By Eric Minck
At your own risk –
At least once, you should make a yawara stick for yourself. This is an excellent exercise that takes you from “what I can grab when I need it” to “what I can make of myself.” It should be obvious why this is a good journey that complements your training process and contributes to your overall progress. The important parts are your vision, design, and execution, and these must be completely up to you. Perhaps you could use a few tips on the details like materials, tools, and techniques. Having made a few sticks, I can confidently offer the following advice.
It is not necessary to fell a tree to make a stick, but most of us will look to a forest for some handy deadwood. It will usually turn out that much of this material is rotten, split, or otherwise unsuitable. The next likely move will be to consider lopping off a fresh branch. This is a good idea only if pruning is one of those chores you have been putting off. You do not want to work with unseasoned wood. If you have a brush pile, or your town recycling center does, go there with a small saw, and look through the older stuff piled higher off the ground. Do not choose any evergreen stock (pine, Xmas trees, etc.), and smell what you cut (some wood has lingering bad odors). Chances are that you will find a good prospect for a natural stick.
A much easier approach is to recycle some broken furniture. The spindles of chairs, beds, etc. will all be chosen from appropriate wood, wonderfully aged, and easy to examine for soundness. Wood from baby cribs is usually superb. Lesser quality woods are often used for legs and parts that do not show as much. Again, cut with a small saw. Furniture is often joined with drilled and glued dowels. Do not use anything that abuts a joint without checking for solid end grain. Try to pick a piece in which you can see your finished stick happening with the least amount of work.
It is quite possible that you will have a piece of fine wood that looks good, fits your hand, and already exhibits a nice finish. If so, find a section of fine-grained concrete or flat stone and draw the cut edges against it until smooth. If you have some sandpaper or a file, use that. End grain is relatively hard yet absorbent, and if supplies are short, you can finish tips with oil or even clear fingernail polish. After abusing them for a while in practice, you can always refinish them. You might even be able to find some rubber tips that fit snugly, which will save your bag and keep your sparring partners friendly. Put the saw back where it belongs. You’re done.
If things don’t work out quite so simply, you’ll need a knife. You want the shortest, strongest, and sharpest blade with a decent handle. Old-fashioned pocket knives work well. Paring knives are great, but ask the cook first. Do not attempt to use that Crocodile Dundee replica, or you might not have a hand to hold a stick with. Some sort of tight-fitting glove protection is essential, and make sure you know where the band-aides are.
If all you really need to do is to strip off bark or an old finish, use the knife as a scraper. Drag it along the piece at a slight angle. This is not an intuitive technique for the novice, and you will be amazed how well it works. Go with the grain, away from yourself, and be patient. In intricate areas, position the knife with one hand and push the appropriate curve of the tip with the thumb of your holding hand. Be careful of your fingers, and don’t put your face close to your work, no matter how hard it is to see. Feel what you’re doing. Think it as you do it. Don’t rush it, and don’t force it. If the blade gets dull, sharpen it. Should you notice that you’re breaking any of these rules – stop working and rest a bit.
If you need to remove substantial material by cutting, you should be doubly cautious. Do not try to do it all at once. Do it little by little, layer by layer. Take your time. If you are exerting yourself, you are risking yourself. Put the work down and wait until your self-control returns. Once you have the form roughed, use the blade as a scraper to smooth it off. If you get good at scraping, you will only need a small amount of sandpaper to finish the job.
You can, of course, use rasps and power tools to try to speed things up, but such disrespect usually violates the wood so much that it takes far longer to repair the damage. You can also use chemical strippers, but most of these are dangerous and raise the grain of wood like the hackles on the back of your neck react to a deep insult. It is better to use a hand saw, a sharp blade, and a little sandpaper. Trust your mind and hands to do the work, and give them the time to get it done right. Sharpen and wash the paring knife before returning it to the kitchen.
There is little reason to belabor finishing your stick, unless you intend to decorate it. Otherwise, a plain stick just needs an oil finish hand rubbed in. Linseed oil is good and tung oil is a bit better. (Oil on cedar never dries.) Certain woods, like oak, teak, and mahogany, are open grained. Professionals fill such grain to obtain a smooth lustrous finish. You will probably find that the slight roughness of an open grain wood improves your grasp.
If you wish to add a few runes or other symbols to your stick, Sharpie permanent markers offer the easiest way to do it. However, marker ink will diffuse along bare word grain. You will need to seal the wood first with varnish or polyurethane (not shellac). Water-based finishes are pretty good, despite what the die-hard solvent-lovers say, and they won’t stink up the home. If you plan to do some fine detailing, you may need a couple of sanded coats to work on. Of course you will need another two coats to protect your artwork. Once again, take your time, and always go with the grain.
It is rewarding to fashion something for your own use. It is also habit forming. Working up a yawara stick now and then is not a bad habit. After all your training efforts, you believe in sticks. Your spouse needs one. You have other family and friends that need one. You need several around, just in case. You keep noticing these discarded pieces of furniture, calling for help on their way to the landfill or incinerator. The good news is that even a huge collection of yawara sticks will fit in an ordinary cardboard box. Enjoy!