Feature Article - 1st Quarter, 1997


By IKKF President C. Bruce Heilman

As a practitioner of a traditional Okinawan art that places a significant emphasis on weapons training, I have been asked numerous times how to select, and care for one's weapons. This article will attempt to briefly address what I refer to as the ..."care and feeding of your weapons".


Weapon Size:

The first issue to be considered when starting weapons training is the selection of the correct size for the weapon. Although, as our skills develop, one should be able to work around size differences, it is recommended that beginners give serious consideration to the correct sizing of the weapon in question. An adequately sized weapon makes the world of difference for the student in learning how to safely manipulate the weapon. For the purposes of this discussion, we can divide the various traditional Okinawan weapons into three groups:

o long range weapons,
o medium range weapons, and
o short range weapons.

The long range weapons include such items as the Bo, Yari, Nunte Bo, Eiku, etc. For an average size adult, a size of six (6) feet or longer is the standard for the Bo. Taller practitioners may require a longer Bo in the range of 6 1/2 feet to 7 ft. Children or smaller adults may need to look at a 5 to 5 1/2 foot weapon length. The Eiku (boat oar) typically has a length of a little over 5 1/2 feet (67 inches), although a 6 foot length can work better for the taller (over 6 ft.) practitioner. The Yari and the Nunte Bo will typically be of longer length. Eight foot length (end to end) is standard for the Nunte Bo, and the Yari Bo can run from 8 - 10 feet in total length. Generally is better to have the long range weapons a little longer that shorter.

The diameter of the long range weapons is also of importance. One can not seem to attend a tournament today without seeing a proliferation of what I call "tooth pick bos" being used. Everyone seems to be trying to use the lightest weapon possible to increase their speed. While their speed may have increased, these practitioners are really missing the point -- the Bos are supposed to be "weapons" and as such should be of such size and weight as to be practical in an actual defense situation. It doesn't matter how fast your "tooth pick" bo is if you hit something and it breaks!! So in choosing your weapon find a weight and diameter that works well with your body.

Traditionally Okinawan Bos come in two types: the Kata Bo and the Kumi Bo. The Kata Bo typically has a diameter in the range of 1 1/8 inch, with the Kumi Bo diameter around 1 1/4 inches. The key here is that it needs to fit your hand size. If you are a smaller person, you may need to have a slightly smaller diameter to have the bo work well with your body type.

The medium range weapons include the: Tunfa, Sai, Nunte Sai, Nunchaku, Kama, and Tinbe / Rochin. With the medium range weapons with the exception of the Tinbe / Rochin that are a single standard size, the correct sizes for the Tunfa, Sai, Nunchaku and Kama relate the length of the forearm of the user. In short, one should remember that the weapons should be of sufficient length to protect the body. Also, the sizing of the handle or grip is also of importance and one of the most significant differences between the quality weapons such as Shureido or the new KEMCO line verses the mass produced lower cost "one-size design" weapons widely available. In the case of the Tunfa, it is critical that the handle (grip) fit the hand with very little extra room. In this way, by slightly tightening your grip one can establish control over the blade portion of the weapon. Typical "mass-produced" Tunfa are made to one size -- "big" and the blade is just cut to the desired length (19 3/4 to 21 1/4 inches long), the handle size being unchanged. This type of weapon results in poor balance and a sloppy grip that can cause injury to the user.

The Sai has similar sizing considerations in that the blade should be long enough to cover the forearm (typically 16 1/2 inches to 22 1/2 inches long) while the grip only long enough to fit the user's hand. Nunchaku should range from 12 to 15 inches. The handles for the Kama typically will range from 13 - 16 inches in length. The last weapon in this group is the Nunte Sai (also know as the manji sai). Unlike many of such weapons one can see advertised in various martial arts supply catalogues, the inverted prongs of this weapon should not be centered in the middle of the blade. The prongs are actually offset (similar to the design of the Sai) so that one can have full coverage of the forearm and be able to flip out the weapon (open blade position) for fighting.

The short range weapons include such items as the wooden or metal Tekkos (claws). There are a variety of designs for this hand held weapon, but in all cases they should be sized to comfortably fit the user's hand size.

Wood Selections For Weapons:

Probably the most popular type of wood for the quality traditional wooden Okinawan weapon has been Red Oak. Red Oak is a heavy wood from Japan with great shock resistance combined with a lively feel. However, Red Oak is not the only type of wood suitable for weapon use. Today, the traditional weapons practitioner can find quality weapons in Ash, Hickory, Purpleheart and White Oak as well. Each type of wood offers advantages and disadvantages for the seasoned practitioner.

The Ash is a hardwood that possesses great strength with a light weight. An interesting aspect of the use of Ash for Tunfa as an example is that the weapon can be made with a thicker blade (due to its lighter weight), thus giving one an excellent weapon for kumi tunfa applications (actual fighting with the weapon or bo vs tunfa drills). Its downside is that it tends not to take a stain well.

Hickory is an excellent wood choice for weapons as it is one of the most shock resistant woods and of medium to heavy weight. Purpleheart is an exotic wood from South America that is not only hard and heavy, but finishes up with a unique color of deep purple -- it looks great!!

The White Oak makes a good practice kata weapon, but it tends to not be as shock resistant as the other woods, and thus not recommended for contact activities.

What type of wood is the best for you? For the seasoned practitioner, this may be a moot question as one might have a variety of each weapon type. The most obvious difference between the wood types is their aesthetic appearance. The Red Oak and the Purpleheart woods make fantastic looking weapons if properly finished. If one is looking for durability in a practice weapon subject to a lot of impacts then the Ash is a great choice. Basically for myself, I tend to go toward the heavier woods and look for a weapon of medium to heavy weight with a lively feel. I generally have two groups of weights for each weapon; a heavy weight for practice and a medium weight for pure kata work. Using a heavy weight weapon for practice really helps build endurance. In short, the choice is really a personal one, the key being to get a weapon that feels right for you.


For starters, it is appropriate to divide the weapons into two major types: the wooden weapons and the metal weapons. As the wooden weapons make up the majority of the weapons of Okinawan Kobudo, they will be addressed first.

Wooden Weapons:

In general, it is assumed that we will be dealing with the "high quality" brand wooden weapons, however the comments made here would also be appropriate for other makes. Besides from the different design considerations between the "traditional weapons" and the "generic weapons", another difference is that the traditional weapons typically come to you unfinished. Thus, the first step in caring for your weapons is to sand them down. It is recommended that you purchase various grades of sand paper typical starting with 100 grain and moving up through 150, 200, 250 & 300 grain papers. With generic weapons you may find your weapon finished with a lacquer or varnish covering, which should be removed by sanding. In this case you would want to start with the more course grain sandpaper and work up the finer grain.

If your weapons are in good shape to start with you may want to start with the mid-range papers. In sanding your wooded weapons, it is important to rotate the weapon and to vary the length of the stroke -- so that you will not modify the diameter of the weapon by creating a "flat spot".

Sanding has an additional aspect, in that it provides you the opportunity to adjust the diameter or balance of the wooden weapons to directly fit your desires. The traditional weapons are all hand made, and thus may vary significantly from weapon to weapon. If you desire to reduce the diameter of your Bo, make sure you maintain the "tapered" aspect to your weapon. Adjusting the balance of a weapon is also in important consideration to get just the right "feel". This is most important with weapons such as the bo, Nunte Bo, Yari bo, etc. With the bo, hold the weapon in one hand and find the center of balance. Compare it to the dimensional center to see how much of an adjustment you will have to make. Note that wood is not always of the same density and you may have to "thin out" one end of the bo to get it into balance. When the actual balance center is the same as the measured center, they you have a great feeling weapon.

Once you are satisfied with the sanding job, it is not time to prepare the wood for the hand finishing. First, you need to wipe off all of the wood dust, etc. from the weapon. You can use a damp cloth for this effort, then let the weapon dry.

At this point in the process, you have two choices for finishing your wooden weapons - Linseed Oil (boiled not raw), Danish Oil or Tung Oil. All of these methods to finish your weapons are acceptable and it is just a matter of personal choice. In any case, the hand finishing procedure is the same. Take a soft cloth and pouring some of the oil on the cloth, wipe it over the weapon. You may need to do this a couple of times so as to completely cover the weapon and make sure that the oil soaks into the wood. Let the oil sit on the weapon for 5-10 minutes for each application, then wipe off any excess and let the weapons dry overnight. For those of you with a little more time on your hands who desire to really "finish" your bo, you may wish to "burnish" the weapon using a small piece of hard wood such as walnut, using it to run down the finish into the wood and ending up with a glass like hand finish.

Once your wooden weapons have been finished, you need to look a how to maintain them. First, it is recommended that you secure a weapons bag for the weapon. This bag will protect the wooded weapon and also help to keep dirt and oils off of it. It will also be necessary to periodically re-oil your weapon until you have built up enough oil inside the wood to keep it moist. If your weapon sits our for an extended period of time and it begins to feel like the pours are open (rough), then you will want to sand it down with a fine grain sandpaper, prior to oiling the weapon again.

Also after extended use it is a good idea to wipe down your weapon with a soft cloth prior to placing it back into the weapons bag for storage. This will help remove any deposition of oils from your hand which tend to make the weapons feel sticky. If your weapons starts to feel sticky, then just wipe it down with some steel wool to eliminate the hand oil buildup.

When it comes time to store the weapon such as a bo, I recommend you hand the weapon vertically. This can easily be accomplished by placing a hook at the top of the wall and just hooking your bo bag over the end. By hanging vertically it will help minimize the bowing effects that can occur when you lean the weapon up on an angle against the wall. A bo rack, either free standing or permanent, which also permits the bos to be stored in a vertical position also works well.

With a little effort and time on your part you can assure a long and useful life for your traditional Okinawan wooden weapons.

Metal Weapons:

With respect to the metal weapons such as the Sai, Kama, metal Tekkos, etc., there are a few suggestions to keep in mind to help prolong their life and appearance.

First, a weapons bag is also suggested for each of the weapons to provide protection against nicks and moisture. Try to store your weapons in a dry area, and if the get wet, wipe them down prior to putting them away. For the most part there is very little work required to the metal part of the traditional weapons. The major area of maintenance with the metal weapons such as the Sai tends to be with the wraps for the grips. The traditional Sai's come through with a cord hand wrap which is recommended over the typical "tennis grips" found on most of the generic versions.

It is important to keep the grips well maintained and secure. If you have a problem with the grip, then you should take the time to re-grip the weapon. You can use cord or leather for the regripping. If you have never done a regripping, then it is recommended that you make sure to observe how the original grip was done prior to removing it in its entirety. Doing a regripping is not hard, but it does take a little practice to get the trick of it. Once secured, you may wish to use a little glue to secure the ends. Note that the thicker the cord or leather used, then the larger will be the diameter of the handle - so use what gives you the best fit for your hand size.

Adjusting the grip size diameter can be a very significant issue with the metal Tekkos. As the metal Tekkos tend to come is one-size-fits-all variety, you may need to adjust the grip diameter by adjusting the type of material used for the grip. The key with the metal Tekkos is that the weapons should not have so much play in your hand that the "claw" part of the weapon overrides your hand. If this is the case then you can just increase the diameter of the grip to suit your needs.


Another important consideration is how to best transport your weapons, especially if you do a lot of long distance travel which requires you to use public transportation (busses, trains & planes). First and foremost you must recognize that your weapons will be out of your hands and in someone's else's, and that they may not take the same gentile care of them as you would. Thus, you should make sure that your weapons are packed in a safe container that can stand up to some rough handling -- just in case.

What I typically recommend is to place each of your weapons in their various weapons bags. This will keep them from banging into each other and getting nicked, etc. Next purchase a sturdy "gym bag" and place your hand weapons in this bag. You may wish to place some additional padding on the inside of the bag to add additional protection for the weapons. Another alternative is to purchase a piece of "briefcase type" luggage with multiple compartments for storage of your weapon. You can do this by sewing Velcro straps into the pockets to secure the various weapons. This second option makes a lot of sense if you do a lot of airline travel as the shoulder strap makes it easy to carry.

With respect to the longer length weapons such as the bo, nunte bo, ekiu, etc. it is suggested that in addition to their individual weapons bags that you use some form of hard impact resistant container for transport. For airplane travelers, just putting your bos in a bo bag and putting a name tag on it is not the best of ideas, as I have known individuals who picked their bo up at their destination and found them to be broken, or otherwise damaged. A very inexpensive alternative is to visit your local rug store and ask f if you can have (or purchase) a couple of the hard cardboard tubes that are used to roll the rugs on. By placing your weapons in the cardboard tubes and duck taping the ends - you have a flight safe transport container. A more permanent alternative is to construct a transport container out of PVC material with end caps. One end is permanently secured (glued) to the end and the other can be removed for access. If you use the heavier material such as used for sewer pipe, you can purchase screw on end caps that work very well. However, this thickness of material combined with a few weapons can get heave. As an alternative, we have used a somewhat lighter grade of PVC and secure the top with Velcro retainers. You can also design a locking mechanism by simply using plastic "wire bundle ties" which you just cut off when you are at your destination. You can also include a shoulder strap on the container which makes carrying the tube easy.

As I trust you see from the above suggestions, with a little bit of time and effort on your part, you can customize and maintain the quality of your weapons - so have fun!!

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