April 02, 2009

Recipe for Making Swords

I believe it was toward the latter half of my second year of college, spring 2003, that I first was introduced to the concept of a “boffer”, or foam sword. I’ve never come up with my own word, and the ones on their wiki entry make sense. I usually call it a play sword, or something like it. My roommate (Daniel Wise) was taking a karate class and they had a few sessions of weapons training. He and some of his friends used a version of a boffer for weapons training.

I sensed their potential immediately. This was the sword of my dreams, what I wished I’d had all my years as a kid. I’ve always been fascinated with swords and dueling: I recall asking my grandmother for a “real sword and shield” for Christmas when I was seven or eight. However, every sword I owned, particuarly the imitation swords one gives to children, disappointed me. They broke far too easily. The cool-looking plastic sword was worthless: one decent swing and it would bend in half. Let alone a full length duel, like the ones my heroes engaged in (think Star Wars and Princess Bride). I later turned to sticks and wood. I had better results: they had more heft and could withstand longer duels, but fighting with them almost inevitably broke them and wound up with me dripping blood from my knuckles. I wish someone had shown me how to make a boffer.

Properly constructed (meaning those constructed by me :)), a boffer has the following virtues:

  1. It usually won’t hurt anyone. See caveats below.
  2. It will almost never break under ordinary conditions. Yes, they are more brittle in cold weather; yes, an adult swinging at full power can crack them; but they’re tougher than they look and can take a very decent amount of beating. If you’re swinging hard enough to break them, you’re swinging way too hard.
  3. They are enormous amounts of fun. They will not teach you true swordfighting, but they will give you a chance to have fun and live out a bit of those dreams derived from Star Wars and Princess Bride. And I believe there’s something precious in those dreams, even if they bear little to no resemblance to real sword fights.

As with all things, they come with caveats:

  1. You can be hurt. Direct hard blows to head can hurt a lot, particularly on the ears. Stabs to the eyes can be bad, too. In general, the worst injuries I’ve seen these inflict come when you’re wearing something hard against your skin. I have a scar from being hit hard across my forehead, driving the frame of my glasses into my skull. I’ve had a child draw blood when fighting me when he struck my wristwatch and drove the buttons into my wrist. The worst single injury I’ve ever seen was when a friend used a really awesome model of an old-fashioned helmet with a metal noseguard. A direct hit on the face drove the noseguard through his upper lip, requiring a number of stitches to close.
  2. Your sword hand will likely take a beating. If you don’t wear gloves, you will inevitably be hit hard enough on the knuckles that you’ll get a nasty bruise. This bruise can take a couple of weeks to heal. Do not swordfight until it’s healed: you’ll make it worse. Wearing gloves (I prefer simple leather work gloves) significantly ameliorates this.
  3. I would advise against making these swords heavier and less flexible by reinforcing with wooden or metal cores. Bruised fingers are bad enough: cracked bones in your fingers (and elsewhere) are much, much worse. Keep it fun. Or adopt more rules and greater protection.

This is what you’ll need to make one, using my methods. All of this, except the athletic tape, can be readily acquired at Lowes or Home Depot. Most grocery stores or Walmart-type stores will stock athletic tape (as well as, duh, atheletic stores).

1. 600 psi PVC pipe. (1/2 inch or 3/4 inch in diameter)
For a one-handed sword (32 inches in my standard length for such a weapon), I’d advise the 1/2 inch. It’s my favorite diameter. For a longer sword, you can use either. I’d lean toward a 3/4 inch diameter for a two-handed sword: 1/2 inch just bends too much. It’s commonly sold in 8 or 10 foot lengths.
2. Foam pipe insulation.
The practical use of this is to insulate hot and cold water pipes. I’ve seen two versions of this: a cheaper gray variety that works fairly well, and a much more expensive and heavier black variety. I prefer the black variety: it is self-sealing to a large degree and heals from punishment a lot better than the other. I was forced to rebuild the “blades” of a number of the gray foam swords: I have never yet had to completely replace the “blade” of one with black foam. Important note: buy the next size up from the diameter of the PVC pipe. So if you’re using 1/2 inch PVC, use 3/4 inch foam pipe insulation. and for 3/4, use 1 inch. You don’t want a really tight fit, which is what you’ll have if you buy the same size.
3. Good quality duct tape.
A good part of the fun comes in deciding what color to make your sword, now that they offer duct tape in so many hues. I have not yet tried Gorilla Tape, but it looks like it’d be fine.
4. A roll of athletic tape.
This is used in making the grip. You want something your hands can hold onto easily. I used masking tape originally, but athletic tape has never worn out in my experience (though I’m sure steady use, day in day out, for months on end, would wear it out).
5. An end cap for each sword you want to make
This will go on the handle of the sword: it covers one end. That way, if you drop the sword onto hard concrete and it lands right on the end, this cracks and is easily replaced, instead of having the core PVC pipe crack. Plus, it looks cool. I favor the 45° end: but you may choose what you wish. Make sure it fits the size of pipe you’re using.
6. A bit of good glue.
Used for securing the end cap. Any good glue will do: personally, I favor Shoe Goo: that stuff’s awesome.

And here are the directions for making one.

  1. The first thing to do is decide exactly how long your sword should be. I’ve heard that a really good sword is made proportional to the height of the wielder. I don’t know any formula for decided how long to make a sword based on your height, but I’m sure Google does. If you care, I mayself am about 5 feet 9 inches tall.

    That said, I make swords in two lengths, depending on whether it’s intended to be used in one hand or two. My one-handed swords are 32 inches long, the handle 9 inches long (which leaves the “blade” 21 inches). It sounds short, but it works out well for most people I’ve known. My two-handed swords are 48 inches long, with a 15 inch handle (leaving a 33 inch “blade”). This may sound like I’m making the handle too long, but trust me. It works pretty well. I’m a little fuzzy on how I settled on those lengths: if I recall, they’re modeled off of classical lengths of Japanese swords such as the katana, but I’m not sure. I’ve experimented with different lengths a fair bit, and I like the ones I just gave you. I’d stick with those lengths, unless you know better than me or just want to try something different.

    So, one handed or two? For a one-handed sword, cut a length of PVC 32 inches long. For a two-handed sword, cut a length of PVC 48 inches long. It’s not a bad idea to get this done at Home Depot: they have some nice pipe-cutting tools that make a really smooth cut. But you can use an ordinary wood saw as well. It’ll be a little rougher, but it’ll work.

  2. Then choose which end will be the handle. Generally choose the smoother side: it’ll make putting on the end cap easier. Make a mark on the PVC at the length of the handle. For a one-handed sword, the handle should be 9 inches long. For a two-handed sword, 15 inches.

  3. Slide the foam insulation down the “blade” of the sword, right up the mark you made. Then, holding the end nearest the handle firmly, feel for where the end of the PVC pipe is. Wrap your fingers around the foam, just past the end. Then cut the foam, just above your fingers. You want a full finger-width or more past the end. This will give you half an inch or so of foam at the end, making stabs less dangerous. If you forget to leave some room at the end and stap someone, there won’t be any give to the sword. Not good.

  4. While you were cutting the foam, it may have shifted a bit. Bring the end back to the mark you made. If you bought the black foam, its open sides are covered in plastic. That’s because they’re very sticky. When the foam is where you want it, carefully peel back one side about an inch. Then peel back the other side about the same length. That way, you can hold both bits of plastic at the same time. Then pull smoothly, peeling off both side simultaneously. Bring the edges together so they stick nicely.

  5. Bring the foam back to the mark you made. Cut a length of duct tape sufficient to go two or more times around the padded blade. Put this tape on the padding nearest the handle. About a third of an inch or less should be touching the padding, the rest should be hanging over the edge a bit. Once you’ve wound the tape around a couple of times, then grab the edge jutting off and wrap it around the PVC core. This tape is meant to be a bridge between the PVC and the foam. It’ll keep the blade from sliding around.

  6. Using a length of duct tape sufficient to go around the sword twice, make two or three more bands around the blade. They should be about the same distance from another: it will keep the foam pressed firmly against the PVC.

  7. This is the long part: pry off a bit of duct tape (don’t cut a length: you’ll wind directly from the roll) and stick it to the foam near the handle. The tape should be at about a 45° angle to the PVC. Then, slowly and carefully, wind the tape around. It should overlap itself around a quarter of an inch. Spiral around the “blade” toward the tip, wrapping the padding in a layer of duct tape. (Why do this, you ask? If you didn’t, you’d be ripping chunks of padding off at every duel. The duct tape forms a tough skin around the padding.) Once you reach the tip, “turn” the duct tape around, and spiral back to the handle, still overlapping in the same way. When you’re done, the entire length of the “blade” should wrapped in two layers of duct tape.

  8. Cut a length of duct tape around five inches long. Pinch the padding at the end of the sword together and tape over it, so that tape covers the hole at the tip of the sword.

  9. Put a bit of glue on the inside surface of the pipe fitting that you’ll be using for the handle. This will keep it from coming off. Then put in on, tapping/banging firmly to make sure it gets solidly on.

  10. Using the atheletic tape, wrap the PVC that forms the handle. Wrap in a way similar to the way you wrapped the blade, but overlap more. If I recall, you don’t need to wrap both ways: one way is sufficient.

  11. Cut two pices of duct tape six inches long or so. Wrap them around either end of the handle, covering the ends of the athletic tape so no edges are exposed. The duct tape should wrap around the blade a few times. Of course, this overlap itself completely: you’re not spiraling, just wrapping in a circle to cover the ends of the athletic tape.

You’re done!

Posted by Leatherwood on April 02, 2009 at 10:45 PM