Since around 2018 we began experimenting with Tsukamaki style handle wraps. There is nothing immediately special about this, as its a common way to finish a handle in the EDC knife world, and for many makers its often quite a lot easier (and much less messy) than making scaled handles.
So while the “Jap Wrap” is not all together uncommon, why is our Tsukamaki handle so special?
It has taken years to develop. From a rudimentary beginning we quickly wanted to expand on the idea of a simple cord wrap, and turn it into something more reminiscent of a Japanese sword handle, a true Tsukamaki. To do this would not only require development and ingenuity, but the genuine materials.
This is firstly where our Tsukamaki handles differ. We have gone to great lengths to source the real thing. We use real Silk ito and leather Tsukagawa which is of very high grade, from a 6th generation Japanese supplier. It is the type of ito used to restore antique Japanese sword Koshirae (the collective term for sword furniture). Both the silk and leather ito is properly made and stretched, so that it folds neatly and can be tightened properly to create a secure grip on the handle.
Furthermore, the Samegawa (sting ray skin) we use is genuine raw-hide samegawa. We buy it in full skins which aren’t commercially processed. Many other makers use commercially dyed and softened ray skin which isn’t the same thing. While this may seem a triviality, we feel its an important step that others over look. Proper Samegawa has the nodes of the ray skin still intact. These little nodes are in fact barbs which the cord can grip onto, ensuring that your handle wrap doesn’t slip. This is actually one of the reasons its used traditionally. If you want to have a handle that isn’t coated in resin, you need to use proper samegawa.
The next development we pursued was creating a handle with an elegant end knot. We were unsatisfied with simply bundling cord through a hole at the end of the handle until it was tight. It was an inelegant end for such exquisite materials. If you’re going to be putting so much effort into using the real thing, surely there had to be a more respectful way of terminating the wrap? This is why we developed our handle fittings. With a slot cut into the end of the handle, it allowed us to create a proper Omote and Ura knot at the end of the handle. Just like the type of knots used on Japanese swords. This was a natural step and got us a step closer to our goal of making a modern, and respectful nod to the Japanese sword handle. What followed shortly after was creating a front fitting to complete the look.
The next development was one which most people will never see. In doing tsukamaki, it takes a few years to even get good at it, and one of the things we found out was that it really does require all the parts.If you want to do it right you can’t skip anything. A step rarely ever seen in knife handle wraps is the use of folded triangles of Washi paper called Hishigami, or Komegami. These little bits of traditionally handmade Japanese paper are integral to making a good Tsukamaki. The folded pieces of paper are compressed underneath the cord and help give the handle some body and shape. They also allow the cord to cinch down without losing its shape. The paper itself is also important. You can’t use modern tissue paper, or newspaper, or really anything else. Once you have used Washi paper nothing else will suffice. It’s unique properties are important to the creation of a good Tsukamaki handle. So we have again gone to great lengths to source the real thing from Japan even though most people who own our Tsukamaki handle will never know its there.
All of this allows us to move away from the very functional, but not as aesthetic use of resin to coat cord wrapped handles. In the EDC knife world, it was considered pretty much integral to coat cord wrapped handles. But if we are being honest its because a lot of these handles are done with materials like paracord which don’t tighten enough. So yes, resin is required in these cases. It’s also worth noting that (to our knowledge) we are the only makers who use a front fitting on our tsukamaki handle. Which means the primary point of interaction with the sheath is a solid material. Ultimately that means we do not need to harden the cord to make it robust enough for sheathing.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using resin to coat a cord wrapped handle for an EDC knife. However, its also not strictly necessary if you are using other means of construction. It takes us another step closer to the traditional as well. The downside to not resin coating the handle is that it will eventually need to be replaced. With time the cord will wear, get dirty, and will need to be redone. This was true of the Japanese Sword too – it would be considered annual maintenance to have your handles re-wrapped. This may be something many would see as a pain, but for us, we see it as a mark of respect to the weapon.
Our goal with our Tsukamaki was to take the traditional Japanese sword handle and apply it to a modern defensive EDC knife. In effect, the natural evolution of the Japanese sword of feudal era Japan.
Because it is imbued with an indomitable sense of honour. The Japanese Sword embodies this more than any other weapon in our humble opinion. We have always felt that, as makers of tools which are designed to save lives by taking them, that honour is an important value. While we are sure many of our knives are collected simply for their beauty, we know many of them are also carried daily and trusted to do the hob they are designed for. Knowing that something you’ve created with your own hands may take human life is not something to ignore, but to be honoured.
The Japanese shinto belief, that man made things can embody the spirit of living beings is central to their reasoning for holding swords in such high regard. Swords were man made but had in them spirits which needed to be respected. Because the blade could take a life, and it could save your own, swords were then divine companions which would live with you, and eventually be passed down to a relative to live on with them.
It’s perhaps this similarity we see in our own work. The Tsukamaki handle Is then the highest form of respect we can pay to a tool that has such great power. The power to take a life, so that another may be saved.