Navigating the choices for Bokuto
Article edited 30Apr - Boken updated to Bokuto
A Bokuto is alternative practice equipment to Shinken and Iaito, it fills the functional aspect of its ability to absorb contact impact without chipping, and safety (the absence of a sharpened edge). Nevertheless, a Bokuto can still be capable of causing serious blunt trauma, so please exercise safety precautions. Compared to the Shinai (bamboo sword for Kendo practice) it is not meant for sparring but more for kata practice (contact and non-contact-wise). P.S.: here, "contact" means bokuto to bokuto contact.
Iaidokas/ Kendokas are no strangers to Bokuto (wooden swords). This article aims to clarify some of the factors considered in choosing a Bokuto.
Weight - The weight of a bokuto is mainly influenced by the choice of wood used in its construct - the characteristics of the wood play a major part in determining the intended purpose of the Bokuto.
Purpose & Build - For full-contact Bokuto, the wood used needs to be able to absorb the impact force from full-on contacts without breaking. Hence, wood that can absorb and withstand contact forces is used (e.g. Oak). For Suburi exercises, the intent of these exercises is meant to train and build up the strength and stamina of the practitioner. In this aspect, the wood used is generally denser (i.e. heavier and denser, but not able to withstand full-contact forces.) In addition, Bokuto for suburi exercises is shaped slightly differently from the Bokuto used for full-contact. There are also some Bokuto designs that are non-contact; these come with a hi and wooden saya (think of them as fully wooden iaito). Some may have come across Bokuto that has a straight blade. These are built to replicate the form of a chokuto and not a katana.
Aesthetics - The look and feel of a Bokuto is influenced by the wood used and also the finishing used. Bokuto can either be Urethane coated or Oil polished.
So, the choice of Bokuto should be prioritized by its intended purpose - it doesn't mean that a heavier, denser Bokuto is necessary the best. So, take your time and select the Bokuto best suited for the intended purposes. Another consideration that may not be immediately apparent is the supposed longevity of the Bokuto. Bokuto deserves proper care and maintenance as much as other practice equipment. Those for suburi exercise are not meant for contact - and it would be hazardous to use it so for contact practices. In the case of Bokuto for contact practices, they may (rare but not completely impossible) eventually break - it depends on the amount of force and control exerted by the User. Similar to Shinai, always check the condition of a Bokuto before use.
With these in mind, Oak Bokuto (White Oak, Red Oak, Red ) generally suffices for Kata practices. For Suburi, a heavier/ denser bokuto is generally preferred. Similar considerations apply when choosing wooden Wakizashi and Tanto.