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Wood Cha-to (tea-sword)

Jim Kelso

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So this is as close to a sword as I've gotten for a while.  ;) This is what I've written about it:

This work represents hope and faith in the regenerative force of nature in both symbolic and tangible ways. In a time of unusually prevalent dark forces, I believe it is incumbent upon me as an artist to not become overwhelmed and loose sight of the enduring beauty reflected, not only in full-flowering nature, but also in that which is aged and decaying. My countermeasure to debasement is to seek truth and beauty and reflect that in my work.

In Japan there is a history of the decorative bokuto/cha-to sword, apart from the kendo version, sometimes called doctors’ swords or tea swords. I’ve thought for some time this would be an interesting format for my work using both wood and metal.

 Discovering the piece of termite-eaten American Persimmon wood was key both in provoking me to make a cha-to and also in suggesting the theme of the cycles of life, death, decay and regeneration.

 Initially I thought to make some quite dramatic metal fittings, but my thinking evolved to a simpler approach. The form of the Japanese sword is so primally elegant; my aim was to distill that to a single somewhat Platonic form with the termites providing interest within the form. I find the termite carved galleries stunningly beautiful and decided that my metal fittings should balance rather than intrude into that. I also decided to not make any delineation between the tsuka and saya of the tanto form, relying instead on subtle variations of line, and the placement of the menuki to imply the hilt and scabbard.

 I have long admired the combination of rustic iron and refined gold in the work of Kano Natsuo and others. The poetic dialogue between the two seemingly disparate materials has always struck a chord in me, and seemed entirely in keeping with the overall feeling I was aiming for.

Expressing a contrast to decay, I chose a butterfly and the butterfly’s food, a perennial kind of hopeful symbol. The flower is Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and includes a small, unopened bud in silver. My friend mentioned that in Switzerland the roadside Chicory flowers are seen as symbols of women waiting for their soldier men to return; another poignant layer.

In addition to the simple fan-shaped menuki I chose to add a single visual balancing addition of mini-chasaji (tea-scoop) on the saya end. The symbolism of this is an allusion to tea as refreshment from the dusty, quotidian world. The engraved Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed furthers the hope for new life as well as referring to the butterfly as the milkweed plant being the primary food for the Monarch butterfly caterpillar. 

 The Persimmon wood presented a few challenges because of its condition. It was, in areas, difficult to maintain the lines of intersecting surfaces, as the termite galleries erased those lines. Much time was spent in careful sighting lengthwise to check the various lines’ integrity. Also, although the form is simple, it required three stages of thinning to achieve the final dimensions, as I was not working from any established model.

 When the final form was achieved, I used a Japanese brush (uzukuri) to brush out the debris left in the termite galleries to an appealing depth. The wood finish is a satin-polished lacquer. I chose this to strike a balance between containing the softer gallery debris and creating a soft glow on the sound wood.

 The historical wrought iron for the menuki came from my friend Ric Furrer who thinks it came from old anchor chain from the Florida Keys. This iron is especially grainy and full of character and took what I consider a beautiful sabitsuke or controlled rust patina. I created most of the surface texture with carving and punching, but there is an underlying earthiness visible in rolling light. The butterfly and Chicory flower are inlayed 18k gold and the flower bud is pure silver.

 The miniature chasaji (tea-scoop) found toward the front is made of shibuichi alloyed by my friend Phillip Baldwin. It is an alloy of 98%copper and 2% silver and is patinated in traditional Japanese irotsuke using rokusho to achieve a rich nutty brown. The seed is inlayed 18k gold. Previous to patination it was slightly textured with ishi-arashi or light dropping of tiny stones.







Edited by Jim Kelso
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I am awestruck.


"The worst day smithing is better than the best day working for someone else."


I said that.


If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

- - -G. K. Chesterton


So, just for the record: the fact that it does work still should not be taken as definitive proof that you are not crazy.


Grant Sarver

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WOW !!.................:o

If ya can't be good don't git caught  !!                                        People who say stuff can't be done need to

                                                                                                        git the hell outta the way of people who do stuff   !!!

Show me a man who is called an expert by his peers         

And I will show you a good man to listen to ......

Show me a man who calls himself an expert

and I will show you an egotistical asshole...............!!



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Thanks Jim. This moves me.

"The way we win matters" (Ender Wiggins) Orson Scott Card


Nos, qui libertate donati sumus, nes cimus quid constet.

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Your work never fails to astound. Thank you for bringing such a beautiful  piece to the forum.

“So I'm lightin' out for the territory, ahead of the scared and the weak and the mean spirited, because Aunt Sally is fixin’ to adopt me and civilize me, and I can't stand it. I've been there before.”

The only bad experience is the one from which you learn nothing.  





J.States Bladesmith | Facebook



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Jim, that's truly fantastic! I just finished reading Shogun, and I've come to really appreciate the ceremony and symbolism that have been such a force on shaping culture in the Japans. All of the design choices from materials to its contrast to geometry is beautiful. Thank you for sharing the insight into your process, too, everything about this is delightful!



Not all those who wander are lost. -J.R.R. Tolkien

-Shards of the Dark Age- my blog
-Nine Worlds Workshop-
-Last Apocalypse Forge-

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Jim, I love that piece. It is awesome to me, and really speaks to my internal biologist.


please visit my website http://www.professorsforge.com/


“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” E. V. Debs

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16 hours ago, Kevin (The Professor) said:

Jim, I love that piece. It is awesome to me, and really speaks to my internal biologist.


Thanks Prof. Actually a kind of weird thing happened. As I was taking material off I would run into the occasional termite carcass released from their woody tombs. As I made the final shape, one sort of stuck in the hole, and stayed there through some vigorous handling, so I decided to lacquer over him as he was not very visible. I took a look last week and some other insect was in the same hole trying to back out! I tried to help it but gutted it in the attempt. I thought it was extraordinary that it was in the same hole. Maybe after some tasty dried termite...

15 hours ago, SteveShimanek said:

Please allow my not-saying to speak volumes......magnificent!

Thanks so much Steve.

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