Humble Beginnings

The Maker

Hello, my name is James Dinh. I think the best way to describe myself is to talk about my craft of making bokken. It is an embodiment of myself that I put into my pieces, a way of leaving something of me in my work. It is also a way for me to constantly learn and challenge myself by honing my skills of bokken maker.

My hope is the same as it was for me when I first started training in the sword arts, which is for you to have the best possible training sword for your practice of swordsmanship. Why is this so important to me? It is important and makes me happy to know that my bokken can more than meet the demands of your training.

Here are four main themes in my craftsmanship of bokken: geometry, weight, balance and strength. All four are equally important and affected by each other, like a game of tug and pull. It is a complex balancing act to get each one just right. Everyone wants to train with a sword that feels and handles like its steel counterpart. Isn’t that the whole point, to keep it realistic but less lethal? Therefore, an aesthectically pleasing geometry is desired, without sacrificing too much weight or overall strength.

Here, I must credit the wood. I primarily use Brazilian panacoco for all my training swords. It is extremely hard and strong, not brittle. The dense weight lends itself to being the ideal hardwood for training swords. It will flex and bend under extreme stress with hardly a mark on the surface. Panacoco is a resinous wood that resists mold, rotting and parasites and requires minimal care. I am thrilled to have partnered with this amazing hardwood. It has made a huge impact in my own training of swordsmanship. Please follow with me as I take you through the process of crafting a River Reed Craft bokken and saya.

james in shop

The Process


From my own modest collection of panacoco boards, I will select one suitable for the intended sword, here I will feature a katana bokken. I always design and draw the sword’s profile directly onto the panacoco board. I rarely design on paper. This is a rough profile slightly oversized to account for milling and stock removal.

step 1

A rough profile cut is made on the bandsaw, followed by three resaw cuts, to end up with three thick laminations of panacoco. Why do I cut laminations rather than leave it one solid piece of wood? It has to do with grain patterns in the wood. Cutting laminations disrupts the grain pattern of the wood reducing the inherents weaknesses that can follow along the grain structure. Having three properly joined laminations can greatly increase the overall strength of the bokken and help to keep it straight.


Now for the tricky part! Properly joining three lamination of a resinous wood is important to the long term integrity and strength of the bokken. Much research (trial and error) was put into finding the right adhesive for laminating panacoco. Common wood glue does not work on this highly resinous wood. Also, it is important to note that the pressure used to cure the adhesive must be even and at just the right pressure without squeezing out too much glue, therefore starving the joint of adhesive. This is also the same process I use in making my hybrid flatbows for shooting arrows! Once cured, the bokken is removed from the clamps. It is now much stronger than when it was just one solid piece of wood.


The final profile is carefully hand shaped on a belt sander. I try to have flowing lines that follow through from tip to butt of hilt. This is all done by frequently sighting down the length of the bokken while removing the stock.


The bevel of the spine and shape of the edge is meticulously done by hand using specific files and a sharp spoke shave. Panacoco is not an easy wood to shape due to its extreme hardness, and cutting blades dull quickly. The result, however, is a highly polished and beautifully grained panacoco bokken.

bokken shaping

Two laminations of African blackwood are joined to the tsuka (hilt), one on either side. Half moon grooves are carved into the blackwood to enhance grip and performance, much like tsukamaki. I probably spend more time on this step than any other in the process.

The tsuba (guard) is made from three cross-grain laminations of panacoco. The cross graining gives the tsuba strength against hard impact from any direction. Each tsuba is designed, cut and shaped by hand. It is then permanently joined to the bokken using a traditional method of mortise and wedges.
The entire bokken is hand polished with emery paper to 1000 grit, with a final polish on the buffing wheel.
benchmade bokken
Several coats of tung oil are applied and buffed into the blade portion of the sword. The hilt and guard (tsuka and tsuba) are also sealed in tung oil with additional coats of hard protective finish to help resist sweat and continual handling.
Bokken outdoor


A block of solid panacoco is cut lengthwise in half. A channel is meticulously cut along an intended profile on both halves of the saya. It is critical that the channel is cut evenly leaving a nice clean surface, which is then polished and sealed with tung oil. A smoothly finished channel can be felt when drawing the sword. This is a greatly desired feature in the practice of iaido!

step1 saya

The two halves are joined completing the hidden inside channel. The same special adhesive is used to join the saya halves, with the same care given to the clamping and curing process.


A rough profile cut of the saya is made on a bandsaw leaving enough tolerance for milling and stock removal.

step3 saya

The final shape is done with specific files and a spoke shave. This is followed by much sanding up to 1000 grit.

step4 saya

The kurikata is also made from three laminations of cross grain panacoco. The intricate shape and details are all done by hand. It is then joined to the saya at a specific distance from the koiguchi (scabbard mouth).

step5 saya

The entire saya is then polished to 1000 grit with a final polish on the buffing wheel.

step6 saya

I think I am unique in using pine soot ink, or calligraphy ink, to color my sayas. I love the fine grainy texture it leaves on the final finish, and it has a deep rich color that is simply beautiful. Several layers of this ink are applied and allowed to fully dry, followed by a light sanding with a 1000 grit woven pad.

Pine soot ink

A strong polythread binding is then wrapped near the koiguchi (scabbard mouth) to help strengthen the koiguchi and prevent it from splitting. This binding is firmly epoxied to the saya mouth.

step8 saya

I hand draw the client’s school kamon or personal crest onto the saya with a metallic ink, then seal the artwork and entire saya in several layers of a specially formulated protective finish and allowed one week to cure. Once cured, a final hand buffing to complete the process.

Fitted saya

The bokken is finally fitted to the saya using hand tapered panacoco reeds for a nice snug and smooth fit.  Each piece comes with a luxurious sword bag, designed and hand stitched by my wife Cheryl, with love.

Fluted habaki