Tanto

About

Tanto means "short blade" in Japanese, more or less. It's a type of long single edged dagger that was prevalent in feudal Japan. If you've watched a lot of samurai movies, you've probably seen one.

Anyway, they're often used in traditional (and traditional style) Japanese martial arts, where we practice with wooden replicas. I'd made one long ago when I was training regularly, out of bamboo. It was functional but far from beautiful and for years and years I've been wanting a nicer one, and also one that is more closely matched to my other weapons1.

Details

I happened to have a piece of wood that I thought would work pretty well... a scrap bar of figured maple that I previously cut a little bit off for my (failed) wax seal. It may be a tiny bit thinner than is optimal, and the grain is of course very very distinct from the hickory my bokken and jo were cut from. That said, it's nearly the same color, and I adore the nearly irridescent shimmer of the maple.

For the initial rough shaping, I sketched the mild curve, and the arc of the kissaki (the tip of the blade) onto the sides with a pencil, then used a combination of my finest saw and my chisels to remove the major excess.

Figured maple, also called curly maple, isn't quite as difficult to work with as purpleheart, but the "curly" part does mean that the grain isn't straight but wavy, so carving blades will frequently run into a sudden change in direction and catch. Occasionally, if you're not careful, this can lead to some tearout and I had at least one occasion where this happened and I couldn't fix it, a small divot right behind the very tip, where the wood should have been a smooth clean arc.

I continued the rough shaping much more efficiently with a brand new tool, a "shinto" rasp TODO URL, which removes a lot more material than even the roughest sand paper, albeit with perhaps a little less precision. I only rasped the skin off my hands a few times, however.

To approach the final shape I bought another new, inexpensive tool: a tiny thumb plane from Japan Woodwoorker TODO URL. This turned out to be one of the better $20 investments I've ever made. I was able to cleanly shave a surprising volume of wood with great control, and achieved a final form I was very happy with.

The blade edge on this tanto is rather sharper than most wooden weapons, but I hardly dangerous I don't think. In fact, I kind of feel like it's better to make it just fine enough that anyone grabbing it, or feeling it along their arm or ribs will think twice... a too-round edge doesn't have much to remind you that you're supposed to be treating even the wooden version as deadly. That said, I also expect it'll round out a bit over time due to contact with other tanto and general wear.

I polished it and made a few final refinements with sandpaper, eventually down to my ultra-fine 6000 grit, which leaves the surface almost glassy. The finish is 4 coats of tung oil, which is a very neutral color, but which brings out the shine and the contrast of this really pretty grain even further.

All in all I'm extremely happy with everything about this except for the inscription (my usual "kei" 敬)... I flubbed that a bit, and also put it on the wrong side of the blade2. Nothing much to be done about it now, alas.

Next step: get my ass in gear and return to actually practicing Aikido so this, not to mention my other weapons, can be more than just decoration.


1. I have gorgeous bokken and jo from Kingfisher Woodworks. They're made of American Hickory in a style that they don't offer anymore. I think they're two of the most beautiful objects I own.

2. Japanese swords are traditionally displayed with their tips pointed to the right. I've been told this is to indicate that they're not primed for violence, as it were. Because Japanese swords are weilded with the right hand, one would have to take the sword down and turn it around before it could be drawn and used. I don't know for certain that this is the real reason, nor if it applies to tanto, though I expect it does. At any rate, given that, any indicia should be on the left side of the blade if it's to be visible when the blade is at rest. On top of that, the 敬 inscription on my bokken is on the left side, and if nothing else, I ought to have tried to match that. I was being dumb.