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Tsukamaki - The Hilt of Japanese Swords

Tsukamaki is the art of wrapping a silk braid (tsukaito or simply ito) around the hilt 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.

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.

Hineri maki -

a basic style - both strands of ito twisted and folded at crossover like WW II Army officers' shin-gunto type, using gold or brown

Katate maki -

battle type - one strand of ito wrapped around in middle and both strands of ito twisted and folded at crossover, at each end of tsuka like WW II late-1944 pattern Army officers' shin-gunto or Marine, using brown

Tsumami maki -

fancy type - both strands of ito pinched at crossover

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, ito goes through hole in wooden core

Hira maki -

old type tachi - both strands of ito remain flat with no twist or pinch like WW II Naval officers' kai-gunto, using dark brown

Tachi Tsukagashira Kake maki - tachi -

both strands of ito remain flat with no twist or pinch, ito twisted at kashira