DIY#5: Take Dou – A Labor of Love

When I heard that my friend Eric Aerts had actually hand made a dou from nothing I had to get an article out of him! He kindly wrote the following and supplied pictures. Check out the link at the end of the article to see more pictures of the various steps. Enjoy!

I can recall my father waking me on Saturday mornings to do maintenance work on his old wooden sailboat and how I would groan and roll my eyes at the prospect of a day spent (wasted) sanding and varnishing in what is the on-going battle for all wooden boat owners against time and the elements. Although it was a truly beautiful vessel, and this a labor of love for my father, it is difficult to explain how much I hated the seemingly endless hours of detailed woodworking and finishing. Despite my childhood aversion to this type of chore, those force-fed lessons would eventually serve me well as I came to relish working and creating with my own hands – certainly, there are few tasks more gratifying. Eventually, I began to combine my love of craftsmanship with another passion – kendo.

Initially, I started by making shinai tsuba – hand-carved from exotic hardwoods to resemble the iron designs of nihonto tsuba. These broke too easily so I made them for bokuto (kendo no kata) instead. Next, I designed and made daisho stands using sambar dear antlers (the first of these as a gift for my sensei).

What I really wanted to tackle, but was honestly a bit intimidated to take-on, was a true take (bamboo) dou; produced using all the traditional techniques. I also knew that I wanted it to have a same (shark) skin finish, which I’ve always been partial to.

Where to start? As you might imagine, there are no (to my knowledge) manuals on how to construct your own bamboo dou and, short of an apprenticeship in Japan, the best I could come up with was a video on Youtube with a 5 minute section on dou manufacturing. I watched this many times – pausing and actually trying to take measurements off my computer screen – and even though it left me with a lot of questions, I at least had a fundamental sense of the construction techniques.

My first challenge was to source the materials – quality bamboo in a 3 ½ – 4 inch diameter and large, tanned shark pelts are not exactly standard New Jersey Home Depot fare. I was extremely lucky in that not far from my home is a family-run company that has been importing bamboo and rattan from around the globe for 130 years. They allowed me roam their enormous warehouse and pick what I wanted – a real treat. When the time came, I also found a very accommodating exotic-pelt importer/distributor who was able to supply me with the same (pronounced “samei”) skin to my exact specifications.

Next, there were a number of tools which I would either need to fabricate entirely, or at least modify from existing tools. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this project was conceiving of ways to resolve the many novel technical challenges – either with the dou itself, or the tools needed to produce it. I must have passed as many hours daydreaming about how to create a certain tool, or to hold something in place, etc., as I did at the worktable actually putting my ideas into play. Although there were times that I ended up having to scrap what I initially thought were genius breakthroughs, I am certain that all that pondering saved me many painful mistakes. Remember, it’s always harder to go backwards.

Bamboo is an amazing material to work with and my appreciation for it grows the more time I spend with it in my hands (both in the dojo and in my workshop). In certain aspects it resembles wood (a species that would have to be extremely dense, long-grained, and impossibly light-weight); however, it reacts differently in different situations and there are important tricks to working with it. It also produces the most horrific splinters you will ever suffer. The best thing to remember when working with bamboo is to soak it thoroughly before splitting, shaving, sawing, or bending/shaping; this will produce better results, more easily, and will save your tools. I learned this lesson the hard way and it was my Japanese wife (with the carpentry skills of a kindergartner), who saw me straining to force a strip of bamboo through a die and said “why don’t you soak it first? That will make it easy – everybody knows that.” Yeah, well, not “everybody” in Jersey.

Now, looking at a doudai (the shell), one might think that this is not such a technical marvel, and certainly, pressing fiberglass resin into a bowl-shaped mold (as with a factory-produced dou) is not. However, try to take a 6-foot section of bamboo and turn it into 60 half-inch curved and hand-tapered strips (that are themselves convex and concave on 2 sides) that fit together in a seamless, symmetrical shape, devoid of a single straight line and that is expected to weather a lifetime of bashing and perspiration, and you will begin to understand why a quality hand-made bamboo dou can run thousands of dollars. Think Swiss watch meets Sherman tank.

This is not meant to be a tutorial on how to make your own dou – that would easily fill a book and to be honest, as I am now beginning to produce my dou for others, there are a few hard-fought proprietary methods I’d like to hold onto (not to worry, if you’re committed, you’ll conquer your own hurdles), but here are the basics:

– You will need roughly 6 feet of 3.5 to 4 inches-in-diameter, good-quality bamboo (get more the 1st time – you will make mistakes); there should be 12 to 14 inches between the nodules and it should not be scarred or too green.
– Remove the skin by sanding or planing (if dry, only sanding will work) and cut just inside the nodules to approximately 11-inch cylinders.
– At this point, you have to make a decision on how to proceed; the raw strips, which must be an exact width and depth, can be produced in one of two ways (both requiring customized tools). In short, you can either use a piston-driven die to split the strips, or a double-bladed saw to cut them.
– Once you have the raw strips, you will need to file and sand the adjoining sides to be sure they fit together without gaps. Then, the ends must be tapered so that when the strips are pulled together, the thinner tops and bottoms will draw together into a convex shape. This will require practice and is part of the art.
– Lay the strips out in the order you plan to use them (I numbered them to keep track) and draw the eventual pattern you will use for your doudai (keeping room on top and bottom for the eventual trimming. The strips will be laced together with 3 nylon strings (2 of these run the full length and one holds the center 20 or so strips at the top portion); draw the lines where these will be placed.
– Soak the strips overnight.
– You are going to be heating and bending the strips into the proper curve, so you will need to construct a frame to hold the bent strips in place as they dry. Heat the strips over an open flame (I used an old BBQ grill) until pliable, bend the strips (I made a half-moon shaped wooden form for this) and place them in the frame. Obviously, you want the outside (or convex side) of the bamboo to be on the inside (or concave) of the curve – this is what gives the inside of the doudai the scalloped lines.
– Once the strips have dried, use the lines you previously drew to drill holes in order to thread the nylon strings as well as the bamboo pins that will hold the strings in place. These will all have to be at exactly the same depth, or the strips will not line up properly.
– Thread all three of the strings; however, you have to tighten, clamp, and pin the center 20 strips with the uppermost string first, as these pins will be covered by the other strips (you will have to recess these strings so the strips on either side can lay flat against each other). Then, clamp all 60 strips as tightly as possible and pin the other two strings.
– Place the doudai over a form with the curve/diameter you want for your finished shape and sand the outside as smooth as possible.
– Now you will need to adhere to the outside of the doudai, an adhesive and cloth combination. Some takezo dou makers use bondo (as in auto body repair bondo) and a type of canvas. Personally, I think this is too brittle and would recommend some type of 2-part marine epoxy and medium weight fiberglass cloth (better strength and flexibility). Only use one cloth layer and one finishing layer – remember, you want this to be as lightweight as possible. Sand smooth.
– I finish my dou with sharkskin, which must be soaked, stretched, dried and glued to the doudai (using the correct glue will be crucial for longevity). Then, I lacquer the inside with a tough marine varnish (why cover that beautiful bamboo with black or red?).
– Cut to pattern, and add the mune, border, and himo loops.

The finished dou. Click to enlarge:

Keep in mind that the above is an extremely paired-down explanation of what is involved in producing a quality bamboo dou and should you wish to finish yours in the traditional urushi lacquer, this is itself an entirely separate art form. That being said, as a fan of things of beauty, which combine form and function, it is a very rewarding craft and one that you will appreciate every time you enter the dojo. For me, the perfect exclamation point on this project was seeing my sensei showing off my dou to another visiting sensei – a better testimonial, I couldn’t have asked for.

If you have any questions, please leave them on the comment section below, or, if you wish to see pictures of my dou and the process of making them, please visit the following Picasa photo album.