Japanese Kendama Gift Project

Japanese Kendama Gift Project

Our editor in chief, Rob Johnstone, suggested to me that an article on turning a Japanese kendama game would be fun for all. This child’s game is pure spindle turning (“child” being defined as anyone from nine to 92 years of age in the case of this addicting game). A variation on the age-old ball-and-cup toy, the player uses the ken (handle) to capture the wood dama (ball) attached to it by a string in one of four ways. There are two cups, one larger and one smaller, attached to the ken at right angles. There is a third cup in the base of the ken that is still smaller. Finally, the ball may be captured on the spike at the business end of the ken. The ball has a hole in it, which is flared at the mouth, to facilitate this most difficult of captures.

A kendama game is mostly straightforward spindle turning, but turning the ball and scraping the cups to the correct radius to catch the ball is a small challenge for most. You will need some firm, durable wood to make your kendama set. I chose hard maple for price and durability, but oak, ash, hickory and walnut are other good choices. You do not need much wood for this project, but large-diameter stock is necessary for the ball if it is to be done without gluing up. I was able to make mine from cutoff scraps I had squirreled away.

A spiked handle, three cups of varying sizes and a tethered wooden ball are the total of the parts to a kendama game — but the variations of kendama “tricks” go on and on.
A spiked handle, three cups of varying sizes and a tethered wooden ball are the total of the parts to a kendama game — but the variations of kendama “tricks” go on and on.

I will not elaborate on the turning of the handle and the set of cups that mount on the spike at the end of it in a “T” fashion, for they are straight spindle turning. The only tip I will give is that it is best to drill the cross-hole for mounting the cups on the handle before turning. Drill a 7/16″-diameter cross-hole in the exact center of the 1-3⁄4″ by 2-3⁄4″ billet. The turning of a perfect ball might seem to be impossible, but it is actually well within the capabilities of any competent spindle turner. The method I am going to describe was used to turn billiard balls from ivory up until the 1920s. I gleaned this information from an original volume in my library: The Lathe & Its Uses by Claud Lukin, published by John Wiley & Son in 1868.

Making the ken is a straightforward exercise in spindle turning. Chuck your ken blank between centers, and use a sharp spindle gouge to turn it to a comfortable handle profile and smallest end cup. Scrape the spike end of the ken down until it fits the 7/16"-dia. hole in the opposing cup piece.
Making the ken is a straightforward exercise in spindle turning. Chuck your ken blank between centers, and use a sharp spindle gouge to turn it to a comfortable handle profile and smallest end cup. Scrape the spike end of the ken down until it fits the 7/16″-dia. hole in the opposing cup piece.

The trick of turning a ball is in the chucking. You must use a jam chuck, which is no more than a piece of wood screwed to a faceplate. For strength, the piece of wood you construct your jam chuck out of needs to be at least one-and-a-half times the diameter of the work (it can also be larger). Like the kendama itself, the jam chuck needs to be made from durable wood of one of the species I’ve previously mentioned. The grain of the chuck needs to run between the centers of the lathe (spindle turning), so the screws to hold it on a faceplate need to go into the end grain of the billet. It is possible to generate a perfect ball by how you manipulate the work in your jam chuck.

It’s best to drill the 7/16”-dia. cross-hole that facilitates mounting the cups on the handle before turning the cups to final shape.
It’s best to drill the 7/16”-dia. cross-hole that facilitates mounting the cups on the handle before turning the cups to final shape.

You will need a scraper for this project that will allow you to shape the depression of the cups to a slightly smaller curve than the 2-1⁄4″ diameter ball. (You want the ball to seat perfectly.) I used a shop-made scraper to help me achieve this. You will need to jam chuck the cup twice to hollow each end. Scrape from the outside to the center in an ever increasing circle until you have removed wood along the entire edge, and there you have it. Do the other end of the cup, then jam chuck the handle to make the base into a cup.

Scrape the cups to shape with a scraper while the work is held in a smaller version of a jam chuck.
Scrape the cups to shape with a scraper while the work is held in a smaller version of a jam chuck.

If you followed the Drawings, your game now has three progressively smaller cups to catch the ball in, plus a spike to spear it on. Go ahead and glue the cups on the spike, cross drill for the string through the center of the cup/spike, and connect a sufficiently long string to have 15-3⁄4″ of string between the handle and the ball.

History of the Game

Various ball-and-cup games, including the Mexican balero, French bilboquet and English cup and ball, have been common traditionally throughout the world. One theory for the apparent independent development of such similar games in diverse geographical areas is that it helped develop hand-eye coordination among children in hunting cultures — some places used animal bones (such as rabbit skulls), animal hair or grass for the “ball.”

The modern Japanese version of kendama likely traces its origins to the 18th century, when it started out as a drinking game for adults (whoever made a mistake had to drink more). Over the next hundred years or so, it morphed into a children’s game. One basic trick, “moshikame,” which involves juggling the ball between two cups, is also a folk song, based on the legend of the tortoise and the hare, that children have traditionally sung while doing the trick — the musical rhythm is supposed to sustain their physical ability.

While kendama continues to be a popular toy and a casual children’s game in Japan, beginning in the 1960s, some Japanese began approaching kendama as a more serious sport. Issei Fujiwara founded the Japanese Kendama Association in 1975. For the sport, Fujiwara established standards for the kendama itself and groups of tricks that must be completed for moving to certain levels of kendama rankings.

“Freestyle” creation of tricks, incorporating elements from games such as juggling, continues, with interest from people of all ages and countries. Among the Western fans of the game are inline skaters, who have helped to spread its popularity. The first European Kendama Open was held in 2008.

The Top 10 Kendama Tricks

Moves you can perform with a kendama are called “tricks.” A Japanese Kendama Association book lists 101 tricks, but new ones are constantly being invented, as are variations. For competition purposes, there are 11 required tricks for a “kyu” ranking (rated at 10 kyu to 1 kyu, with one the highest); plus about 10 additional for a “dan” rating (also rated at 10 dan to 1 dan). Here are some of the “kyu” tricks:

Oozara (Big Cup): Start from a still, vertical position and land the ball in the big cup.
Kozara (Small Cup): Same as above, except land the ball in the small cup.
Chuzara (Middle Cup): Catch the ball in the middle cup on the end of the ken.
Rosoku (Candle): Same as above, but different grip: hold the ken by the point.
Tomeken (Spike Catch or Pull Up/In): Start the ball from a still, hanging position and catch it by the hole on the ken’s spike.
Hikoki (Airplane): Hold the ball and flip the ken to impale the ball with the spike.
Furiken (Swinging Spike Catch): Similar to Spike Catch, but you
– swing the ball up instead of starting from a dead hang.
Nihon Isshu (Trip Around Japan): Catch the ball in the small cup, toss it to the big cup, then spike it.
Sekai Isshu (Trip Around the World): Like above, with the addition of a toss to the center cup after the large cup and before the spike.
Toudai (Lighthouse): Grip the ball; jerk ken from a dead hang and balance it by the center cup on the ball, keeping it stationary

Click Here to Download the Drawings and Materials List for This Project.

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