The makiwara is a cornerstone for the martial artist. Famous Okinawan karate masters used to say that a dojo without a makiwara is not a dojo. Although sometimes misunderstood, the main purpose of makiwara training is not to build calluses on one’s knuckles and “toughen” one’s fists. Rather, the main purpose of makiwara training is learning how to generate power effectively. The makiwara is unique in giving instant feedback to the practitioner. The old (and not so old) masters realized that, and you can find many photos of old masters practicing on the makiwara.
Several students at our San Diego dojo have built their own makiwara. It is easy – read on and you will see! Properly build, a makiwara will last you many years, and provide you with valuable training feedback. By the way, the Japanese term “makiwara” (sometimes spelled “machiwara”) literally means straw roll: “maki” – roll (a recognizable term for any sushi lover) and “wara” – straw. There are many types of makiwara – actual straw rolls used in kyudo (Japanese archery); tou-makiwara (bundles bamboo stalked used for conditioning the nukite – spear hand); and hanging makiwara, called “sagi-makiwara” (no relation to my last name). The makiwara I discuss here, and which is in most often use today, is the tachi-makiwara (standing makiwara). For the rest of this article, I will use the term “makiwara” to mean “tachi makiwara.”
Before getting into the actual construction of the makiwara, I wanted to mention that several places sell wall mountable “makiwara boards.” In my opinion, the wall mountable “makiwara boards” are a poor substitute to to a real makiwara, as they deprive the martial artist of essentially all the benefits of a true makiwara. They also don’t have enough “give” and can be detrimental to the health of your joints. If you want the benefits of makiwara training, invest the in making your own makiwara.
How to Build your Very Own Traditional Makiwara
The makiwara is essentially a tapered post that is reinforced by cross braces and securely buried in the ground, at a depth of at least 3 feet (90cm) — see diagram below. The tapered shape gives the makiwara post its most important characteristic – providing progressive resistance to the martial artist’s strikes. In other words, the harder the makiwara is hit, the more it will push back. It is this instant feedback that the makiwara provides that is so beneficial to the martial artist. The feedback the makiwara provides is different from almost any other training tool at the martial artists’ disposal. (I discuss the differences between the makiwara and other training tools such as heavybags here.)
We will discuss the construction of two types of makiwara, a traditional tapered makiwara, and a composite makiwara. We will also discuss different types of makiwara mounting methods, some of which are also suitable for indoor use. Lastly, we will discuss the makiwara pad, and share two of my favorite pad designs.
An easy way to make a makiwara is to start with an 8 ft (244cm) long 4” x 4” lumber post. Select lumber that is as knot free as possible, and in which the grains of the wood run parallel to the length of the post. You have several choices of wood: fir, whitewood, redwood, and others. Almost any good quality construction lumber will do. As a side note, many hardware stores sell pressure treated lumber for outdoor uses. This is wood that is impregnated with insecticides, to protect the wood from termites. I don’t recommend using pressure treated wood for the construction of your makiwara. Cutting pressure treated wood requires special precautions, to shield you from carcinogenic dust. Also, in your training, you will be touching the makiwara, and I don’t like the idea of constantly touching wood that is impregnated with poison. There are other ways to protect your makiwara post from pests — I cover those below.
Next comes the planning. You should decide how tall you want to make your makiwara. A common selection is to set a height above ground that results in the makiwara’s top lining up with your shoulder. You can make your makiwara taller or shorter than that, based on the martial arts techniques that you are planning to practice on the makiwara. Common heights are 4-5ft (120-150cm). At the bottom of the post, you can use the full width of the wood (strangely so-called 4” x 4” lumber is actually only 3.5” wide). At the top of the post, make your makiwara between ½” to ¾” (1.3 – 1.9cm) thick. The tapered shape of the makiwara is very important, as it this shape that gives it progressive resistance.
By the way, with just a little more thought, you can make two makiwara out of one post. So if you have a good friend (or simply want two makiwara for yourself), and are willing to live with a makiwara that is a little shorter than 8 feet (or a little narrower than the width of a 4” x 4”), you can follow the diagram below to make two makiwara from one piece of lumber.
To cut the lumber, use a table saw or a circular saw. Draw a straight line on your lumber with a marker or with a chalk line, and cut along the line. If you are using a circular saw, I recommend one of the large diameter saws (10¼“ blade) like the “Big Foot” pictured below. Those will be able to cut through a 4” x 4” lumber in a single pass. If you are using a circular saw with the more common and smaller 7¼“ blade, in order to cut through the lumber you will need to make two joining cuts – one from each side of the wood. This requires some precision in marking both sides of the post, and cutting exactly along your marked lines. I have made several makiwara with the smaller circular saws, and I can tell you that having access to a 10¼“ blade makes the project much easier! Be safe and watch for kickback! Never have your body behind the saw – always to the side. After all, you want to keep all your limbs and fingers so you can punch the makiwara! Also, use eye and ear protection.
Once cut, measure the desires height of your makiwara, and draw a line across the post to mark your ground surface line. Once buried, the ground surface line will be flush with the ground. Now, cut two 18” (46cm) pieces from 4”x2” lumber. These will be your cross braces, and will stabilize the buried section of the makiwara. Use long wood screws or nails to affix the cross braces to the makiwara post – one cross brace on each side. Plan to have your top cross brace about 6” (15cm) below the surface of the ground, and your bottom brace about the same distance from the bottom of the makiwara post. Once buried, the bottom brace will be facing the martial artist, while the top brace will face away from the martial artist.
Before we are ready to bury the makiwara, it is helpful to invest a few minutes in protecting the wood. Get a good wood preservative from your hardware store. I have had good luck with brands like Copper-Green. Follow the directions on the container, and apply the wood protection to the portions of the makiwara that are buried, going up the makiwara post about 12” (30cm) above the ground surface line. If you would like, you can also use wood deck sealer to weatherproof the top portion of the makiwara. Applying deck sealer to your makiwara periodically (about once a year, here in San Diego) will help it last a long time.
Installing the Makiwara
Traditionally, the makiwara is installed by burying it in the ground (see below for an alternative). This requires digging a hole that is at least 3 feet (90cm) deep. Depending on the soil where you live, this can be quite difficult. Here in San Diego, soil that is heavy in clay makes the use of tools like a post hole-digger and a San-Angelo bar a must.
Fill the bottom of your hole with 2-3” (5-7cm) of loose gravel. It will provide an area away from the post for any water to accumulate.
Next, put in your makiwara (remember – bottom brace to face the martial artist, and top brace to face away from the martial artists) and fill your hole, taking time to pack the soil in.
Congratulation! Your makiwara is installed!
Another option for securing the makiwara post is to use a bracket. There are two advantages to this design over the “buried makiwara” option:
- The bracket attachment can be used indoor or outdoor
- You will be able to easily replace the makiwara if it breaks or wears out
After breaking several makiwara posts, and getting tired of digging the old makiwaras out, I switched to a bracket-based set in concrete.
As you can see in the photo above, the bracket is secured to the ground (or the floor, in an indoor installation), and the makiwara is then attached to the bracket using two through bolts. There are custom makiwara brackets that you can buy, and if you are a competent welder you can make one yourself. An easy option I found is to use off-the-shelf construction ties, such as post bases made by Simpston Strong-Tie. Post based are used to secure the frame and posts of a structure to its foundation. They are inexpensive and you can pick one up from Home Depot, Lowes and other home improvement stores.
If you are mounting your makiwara in soil in your back yard, you will need to dig a hole (as discussed above) and fill it with cement. The hole should be at least 3 feet (1 meter) deep, so as to provide a solid base for the makiwara. If you want to save time time, use quick drying post cement (which you can also obtain at Home Depot). Mix it well, and pour into the hole. Having a friend help you hold the bracket in place while you are pouring the cement can be very helpful. You can use a level to make sure the bracket is perfectly vertical with respect to the ground. Wait for the concrete to fully cure before starting to hit your makiwara!!!
For indoors or outdoors on a cement pad, you can drill holes in the cement slab, and use concrete fasteners to attach the post base. For a portable installation indoor (for example, if you live in an apartment), instead of permanently attaching the bracket to the floor, attach the bracket to a 3’x5′ (1m x 1.5m) plyboard.
Note that when using the traditional tapered makiwara post design with a metal bracket, you will need to cut the post in a way that leaves the bottom of the 4×4 lumber at full size. This will allow the makiwara to interface to the bracket perfectly.
An alternative design for the makiwara is to use a composite post. Instead of making the makiwara from one piece of lumber, we use a “sandwich” made of several layers of thin wood, usually “1×4” lumber, and bond those together, as shown below:
Although the composite makiwara post is considered less “traditional” than the tapered makiwara post, there are benefits to the composite design. Namely, the composite makiwara allows the karateka to tune the resistance of the makiwara. This is done by varying the length of the different layers of the “sandwich,” as well as the type of wood material from which they are made. The planks are then held to each other with straps/ties (like a leaf spring in a car suspension), or bonded to each other with wood glue. If you are using the bonding method, be sure to use glue that can survive under wet conditions outdoor (e.g., a Type II PVA glue).
Here are a few guidelines for designing your composite makiwara:
- Use good quality wood.
- It is better to err on the side of making the makiwara more pliable than making it too stiff. A stiff makiwara will not provide the martial artist the feedback that is so critical for benefiting from makiwara training.
- Anything more than three layers of 1×4 lumber is way too stiff.
In the photo above I am making a composite makiwara to be installed in a 4×4 post base. Hence, I am using two additional 1×4 short planks as spacers. For reference, for a fairly stiff (but not too stiff) makiwara, I used the following lengths of pine wood planks: 63″, 43″ and 24″, with a 12″ and 9.5″ spacers (160cm, 109cm, 61cm, 30cm and 24cm). I am 6″ tall (182cm), so you may need to scale those numbers to fit your height. Since the makiwara post base I am using is made for “4×4,” and five “1×4″ are 1/4” thicker than a “4×4″ (I know, those nominal lumber sizes are weird!), I made a 1/4″ recess in the shortest plank, as shown below. You can use a router or a circular saw (set the depth of the blade to 1/4”, and go back and forth over the area you want to recess.)
Now that we have our makiwara secured to the ground, let’s talk about the makiwara pad.
The Makiwara Pad
The top of the makiwara is typically covered with a pad. The traditional choice of the old masters was to use straw (hence the name maki-wara). In modern times, many people use high density foam or rubber covered by leather. You can make one yourself, for example, from a used tire or high-density closed-cell foam, or purchase one from a martial arts stores. There is even an expensive model from Shureido.
Making the leather makiwara pad is straight forward. All of the supplies can be procured from a hobby store. Cut the high density foam (or rubber) to size. Use a very thin layer of foam — you want just enough to provide a little protection for your knuckles. Too much foam will make the makiwara pad too “squishy,” which will reduce the amount of feedback you will get back from the makiwara.
Place the foam or rubber on the makiwara post and wrap it in the leather sheet (you may need to cut the leather to size). Use the punch to make holes on the edge of the leather sheet, and the shoelace to secure everything together. This is what it looks like from the back:
A pad I use myself (thank you Sensei Jeff Day for the idea!) is a pocket I sewed from thick canvas. Inside the pocket, I place a Ziploc bag filled with rice. I find that the consistence of the rice is just perfect for hitting. As you use the makiwara pad, the rice will be gradually ground into flour. At that point, simply replace the content of the pad with a new batch of rice, and you are good to go again. You can also make the “pocket makiwara pad” of leather, so it can be more easily disinfected when multiple practitioners use the same makiwara.
A Few Closing Notes
Please seek experienced instruction on how to train with the makiwara. Properly used, the makiwara promotes good joint alignment and proper power generation in the martial artist. Improper use of the makiwara can lead to injuries, including long term injuries. Do yourself a favor and get some help on proper use of the makiwara.
For the most part, training with the makiwara is about learning to “listen” to the feedback that the makiwara provides, especially in the back-pressure it provides, and where that back pressure manifests in the martial arts practitioner’s body. With proper training, the back-pressure will dissipate through the practitioner and into the ground. It’s usually not about how hard you can hit the makiwara (almost any martial artist can produce enough power to break a makiwara), but rather about proper alignment and power generation, and how generating that power “feels.”
If you run into trouble building your makiwara, or if you have any other questions, feel free to post them on the comment below.