear that had improved protection for the hand. Some included encasing the hand in a "basket" of steel bars, or strips of iron. One of Scotland's most recognizable swords from the 17th and 18th centuries is the Basket hilt broadsword. Commonly, but incorrectly, known as the "Claymore", or Claidheamohr. Europeans wore harnesses to secure their swords. The most common type of harness is called a baldric. Using the baldric, the sword's weight on the hip was offset by a strap slung over the opposite shoulder. The Baldric was very useful for carrying heavy swords, such as a greatsword (large war sword). Hilts for swords, dirks, and daggers also used carved, textured or smooth, bare wood for the handle. Sometimes a soft leather skin was used to cover the handle. The truly wealthy owned jewel-encrusted hilts made of precious metals.
Cord can be spun or braided around the hilt in number of different styles. A layer of epoxy adds an extra layer of protection from skin oils and perspiration salts. Modern wrapping methods offer an affordable alternative to the expensive traditional methods of hilt wrapping. Make sure you get it tight!
This cord is made out of nylon. The cord has an outer covering, with several individual cords contained inside. Makes a good choice for wrapping the handles of both knives and swords. In an emergency, you can remove the cord for functions such as a tourniquet or splint. If you take the core out you can obtain a flatter wrap.
DECOY DUCK CORD
Another good choice for hilt wrapping I have found is "decoy duck cord". Sometimes this cord comes with an oily black coating to ward off gasoline and mildew, and it will come off on your hands (and your clothes) as you use it. Other types of this cord work even better and even come in colors. I have three of my bokkens (wooden swords) that are wrapped with this stuff, and they still work perfectly after 23 years of hard use. You can obtain these items from a good army surplus, hardware or sporting goods store. Obviously, without pictures, I can't begin to demonstrate the various methods of wrapping a sword or knife handle. It would take an entire seminar on tsuka ito to show just a relatively few methods. Like anything else, remember that patience and dedication are the most important elements to creating a functional wrapped hilt.