A Wooden Sword from


wooden sword by Graham Cave

The Man and his Aims

Graham Cave.
Alt Text--Graham Cave wooden sword maker
In my search for the best wooden sword artisans on each continent, I came across Graham Cave. Hailing from rural Scotland, this wood worker has researched and tested his designs until they closely follow the shape and balance of antique Chinese swords I write this page as his journey turns the corner from research and testing, to full time swordmaker.

Graham is keen to push forward the boundaries of wooden sword making in ways that represent the wealth of ingenuity and artistry that Chinese sword makers have demonstrated over the centuries.He says that this leads him to design swords that fit roughly into two categories. The beautifully designed dao in a wooden box, pictured above, is of the second category.

Graham's Home by Winter.
Alt Text--Graham Cave wooden sword maker winter
  1. those which have the weight of real swords and handle as closely as possible to real swords. Sparring swords fit into this category.
  2. Those which are as close as possible to the dimensions of real swords and display the grace and artistry of Chinese design. These are suitable for forms practise.

Graham's home is an inspiringly beautiful setting, white with snow in the winter and a patchwork of greens by summer. He lives on the East coast of Scotland at the mouth of the River Tay with Arbroath and Carnoustie to the North, St Andrews and the Kingdom of Fife to the South and Dundee to the West. In the forests near his home, Graham and a friend test the durability of his wooden swords. He believes in giving the wood a good workout to be sure it will withstand anything a student jianke may put it through.

Graham's friend helps test the strength of a wooden sword.
Alt Text--wooden sword testing

An Interview with Graham Cave

Chinese Swords Guide: What got you interested in making wooden swords? and how did you develop your wood working skills?

Graham: Well, I wasn’t really …. I had thought about it, but it seemed far too much like hard work. Then a couple of years ago, a friend asked my advice on which wooden sword to buy and in a moment of madness, I said that could make him a better one than he could buy anywhere……..and so I had to set about designing and making one. I haven’t stopped since. It is now officially a full time job.

Making a custom form dao.
Alt Text--wooden sword making

I think that I probably enjoy the challenge, especially as the work involves both technical and artistic disciplines……..and I really enjoy doing all the historical research that is necessary to produce authentic items.

I was taught a lot of the basics of woodworking by my Grandfather (who was a traditional cabinet maker by trade). I couldn’t decide whether to do art or woodwork at school and ended up studying art. This led to me doing a degree in Art and Multi-disciplinary Design. However, the degree was interrupted and I never went back to complete it but turned again to wood-working, eventually setting up in business making furniture and restoring antiques.

Wooden sword parts lined up ready for use in Graham's workshop.
Alt Text--wooden sword making parts

Chinese Swords Guide: Of all the directions you could have taken, what led you towards Chinese swords in particular?

Graham: An interest in taiji….but I quickly realised that I had more of an affinity with jian and dao than with taijiquan. Though I cannot profess to have more than a rudimentary understanding of taiji fighting techniques, I have a much deeper understanding of the swords themselves. This is partly because, in essence, they have a great deal in common with woodworking tools both in construction and in cutting techniques.

Custom guard for Peter Dekker.
Alt Text--wooden sword custom design
I am particularly interested in basing my work on solid historical research. Which of course, means that I spend a lot of time and effort studying the stylistic conventions and design elements used in Chinese swords……and also, to help put this into context, a more general study of Chinese culture and the applied arts.

I also collect both antique and reproduction Chinese swords. I use the reproduction swords for test cutting. Lastly, I collect small Chinese antiques, such as ceramics, textiles, metalwork…… generally things that help me better understand Chinese culture, style and craftwork

More of Graham's authentic designs.
Alt Text--wooden sword custom designs
CSG: Is there anything else you would like to say about your philosophy of wooden sword construction?

Graham: Yes, I’m committed to using renewable, recyclable and environmentally friendly materials as much as I can. I have recently, for example, stopped using lead as balance weights (because of its potentially toxic effects) and have now changed to using a tin-based alloy.

CSG: How do you know which wood will be good to use for your wooden swords?

Graham: Working with wood is a real challenge because of the unpredictable nature of the material. Even two pieces cut from the same plank can behave very differently and one has to be sensitive to this. Unlike metal, wood does not have even density/weight distribution throughout. So, once I have sawn and planed a length of wood for a sword, I grasp it at one end (like I would hold a sword) and then at the other. Invariably, it will feel and balance better from one particular end…… and so the is the way it has to be marked out and shaped.

CSG: But how can you tell if the wood is handling correctly? Balance is so important for a wooden sword.

Graham: Again, this is something that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into researching. One of the surprising things to emerge from this is that p.o.b. is really not a reliable indicator of how well a sword handles. By changing the weight distribution, I can make the handling either lively or dull without changing the p.o.b. I’ve also discovered that it is possible to make the p.o.b. longer and make the handling easier at the same time….. and this is quite contrary to the popular understanding of pob. The advantage of this research is that I am now better able to fine tune the handling of wooden swords in order to get the optimum performance from them.

CSG: I borrowed one of your swords from my teacher, Scott Rodell, to test in the recent Traditional chinese Sword League Tournament. I loved the way it handled. You've done an excellent job.

Graham: I must mention that I have not been entirely alone when it has come to designing. With the sparring jian project, for example I have had considerable help and advice from Scott M. Rodell, Philip Tom, Peter Dekker and Jon Palombi………for which, I am extremely grateful.

How Graham Cave Makes Wooden Swords

 wooden sword design at the drawing board
1. Drawing board
 wooden sword aged wood
2. Prepared wood
wooden sword cut out blanks
3. Cut out and ready
 finished wooden sword
4. Finished sword

Picture 1. It begins with a lot of historical research. Graham needs to know the normal range of jian or dao statistics from the period of history he has chosen as his foundation. How heavy were period swords? What shape were they? How long were the blades? What shape was the guard? How wide was the blade at the guard and near the tip? Were there any fullers? What about common motifs? Etc.

All that is before the drawing board stage, and it is no easy task. No one is alive from the period we are talking about. There are many swords preserved from the time but these are scattered worldwide in private collections and museums. Research was needed into surviving primary sources - literature written at the time, artworks produced at the time, and surviving artifacts. Once it has been studied, it needs comparing with the knowledge of experts who have done similar study. That's some of what Graham meant by research. Then he made his wooden sword patterns.

Picture 2. You can't just use any piece of wood. If it is too young, it will shrink, twist and distort as it dries out. If a grip wrap has been added to the hilt, this will loosen with only a tiny bit of shrinkage, causing it to slip in the hand. Aged wood is important. It must be hardwood - dense, non splintering, non brittle.

Tiger's Den Logo
Alt Text--Graham Cave wooden sword maker Tiger's Den logo
Picture 3. Graham sets up his machinery to cut out a number of wooden swords of the same dimensions. He may leave the cut out pieces to dry for longer. Then someone orders 30 wooden sparring swords. None of them require custom details, so they will be plain wood, finished well, expertly balanced and smoothed, treated with tung oil - ready for the sword students to train with in their classes.

Some of the swords will be used in a tournament so they have to withstand full speed strikes. The strikes are not supposed to be full power, but in the excitement of a tournament, many of them are. Nor are taiji sword students supposed to use hard blocks in their swordsmanship - but they do as they are learning. The swords must withstand all of that.

Another customer wants a sword for forms. he wants it perfect in every detail - a work of art to be proud of. It doesn't have to be as strong as the sparring sword. The dimensions and artistry are more important for this one. Graham enjoys making both types as well as it is humanly possible to make them.

Picture 4. This is a custom sparring sword. It has a traditional grip wrap, which is not a standard feature, and it has a traditional motif on the guard chosen by the owner. Since custom details take longer, they cost more. It just depends what you want.

Recent updates to Graham's wooden sword range:
March 2024 - tournament prize and lighter beginner sword pictures

How to Order Your Own Wooden Sword from Graham

Graham now has his own website where you can view his work, price your wooden sword, and order it. You can find him at the Tiger's Den.
Custom wooden dao made by Graham Cave.
Alt Text--A custom wooden sword by Graham Cave

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