Tsukamaki literally means wrapping the handle of a katana Tsuka(ska) = handle and maki(maak-ee) = to wrap. What this seemingly simple definition translates into in the hands of resourceful and talented Japanese craftsmen is anything but. Just like every other aspect of crafting a Japanese katana, the art of tsukamaki incorporates multiple elements of both functional and aesthetic qualities to produce one of the most intricate yet sensible and functional sword hilts ever known.
Traditionally, the basic finished tsuka consists of multiple layers of strength and safety. It starts with a wood core carved precisely to fit the nakago (tang) of the individual blade. Placed over this core is either a fully enveloping piece of samegawa (stingray skin) or panels placed on either side. The surface of the samegawa is as hard as teeth and the nodes help grip the ito to hold it in place. When soaked in water and then dried, a full wrap of samegawa constricts around the core to add superior strength and resistance to moisture. These elements are then tightly wrapped in very tough ito (cord), typically silk over wadded paper known as hishigami so that everything is secure and aesthetically pleasing. In addition to securing the underlying core, the tsukamki is done in such a way so that it becomes very difficult to unravel and also provides an excellent grip, even if your hands are wet.
Even after all the ages since the tsuka’s conception, very little, if anything, has been done to improve upon it’s design. The tsuka is possibly the best sword hilt ever conceived and constructed as far as functionality is concerned but also provides a lot of room for individual creativity and artistic flair. From style to color to accessories, tsukamaki offers a wonderful platform for the sword owner’s unique vision, and helps their katana really stand out from the crowd.
Information about my services
I would really love if all tsuka were the same as far as condition and quality and uniformity but unfortunately, this is not the case with many modern, mass produced katana. Some will require more preparation to be able to do tsukamaki properly than others and some might even require repairs before any other work is done, while a few won’t be suitable for use regardless of an attempt to repair it. Such is the price we pay for affordable swords.
While I have set prices for tsukamaki, these can still change due to any extra amount of work your particular tsuka may require. I will let you know what my suggestions and recommendations are and what, if any, the additional fees will be before I start any work. I do ask that you carefully inspect your tsuka prior to shipping it to me so you are aware of at least what is visible at the time. Some flaws are hidden under the existing wrap and will be difficult to see.
For every tsuka I wrap, I remove the existing ito and discard since it is essentially not re-usable(unless otherwise requested), fully inspect the core checking for any flaws, and remove existing sticky tape/glue(used on many Chinese made tsuka). I also make light adjustments to ensure aesthetic flow of fittings and new ito, add shims to provide both traction for the ito and to provide a better shape, and I will adjust the total length of the core so the end knots are positioned on the correct sides (by request).
I always use quality handmade hishigami for my tsukamki regardless of ito material. My tsukamaki price includes premium tsuka- ito of your choice.
Sample of before and after
On this tsuka the tsukamaki was very loose, it was poorly shaped, the diamonds were sloppy, the ito was not flush with the fittings, and the end knots are on the wrong sides.
Underneath the ito
I have made adjustments to align the ito with the rims of the fittings, reshape the core, the wrap is very tight, the diamonds are neat and even, and the end knots are now on the correct sides.
I offer some extra services (when applicable) for an additional fee including: adding a full wrap of samegawa, new samegawa panels, lacquering or dying samegawa, lacquering ito, additional shaping, and adjusting for new fittings. I will discuss with you if any of these options would be appropriate for your particular tsuka.
Lacquering the ito will add stiffness and durability to silk, cotton, or nubuck and is recommended for tsuka that see heavy use. It will also darken the color a couple of shades. I usually apply just enough so the ito is stiff but still maintains the feel of the material on the surface i.e. silk will still feel like silk and so on. I can however apply a larger amount so the surface feels similar to plastic for those who want more of a “tactical” feel and function.
There are certain manufacturers that produce tsuka that are more difficult to transform since their tsuka are often very large and thick and have very little curve or shape to them. Adding different fittings to tsuka like these can be a challenge since standard available fittings from most suppliers do not fit the core properly and are considerably smaller. Take a look at the example below. This tsuka is from a popular Hanwei katana model and the fuchi is from a well known and widely used repro supplier and represents an average size for modern tsuka
You can see here that the tsuka is much too wide for the fuchi
The above picture is after I’ve carved a lot of wood from the top of the core so that the fuchi sits where it should. You might also notice that if I just add ito at this point it would not sit flush with the rim of the fuchi but would instead sit well above. making it look awkward. I now have to remove a large amount of material from the entire length of both edges of the core to even out the lines between fuchi and kashira.
In the above picture it’s obvious that not only is the core too wide for the fuchi but also much too thick. Altering a core this large to fit standard fittings takes a lot of extra work and while it’s possible, I have to charge more for a project like this. Please be aware that extreme shaping or thinning cannot be done on all tsuka. Some tsuka just don’t have enough material between the surface and the nakago to begin with and removing too much wood can negatively effect the structural integrity of the core. I will inspect the tsuka and discuss the possibilities with you before any work is done or final prices are given.
The tsuka is now reshaped for new fittings and with new tsukamaki
Whether the end knots come out on the correct sides of the tsuka is not completely in my control, at least not without altering the tsuka core. This means that the width of the particular ito used is what will determine the required overall length of the core needed for this to work. Many times when adding new/different ito, the tsuka core will need to be shortened by up to a 1/4″ to allow the correct positioning of the knots. I will not do this unless requested or approved by you first. Most often, this is easy for me to do but sometimes, depending on the condition and construction of the core and the length of the nakago, this may not be possible. Having the end knots on the incorrect sides is purely aesthetic and will not effect function.
Applying new ito can also often result in the mekugi-ana being covered and I cannot control this at all, or at least not without it distorting the shape of the diamonds. My tsukamaki is very tight but it will still be possible to push a section out of the way enough to insert your mekugi when mounting the tsuka, though you might need to use a tool to assist you.
Please contact me for available options, materials, and prices