Unlike Kendo, the shinai (bamboo swords) used in many styles of Aikido are covered with suede or leather. Since we do not wear armor during Aikido practice, these coverings cushion blows against joints and sensitive targets somewhat, and prevent the bamboo edges from cutting or pinching skin. This “DIY” article teaches you how to make your own Aikido shinai (also called “fukuro shinai”), similar to the styles you used to be able to buy from bujindesign.com, or from ebogu.com, or the Kiyota Company.
- Moccasin suede (a half-hide of leather has enough material to make four shinai). If you can’t find leather, 40oz+ heavyweight vinyl coated polyester tarp or marine upholstery can do a pretty nice job – just don’t settle for the lighter weights as they stretch.
- 3/16 inch leather hole punch (“hammer” punches work better than most pliers-style punches).
- approximately 4′ of bamboo pole, preferably “Calcutta bamboo” or “Punting Pole” bamboo (b. Tuldoides). These bamboo are slow growing, have very thick walls, and grow straight. If you can’t find any adequate bamboo, a good kendo shinai can be disassembled and made to work.
- A needle-nose pliers for lacing (optional).
For each shinai, prepare the following:
- Prepare the freshly cut bamboo. If you are using a kendo shinai, simply remove the tsuba / crosspiece and any internal blocks. For raw bamboo, follow these steps:
- Shave off sprouts / leaves. Sand or file smooth.
- Cut off the “butt” end with a saw, just below a nodule/section (so the end is closed off).
- Saw off the other end at desired shinai length. Using duct tape, securely tape around the bamboo above where the tsuba would be (to limit splits from spreading too deeply).
- Using a machete (wrap a towel around other end for a grip), carefully split the blade-end of the bamboo to within about 6″ of where the tsuba would be (the crack will lengthen as it dries). Use caution, wear gloves, and tape the edges of the machete that are not being used for safety! Repeat so that the bamboo is split lengthwise into eight or six pieces (use eight if the walls are thick, six if they are thin). Simply start the cut at the top by tapping the back of the machete with a hammer; then carefully tap the machete down to desired length, making sure the blade does not wander or twist.
- With a knife or blade, shave off any slivers. Again, be careful! The bamboo can cut skin as surely as a knife can. Be sure to remove any flat nodules inside the bamboo that were split. Also, smooth both ends (this will become harder when the bamboo dries).
- Insert a rod or pole into the bamboo, if possible. Using duct tape, securely and tightly tape the splits back into shape. If you neglect this step, the splits may twist as they dry.
- Store the bamboo upright in a cool, shaded or dark and dry place for a few weeks until the bamboo begins to cure (turn yellow or white). Remove tape.
- Cut the suede into sections as follows. The dimensions below are for one shinai; if making more than one, be sure to lay out the patterns carefully to make best use of the material. The laces do not have to be cut straight; it does not matter if they are cut along a curve or corner, so long as the dimensions remain the same.
- Starting at the end, mark and punch a line of holes that are exactly 1″ apart, and 3/8″ from the edge of the material of one side only. If you are using a hand punch, you’ll want to wear gloves or take turns with a friend!
- Wrap the leather snugly around the bamboo / shinai, and mark through where the holes should be punched on the other side. Fold the leather under at desired length (where the implied tsuba would go) Be sure to be accurate and maintain 1″ spacing. Punch holes where marked.
- Your leather will probably look something like this (below).
- Cut off grip end one or two holes below where you folded it under. Punch four holes evenly spaced between the top holes (only two are shown below because this is not to scale; there usually should be six holes on the end when finished).
- Cut the end of the lace to a 45 degree angle (to make threading easier). Tie the other end in a very small granny knot. On the side of the leather that is marked (to go on the inside), insert the thread through a center hole (hole #3) through to hole #4.
- Bring the lace back through holes 5 and 2. Tighten.
- Put the lace through hole 1. Fold over the end.
- Turn inside out. This will give a wrinkled look to the end. Cross remaining end hole to overlap, and pull lace through. This is a little tricky, you may have to experiment a little.
- Continue lacing until two holes from end. Hopefully, this will leave the lace on the outside. If not, you must shorten the leather by one punched hole. Be sure to pull lace tight with every hole. It also helps to make sure the natural grain of the lace causes the lace to curl down – you will understand this as you lace.
- Cut a long notch into the grip leather, to make a strip about the width of the lace. Fold over the end of the laced material, and insert this grip thread through the holes. Tie the grip to the lace in a square knot. Trim excess.
- Wrap grip around handle of shinai in standard running slipknot fashion.
Here’s an example of a completed DIY fukuru shoto shinai (short sword) using marine grade heavy vinyl upholstery and a core from a traditional Kendo shinai:
Notes and Discussion
This same process works to make shinai tanto; the tanto material only needs to be 12″ long by 4.5″ wide, with holes spaced 3/4″ apart (instead of one inch).
We’ve heard people successfully experimenting with cutting pvc pipe instead of bamboo, and using heavy-duty rubberized industrial hose for the covering (glued, not stitched) as relatively less expensive but effective alternatives.
Finally, we’d like to recommend the artistic services of Carrie Matteoli. A member of our Dojo, Carrie makes beautiful multicolor, top-quality custom fukuru shinai (depending on bamboo availability). A few examples of her work are featured at the top, and a custom fukuro tanto can be seen here: