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

Tsukamaki

There are as many different methods for wrapping a tsuka as there are people wrapping them. This is a very personalized art and although the main goal is the same for each project, there is a lot of room for individual touches along the way. Today, I will be showing you the method I use to wrap a tsuka. 

I have developed my method over the past eight years and though I feel comfortable with it the way it is now, I believe tsukamaki is an art that keeps growing and changing as you continue to practice it.  I have also tailored this method to working with modern production swords which I find are very different in many ways than those made in Japan or custom made by professionals. I have changed some of the materials and steps used in the more traditional methods to help cut back on cost and time, as well as to make it a little easier for a novice to learn.  It doesn’t make much sense to have the tsukamaki wind up costing you more than the entire sword.

 

Tsukamaki

How much ito will you need?

There are various methods for determining the amount of ito you will need to wrap a tsuka. 
If you already have a supply of ito you can use this method: Spiral wrap the ito around the entire length of the tsuka and then once again over half the length.
If you don’t have the ito yet you can use this mwthod (considered very safe): Measure the length of the tsuka in inches and then convert that number into feet. You then add two extra feet to this and that is how many total feet of ito you will need. So for example, a 10″ tsuka would convert to 10 feet then adding two feet, it becomes a total of 12 feet of ito needed. This method allows for a decent amount of extra ito which will make working the end knots easier and also as insurance that you will not fall short.
If you fee you need less extra ito, you can use the above method and add one extra foot instead of two. 
Just be aware that if you are not sure, it is better to have more than not enough.

 

Does ito material and quality make a difference?

The quality of the ito you choose makes as much as a difference to the finished product as any other aspect or element of the katana. Cheap or synthetic materials will not perform as well as higher quality ito and this will show in durability, and feel, and of course looks. It will also be more difficult to work with resulting in a frustrating experience. 

Even high quality ito will differ in durability, feel, and the way it handles during use depending on what material it’s made from.

Some feel that Japanese made cotton ito is the easiest to work with but this comes down to personal preference really. Cotton folds with crisp edges but it does have a little bit more stretch to it than the other materials. It also wears a bit faster than silk.

Leather ito is thicker than silk or cotton and can be more difficult to fold and crease. Leather can feel slick when your hands become wet.

Nubuck leather ito is very soft and supple and makes for a very comfortable grip but can also be difficult to fold and crease like regular leather. It also tends to stretch quite a bit so you need to be more delicate with it.

Suede ito, like nubuck, is very plush and comfortable to handle but is typically the thickest of all the ito types and can prove a challenge to work with.

Silk ito is the most commonly used on both historical and modern tsuka. There are many sellers that state the ito ised on ther swords is genuine silk but a lot of it is actually not silk at all but a synthetic copy of some kind. Real imported Japanese silk ito is an excellent choice for long lasting use since it’s very strong, resists mildew and rot, easy to work with, and also feels comfortable while providing a good grip. Besides being a good choice functionally, silk ito is the most attractive in my opinion and is available in a multitude of colors and is capable of being dyed in custom colors. 

 

Before beginning this tsukamaki project you might want to check out these other tutorials carving a tsuka, full wrap samegawa, and making hishigami since these preliminary steps may help to produce a better overall final result.

 

During this tutorial I will be referring to different sides and ends of the tsuka:
OmoteThis is the side that faces out when the sword is worn in the standard edge up position through the obi.
UraThis is the side that faces you in the same position as above.
HaThe edge of the tsuka aligned with the edge of the blade.
MuneThe edge aligned with the mune of the blade.
FuchiThe top or end of the tsuka that fits into the fuchi, or tsuka collar.
KashiraThe bottom or end of the tsuka that fits into the kashira or butt cap. 

 

 

 

 

Tools 

 I use a variety of non-traditional tools to aid in tsukamaki, many can be replaced at your discretion.

Tsukamaki tools

1.  Mattress Needle  I use a standard rounded mattress needle threaded with a loop of waxed cotton cord to finish the end knots. 

2. White Craft GlueAny typical white craft glue is fine.

3. Custom Horn Tool – I made this tool from a piece of buffalo horn to adjust the ito as I wrap it and also to flatten the edges by striking them with the flat bottom. A brass mekugi nuki can be used for some steps instead of this tool.

4Tweezers  Just an average pair will do.

5. Dental Pic – I picked up an inexpensive set of pics to help adjust the ito and manipulate the hishigami. 

6. Flat Pic – This is merely a half of a pair of regular tweezers that I use to make adjustments to the ito. 

7. ScissorsAny small pair of scissors should work.

8. Hishigami – You will need approximately 60-70 hishigami for an average length tsuka.

9. Spare Paper – I use small pieces of the same paper I use for hishigami to build up flat areas under the folds.

10. Spring Clamps (not pictured)- You might occasionally need to take a break and a strong pair of clamps will hold the ito in place until you can return to wrapping.

 

 

Preparation

To ensure an aesthetically pleasing finished tsukamaki, you need to take a few preparatory steps before starting.

Correct Spacing
Whether or not your end knots will wind up on the correct sides depends on proper spacing and length of the tsuka. This spacing is determined by the width of the ito you’re using as it’s stretched as tightly as it will be when wrapped. Measure one strand of ito in it’s stretched state and then mark increments down the length of the ha and mune edges starting from the rim of the fuchi and ending at the rim of the kashira. You should have an odd number of increments when done to ensure proper positioning of the end knots, if not you can shorten the tsuka to the proper length. This is not necessary as far as function, only for traditional aesthetic purposes. I average 7.5 mm for typical imported Japanese silk ito. 

Lining the Edges
Traditionally, the edges of the tsuka core are lined with wood shims to give the core it’s final shape, as well as to ensure the ito winds up being flush with the edges of the fuchi and kashira. Because the wood shims are smooth, a tacky substance called kusune is applied to the underside of the ito as it’s wrapped so it stays in place and doesn’t slide. Since I don’t use wood shims or kusune, I needed some way to build up the shape and prevent the ito from sliding so I use strips of the same paper I use for hishigami to line the edges of the core. 

Cut multiple strips of paper about 1/2″-3/4″ wide. They should be wide enough to fully cover the edges of your core but not so wide that they encroach too far onto the omote and ura sides. 

paper strips
 

Once you have enough strips cut out, begin applying them one at a time to the ha and mune edges with just enough glue to make them tacky but not saturated.

applying paper strips

Part of the reason we are applying these strips is so the ito sits flush with the rims of the fittings. You might need to place some paper across the top of the omote side to raise the ito if it’s sitting too low. Check the fit with the ito you will be using or at least a piece of the same type and size.

checking omote side

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Keep checking the fit of your ito to the fuchi and kashira, adding strips until everything sits evenly where it should. If you’ve added enough paper to the edges to create a pleasing profile but the ito is still not flush with the fittings, you can add smaller pieces near the ends as seen in the below picture.

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I add additional pieces of paper colored black to the omote and ura sides adjacent to the kashira so that one, you don’t see the samegawa through the gaps on the end knots and two, to allow for smoother passage of the ito when executing the knots. When using common 10mm silk ito, the piece of paper placed on the omote side should start at approximately 16-17mm from the edge of the kashira.

omote black paper

The piece of paper placed on the ura side should start approximately 20-22 mm from the edge of the kashira.

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If the ito sits flush with the fittings and the tsuka profile looks right, it’s time to make your final guide marks on the edges.
The imported Japanese silk ito I usually use measures 7.5 mm when stretched tightly so I will use this measurement to mark the length of the ha and mune. 

ha and mune markings

You will see that there are 33 equal increments and as long as you keep the ito within these marks while wrapping, the end knots will be in the correct position. 

When using fiber ito types such as silk or cotton, you should place some scotch tape around the ends so they don’t fray while wrapping.

 

You should now be ready to begin the tsukamaki.

 

With the fittings of your choice in place, you will first need to find the middle of the ito.

silk tsuka-ito

Wrap and stretch the ito across the omote side up against the rim of the fuchi, placing the center of the ito at the center of the tsuka.

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You can add a little glue under this first span to help keep it in place. Once this is done, you can flip the tsuka over so the ura side is facing you.

ura side tsukamaki

I begin with the strand of ito on the left, while the ura side is facing you and the fuchi end is on top, fold the ito down and clockwise at an angle so it looks like this –

first fold on tsuka

Then continue by folding it once again the same way so the strand is now facing straight across to the other side.

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Now insert one hishigami under the fold on each side so half is under the ito and half is exposed. The flat edge of the hishigami should be up against the edge of the paper strips.

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Use a tool with a small flat edge or the pick to tuck the edges of the ito under the sides of the hishigami so the lines are crisp and even. Then take the strand on the right side and do the same thing so that strand envelopes the exposed sides of the hishigami. Tuck the edges in as you did before.

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Now with the bottom of the horn tool (or brass mekugi nuki), tamp down the edges of the folds you’ve made while also pulling in any resulting slack in the ito. You can alternate between tamping and pulling the ito tighter. You want to wind up with edges as sharp as you can make them and as little play in the folded ito as possible.
You might also need to readjust the hishigami if they shift out of place while doing this, use your tweezers to place them back in line. Make sure your folds are even and symmetrical and tight before moving on.

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While holding the ito tightly so nothing loosens or shifts, flip the tsuka over and back to the omote side.

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Follow the same steps as above, starting with the strand on the left.

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(I’m usually holding the ito wrapped around my fingers and pulling tightly while I’m tamping it but I used the clamps to hold it here since I was holding the camera in one hand)

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Once this side is even and tight, turn it over again to the ura side. This time however instead of starting with the strand on the left, begin with the right strand.

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This is what is referred to as alternating ito. Notice that on that first set of folds, the top strand is diagonal going from right to left and the one on the bottom is going from left to right.

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Now flip the tsuka to the omote side and start with the right side again.

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Continue flipping the tsuka and alternating which side you start from.

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The omote side menuki is typically placed starting after the second or third diamond depending on the size of the piece or just personal preference. In this example I will start it within the third diamond since it is a long one. Some people like to hold it in place with rubber bands until it’s wrapped which is a good idea and works well. I usually use them too but I ran out so I just used a small piece of double sided tape.

You might find that some menuki have a tab on the back DSCF2386 - Copywhich will fit into a hole you drill in the surface of the samegawa to keep it in place. 

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Positioning the menuki can be very important depending on the design. You should make sure that prominent features such as faces or key elements should be seen through the wrap and not hidden underneath. Try out different positions before committing to one. You might also need to double up on the hishigami used while wrapping the menuki (as you can see in the above picture) if it’s thick and causes large gaps between the ito and samegawa. You want the folds of the ito to remain firm and have a proper shape.

A set of menuki often consists of two slightly different pieces in the same theme. One usually faces forward and one faces backward, at least those with faces that is. Other designs might have an obvious forward and backward facing alignment as well. In the case of this horse set, one horse is facing right and the other to the left

horse menuki

Notice that the pine tree menuki below are also facing two different directions

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The concept is that each one should be facing the fuchi on their respective sides of the tsuka. This is the preferred positioning but it also comes down to personal preference.

Continue wrapping the tsuka with the same alternating method and of course, keeping the folds tight and neatly shaped along the way.

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It can be tricky wrapping over the menuki so just be patient and keep practicing.

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After some more wrapping you will be ready to place the second menuki. It should be positioned approximately the same distance from the kashira as the first one was positioned from the fuchi.

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If you’ve been keeping the strands of ito within the pre-marked guidelines, the spacing should work out so the last folds wind up on the ura side.

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We are now at the last set of folds and the beginning of the final knots.

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You can apply some glue to help hold the ito strands at this point or just use your clamps since you will need both hands for the next steps.
Take two of your hishigami and cut each one in half so they look like the examples below. You can also glue these into place to make things easier.

With the kashira end up and the ura side facing you, take the end of the strand of ito on the right and feed it through the loop of thread on your mattress needle. Carefully push the tip of the needle under the center of the last set of folds making sure you do not penetrate the ito, you can use one of your tools to slightly lift the ito enough to get the needle through cleanly.
Gently pull the ito through but don’t pull it tight yet, leave a little slack.

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Now take the end of the ito from the left side, feed it through the loop on the needle and feed it between the slack from the last step and under the center of the same set of folds.

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Below you can see the strand coming from the right is in green while the left side is in red.

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You can start to pull the strand tighter but before you pull them all the way, pinch the portion of the strand coming from the right side where it will sit directly over the center of the set of folds. It helps to pinch it while pulling in the slack at the same time and then tuck the edges under with one of the tools to make it as narrow as possible.

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Then start to pull the strand coming from the left side while tucking in the edge closest to the center of the knot with the tip of a tool.

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When everything so far is tight and properly positioned, thread the end of the strand from the left side through the needle loop and feed it around the center of the knot and under the folds toward the left side.

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As you’re pulling in the slack, pinch the ito where it will sit against the center of the knot. You can use the tool to tuck in the edges above and below.

 

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Now feed the two strands of ito through the opening in the kashira and turn the tsuka around to the omote side to begin the final knot.
Keep the strands side by side and have then exit in the same position as they are inserted. To keep the strands from being too crowded in the center, slightly curl the outer edges upon exiting(depending on the width of your kashira opening). 

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Thread the ito strand on the right side and feed it under the first set of folds. 

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Then feed it over the center of the folds and to the left, then under the same set of folds exiting toward the fuchi end.

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While you’re pulling in the slack, pinch the strand where it will sit on the center of the folds. Use the tip of the tool to tuck in the edges to make it as narrow as possible. Place a little bit of glue very carefully under where this pinched portion will be. Wipe up any misplaced glue right away with a damp cloth.

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Very carefully clip the strand as close to the folds as possible making sure not to cut anything else while you do it. Now feed the strand on the left and feed it under the folds and pull it tight, taking up any slack, and then feed it around to the right side and under the folds back toward the kashira.

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While pulling in the slack, pinch the strand where it will sit near the center of the folds, using the tool to tuck the edges in.
Now cross the same strand to the left and feed it under the left side of the folds. While pulling in the slack, pinch the strand. Then very carefully clip off the extra ito and tuck it neatly under the folds so it’s not visible.

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Make sure everything is tucked in tightly and all the diamonds look neat. You can use a tool to straighten any crooked lines or fix any folds or edges. You should also check for any spots, especially around the end knots, that are looking a little flat and carefully use the pick tool to feed the small paper pieces underneath until you reach the desired result.

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If everything looks good and feels tight, then you’re done!

 

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As an option you can apply lacquer to the finished tsukamaki as shown in my Lacquering Ito tutorial. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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