tsukamaki, hilt wrapping, Japanese swords

Tsukamaki Article from JSS/US

by David W. McDonald,
PO Box 265, Sidney MT 59270

1. The Tying Stand
2. The Wooden Core
3. Same Kawa
4. Building up a Tsuka
5. Ito
6. The Final Knot
7. Styles of Tsuka-maki
8. Cost of Tsuka-maki
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While viewing a Japanese sword, it is often the beautiful and very impressive blades that we remember best. We usually recognize that along with the swordsmith, there was the polisher, the saya maker, the lacquerer, the tsuba maker, and the many artists who make each of the other metal fittings. But we sometimes forget that it is the hilt wrapper who completes the sword. Tsukamaki is the art of wrapping a silk braid (tsukaito or simply ito) around the hilt of the Japanese sword. And it is this task that completes the creation of the art of the Japanese sword.

When examining the finished hilt (tsuka), it is clear that the wrapped hilt is an art work consisting of several basic parts. First there is the core of the tsuka, usually of ho, a type of magnolia wood. This must be split and inlet to accept the shape of the tang (nakago). After being glued back together, the tsuka is covered with the skin of a ray (same kawa). This can be done in two ways: either with two panels covering only the visible areas, or with a sheet that completely wraps around the tsuka. Next, thin strips of wood are placed along the upper and lower edges of the tsuka. The wooden strips determine the shape of the tsuka, and also act as a bridge for the ito to stretch over the same kawa without catching on the rough nodes of the skin. Beginning the wrap is called maki-dashi, and the actual wrapping of the tsuka begins with the center of the length of ito placed flat on the front (omote) side of the tsuka, just behind the collar (fuchi). The work then proceeds down the length toward the butt end of the hilt with the two half lengths of ito intertwining and crisscrossing. The goal of wrapping is to prevent the ito on the hilt from being totally unraveled when one portion is cut.

As the ito is wrapped and twisted around the tsuka, paper triangles (hishi-gami) are placed on the same kawa, under the ito, with the bases of the triangles next to the wood strips. These triangles help to define the diamond-shaped openings commonly found on a hilt, through which the same kawa and hilt ornaments (menuki) can be seen. These hishi-gami also build up the hilt to an appropriate shape for practical use. When the entire length of the hilt has been wrapped, a knot is tied, bringing together and locking the ends of the single piece of braid. The knot often holds the pommel (kashira or tsuka-gashira) in place, as well.

This explanation of the task of the hilt wrapper (tsukamaki-shi) presents only one of a wide range of possibilities. As most collectors know, the Japanese sword may well be the source of the axiom, "for every rule there is an exception". Indeed, the variety of tsuka wrapping styles shows the individuality of the artists. Just as there have been over 30,000 swordsmiths, there have been thousands of tsukamaki-shi and each one completes a tsuka in a slightly different way.

The tsuka's core is always of wood. At every step beyond the wooden core, however, variations appear, and each tsukamaki- shi works in his own individual style. Instead of the noduled same kawa of ray skin, the tsuka may be covered with shark skin, brocaded silk cloth, cloisonn´┐Ż, inlaid abalone, lacquered wood, or even metal made to look like same kawa. The tsuka is usually wrapped in strong, flat silk ito, but many other materials have been used: snake skin, lacquered paper, string wrap or cord, and leather are not uncommon. Sometimes same kawa is used alone without the usual silk wrap. In this case the menuki are attached to the outside of the hilt in a style called hari-menuki.

When ito is used, it comes in several colors. Typically the World War II military tsukas were wrapped in browns or greens. More traditional tsukas were wrapped in black or other dark colors. The tachi were commonly wrapped in white, gold or some other color, and even patterned ito can be found.

The actual design and twisting of the wrap on any given hilt probably fit into one of the more than seventy recorded styles. Although there are a great many styles of wrapping, some of the common or more popular styles are tsumami-maki, katate-maki, hira-maki, jabara-maki, and kumiage-maki. Illustrations of these types of wrapping are reproduced here from the magazine Bushido, January, 1980.

The final step in wrapping a tsuka involves tying two knots, one on each side of the tsuka, to anchor the ends of the ito. There are several different ways this is accomplished, and the end knots involve some illusion and even more glue.

My interest and activity in tsukamaki came about somewhat gradually. In 1980 I started training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and was quickly attracted to the use of the wooden practice blade (bokken). I soon discovered what a live blade was, and almost immediately became a Japanese sword collector. Whether out of curiosity or because the wrap on many swords has not survived the forty plus years since they were last in Japan, I, like most everyone who has been collecting swords for some length of time, developed the penchant for unwrapping hilts.

Almost from the beginning, my attempts at tsukamaki have straddled the fine edge between repair and restoration. Initially I sought only to repair. However even in Japan the wooden core of the tsuka needed to be replaced periodically, with the wrap replaced every year on a sword that was actively used. I began to understand the need to replace the old ito and wooden core in order to restore the entire sword to its more impressive, intact form.

I started learning about tsukamaki by examining every hilt I came across. My first attempts at tsukamaki involved carefully untying frayed knots, pulling, tugging, and making multiple diagrams, and then finally rewrapping with old ito. I even saved the old hishi-gami found under the wrap and tried to reuse them. Next I began to frequent the fabric stores, searching for a suitable substitute to the old cord. I tried an unusual assortment of items, but the most memorable must be parachute cord with the center stripped out. My early attempts were frustrated by a lack of both information and supplies.

Then in 1982 I discovered an article in the Bujin on tsukamaki which provided my first printed information on wrapping, tying the knot, and on the folding of the elusive paper triangles. By 1983 I was eagerly collecting swords and attended the shinsa, a sword judging, in Albuquerque. I began to see what I had gotten myself into when I casually took up sword collecting.

It was in 1984, when I attended the Token Taikai in Chicago, that I first encountered the true art of tsukamaki. I participated in two classes at the TTK. In the shirasaya class I discovered that large pieces of wood do not cooperate with me. Nevertheless, I did learn some very good lessons that proved useful in tsukamaki. Next, the tsukamaki class gave me a solid base of information and technique, and I acquired some of the specialized tools. The seminar was presented by Mr. Takahiro Ichinose, whom I met again along with his father, Takao Ichinose, when I traveled to Japan in 1985. It was Ichinose sensei who taught me a family secret to the triangles. Now, I no longer need to use paper egg cartons, or worse yet, reuse the triangles salvaged from other hilts. A very nice report on the Ichinose family of handle wrappers appears in the January, 1980 issue of Bushido.

Mr. Takao Ichinose, is the senior member of the family and lives in Matsudo City, in Chiba prefecture. He learned the wrapping techniques from his father, Kojiro Ichinose, and from Mr. Kyoichi Shimada, who was the first tsukaichi. Mr. Takao Ichinose is now the second tsukaichi. In 1936, 1937, and 1938 he won the Gold Medal Award at the hilt wrapping contest at the Japanese Sword Exposition sponsored by the Department of Education. Then at the age of twenty-six he wrapped the hilt on Emperor Hirohito's Imperial Marshall sword.

Mr. Takao Ichinose has three sons, Takahiro, Tateki, and Tanetada. He taught each of his sons, and each now has from twenty to thirty years of experience in the tsukamaki profession. Often the three sons work together at the first son's home in Itabashi, Tokyo, where I was able to visit with Mr. Takahiro Ichinose. I was shown a most impressive display of the more than seventy different types of wrapping that the family can do. A few were the familiar and popular styles, while many were the special or unusual wraps. Some very old styles, and a number of archaic forms were included.

The senior Ichinose, Takao, is now in semi-retirement. Mr. Takahiro Ichinose is still actively wrapping hilts on orders that come from all over Japan. Many are from sword dealers repairing or restoring their blades for sale. I spent a most enjoyable day "talking" with and learning from both of them. I was pleased to have a friend who was interested in martial arts and Japanese swords to act as translator. Together I think we had a very educational day.

My trip to Japan gave me the necessary encouragement to continue my attempts at tsukamaki. However I still needed to acquire one major piece of equipment, a tying stand, . Without a tying stand the task of tsukamaki is awkward and difficult and the wrap will not be as tight as it should be. This problem was solved when Mr. Joseph Bowers, a friend from Michigan who also participated in the tsukamaki class, made a stand for me based on pictures and measurements taken at the TTK 1984.
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The tying stand acts as a third hand. A short piece of metal in the shape of a nakago serves as a substitute sword to hold the wooden core of the tsuka as it is being wrapped. Without a nakago in the core it could collapse as the cord is tightly wound around the tsuka. The substitute nakago is anchored toward the distal end where the blade would normally be but the nakago is able to pivot and turn. Thanks to this feature, once the ito is pulled down and anchored, the entire tsuka can be turned to its other side. A moveable brace supports the tsuka and serves as a fulcrum for the lever action used to tightly pull the ito around the tsuka.
Image of my Tying stand.

Other very important tools for wrapping include a pair of channel lock pliers that I modified to match pliers which Mr. Ichinose used at the TTK 1984. They allow me to work with only two hands and not the prerequisite three or more. The pliers help hold the ito to both the upper and lower edge of the wood core and let me stretch the ito even tighter before continuing the wrap on the other side. And when I need to pause in the wrapping process the expanded jaws are clamped onto the hilt, holding both sides of the ito taut and in place.

Also in my search for tools I have acquired a wide variety of saws, files, chisels, and planes. Woodline--The Japan Woodworker in Alameda, California has been a very good source of tools imported from Japan. Many of their tools are ideally suited to tsukamaki work. And their catalog is both fun and enlightening reading.


When I prepare to wrap a tsuka I need to determine the intended use for the blade. If a blade will be only for show the old wooden core can be repaired. But if a sword is to be used for practicing some form of swordsmanship, the old wooden core will need to be replaced. Sometimes the wood has dried and cracked. Other times the tsuka was not the one originally fitted to the nakago and is simply one that happened to fit. A new wooden core that fits precisely to the nakago is needed.

In general when I carve a new wooden core for a blade that will be used, I inlet for the nakago and make the tsuka extend no more than one and one half inches beyond the end of the nakago. An article by Tim Reed on the physics and forces involved in using a live blade appears in the December, 1984 Newsletter of the Japanese Sword Club of Southern California, and explains why this is a good rule.

I sometimes replace the wooden core of a hilt for a sword that will not be used in practice. Rarely can an old tsuka core be used because of the tremendous compressive action by the ito as it is wrapped around the tsuka. The new ito tends to compress the old wood even on the substitute nakago. This contraction can be enough to prevent it from fitting back on the blade. Therefore, when an old core is to be reused, the tsuka needs to be slid onto its blade periodically during the wrapping process to be certain that it will still fit after the final knot is tied.
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Once the wooden core is made, the same kawa is selected. Over twenty different kinds of same kawa and several grades of quality are listed in the text of The Sword and Same. There is even some question outside of Japan as to what same kawa really is. Most often it is translated as the "skin of a ray". Most non-Japanese refer to same kawa as simply same, which in Japanese means shark.

If a single sheet of same kawa is used, the seam is placed down the center of the ura side or overlapped along the top edge. The characteristic large nodules appear on the omote side. Because of these large nodules, good same kawa for only one tsuka can be cut from each sheet. Occasionally panels of same kawa are used instead of an entire sheet around the tsuka. However, this generally does not provide sufficient strength for a tsuka that will be used in practice. For a practice blade I recommend a sheet of same kawa around the tsuka. The same kawa is bonded to the tsuka with a base of rice paper and rice glue.


Thin wooden shims are glued along the upper and lower edges of the tsuka. These shims define the shape of the tsuka and serve as a place to mark the spacing of the ito and the resulting diamonds. The standard width of ito is seven millimeters wide and the diamond units are therefore fourteen millimeters wide. The actual spacing of the diamonds depends on the length of the tsuka. And since half a diamond is not an option, the ito may need to be expanded to form larger diamonds, or, more likely, compressed to provide smaller diamonds. Mr. Takahiro Ichinose has a specialized tool that allows him to calculate and mark the spacing of the ito in a single step. I must rely on a much slower method.


The seven-millimeter-wide ito is typically used for katana and wakizashi and a narrower five millimeter width is used on tanto. There is some variation in the quality of the silk ito available here in the States. Some of it is probably a silk blend.

I have learned three different methods to determine the length of ito needed to wrap a tsuka. The first method is "A fist is a fathom". Using this method, a katana hilt that is two and a half fists long (with the hands touching) will use fifteen feet of ito. Generally this method results in a foot or more of waste after the knot is finished, although this does make the knot tying much easier.

The second method is "1 shaku = 15 shaku, one shaku is equal to 11.93 inches. Basically this is a 1 to 15 ratio. A tsuka that is .8 shaku long requires 12 shaku of ito. Or a tsuka that is eight inches long requires 120 inches or 10 feet of wrap.

The third method, taught by Mr. Takahiro Ichinose, involves winding the wrap along the length of the tsuka in one direction and then back eleven times for a katana, nine times for a wakizashi, or seven times for a tanto. This is naturally a very reliable method. A beginner should allow a bit more length to be certain to have enough to tie the knot. My wrap is not as tight as Mr. Ichinose's and as a result I use between five and ten percent more wrap than he would.

I have worked on some of the more popular styles, but I prefer to wrap in the one style (tsumami maki) that I have been taught by Mr. Takahiro Ichinose, making variations on the knots determined by the kashira used.
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There are an infinite variety of ways to finish the wrapping. The ito usually forms a knot on one side, and then either goes over or through the kashira to form another final knot on the other side. This process is called maki-dome. Mr. John Grimmitt has a very useful pamphlet, "How To Do It-Home Projects", which includes diagrams of methods to tie the final knot. Almost every knot I examine is different. Although the final appearance may seem the same each time, the actual technique can be quite different. I have even found false knots glued into place.

Just as each knot represents an individual's choice of how to finish a tsuka, each tsuka represents an individual artisan's choice of how to complete the entire sword. So the next time you look at a sword, examine the blade, but take some additional time to consider the tsukamaki. Tsukamaki is a determing factor in its value as a weapon, and it is essential to the completion of the sword as a work of art. Tsukamaki is definitely one of the arts of the Japanese Sword.

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Hineri maki -- a basic style - both strands of ito twisted and folded at crossover. Like a WWII Army Officers' shin-gunto type, using gold or brown ito.

Katate maki -- battle type - one strand of ito wrapped around in middle of tsuka and both strands of ito twisted and folded at crossover, at each end of the tsuka. Like WWII late-1944 pattern Army Officers' shin-gunto or Marine type tsuka, using brown ito.

Tsumami maki -- fancy type - both strands of ito pinched at crossover. Many colors of ito used.

Katahineri maki -- alternate fancy type - top strand of ito pinched at crossover bottom strand twisted at crossover.

Han-dachi Zuka - alternate fancy type - both strands of ito pinched at crossover as in Tsumami maki, but the ito goes through a hole in kashira into the wood core.

Hira maki - old type tachi - both strands of ito remain flat with no twist or pinch like WW II Navel officers' kai-gunto. The kai-gunto used a dark brown ito. A tachi used many colors.

Tachi Tsukagashira Kake maki - tachi - both strands of ito remain flat with no twist pr pinch, ito twisted at kashira. Many colors of ito used.

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The following are my costs to wrap the hilt of your sword.

Contact me at jswords@mcn.net Tsuka maki - Hilt wrapping
Katana - $200
Wakizashi - $185
Tanto - $ 160
add $50 for Tsumami maki and other special wraps

Making a new wooden core
Katana - $ 200
Wakizashi - $165
Tanto - $145

Restoration of older tsuka or shaping and replacement of missing wood up to $150.

Same - ray skin - cost of skin $150 and up.

Samegise - installing skin on wooden core. Full wrap $80, Panels $50.

Cost of shipping and insurance back to you.

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The Arts of the Japanese Sword by B. W. Robinson, Faber and Faber, Boston, 1970 pg 66-67
The Bujin, editor F. J. Lovret ISSN 0195-3745
Bushido--An International Journal of Japanese Arms, Volume 1, Number 3, January, 1980 pg 19-22
A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor by George Cameron Stone, Jack Brussel, New York 1961
The Japanese Sword Club of Southern California Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 12, December, 1984 "Tsuka Design of Active Nihon-to" by Tim Reed
Japanese Sword Society of the United States (JSS/US) Newsletter, Volume 16, Number 3, May-June, 1984 pg 7
The Samurai Sword Collectors "How to Do It--Home Projects" by John Grimmitt, Oriental and Ancient Arts, 839 East San Bernardino Road, Covina, CA 91723
The Sword and Same by Henri L. Joly and Inada Hogitaro, Holland Press, London, 1962
Woodline--The Japan Woodworker, 1731 Clement Avenue, Alameda, CA 94501

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