Karate boards, or Makiwara as they are called in Japan, are extremely strong and flexible pieces of equipment. Originally from Okinawa, they are an essential part of any karate club. During the course of daily classes, they will take quite a pounding from the students. So do they break? Does the Sensei have to install a brand new one every few weeks? Are they made using a special type of wood? Did the Japanese karate masters pass down some secret knowledge for how to make indestructible punching boards?
Karate boards, known as Makiwara boards, are not easy to break. Makiwara boards have been used for centuries to prepare warriors for hand-to-hand combat with their enemy. They were made to withstand a rigorous training regimen and, as such, were crafted with resilient materials and constructed to endure years of vigorous punching and kicking.
So yes, they are not easily broken, definitely not for the normal mortal. Bruce Lee would probably have been able to reduce one to splinters within a few hours of lightning-quick punching and kicking, but the average Bruce would have to whale away at the Makiwara with a baseball bat before it gave up the smallest sliver of wood. This begs the question; why are they so well made? What are they made from? And what is a Makiwara board in the first place?
What is a Makiwara board anyway?
A Makiwara, or Karate Board, in its most rudimentary form, is a simple crude wooden plank. It either is secured in the ground, or in a frame bolted to the floor and it is sometimes even mounted to the wall of the Dojo. It usually comprises an upright beam to which a foam-filled leather pad is fitted or, for the hard-core karateka, a simple rough rope is wound around the striking area.
There are two main styles of Makiwara – the Shuri and the Ude. The Shuri, or flexible Makiwara, will rebound when struck as they’re intended to replicate the effect of a punch on a person. This type can be hit as hard as you like or, to put it more accurately, as hard as you can.
The stiffer variety, the more traditional variety, and the kind you may have seen in countless martial arts movies are utilized for toughening the hands and feet of a karateka and to ensure proper striking technique. They are often just round wooden posts around 7 or 8 feet tall with the lower 3 feet being buried in the ground for stability and rigidity. The striking pad is mostly made from rough rope, traditionally straw or rice rope. You will need to have some experience under your belt if you wish to strike this type of Makiwara without damaging your hands and feet. These are Ude Makiwara.
How to use the Makiwara
Makiwara are training aids. That is all they are. They are simply designed to help train for proper striking technique. While you may be tempted to hit the board with as much strength as you can muster, the only things you will come away with after a vigorous session of smacking the board with great sound and fury are bleeding knuckles and toes, injured fingers and wrists, and a whole lot of damaged pride.
We would thoroughly recommend taking it easy in the beginning stages. Learning how to strike without buckling your wrist, learning how to make a proper fist for this type of exercise, and focusing your energies on specific, targeted parts of the board. In other words; gently does it, Bruce. Trying to impress your girlfriend or your classmates with your punching power will probably achieve the inverse of your intention.
What is the Makiwara made from?
The upright post is wooden. Just about any wood from oak to pine – with some exotic woods (cherry, maple, walnut) thrown into the mix.
The frame of the flexible Shuri Makiwara is made from wood or steel and is either surface mounted or buried. The Ude style, the rigid type of Makiwara, is simply buried securely in the ground and concreted in place.
The Shuri striking pad is usually a leather-covered foam pad and the Ude has a straw pad or, often, merely a simple rope wound around the upper portion of the pole.
Are Makiwara boards they built to last?
Like almost everywhere in the world these days, you will find dodgy manufacturers and sales representatives trying to sell you inferior products for less than inferior prices. Fortunately, in the world of Karate, tradition and excellence count for much and you may be surprised at how well constructed your Makiwara will be.
They are designed to endure countless hours of punching, kicking and other forms of martial abuse so they are, generally speaking, extremely well made. We would recommend that you choose natural materials for your board as these are more resilient and longer-lasting than synthetic materials.
One of the finest properties of wood is its supreme durability. There are countless examples of ancient wooden tools, boats, and even entire wooden structures being unearthed by archaeologists after centuries of being buried below the surface. If wood is preserved properly, it will last for centuries all the while retaining its strong, light, and flexible qualities.
Remarkably, it is also able to absorb water and swell its fibers during times of high humidity or in damp environments, and then releasing that water when conditions allow without undue damage to its structure. You can easily see this effect during periods of high rainfall or humidity; your wooden doors or windows will not open as easily or seat in their frames as neatly as they do during the drier seasons of the year. This is also the reason that unseasoned wood will not burn without a great deal of effort and half a gallon of gasoline.
The science behind it all
Wood is an incredibly strong and rigid material but it is also light, flexible and able to be shaped into a myriad of forms and shapes. It has somewhat of an advantage over isotropic materials (those materials that have a uniform molecular structure) such as plastic and steel that behave predictably and consistently in any direction whenever stresses are applied to them.
Wood, on the other hand, has an anisotropic composition due to its annual ring-and-grain growth structure that allows it to easily withstand impacts, stresses and pressures that would make steel or plastic fracture and break.
This anisotropic construction can be easily demonstrated; if you bend a twig or a branch it will flex in the direction of the force you’re applying. You will be unable, however, to stretch the branch along its length if you try to pull it from both ends. This is known as compressive strength and wood has a lot of it.
The same holds true when you’re chopping wood. You will find that you are easily able to split a log along the grain with one blow of an ax, but anyone who has been hard at work chopping logs of wood for a winter fire will know that it is rather more difficult to perform the same feat when attempting to chop the log through the grain.
These anisotropic properties are what make the Shuri Makiwara so durable and able to withstand punch after kick after heavy strike. The upright board of the Shuri is assembled using the longitudinal grain of the wood. This makes it extremely supple and, more importantly, very elastic. Every time it is hit, it bends with the stress placed on it and then returns to the same position.
For these purposes, and with regard to the Ude Makiwara, you may imagine your fist or your foot in the place of the ax we mentioned previously. In effect, you are chopping against the grain using your hands and feet. It is a safe bet that, if handled rashly or inexpertly, the log of wood will win this battle against you and your more brittle extremities.
Makiwara are durable and not easily broken and if you are currently in the market for a Karate Board may we suggest you follow these simple tips:
- Avoid anything made from plastic or steel.
- Go for the wooden Makiwara.
- Make sure that it comes with a decent leather-covered rubber pad to prevent your knuckles and feet from looking like they’ve been the star attraction in a horror movie. You can always fit a macho-looking rough rope at a later stage or when you feel your hands are made of titanium or you have a new girlfriend to impress
- If you are a beginner (and there is no shame in that), the Shuri Makiwara is probably going to be a better purchase. It is more forgiving to inaccurate technique and will save you several trips to the podiatrist or a hand surgeon.
- If you are confident that your skill level is up to scratch then you may find the Ude Makiwara to be more to your liking. This type of Makiwara will demand from you an exceptional and consistent technique if you are not to break your limbs upon the alter of your ego. A clumsy assault or, even less forgivable, an inadequate proficiency within the empire of the Ude will ruin your day rather quickly.
- When all is said and done though, go out and get your Karate Board, mount it securely, and start practicing.