GW: I’m here today with Carina Cirrincione of Raven Studios who makes wooden training weapons such as longsword wasters, rondel daggers, and even gladii, as well as implements for Eastern martial arts, which we will get to in a little bit. She’s also a Tai Chi and Wing Chun practitioner and instructor. So Carina, welcome to the show.
CC: Thank you very much. Really appreciate you having me.
GW: It’s nice to meet you. Whereabouts in the world are you?
CC: I am in Arizona, in the United States, just north of Tucson, in a very small town called Oracle.
GW: Wow. That’s a good name for a town.
CC: Yes, it’s a nice rural small town. There’s maybe 5000 people here.
GW: Wow, that’s pretty small. I imagine you like the countryside.
CC: I do. It’s got its pros and cons like everything, but it’s very nice out here.
GW: Excellent. Now we’re both woodworkers and regular listeners to the show will have probably heard me go on about chisels and planes and things before. And we’re both martial artists and I should perhaps let you know that I do have a bit of a background in Tai Chi and some kung fu as well. So I have done some of the Chinese martial arts as well.
CC: Oh, nice.
GW: So we do have a lot to talk about, and so I’m curious, which for you came first? The woodwork or the martial arts?
CC: Martial arts came first. I started martial arts in the late 80s with Tai Chi, and then I went to, well, continued with the Tai Chi but I started Win Chun in the early 90s, 1993. So that’s where it started. I was in college at that time studying art, and I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. So I was doing artwork at that time, but I wasn’t working with wood. I was doing sculpture and things like that. But the woodworking came after the martial arts.
GW: Okay, so how did you get started with martial arts? What drew you to it?
CC: I’ve always been interested in martial arts since I was a kid, but never had the opportunity to start anything until I was in my early 20s. I moved to Tucson and I saw an ad for a Tai Chi class and just signed up. I didn’t know what it was. I had no idea at all about any martial art. I hadn’t studied anything, so that was my starting point. So it was just an extension of my physicalness, I guess I can say, because I’ve always been very physical and very active and searching for challenging physical activities. So the martial arts just fit that perfectly.
GW: Of course, the listeners can’t see what’s behind you, but I can. I should just tell everyone that there is a very impressive weights set up, so I would perhaps advise against trying to arm wrestle Carina, if you get the opportunity. But yeah, I mean, I started martial arts in the 80s also, and when I got to university and I went along to the Freshers Fair, where they have those stands and all the different clubs are trying to get you to join. I made a beeline for the martial arts clubs. Yeah, walked up to the Tai Chi table. And I said, “Where do I sign?” And this chap called Richard, he’s like “Now. Tai Chi is his martial art form from China,” and I’m like “No. Where do I sign?” Because I’d been wanting to do it for years and as soon as I got the chance. So what style of Tai Chi were you doing?
CC: Yang style.
GW: OK, yeah, I was doing Chen Man Chin because that’s what was available.
CC: Yes. Yes, I studied a little bit of that as well. Mm-Hmm.
GW: So have you stuck with your original style?
CC: I have. It’s been a long time, so it’s evolved over the years. The way I practise it is, I practise it as a martial art, which…
GW: which is not how most people do it.
CC: Yeah, especially in Yang style. Chen style, you still see some practise it as a martial art. Yang style, not so much anymore, but there is. There are some, but I definitely am towards the martial side.
GW: Yeah, about the hardest I’ve ever been in a martial arts class was in a Chen style Tai Chi class because when I was in Finland as an exchange student in 94, 95, I went along to the local Tai Chi club, which was Chen style. And this guy, most of the people in the class were, shall we say, most were women, most of them were not particularly interested in any kind of fighting stuff. They were doing it for cultural reasons. They were sinologists studying Chinese, and they wanted to do Tai Chi for kind of cultural reasons. And so most of the time I was the only actual martial artist in amongst them who was there for the martial arts bit. So he was always demonstrating on me. Doing this nice gentle move and there’s me kind of like squealing and howling as he shoves my face into the ground. Just about the hardest hit I’ve ever got is, he did a headbutt on my stomach, as he was coming up out of one of the low stances, and he lifted me off my feet.
CC: Wow, yeah.
GW: Yeah, to my mind Tai Chi is the most vicious of the martial arts I’ve ever done.
CC: Yes, it’s well hidden.
GW: Yeah, well, I hope we actually get the chance to do some push hands or something, because it sounds like that would be kind of fun.
CC: Yes. Yes, I love that.
GW: That might hurt quite a bit. Hurt me, I mean.
CC: I like to train. The training can be intense, but well, we could talk about that maybe later. But in all of the martial arts that I do, I train to learn how to control my body. And when you’re with a partner, of course, you sometimes you get excited and things happen. But the more you can control yourself, the more you can control your partner and hopefully not injure them. But you know, things happen. And when you’re sparring and things like that, it’s a different story.
GW: But so what does sparring look like in your Tai Chi class?
CC: For me, in my class, sparring and training is training. It’s not fighting. So I separate the two as far as when we’re sparring, it’s still controlled. For me, push hands is still very controlled. That can mean a lot of different things. It’s hard to define exactly. What do you mean by controlled? We would have to talk for hours.
GW: I’ve got time.
CC: It’s developing the techniques with your body and the principles that you’re trying to develop through the techniques. And the control of yourself. So when we spar, we can go full force and full power, but not at the expense of the opponent or your training partner. If I’m doing an arm break, I’m not going to break their arm of course, I’m not going to choke them. So you stop before the injury occurs. That doesn’t mean when you strike, you’re pulling your strikes. You understand what I’m saying? When you pull your strike, you’re actually pulling it. When you stop, where you want to stop, you’re controlling your movement. So that’s what I’m looking at. When we’re sparring you might make a light contact, but you’re trying to make the contact either as at a hair distance, so you’re controlling right where you stop or you touch lightly. But I don’t release force into the opponent. I do that on a heavy bag or a wall bag, you know. You need some other training method to release power into something, but I don’t do that into my training partner.
GW: Obviously we’re the same with swords. So for a practise with steel swords, we often use a car tire. One person holds the tire and the other one hits the side of the tire. That way, you can hit it really, really hard and there are no ethical consequences. We use pells and other training equipment. I think we’re pretty much on the same page there. Yeah, the thing about when you’re punching someone, it’s really easy to over commit if you get a bit carried away. And that’s the whole essence of it is, yes, if you overextend, then bad things should happen.
CC: Yes. And it’s a tricky thing because you want to commit, but you have to wait until it’s intercepted by the other person if they block you or parry, whatever they’re doing. If you’re intercepted, you need to be able to change on a dime. So as you know, if you’re overcommitted, you can’t make that change. That’s very tricky to be able to switch gears mid-flow and be able to change whether you have a weapon or not. It’s the same, in my opinion. It’s the same concept and the same principles apply. So it’s that control. That’s what I’m talking about as far as being in control of your body, being able to commit to something, but at the same time, being able to switch gears instantaneously when that when that attack is intercepted in some way.
GW: Yeah, absolutely. So you took up Wing Chun at some point?
CC: Yes, I started Win Chun in 93. And the reason was…
GW: I was going to ask, if you’ve got Tai Chi and you clearly love Tai Chi. What did that add?
CC: My original teacher in Tai Chi did not teach it as a martial art. He was a forms person, and I loved that. I loved the forms and I loved the movement, but there was a huge component that was missing. And here in Tucson at that time, I didn’t know of any other Tai Chi practitioner that practised as a martial art. And I saw the Wing Chun teacher who was here and his abilities, martially, were phenomenal. This blew me away. I saw him do a demonstration in Phoenix, and I knew at that moment I’m going to go to his school because, again, I didn’t know anything about Win Chun. I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was a Chinese martial art. That’s all I knew. And it wasn’t that I wanted to stay with the Chinese systems. It just happened that way. It really, to me when I watched him move, it didn’t really matter to me what art he was doing. I wanted to learn from him. And he taught and practised Wing Chun as a martial art. And so that’s when I made that switch, but I didn’t want to give up Tai Chi completely, so I kept doing my forms, but I incorporated more martial aspect into it than was originally taught to me.
GW: That’s really interesting, and I often get asked about what sorts of martial arts style. Friends who have got kids, for instance, “Oh, my child’s into martial arts. What style should they learn?” And generally speaking, my answer is that style doesn’t matter, it is the teacher that matters. If you get a good teacher, it doesn’t matter what style it is. The kid will be in good hands and will learn something useful.
CC: That is so true.
GW: In a safe environment. But yeah, it’s interesting that you go to Wing Chun to pick up the martial aspect because again, I study lots of different historical swordfighting styles and if you have someone who is a rapier fencer, for example, yes, they use cuts, but they don’t really cut that much because rapier is optimised for the thrust. So I would recommend rapier fencers to take up something like longsword or sabre or whatever so they really learn how cuts work properly. Similarly, when people are very much into, for example, smallsword, I’ll suggest they also take up, say, sabre or perhaps wrestling. So they get some of the, you know, what happens when things go wrong and you end up too close. So you kind of have to build your own personal art out of all of these sources that are available to you. So I’m curious. So now are you teaching Win Chun and Tai Chi separately?
GW: So you kept them distinct. You didn’t create the Cirrincione style of beating people up?
CC: No, I keep them separate. I keep them separate. But a lot of the concepts are the same. So there are a lot of crossover and similarities, of course, but I do keep them separate. Who knows? In the future, maybe there might be something else.
GW: And do you use weapons with both of those?
CC: Yes. Mostly empty handed, mostly unarmed. But we do use some weapons. I’m not as versed in weapons as I would like to be, but I’m still working on that.
GW: So, yeah, so are we all. I think that that stays true until you die.
CC: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure.
GW: So how did you get into the woodworking?
CC: Woodworking really came out of making the swords. I have never done any other type of woodworking. I’ve never made furniture. I’ve never made anything else. It would have been in the mid to late 90s. My Wing Chun teacher’s teacher, came from China to visit, and he brought with him a pair of wooden Baat Jaam Do. The are often called butterfly knives or butterfly swords. They’re the dual short swords.
GW: Short and very wide blade.
CC: Yes, about a three inch wide blade. The length can be anywhere from 11 inches to 15 inches, depending, and there’s different styles. But he brought a wooden pair with him, and I had never seen a wooden pair before, and I just instantly thought, hmm, I can make those. Not having any woodworking experience, but I craft things three dimensionally from my art background. So I just I thought I could try that. And that, combined with I had learnt some Chinese sword, through Tai Chi, the straight sword or the Jian and the Sabre. I hadn’t made those yet, but I was using those at the same time. And when I saw the Baat Jaam Do and it really sparked an interest in trying to make them. So that’s where that started, and I started experimenting with how to make them with what wood to use. And it took me. I would say a few years of research when I really started looking at making wooden swords, for myself and training partners at first and then I was thinking, well, maybe there’s a need for this out in the public, maybe people would like to have this. And at that time, as far as Chinese training weapons, wooden Chinese training weapons, there really wasn’t much of anything. There were there was some, out of China, some very poorly made wooden swords, which you may have seen. And they were they were God awful. They were horrible.
GW: I remember.
CC: And so when I started making the butterfly knives, I very quickly started making the other swords that I was familiar with. And that’s really how it started was just I saw the wooden Baat Jaam Do, it just went from there, and I haven’t stopped since.
GW: It’s a long way from making your own training sword to deciding, actually, this is what I want to do for a living. What made you decide to do that?
CC: Well, it was basically the need for it at the time. I really thought there might be an interest for Chinese style of martial artists. At first it started with that, and it turned out there was an interest. I can’t remember when I put up my first website. It only had a few items on it, and that would have been the late 90s, early 2000s, and I really wanted to service Chinese martial artists who wanted to train with wooden swords, and that was really the reason. I didn’t know if it would. I had another job at that time, and so I was kind of juggling two things at once. But it slowly switched over to the sword making just took over my life. It just completely took over within a few years.
GW: You must have made the decision at some point to invest in some serious machine tools. I can’t imagine you’re doing that without a decent table saw or probably a decent band saw or maybe a CNC machine or a table router or something like that.
CC: Yes, I don’t have a CNC machine, but I do OK. I use of the typical woodworking tools, table saw, band saw, router, planer. So, at that time, I guess I can explain. I was working as a model maker, which is there are companies out there who fabricate environments for zoos, museums, aquariums, that sort of thing. I was working as a model maker for a company. I quit there, to make a long story short, I quit there and started my own business doing that. I had a shop, not a woodworking shop, but a shop that had some woodworking tools already, I had a band saw, I had some tools like that. I did have a small shop. My shop has gotten bigger.
GW: They do. They do that.
CC: It had to. I was cramped into this small little space, and I had to expand at some point. But that’s how the transition came about. When I finished college, I got a job as a model maker. And so then I started dabbling with the wooden sword making at the same time that I had started my own business. And so I was doing both at the same time and the sword making just took over, so I stopped doing the other job that I had. And it was a decision because I knew the sword making was not going to be a huge money-maker. It’s a very difficult way to earn a living. It’s very physically demanding and it can be up and down as far as sales and not knowing, you know, but I am a martial artist, first and foremost. So I decided to take the leap and pursue that. And it’s been my sole source of income since 2005. So it’s working.
GW: Good. I’m very familiar with the maths because I worked as a cabinet maker for four years. Getting paid piece by piece and only getting paid once for that piece. That’s a hard road to hoe. Writing books is great. You write it once and you can sell it for as many times as you like. That’s it, you’re done.
CC: Yes, I have to keep making these. I have to slow it down. It’s actually gotten to the point where I want to teach more. I think I’m on the opposite track that you are. I think I’ve heard you say that you’re teaching less and doing more woodworking.
GW: Yeah. Well, that’s mostly because of the pandemic. And I can go to my shed at the end of the garden and do woodwork. In a normal year, I would spend probably twice as much time doing sword stuff as I would do woodwork. I don’t do woodwork commercially any more. I make pieces and I give them to friends and family. I’ve done the thing of taking a hobby and turning it into a job. I did it the cabinet making, and it wasn’t the right job for me. I did it with swords and it worked really well. But if I start selling wooden pieces it’s going to become a job. And then there’s just there’s just no fun to it. I mean, OK, this is terrible for the listeners. I’m very sorry but I am going to turn the camera around so you can see that little chest of drawers. I will put a picture in the show notes. I actually I just made it basically so I could have this drawer, which is full of my fountain pens. I hand turned all the little knobs on it. It’s all done in the most enjoyable way, not in the most efficient way. Hand cut all the dovetails, that sort of thing.
CC: And no stress, no time.
GW: You can’t do that when you’re charging for it. It took, I guess, from conception to finished thing was about maybe three months, something like that. But that’s me, maybe spending an hour in the afternoon maybe five times a week and then the occasional weekend day, three or four hours, perhaps. I don’t even know how long it took to make because it doesn’t matter.
CC: Sure, sure. Yeah.
GW: But as soon as you start getting paid for it, that matters. That is pretty hard.
CC: Yes. It is difficult because with deadlines and I don’t want people to have to wait. But they do have to wait. Right now, and for the last few years if you order one sword from me, the wait is about three months because I have that much backlog. I’m working, well, I used to work seven days a week. I’m trying to cut back on that a little bit.
GW: Yeah, that’s a really good idea.
CC: I can’t keep that up forever. I am trying to slow that down. So people just have to wait longer.
GW: And you know, a three month wait for something that is made to order is not a long wait. It really isn’t. I’ve waited two years for a sword before. And even that was not extraordinary. And honestly, if you have a waiting list, maybe you should put your prices up.
CC: Yes, I’ve been. I’ve been advised many times by various loved ones. Yes, I do. I am working on that. I am going to be doing that more and more as time goes on.
GW: One of the silliest things I ever did was when I started in 2001 doing swordsmanship for a living is I set the price of weekend seminar at a thousand euros because it was a nice round number and I was a professional and it was a reasonable and I just didn’t think about it properly. And I didn’t put it up for 10 years. Which means effectively my weekend rate as I got better, as I got more experience, my actual rate was going down. No! So stupid.
CC: Yes, I did exactly the same thing with the swords. Exactly the same. I didn’t change my prices for a long time. And then all of a sudden I realised, wait a minute, I’m barely making it here. And I’ve been doing this a long time, and there’s a lot of skill and expertise that goes into it. And that’s worth something. And yeah, so I am working on that and my wooden dummies have a two year waiting list.
GW: Right. Yes, we need to talk about your wooden dummies. Most listeners, I’m guessing, have some vague idea of what it might be. If you could just tell everybody what it is and then tell us about how you make them, that would be great.
CC: A wooden dummy is traditionally used in Wing Chun. Other systems use it now, but it’s basically a pell with three arms and a leg on it that you use mostly for unarmed training. You use it when you don’t have a training partner or even if you do, still, the wooden dummy is an important tool to use. Even if you have training partners. The dummy doesn’t move, you must move around it. So you’re working on your footwork and your distance and your range and your hand techniques and your foot techniques. Traditionally they used to be a post in the ground from what I understand. And now they’re built on a stand and they move a little bit generally, so they give you some movement feedback. But it’s a really important training tool to develop a lot of the principles of Wing Chun specifically, but any art, really.
GW: Are you using it for bone hardening as well?
CC: A little bit. It’s not meant to hit hard, but you do tap it and you do issue energy or force into it. But that will increase over time as you use it. So yes, the bone density does occur, but it occurs through the tapping. Put it this way, if you’re working on the dummy and you get bruises, you’re hitting it too hard. It should be a lighter touch. But when you get used to it and you’ve been using it for a long time, from somebody looking at the outside, they might look to say, oh, you’re hitting it so hard to you. If you’re used to it, it’s not that hard. It looks like it’s hard, but it’s not really enough to damage you or to give you bruises. But at first you’re going to get bruises until you get used to it.
GW: And are you punching it?
CC: I do make contact, but then again, I’m controlling it, so I’m not punching it with my fist. With an open palm, you can hit it harder. With your fist you’re going to make contact, but much lighter because you don’t want to hit something solid with your fist, it wouldn’t be a good idea. You don’t want to break anything.
GW: Well, I mean, Kill Bill. It works in the movies. You punch through a board and the bride punches through the coffin that they buried her in when she’s alive, in that very freaky and horrible scene. So obviously it works because it’s there in the movie, we can see it.
CC: Yeah, I know, the movies are a great resource for things that can be done.
GW: It’s where I get all of my training ideas from.
CC: Yeah, for sure. For sure.
GW: So why do they have a two year waiting list?
CC: The wooden dummy, the way I make them. And let me also say I don’t have any employees. I work completely alone. I package everything. I ship everything. I purchase my materials. I make everything. And I always have a backlog of sword orders coming in. And the wooden dummies are more time consuming. So I’m always working on one. But I’m able to make because of my schedule of working, of making the swords and working in the dummies at the same time, I’m able to make five to six dummies per year. If I was only making wooden dummies, I could make more. But I’m trying to make everything.
GW: And also you would die of boredom. If you just made the dummies, you would get bored.
CC: Yeah, I do like variety, so I have a backlog for the dummies. I probably have about, well, two years, more than two years’ worth, I have about somewhere between 15 and 18 people on my waiting list. So there you go.
GW: If you’re making five a year, that’s three or four years.
CC: Right. So that’s just the way it is. They’re time consuming to make. And there aren’t a whole lot of makers out there. There are some wooden dummies out there. I make them as traditionally as possible. I use my teacher’s old dummy as my guide, and that’s what I pattern it after.
GW: What woods do you make it out of?
CC: The wooden dummy I make from hard maple.
GW: Why, particularly?
CC: A few reasons. The hard maple is a nice, dense wood. It is nice to turn on a lathe.
GW: It’s lovely. The knobs on that little chest are hard maple. The top left drawer is made from it as well. It’s one of my favourite woods.
CC: As far as wood turning, maple is really nice and it’s that tight grain structure that that really lends itself, and it cuts well and it has a nice weight to it. For the wooden dummies you want it to be. It doesn’t matter so much when it’s hanging on the stand. The weight of it doesn’t matter too much, but it has a feel to it when it’s when it’s heavier. And the price. The hard maple that I use, it’s not super expensive.
GW: That’s an American thing. I got some beautiful handmade hand saws from Florip Tool Works from the States. Maple is their default basic wood for the handles and beech, which is what the default wood would be in Europe, is like ten bucks extra or something, because that’s like a special wood, whereas the maple is ordinary, whereas over here, maple is special and the beech is ordinary. So yes, I got maple and cherry on mine.
CC: Yeah. It depends on where you are for sure. But the maple is just really nice to turn and it’s a beautiful wood. So I only make them out of hard maple. I don’t use other woods for the dummies.
GW: I don’t suppose you’re turning the actual post on a lathe, are you?
CC: I am.
GW: Wow, that’s a big lathe.
CC: Yes. It is not a traditional type of lathe. It does hold the post and it spins it. But I’m cutting it with a skill saw on a track above it. And so the track lowers down as I get around. So I’m not using a traditional lathe tool to do the cutting, but it is spinning, which is a little scary because it’s about 100 pounds of wood spinning.
GW: Yeah, and it’s spinning against a saw blade that’s also spinning.
GW: Oh my god, if something goes wrong, that is nasty. Do you have all of your fingers?
CC: I do. All of them. Yes, I have some, some safety precautions.
GW: So you’re milling those posts out of lumber. I imagine you’re laminating it together, is that right?
CC: Yes, I am. I’m laminating it together. They were traditionally made out of one solid tree trunks or something that was solid like that. But then the problem with that is cracking and splitting, so I laminate them together. There’s actually 12 pieces of wood laminated together, so it is a process of laminating, cutting, shaping. It’s quite the process, doing it that way.
GW: Yeah, sure, I can imagine. OK, each piece is made individually. Now as a maker, I totally get why that’s much more enjoyable than production runs, but why do you do it that way?
CC: I do work in batches, so I don’t start to finish one sword at a time. I am making them individually, but I work in batches of somewhere between five and eight pieces a week. I would like to lower that to maybe three to five swords per week at some point.
GW: You need to put your prices up a lot, then.
CC: I do. I used to make more like five to 10 pieces a week, which is a lot. That was that was non-stop, just non-stop working. And so I’ve lowered it down a little bit. But so yes, I work in batches, but like I said, I always have a backlog of orders. So when you place your order, it will be two and a half months before I can even start your order because I’m working on all of that backlog. So I do work in batches.
GW: But you don’t do any production pieces like, you know, 10 identical longswords that you put on your website and then sell.
CC: No, I have thought about trying to do that. Right now, I literally can’t. I have no spare time. I always have a backlog. And basically this whole time since 2005, I have never not had a backlog. I have never gotten to the point where I’m done with everything and waiting for orders to come in. I’m not there.
GW: You don’t need to spend much time marketing there. Also you don’t get a holiday either.
CC: No, I don’t. I have a website. I have also a Facebook page and an Instagram page for my Raven Studios. But I very rarely ever post anything because if I do, I get a rush of orders and I’m already getting enough orders coming in. So I really don’t market. I don’t do much advertising at all.
GW: So where do those orders come from them?
CC: More word of mouth. Yes, it’s mostly word of mouth. Some people just search online for wooden swords or wooden wasters or things like that. And they find me online. But a lot of it is word of mouth. Teachers will refer me to their students and things like that.
GW: So you’re not really in competition then with Purple Heart Armory?
CC: They were they were making wasters before I was, I believe. There was maybe one other company. There weren’t too many, but there were a few. I think they’ve gone in a different direction as far as synthetics and different things.
GW: They’re doing the wooden stuff as well.
CC: They’re still doing the wood. I do make for the Western martial arts, I do make some, still not as much as I used to. Mostly, my orders are for Chinese martial arts, but I do get orders for the Western martial arts also and some Japanese and some Filipino, which are the other items that I make. But yeah, the wasters. I wouldn’t say competition. I think there’s enough work to go around for all the for all the makers that are out there. I’ve never really looked at it as competition. I think there’s enough. There’s plenty to go around.
GW: In the self-publishing space, I publish most of my books because you make a lot of money that way. Writers… Something came up that co-op-petition. Everyone is cooperating with each with each other. And I mean, from a purely business analysis point of view, an external observer would say those two writers are in competition with each other because people will buy that book or this other book. When in fact, actually lots of people buy both books, because why would you buy just one book? Likewise, why would you buy just one sword? That doesn’t make any sense. You want all the swords.
CC: Yes, absolutely. When it comes to swords, you want them all.
GW: All right. So I’m guessing primarily when you do weapons training you are primarily using wooden swords. What, to your mind, are the advantages of wooden swords?
CC: The primary advantage you will to me for most people, sound like a disadvantage. The primary advantage to me is that they can break.
CC: And the reason that I see that as an advantage is because let me put it this way, if you’re using a sword that you know is indestructible, you will conduct yourself in a certain manner. If you are using a sword that you know can break, if it’s fragile, even. Wooden swords aren’t fragile, but if it was, say, go to that extreme, you would conduct yourself, you would move in a certain way, wouldn’t you? You would control your movement. So to me, I believe, and it’s not just because I make wooden swords. I truly believe having wooden swords as part of your training kit is very beneficial to your overall training. I don’t think it should be your only tool, of course. I think it should be part of your toolkit for that reason. That is, there is a definite benefit to me.
GW: That’s a really good point, because of course, historically for firstly, wooden swords were used, I don’t know about China, but certainly in Europe, wooden wasters were used historically since forever.
CC: Yes. Look at the Japanese Bokken. Same thing.
GW: They are very useful training tool. You can hit your friends without immediately cutting their head off. But also, you can’t hit that hard with a wooden sword without breaking something, the sword or the person because they are actually damned dangerous. Which is a good thing if you’re simulating a weapon.
CC: Right, right. That really comes from my training in Wing Chun. When we train in Wing Chun and we do something called Chi Sau, which you’re not familiar with as far as push hands, it’s sticky hands. And we when we when we train, there’s also an extension of Chi Sao that is called Gor Sao. Chi Sao is more prearranged drills, Gor Sao is not prearranged. It’s more random. So you don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what you’re going to do. And it is within parameters and within rules. But it’s much more freeform. We don’t wear any protective equipment, we don’t wear gloves, we don’t wear chest protection, we don’t wear pads. We’re controlling ourselves even when we’re going more full speed and random. It’s a very important part of our training to learn how to control your movement, to learn how to control your body to that type of degree, where you’re not injuring yourself or your training partner. I extend that to sword training as well, which is why I use the wooden swords. And again, we don’t use any protective equipment. Face protection with protecting your eyes, yes, but as far as padding, we don’t wear protective equipment that way. Now, of course, if you’re doing something more where you’re competing and you’re sparring, then you of course, would need that. But I’m talking about more, more controlled training, which can be fairly intense if you build up to the point where you can control yourself and your partner can as well. You wouldn’t want to do this with beginners. But if both training partners are at the level that they can move intensely with control, there is a great benefit to that type of training, as well as other types of training. This again is one type of training in a in a full spectrum of methods of training. So the wooden swords to me, the way I think of it, lends itself to that, and at one point years ago, I dabbled with synthetics. But there’s a kind of a story with that, but I decided to abandon that idea and stick with the wooden training swords.
GW: I really don’t like the plastic swords. They have a use case to my mind, which is if you are starting a club and you need something that is relatively safe to give a complete beginner and you don’t have a great deal of money, they are the cheapest and most durable bang for the buck, so you can put a sword-like object into lots of people’s hands at once. And it doesn’t break the bank and you only have to buy them once and they’ll last pretty much forever.
GW: So, as a way of getting people started, I don’t have a problem with them. But from any kind of serious training and aesthetic point of view, I just cannot stand them. I won’t have them in my salle. They’re horrible. What are your feelings on synthetics?
CC: Pretty much the same, same idea. They have their use. They definitely have their use. From my experience and this is the story that I was going to tell you. I had a customer who had ordered a wooden pair of the Baat Jaam Do, the butterfly’s swords, and they broke. He contacted me and asked me if I had ever thought of making them out of plastic because it’d be more durable. And I hadn’t really thought of it at that point, but I agreed. I said I would try that. So I did some research. I looked around. I tried some materials. I sent him a prototype and he broke those.
GW: What is he doing with these things?
CC: That was my point. He didn’t break the blade, but the hilt, the way I had the hilt constructed, the hilt came apart. But it was because of the striking on the blade. And that’s when I thought, hmm, this is promoting a type of training that I don’t believe in, and I don’t try to tell my customers how to train or anything like that. It’s not my place. But I can control myself with what I make them, you know, so as far as synthetic plastic, when people hold a plastic or even a plastic sword in their mind, even if it’s subconscious they know that this is plastic, it won’t break. So they conduct themselves in a way.
GW: And also, it’s plastic. It’s not real. It doesn’t feel like a real training tool.
CC: It does something mentally, in my opinion, and not overall, it’s just that’s why I decided not to go in that direction because I didn’t want to promote a type of training that I don’t really believe in if they’re used in that way, if they’re not used in that way, fine, that that’s perfectly fine. But if they’re used to just beat the crap out of each other and beat the crap out of each other’s swords, then I just didn’t want to promote that type of training. So I stick with wood.
GW: I’ve seen similar things with steel swords like one of my students bought a steel sword through my school back when we were doing that. Perfectly good sword from a good maker. And then he took it off to some other club and he came back and complained because it was basically like the edges were mashed into these sorts of, it was like somebody had put it on an anvil and beaten the shit out of it with a crowbar. I looked at it and was like, what the hell have you done to that sword? Show me exactly what you were doing. They were doing these ridiculous edge-on-edge parries. A really hard up-striking blow against a really hard down-striking blow. And that’s what’s going to happen is you’re going to destroy the sword. A sharp sword you will destroy even faster.
CC: Yes. Thank you. I bow to you.
GW: That sort of training, it destroys steel swords as well.
CC: Yes. And for people who learn from people such as yourself, they’re going to learn that that’s not correct. But there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t learning that or are just playing around by themselves. They don’t have an instructor. They just have a sword and they want to they want to try swinging it around. Don’t do that.
GW: This is a perfectly good thing to do.
CC: Get an instructor. I did receive actually early on when I used to make my long swords with a pommel that was attached. I make them integral now. I used to make them attached. The pommel broke off because and he sent the sword back to me. And this is a wooden sword and exactly what you’re saying. It was dented. It didn’t break, but it was smashed along the entire blade from tip to guard. On both sides. It’s like, what are you doing? So yeah.
GW: I have a spear. It’s in my shed at the moment or I can show it to you. It’s a training spear, it has got a rubber point on the end. I bought that staff in I think about 1995 and I’ve used it for quarterstaff stuff, Japanese and European, and I’ve used it as a spear shaft and I’ve even put a poleax head on it at one point and used it as a poleax and whatever, and it has gotten a bit mashed up and every now that I have to sand it because otherwise I’ll get splinters. But that thing has stood up. It’s just an ordinary life bow staff. So like a six foot long, well, I guess it’s about inch and a bit thick. I bought it from some martial arts shop twenty five years ago and is still working just fine. Because I haven’t let anybody just sort of smash it over and over again with a stick because why would you do that?
CC: Well, the movies, you know.
GW: Good point. Where we get all of our training ideas.
CC: I mean, I don’t know what your opinion is as far as the wooden swords. I know many people don’t use them anymore, but I’m just curious as to what your thought is on them as far as pros and cons.
GW: My thought is that for what we do, for most styles that we do, the best option if you can get it is a decent quality steel training sword. Particularly for things like a rapier. Because you just can’t make a wooden rapier that’s actually going to behave like a rapier. Wood doesn’t behave that way over that sort of length and that cross section. So what I advise people who are just starting is if they can realistically save up for a blunt steel sword, they should use just any old broomstick. Something which is five dollars or something or maybe 15 if you get a nice one. You cut to the right length and that just kind of keeps you busy while you’re saving up the money. But if it’s going to be a while, then I would much, much prefer students to get a wooden sword, to a plastic one. But if it’s a club, then the plastic swords are more durable, they’re cheaper. If you buy it for other beginners to train on it makes sense to get the cheapest, most general option. If it’s going to be your own training weapon, then absolutely wood. And there are plenty of places where people don’t have places to train other than to public parks. And there are some places where you really shouldn’t be swinging steel swords around in a public park.
CC: Yes, absolutely.
GW: You can get arrested. I have had the experience of a police officer holding a submachine gun coming up to figure out what we were doing. In the end he was like, oh, that’s really cool, carry on. So it wasn’t a problem. But yeah, but there are some places where that can get you arrested, and in that case, having absolutely wooden swords would be my absolute go to.
CC: Sure, sure, and a lot of people can only practise in parks.
GW: If you’re practising in parks and public, wooden swords would be my choice, not least because they’re also historical. If you’re trying to recreate, for example, a 14th century knightly combat system, it’s probable that a lot of the young knights in training, so kids have the right social class who have been packed off to learn how to be knights. They would have probably done quite a lot of their practise with wooden swords. I can’t document that, but it just seems very likely. And we do know that people were training with wooden swords, for example, George Silver mentions it in his Paradoxes of Defence. So, you know, they’re historical, they are reasonably cheap. If you use them properly, they’re extremely durable. They don’t upset the police and they are not something you get from Tupperware. I don’t tend to use using myself because the places where I tend to go there are steel swords schools everywhere and I have dozens of steel swords. But yeah, I would certainly recommend them.
CC: Yeah. And like you said, they’re historical. I believe most cultures used wooden swords in their training at some point in time, earlier on. And you can’t prove that for some cultures, but they’re still used today heavily in Japanese and Okinawan arts and Filipino arts and the Chinese systems. So they have their place. It’s not an absolute for sure. You definitely want to have other types of swords, or the steel swords, for sure. And they’re cool and beautiful, right?
GW: I’m a woodworker. You don’t have to sell me on them. It is quite a thing to set up a company to make wooden objects for people, particularly in a niche like that. What has been the hardest thing, the biggest challenge?
CC: Raising my prices, right?
GW: So, people listening get in quick and get your order in.
CC: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
GW: But before they do that, expect to wait six months for them.
CC: Yes, there you go. Thank you. Yeah, the most difficult part is the amount of time. I didn’t realise I would be this busy when I started this. That has been the most difficult. I have had times where it’s dipped down as far as sales of dipping down and then having to worry about, am I going to get enough orders in? And that is pretty much not an issue anymore. It was towards the beginning, but now it’s more managing the time and trying not to work seven days a week. I’m somewhat of a workaholic because I love to train and I love the work that I do, and I love to serve martial artists of all different styles to enable them to train in their art with a finely crafted tool. I get great pleasure from that. And so it’s very satisfying. But the difficult part is the time that it takes to do that.
GW: Fair enough. OK. So you don’t have a great deal of spare time? So there must be some ideas you maybe wish you had time to have acted on. What is the best idea you haven’t acted on yet?
CC: The best idea that I haven’t acted on yet, again, raising my prices. Actually, what I really want to do is teach more. I really enjoy teaching, and I am working towards that as far as having more time to teach. And I would have to say, well, I have sort of acted on it, but I haven’t really full-fledged acted on it yet. So I guess that’s my answer.
GW: I totally get the wanting to teach more because yes, I teach because I really like it.
CC: The decision for me to begin practising martial arts, was the best decision I ever made. And for many, many reasons, it has benefited me profoundly in so many ways, and we wouldn’t be talking here today if I hadn’t started martial arts all those years ago. For me to help people to train by making them tools is one thing, and I love that, but I also love to teach. So that is something that I really want to work more towards in the future is having the ability to teach.
GW: So what’s stopping you?
CC: Time and partially time because of the Raven Studios takes up so much of my time, so slowing that down is crucial. The other thing that makes it difficult for me personally is where we live and I don’t want to move, but teaching from where I’m located, and teaching in person, I know there’s people teach online and all that. I don’t do any of that at the time at this time, I don’t teach online. But that is another avenue that I need to explore. But I would much prefer teaching in person. My husband also practices Wing Chun. We teach together, and we were starting to do some seminars and travelling, but that came to an end last year. So that wasn’t an option anymore. Hopefully, that’ll come back. But yeah, it’s the time and where I’m located. I have one student that travels from Tucson. He can come up to see me once a week. He travels an hour each way. And he’s very dedicated. We train for at least three hours when he’s here and he practises at home. So I don’t expect to have a big school. It’s not that I want to have a big commercial school. I would just like to have five to 10 students. That would be fine. That would be great. And so we have a handful now, but a few more would be great locally.
GW: So if anyone’s listening to this who is looking for a martial arts school near Oracle, Arizona, where should we send them? Is there a website?
CC: I have we have a website for the Wing Chun as well as the Tai Chi. Actually, the Raven Studios would probably be the easiest way to find us.
GW: We’ll put a link in the show notes.
CC: Yeah, that sounds great.
GW: So. Taking time off from making wooden swords to spend it, hitting your students with wooden swords, it does sound like a good trade off to me.
CC: It does. Yes. That sounds wonderful to me.
GW: Thank you so much for spending the time with me. I mean, I know you should have been in the workshop making wooden swords, but instead you’re sat talking to me instead. I do appreciate it.
CC: It was wonderful to talk to you. I really appreciate it.