Written by Sue Kent
The Saya (Scabbard)
Japanese swords and naginata have traditionally been fitted with wooden scabbards (saya) to protect them from the environment. Plain wooden saya have been found from the early Edo period, where they were used to protect blades that had been donated to shrines. In general, there are two types of saya in use: "koshirae" and "shira-saya". Koshirae usually consist of beautifully lacquered saya accompanied by decorative metal fittings such as menuki, fuchi, and kashira. Shira-saya (white scabbard) consist of plain, unfinished wood. Before the Meiji Restoration (1876), when it was still legal to wear swords in public, the Samurai typically owned one of each type of saya. The shira-saya was used for storage of the blade, while the koshirae fittings were utilized when the sword was worn in public.
Unlike swords of European origin, Japanese swords fit into their saya loosely, so that the only part of the blade that actually touches it is the burnished surface of the mune. Once the blade is fully inserted into the saya, the habaki holds it in place so that it doesn't rattle or move about. A saya must meet several criteria in order to be considered acceptable. First, it must precisely fit the blade that it is made for. A poor fit could result in damage to the blade or its cutting edge. Secondly, its seams must fit tightly so as to keep out dirt and moisture, yet be easily pulled apart for occasional cleaning of the interior.
As with all of the Japanese sword crafts, an apprenticeship is required before one is considered a competent craftsman and allowed to work independently. The time required for a saya-maker apprenticeship is approximately 10 years. The first thing an apprentice learns to do is sharpen and maintain the many tools used by the saya maker. Most students spend at least their first 6 months of apprenticeship mastering this aspect of the art. The tools, when properly maintained, will last for several decades. Following this phase of training, the student will spend the next 2 years practicing cutting saya blanks from scrap wood.
NOTE: The information below describes the construction of a typical "shira-saya" for standard katana, wakizashi, and tanto ("Samurai swords"). These saya are used primarily for storage and/or transport of the polished blade and are not covered with lacquer, reinforcing materials such as heavy silk cord, or metal bands. The crafting of shira-saya which are to be used for naginata differs somewhat from the techniques used for other types of blades due to the fact that the naginata's tang is much longer. Shira-saya which are made for naginata have a haft (or handle) which is several feet long and made from a separate piece of ho wood.
The author sincerely thanks Mr. Henrik Olsgaard for his assistance in clarifying this.Construction Materials
Since the Heian period, saya have been made from the wood from the "ho" tree (magnolia). This wood has traditionally been used because it's soft and won't scratch the blade, is easily worked with a chisel and plane, and when properly seasoned has virtually no sap in it. Ho wood is typically seasoned for 10 years before it's acceptable for saya use.Kidori & Nakadoshi: Cutting & Splitting the Blank
After a suitable piece of ho wood has been selected, the blank is cut from it with a handsaw. The blank is usually cut in a simple oblong shape along the grain of the wood. It is then cut in half along its length. Next, the woodcarver planes the exterior surfaces of the saya; rounding the edges and smoothing them. At this point, a section of the blank which will later become the hilt is removed as well.Kezuri-awase: Planing the Inner Surface
The two sides of the blank which will form the interior of the saya are planed to an extremely smooth finish. This is necessary since later the two halves will be glued together, and there can be no gaps or separations of any size along the seam.Kaki-ire: Chiseling the Space for the Blade
The woodcarver is now ready to begin carving out the interior of the saya. Using a pencil, he carefully draws the outline of the blade on the two halves of the blank. Then, using chisels of varying thickness, he slowly carves out the interior. It should be noted that at NO time during the saya-making process is any sort of abrasive paper used. This is far too risky, since any residual grains of abrasive could seriously scratch the blade. The hollowed out area of the saya is deepest at the point where the blade is thickest (the mune side), and shallowest in the area where the cutting edge of the blade will rest. The woodcarver also carves out a small "reservoir" at the point where the tip of the blade will be. This area will collect any excess blade oil that may have accumulated in the saya. The two halves of the saya are carved identically except for a few small, but important, differences. One half has a thin "lip" carved in it to leave a small gap for the actual cutting edge of the blade, since this should not rub against any of the saya's interior. The other half of the saya has a tapered surface which will prevent the blade from resting on the seam where the two halves are glued together.
The woodcarver will now coat the blade with clove oil and briefly place it between the two halves of the saya. After removing it, he'll examine the two halves for any oil stains. If present, they'll indicate points where the blade is touching the inner surface of the saya. These will be planed down further until the only part of the blade that actually touches the saya interior will be the burnished surface of the mune.
Norizuke: Gluing the Two Halves Together
Once the woodcarver is certain that the interior of the saya has been properly carved, he will begin preparing the glue that will be used to hold the two halves together. The glue used for this is made from one or two-day old rice. Rice glue is used because it's strong, but not so strong as to prevent the saya from being separated again for occasional cleaning of its interior. Using a spatula, the woodcarver mixes a small amount of the rice with a few drops of water. This forms a thick, sticky paste which is applied to the perimeter of the two saya halves. The two halves are then tied together very tightly and allowed to dry overnight. The same procedure is also applied to the two halves of the hilt.
Arakezuri & Nakakezuri: Rough & Fine Planing the Outside
The saya is now ready to have its external surface planed and polished. Using a small knife, the woodcarver begins at the point closest to the opening of the saya (the koiguchi). It is this point which will then serve as a reference for the remainder of the planing process. Using finer and finer planes, the saya is shaped into any of a number of different styles. A popular style in use today is an 8 sided version, although saya can also be planed to a simple oval shape as well.
Mekugi-ana-age: Drilling the Rivet Hole
The woodcarver once again places the blade into the scabbard, and marks on the hilt area the exact location of the hole in the tang (the mekugi-ana). This hole had been drilled by the swordsmith, and into it will be placed a tapered bamboo peg (mekugi) which will hold the tang of the blade firmly in the hilt. The woodcarver uses an awl to drill the hole in the hilt, and tapers it with a file.Shiagekezuri & Shiagemigaki: Finish Planing & Finish Polishing
The entire surface of the saya is planed one last time with very small planes; some only an inch wide. Also, the sharp corners along the top and bottom of the saya are beveled so as to prevent them from being damaged. The final step involves polishing the wood with ibota powder which is rubbed into the wood surface with pieces of tokusa (horsetail reed). This combination of materials provides a finer polish than any sandpaper could. After the wood is polished, the saya is wrapped in "nishi no uchi" paper (a coarse textured paper) and returned to the polisher or the sword's owner.
The Blade: Part 1
The Blade: Part 2
Crafting the Saya
Tsuba & Ishizuki