"When a common sword just won't cut it"

Making Hishigami

For anyone who isn’t familiar with the term, Hishigami are the little wedges or triangles that are placed underneath the tsuka-ito (handle cord wrap) when wrapping the tsuka of your Japanese style swords. They provide many functions such as aiding in the shaping of the diamonds, keeping the ito from moving around on the core, and protecting the ito from fraying against the rough samegawa (ray skin) to name a few.

Many including myself believe they are absolutely necessary for a quality tsukamaki job but there are still too many who do not use them and others who do not use properly made hishigami.  I believe one of the main reasons is because they just don’t know how to make them.

Traditionally, hishigami are made by folding rice paper and stuffing it under the ito with a pic tool but there are actually more than a few ways of making them which work well for production tsuka including cutting shapes out of cardstock or folding paper into small triangle shapes.  I have tried many ways in the years I’ve been wrapping tsuka and I have ultimately settled on one way that works best for me.

I began by cutting triangles out of cardboard or thick cardstock but while the edges seemed rigid enough they would still collapse under the extreme pressure of tightening the ito plus they didn’t provide the volume I needed to give the folds an aesthetically pleasing look.
I then started using a method I learned from Thomas Buck’s site which entailed folding paper (newsprint or copy paper) into little house shaped wedges like this

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These worked very well and I have used them for many years but they still didn’t give me everything I was looking for so I kept searching for another way.
I was fortunate enough to find the help of a very talented Japanese tsukamaki-shi, who was incredibly generous with his knowledge and shared this method with me.
after trying it out I have modified this method slightly to better fit my personal needs and this is how I make them now.  I am not saying that this is the only way they should be made or even that it’s the best way, it’s just the way I choose to make them.

The Paper –

I have been searching for what seems like forever trying to find the ultimate paper to use for hishigami and I am still not sure that there isn’t something better out there.  A lot of people who also wrap tsuka have said to me “what does it matter, paper is paper” and that any paper will do.
Well again, it might work for some but I didn’t feel it was right for me and I do tend to get a little obsessed with finding the right materials.  I’m also trying to constantly improve and there is always something I feel I can do better the next time.  This is something I don’t think I will ever feel I’ve completely mastered no matter how long I do it.

I studied pictures I’ve seen and also had the opportunity to dissect old hishigami from tsuka I’ve restored and there are probably more than a few art store employees that think I’m nuts for fingering dozens of paper pads looking for the perfect one, but I think I’ve finally found something suitable.

I use Japanese Mingeishi kozo paper.  This type of paper is used commonly for ink drawing, watercolors, origami, Japanese paper dolls, and many other crafts including tsukamaki.   This craft paper is made from the pulp of the Japanese paper mulberry tree. It can be found in some good art supply stores and while more expensive than average sketching paper, it’s not going to break the bank, plus it goes a long way.

here is what it looks like

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It looks soft and fuzzy and it is in a way, but don’t let this fool you, it’s also deceptively strong.

The materials you will need are:
Paper
Ruler
Utility knife (or other very sharp blade)
Paper glue or rice paste (white craft glue is fine)
Sharp pencil (or fine point pen that won’t bleed)
Optional – Black ink (I use bottled India ink)

 

On average you will need about 60-70 hishigami for a standard tsuka of around 11″, depending on the ito type, when doing the hineri-maki style (most common) and less when doing katate-maki (battle wrap) but I always make many more than I will need just in case.

Before you begin folding and cutting the paper you should know what the final size of your hishigami should be for the type of ito you will be using. I have found that even when using ito that is listed as 10mm, when stretched tight the width can be different than that of ito made by another manufacturer.  You should always make hishigami for the specific ito you are using at the time.
To determine the width of the base of your hishigami you need to wrap two strands of your ito around the edge of the tsuka and pull it very tightly, as tight as it will be when you actually wrap it. Then measure the width of the two strands together like this

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For this tutorial I am using 10mm imported Japanese silk ito.  As you can see in the picture, the two strands pulled tightly come to approximately 9/16″
The width of the bottom of my finished hishigami should be 9/16″

The height of the hishigami should be approximately a little less than half the height of the flat side of your tsuka (omote and ura).  The edges of the (empty) channels on this tsuka-

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represent where the edges of my paper strips will eventually be and will be the points I will measure from. You also take off a little for the center of the twist of the ito. In this case the finished height of my hishigami will be approximately 3/8″

So, approximately 9/16″ wide by 3/8″ high.

When you are working on a tsuka with a rikko shape (hourglass) where the center portion is more narrow than the ends, you might also need some shorter hishigami if the samegawa strips also become more narrow.  The goal is to have all of your ito diamonds of a fairly consistent height so this means that in a tighter space, such as the middle of a rikko tsuka, the hishigami should be shorter than those near the ends.  This isn’t a rule since there were tsuka with smaller diamonds in the middle but this was usually done on purpose to achieve a certain look.

To make your hishigami shorter you would just reduce the space of your markings along the process.

Ok, so now that we know what the sizes our finished hishigami should be for this project we can move on to the next step of folding the paper.
The size of my paper sheets are 12″ by 18″ but this will vary depending on what you buy.  Since folding along a length is difficult already, I start at the 12″ side but starting on the wider side will yield more hishigami per strip.

First I measure 1/4″ form the edge and make a few marks and draw a line across the paper

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Then fold the paper up to the line so it’s approximately 1/8″

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Now fold the paper about 4 more times and make sure to make the creases as sharp as you can.

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Then measure 5/16″ up from the top of your folded strip, make marks and draw another line

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Proceed to fold it 5 more times creasing it sharply where there is less material.  You will start to notice that one side is growing thicker as you fold.

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After the 5 times at 5/16″, measure 3/8″ from the top edge of your fold and make another mark and line, then proceed to fold 5-10 more times, creasing the thin edge sharply, until the strip feels firm.  

If the thickness is sufficient and everything is tight we then cut the edge so the cut part comes to the top of the fatter end.  I use the straight edge pressed on top of the folded paper as a guide for my knife to make sure the cut is nice and straight

Once the rest of the sheet is cut from your folded strip you want to lightly spread some glue and then press the open end down while smoothing it out

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Next we want to mark in increments along the flatter side of the strip.  The fat side will be the top of the hishigami. The increments will be the finished width as determined earlier.  Again, in this case it’s 9/16″

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Then make marks along the top edge to indicate the top of the triangles

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Now go ahead and cut the triangles out of the strip

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Once all the pieces have been cut out, you can either leave them this way or color them.  I occasionally color them black with the India ink but you can also color them to compliment the color of ito you’re using.

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You can really see the shaping in this next shot

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Now when I wrap the tsuka there will be some nice volume in the center of the tsuka while the bottom of the hishigami won’t stand out as much toward the edges avoiding that ugly boxy look you see on most production tsuka.

It took a very long time, a lot of research, and a ton of trial and error to figure out all of the elements that make a good looking tsuka that also functions well.  Proper shaping of the core, using paper strips, and properly made hishigami using the correct paper all lend to a better finished product.
Is it easy? No, not terribly.  Is it fun?  I don’t particularly enjoy making them.  Would it be much easier and faster to cut cardstock?  Sure but it shows and you just might regret it down the road when you wind up having to re-wrap your tsuka over and over again until you’re happy with it.

Like almost everything else associated with the making of a Japanese sword, it’s not easy and sometimes feels ridiculously complex, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.
I hope this helps those who are looking to wrap their own tsuka and yes, it does get slightly easier, although not less tedious, the more you do it so don’t give up!

 

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