Shades of Grain
What started out as an experiment nearly three years ago ended up being an ongoing project experimenting with woods and finishes. Like many players I did not like the uneven grunge that built up over time on my kendama so when I got a pair of Sol Kendama natties I decided to see what I could do about it. I knew a little from the woodworking my grandfather used to do in his shop and a bit more from reading up on how to treat wood cutting boards for kitchen use. There is also a fair amount of knife and outdoors projects in my background so waterproofing and knife handle preventative maintenance gave me some ideas as well.
In a perfect world all of data would be directly comparable and the photos would all be shot in a light box and color corrected. Unfortunately since this wasn’t a planned project I can only provide before and after shots that I’ve gleaned from looking through thousands of photos from the last several years and as much information on the products and processes that I can remember.
The main idea is to see the differences in the wood with and without the various products and, where I’m able, to know how the various finishes interact both with the wood and playability of the kendama. In cases where I don’t have a before photo I may pull one off the web just for a comparison against a “normal” kendama of that wood. I will be using “wood finisher,” “wax,” and “finisher” interchangeably in this article.
Briwax – high solvent content, waxier finish on most woods, also available in colors (stain+wax), use this outside with ventilation, strong chemical fumes while applying but not after it dries. (*US$1.16/oz at time of purchase)
Bee Kind – high oil content, creates darker wood colors, slight oiliness even after drying but goes away after playing a while, nice smell goes well with the wood probably the tea tree oil (*US$2.52/oz at time of purchase)
Camp Dry – meant for leather so it’s waxy but seems to go into the wood well but only 2 sample kendama used so not as much information on it (*US$1.28/oz at time of purchase)
Clark’s Cutting Board Finish – similar to Bee Kind but a harder (in its initial state) paste wax. It still applies well and soaks into most woods I’ve tried but does seem to leave more a slightly more waxy feeling once heated and wiped down. The Lavender & Rosemary version smells nice, similar to aroma therapy oils. They make a lemon/orange version as well but I don’t want to feel like I’m tossing around a fruit salad. Additionally lemon and orange oils have shorter shelf lives compared to Lavender and Rosemary though I’ve not really had any problems with spoilage. (Shelf Life Chart) (*US$1.6/oz at time of purchase)
*Compare to Kenditioner v2 US$6.00/oz and Dama Butter US$5.65/oz
Wood Stain – changes the color but not the feel of the wood. It tends to soak into the wood rather than riding on top like paint, varnish, or shellac. I still put wood finisher over it to protect the wood.
Overall: More Wax Feeling <—Briwax >Clark’s>Bee Kind—> More Oil Feeling
The oil feeling after application of Bee Kind wears off fairly quickly. Briwax on most woods is pretty tough and doesn’t wear off much. Clark’s is new so I only recently coated some test kendama with it and haven’t yet played them; more on that as I have data. Camp Dry was only used on two kendama one of which was Composite Bamboo so I can’t really say a lot there.
Nearly all woods darken with the application of a finisher but the tighter the grain and the heavier the finish (higher wax content) the less change since the finish rides more on top of the wood rather than soaking into the pores. Oilier finishes will likely need to be reapplied more often. Waxier finishes take longer to break in and sometimes are too slick especially on tight-grained woods.
More finely sanded or slick finished wood sometimes doesn’t absorb as well as rough finished wood. Some finishes help prevent mold and mildew. (That’s actually a problem for our shop demo kendama sometimes due to the high humidity.) Also some kendama brands actually come with some kind of wood finisher on them straight out of the box so you may be stacking the new finish on one that already exists. Those results can be unpredictable.
This is my current application process:
- Photograph untreated kendama for reference. (optional) It’s nice to be able to see the difference with a before and after shot. I try to shoot in the same conditions for the before and after so they are more directly comparable but sometimes it doesn’t work out.
- Disassemble parts and sand and trim as needed. Sometimes the inside of the tama hole will be rough or there will be splintering around the sarado hole. Also if you need to make the ken string hole larger, the part under the sarado, now is the time to do it. Clean up all string holes with a drill, nail, toothpick whatever your preferred implement of destruction. Sand any areas that need it like the tip or rough spots. You want don’t want to come back after you’ve applied the finish and do these tweaks for two reasons, 1) you’ll have to refinish the area to keep the seal complete, and 2) the wood dust will stick to the pores more easily once there is already a finish on the wood; not a big deal but can be hard to clean off and leave a slight discoloration.
- Glue the tip with non-gel type superglue. The main reason is that I want the glue to soak into the wood. I need to do it before applying the wood finish so that it is not blocked by the finish. Glue on top of a wood finish doesn’t stick as well or last as long. Wait 30 minutes or more.
- Remove brand sticker, JKA seal, etc. Make sure to get all of the sticker’s glue off so the finish will soak in evenly. You may need to use piece of tape to help remove the glue. I wouldn’t recommend acetone or a chemical “goo” remover. (You can skip this part if you aren’t going to heat the kendama later.)
- Prep your work area – I put down either a couple of layers of paper or tin foil. The wood finishers are made to soak into wood so if you put treated kendama parts on a wood table without protection you may find that you have marks and little circles from the cups that are nearly impossible to clean off. Also make sure you have good light to insure you can see the coverage is even.
- Assemble tools and finisher products – Q-tip (cotton buds), toothpick, paper towel, wood finisher, rubber gloves. The Q-tip and toothpick are used to put finish inside the tama hole, ken string hole divot (if it has one), and sarado hole. I try to seal all the raw wood areas so these help.
- Apply finisher – I really try to work it into the cups and in the crevasses near the basecup and any burned logo. I slightly over-coat the parts and set them aside for about 5-10 minutes. Then I go back through and do the hard bits like the holes and “re-massage” the parts and add finisher if it looks like the wood has soaked up all I first applied. I want the parts to soak up as much finisher as possible. After the second pass I leave them over night to dry on their own.
- Heat (optional) – The next day I put the non-painted parts into the toaster for heat treatment. (see below for more info)
- Final steps – I have started using a two part epoxy on my tips and really like the results so this is when I usually apply the epoxy. I clean the tip (that has already been super glued) with alcohol to remove any wood finisher, apply the epoxy, and hang the ken upside down in a clamp overnight. The reason I don’t put the epoxy on earlier is that it can’t take the heat of the toaster. There are different epoxies out there so there may be some that are better with heat but this is a limitation of what I currently use.
Fast heat rather than soaking heat seems to help the finish melt into the pores of the wood without damage. I’ve been lucky with this so do at your own risk. I’ve been trying to keep the surface no higher than 70C (measured with an IR thermometer). I have tried hair dryers, heat guns, and toaster ovens. The hair dryer and heat gun are OK for spot tweaks like melting wax inside the sarado hole but not good for overall final finish. First it’s hard to manage the kendama part to get an even heat. It rolls around, falls on the floor, throws liquid wax everywhere and if you’re trying to hold it you can cook your fingers; ask me how I know. Also since you are shooting only one side of the object at a time you’re putting even more stress on the wood since the opposite side is cooler. Because of this there would seem to be a higher chance to warp or otherwise damage the part. And just to emphasize, heat guns are great for their intended use but this isn’t one of them. Those things are wicked.
I tried the toaster oven in two modes both toaster and oven and I prefer toaster mode. The reason behind it is this: toaster mode hits the part with high heat quickly melting the surface excess wax finish but doesn’t heat-soak the part. The oven mode keeps the parts in the heat for a longer time and will get them hot to the core which you don’t really need; there’s a higher chance of damage (shrink, warp, crack).
Every toaster will be different and every wood and finish will also behave differently when heated. I usually just get the finish to sweat then pull it out and wipe the excess off with a cotton rag. Paper products tend to get snagged, particularly in the cups, and leave lent that’s harder to remove. Let the parts completely cool before reassembly or you could end up with some stuck parts or even potentially split your sarado.
One thing to point out is that you do NOT need to heat most finishes for them to be effective. I simply did it first as part of my experiments then later, as needed, on my own kendama. There is definitely a possibility that you could destroy your kendama, start a fire, mess up your toaster, etc. so understand this before you give it a try. The standard disclaimers apply here: heat your kendama at your own risk.
D.I.Y. wood finishers:
For those of you wanting to try and create your own wood finish here is a recipe from member “amagad” over on DownSpike.com: “I bring to you “Dama Butter” wood conditioner. The elixir contains: Wood Worx Food Grade Mineral Oil; Oslove Organics T1 Grade Carnauba Wax; BeesWorks 100% Natural Bees Wax; Vitamin E”
From another DownSpike.com member “Congarranza”: “I made mine without the carnauba wax. Just used white mineral oil, beeswax, and the slightest amount of refined coconut oil. I probably could have used unrefined, but I didn’t want to compete with the lovely smell of beeswax. 140-144F or in your case 60-62C.”
I have yet to make my own wood finisher but it’s on the “to do list.” For now commercially available products fill my needs and help me to learn what I might want to put in my own concoction when the time comes.
So there you have it, nearly all the data I have on wood finishes. I’m still looking for some of the photos but this should give you a place to start if you are considering putting some kind of wood finish or treatment on your kendama. There is still a lot to learn and though some of my ideas might not apply to anything other than kendama so far I generally like the results. This is still an ongoing process for me as I discover new finishes and test out different kinds of wood. This will be updated as time allows.
Woods plus finishes:
Beech = OK for demo kendama to help keep them nice looking but doesn’t go into the wood as well as other combos
Beech + Colored Briwax = great for Kururin or changing the color of demo kendama in one step, same caveats apply from above
Birch = so far this is the only wood that works as I’d like with Briwax
Mahogany/Walnut = not a good combo. Generally slick made worse by the fine sanding on the kendama
White Oak = really tight wood with a heavy wax works for protecting furniture but makes a kendama like glass. A lot of play has made it better but it’s definitely more of a coating, riding more on top of the wood
Ash = light caramel, light/dark lines more pronounced
Bamboo Laminate = slightly darker goes into the wood well
Beech = generally uniform light yellow
Brazilian Cherry = much darker with slight red/purple hue
Enjyu = fantastic if you like dark, changes a ghosty brown to nearly 70% dark chocolate
Keyaki = color shift toward orange and killer grain pop
Mesquite = grain popping darker tan/wheat color
Maple = uniform lighter yellow than beech, generally very little change
Padauk = instant dark wood, no orange left, seems to help with mold/mildew or whatever that white powdery substance is that tends to be on Padauk often straight out of the box.
Purpleheart = instant dark wood but still has a bit of purple in it. Covers over the sap spots that tend to show up on Purpleheart and makes it a uniform color
Red Elm = depends on the cut of the wood tama is caffè latte but the ken is lighter brown with hints of red
Red Oak = slight darkening
Rosewood = darker with a hint of pink still and pops grain you didn’t see before
Rubberwood = little change, slightly darker but if there are aberrations in the wood it makes them pop (e.g. wood knots or insect tracks) helps the grain a bit
Spectraply = much darker overall with some colors popping more than others and close relatives darken to where they are less distinguishable from one another (e.g. green & blue)
Walnut = if it was dark before it’s more so but if it was lighter brown only a bit of color shift
White Oak = very nice color shift, not too dark and feels much better than Briwax
Zebrano = really makes the grain pop
Bamboo Composite = it might have made it a bit darker and a bit slipperier but I don’t really think anything is going to help this stuff much since it has a stain already and is mostly glue
Walnut/Maple = darkening but not as much as Bee Kind, a bit waxier over all but doesn’t change the play much
Beech = wet wood look similar to Bee Kind but with more of a sheen because of the harder wax
Keyaki = orange color shift similar to Bee Kind but differential sheen. Ken shaft and sarado saddle slight sheen; inside of cups and slip grip, where the finish is rougher to begin with it seems to soak in better
Mahogany/Light Walnut = not a lot of change in either wood since this sample is slick finished (might have a finish from the factory) and the woods don’t appear to absorb much of this finish but Mahogany shows a bit of reddening.
Beech + wood stain = nice color but requires more effort to apply and offers no protection other than making the wood a uniform color.