The Dokuro (skull) katana is a fully customized, one of a kind sword that not only looks beautiful and intimidating but is full of top notch features as well. The Dokuro is built on a prototype model made by Kaneie(currently Kurin), which is a manufacturer of fine katana known for their expertise in blade performance, geometry and top of the line polishing, for many years. This was a “Royal Blue Musashi” model that was going to be sold by a major sword manufacturer and seller a few years back. You can see how well the Kaneie Royal Blue Musashi performed against old bamboo over 1” thick here.
The blade endured all of the targets I cut without sustaining any significant damage, such as chips, rolls or bends and instead only shows typical surface scratches (see pictures below) and some very small stains, which are completely expected using any carbon steel blade for any kind of target cutting. I was very impressed, to say the least. There are also two tiny dimples on the blade’s surface that are a result of the hardness tests performed by the company. one is found near the hardened edge and the other closer to the spine, both on the omote side. These dimples are less than a millimeter and have no negative impact on the performance of the blade.
The following is a description of everything I did to turn the Kaneie Royal Blue Musashi into the Dokuro katana:
The Tsuka (handle)
Unfortunately, the original tsuka core was cracked and unable to be repaired safely so I replaced it with a brand new core that was cut, carved and meticulously shaped from very strong American Poplar wood. I chose the tightest and finest grain I could find for superior strength and performance.
The Samegawa (stingray skin)
I then added what’s referred to as a “full wrap” of premium grade samegawa that, as the description implies, fully envelopes the wood core. The samegawa is air dried and becomes extremely tough, much like dried rawhide but with a layer of denticles or nodules which are made from the same material teeth are made from, dentin. This adds a great deal of strength and protection from moisture to the wood core as well as adds an aesthetic quality much revered in the Japanese sword culture. The samegawa was then lacquered in a two-tone gloss/matte black lacquer to finish it off.
The Tsukamaki (handle wrapping)
Once the samegawa was in place and finished, I proceeded to wrap the tsuka in a very rare and old style of tsukamaki called Gangi-maki. This style was found on many early katana tsuka that were used in times of war. This style is simple, practical, efficient and provides excellent grip. Like many other “simple” looking styles of Japanese handle wrapping, I found it more complicated to execute than I assumed. This particular use of gangi-maki was heavily inspired by a work produced by the extremely talented Japanese master tsukamaki-shi, Kenshin Iiyama. This style requires a thin and wide strip of leather, which is rolled at the top as it’s wrapped, providing a lip that aids in gripping the tsuka. Because I wanted the sword to have an overall well-used but cared for look, I added some light distressing to the surface of the leather.
The Fuchi & Kashira (handle collar and butt cap)
I then fitted a basic set of strong, iron Higo style fuchi and kashira to the tsuka, after stripping the old powder coating and replacing it with a beautiful black patina. The simple and elegant qualities of the Higo fittings were used over a large period of time, on many different styles of Japanese samurai swords because of their highly universal appeal. In my humble opinion, good thick iron is what you’d want on a sword made for battle.
The Menuki (handle ornaments)
The tsuka is further decorated by the custom, handmade set of Menuki. I cut and shaped these from solid brass, polished the edges and added a slight texture to the surface and then finished them off by etching the kanji for Life in the middle of each one. I felt this balanced the purpose of a sword, which is designed to protect your own life while sometimes resulting in also taking another’s.
The Seppa (spacers)
Between the tsuka and the tsuba and the tsuba and saya, you will find a set of two spacers called seppa. These help to fit the components together tightly and securely and also to add a bit of color and sparkle to the furniture. I cut them from solid brass and shaped and polished them by hand. They feature a smooth polished rim and a light file pattern on the surface.
The Tsuba (hand guard)
I was looking for a special tsuba that would really complement the theme I was aiming for with this build but found that none of the readily available ones were speaking to me. After looking over reproduction tsuba for almost a month, I finally decided that the only way to go was to attempt to make one myself. I have made tsuba before but this is the first time I made one from steel. I started with a sheet of hot rolled mild steel and slowly and carefully cut out my design using a jewelers saw. I used assorted files to smooth the cuts and a small hammer to raise and slightly round-over the rim. I used a salt water etching technique to add the pair of crossed bones to the ura (opposite) side and also used various other methods of acid etching to achieve a textured surface to the steel. Once the piece was fully polished and cleaned, I applied a forced rust patina to help protect it from the elements and to give it a beautiful black color. It was then sealed in a protective micro-crystalline wax.
The Saya (sheath/scabbard)
The original wood saya needed some upgrades and tlc so I popped off the existing wood kurikata (cord knob) and replaced it with one I handmade out of buffalo horn and since the kojiri (scabbard end cap) on this saya was non-existent and just painted to look like it, I added a new handmade one in strong, thick buffalo horn. I then proceeded to fully strip down the paint and completely refinished the entire saya, using a multi-step process resulting in a look called ishime (stone texture). To go along with the main theme and to add a bit of interest to the otherwise understated look of the lacquer, I added two skull designs in relief, one near the kojiri end on the omote side and one closer to the kurikata on the ura side. The semi-gloss of the skull really stands out well from the matte of the main finish. As a finishing touch and to add a splash of complementing color, I am supplying a premium quality, imported synthetic silk, gold sageo (lashing cord) to tie together (no pun intended) all the little bits of brass on the sword.
I didn’t make the blade for this sword but I figured I’d give a brief description anyway. Kaneie/Kurin is known for their excellent attention to detail and for their expert knowledge of Japanese blade geometry. They are considered by many to be the finest example of production Japanese style blades outside of Japan, and I agree. The lines are crisp and clean and well defined and the balance and weight make for superior handling. Possibly the best feature of a Kaneie is the hybrid system of hand polishing each blade receives. This polishing technique shows off the qualities of the steel and the hamon (hardened edge) better than most others in it’s price range. Hamon come in all different shapes, sizes and styles and the specific style featured on this blade is called Sanbon-sugi. The blade is very durable as well thanks in part to the ample amount of niku (blade meat) present and also the excellent heat treating done by the forge.
The definition and brightness of the hamon is achieved by using small finger stones called hizuya and jizuya, to delicately and carefully polish the temper line inch by inch. The remaining steel is darkened by rubbing a compound called nugui into the surface of the softer steel, providing an excellent contrast. With this particular example, you will find the blade to be functional and durable as well as beautiful to look at.
This project came out better than I had imagined when I began daydreaming about it. I put more personal work into this custom sword than I ever have before and therefore, am even more proud of its final outcome. I feel it’s been a very enjoyable process and also a very educational one and I’m completely confident that you’ll agree the efforts have been well worth it. I don’t often get to use the swords I customize, for obvious reasons, but I can say that this is a blade that handled every target I put in front of it with ease and was ready to keep going. I wanted this sword to be used for cutting and not to just sit on a shelf looking pretty, collecting dust. There are some scratches from previous use but this should only encourage you to go out and actually use your sword.
I have never seen another production katana, customized or not, available with this tsukamaki style before so I truly believe this is a one of a kind, beautiful and fully functional piece of art that you will be very proud to own.
Nagasa(blade length): 28 1/8” (104.4cm)
Motohaba(width at habaki): 32mm
motokasane(thickness at habaki): 5.5mm
Sakihaba(width at yokote) : 25mm
Sakikasane(thickness at yokote): 3mm
Polish: Hybrid kesho
Nakago: 9 ¼”
Weight w/saya: 3 lbs
Weight w/out saya: 2.45 Lbs
POB: 6 ½”
- New wood tsuka core, with full wrap of samegawa
- Wrapped in very rare Gangi-maki style with genuine imported leather
- New handmade brass seppa and menuki
- New handmade, one of a kind steel tsuba
- Solid iron Higo style fuchi and kashira, re-finished
- New handmade horn fittings on saya
- Completely refinished saya in ko-ishime lacquer style, with skull designs in relief
- New premium quality imported gold synthetic silk sageo
- Appropriate for light to medium targets