Bambo-4-Kites-art - 5/27/14
"Split that stick! Preparing bamboo for oriental kites" by Lord Archer McRobert.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Split that stick!
Preparing bamboo for oriental kites
by Lord Archer McRobert
Bamboo is a family of grasses whose value in general construction has long been known. Many of its attributes make it an excellent material to use for kite frames.
It is hard to overstate bamboo's value in the development of kites since their invention. It is light in weight, yet strong, flexible and it can be forced in to numerous shapes. All of those attributes are helpful in making kites. Being light, flexible and strong, bamboo becomes a kite frame that is itself strong and flexible, able to handle sudden gusts of wind.
When dried, it's yellow-to-brown coloration is beautiful. Today, kite makers in Japan avidly search out 150-200 year old smoked bamboo for its color and stiffness.
Bamboo's virtues were recognized from the beginning with kites. Most often, the invention of the kite is pegged to two men - Mo Di and Gongshu Ban - in China. The kite's invention is often attributed to Chinese inventor Mo Di. However, Mo Di himself, credited Gongshu Ban, his contemporary (along with Confucius): "Master Gonshu pared wood and bamboo to make a magpie. When it was completed, he got it off the ground and it stayed in the sky for three days without falling down." The invention has been dated to at least 476 BCE in China.
While bamboo can be used in many ways in the construction of kites, not all bamboo is suitable. While this paper won't describe by which species bamboo is best (there are more than 1,450 species worldwide), I'll show what attributes are things to look for in selecting materials for kites.
First, I think dry bamboo is best to split because you can quickly proceed to construction but at least one highly-regarded kite maker says green bamboo is best to split and suggests soaking dry bamboo.[] In general, bamboo that is yellow or brown, has dried enough for use. Green bamboo is difficult to "work" and the moisture causes problems during construction in my experience. Chinese, and other references to kites made in period do not address construction beyond choice of materials.
Sources of bamboo
If you live in a region where it grows, ask the landowner if you can harvest some. If you decide to cut green bamboo, plan on storing it for a year or more to dry. You can force ably dry it with a set up similar to drying lumber, or using a propane torch. In the latter method, you dry the bamboo by exposing the culm to the open flame, moving the torch constantly. It will force some but not all the moisture out from sources I've read. Another option is harvesting culms that are dried. Moisture withdraws from culms in the winter months in most regions. There might be some mold on dried ones. The culms do decay outdoors but a little mold can be wiped off with no harm to the structural strength of bamboo.
A quicker, easier route is reusing bamboo tikki torches or other commercially available bamboo. Much of my bamboo while living in Calontir (Kansas) came from "dead" tikki torches. Since living in Gleann Abhann, I use locally grown bamboo wherever possible.
Tools needed will be used to cut, split, and shape.
Saw - A fine-toothed saw is best for cutting. Hacksaws are also recommended. I use an X-Acto craft saw. I also have a Japanese saw that cuts on the pull instead of the push as western saws do. It works well. As with cutting wood, your material must be held firmly in a clamp or in manner it cannot move. I often use a Black and Decker Workmate bench.
Coping saw - These tools are incredible for making difficult cuts, especially removing interior node walls.
Knife - for splitting the raw bamboo. A single-edge blade is best. It's thickness is important. Kurahashi and others recommend using a bamboo knife, or a hunting knife of 1/8" or 3/16" flat steel. I use a tapered, curved skinning knife for it's thickness, and ease of handling. I use a smaller, thinner-bladed knife - an X-Acto with interchangeable blades - for finer splitting and carving bamboo. Sometimes I reach for my Swiss Army knife for the shape of the thin blades.
Mallet or hammer - for splitting, especially with thicker-walled bamboo.
Block plane - I have several, ranging from small with blades less than a 1/2-inch wide, to a Stanley block plane with a 1 5/8-inch blade. My current favorite is a 1-inch wide block plane from China (picked up at Home Depot for about $8).
Sharpening stone - for your knives and planes. Learn how to sharpen them - it will make using them easier and safer!
Ruler, yardstick, tape measure - all of them are useful, sometimes for specific instances. I have 12-, 18- and 36-inch steel rulers/yardsticks (each of them has a metric side and I use it often, too). I have several tape measures.
Heat source - I use tapered candles. Fat candles get in my way when I'm heating and bending bamboo into intricate shapes.
Water - To cool bamboo down when heating it to shape.
EMT shears/scissors - These are useful cutting bamboo when sawing it is impractical. They work well with small, thinner pieces.
Optional things that are useful
Cutting mat - I have a cutting mat, but depending on your table, something to protect the surface might be necessary. Kitchen cabinet matting is great to keep your cutting mat in place.
Drop cloth - To keep indoor clean up easy.
Additional lighting- Lamps that clamp to tables are great!
Magnifying glasses/lenses - They can be very useful doing small work.
Forceps and/or tweezers - They can be great reaching in on small stuff that's hard to pick up, pull through, etc.
Patience - Don't forget the patience. Good music helps, too!
Other useful tools in kite construction: scissors, a triangle (or several of different sizes), a compass, pencil, wood files, sand paper to name a few.
Bamboo grows in a variety of sizes, and heights. It even varies in wall thickness. It can grow up to about 10 inches in diameter, and 100 feet high. With taller culms, the distance between nodes increases.
Those spots where nodes exist are naturally stiffer than the rest of a bamboo stalk. I try to use them as the equidistant "center" of a stick if I can't use a node-less piece. While it's possible to join two pieces, that joint, which is glued or joined with a combination of glue and string, creates a stiff spot that may not be desirable. It all depends on how the "piece" is used.
You want to match the bamboo to the project, or part of the project. It sounds rudimentary, but the idea is use the right piece. Thick-walled bamboo typically is better suited to instances where stiffer "sticks" are required. Thinner-walled bamboo is good for forming smaller pieces, especially those that must be shaped.
"The width and thickness desired will depend on the size and structure of the kite you are going construct. For a kite to be covered by a single sheet of nishinouchi paper, a thickness of about 1.5mm will do, although the strips for the center spine and the top spars to which cross string will be attached should be a shade thicker. For a kite with a covering of three sheets of nishinouchi paper, use 2mm-thick stripping. A kite with only a few spars and spines is best made of strips of 3-6mm thickness."[]
The larger the kite, the large the pieces of bamboo used. For kites 4-5 meters in size, whole round bamboo shafts will be used for the main pieces.
A note of caution in starting: bamboo can be very dangerous. The sharp edge can cut or slice. Treat bamboo with the same respect you do a knife.
Cutting to length
Once you select your bamboo, cutting it to manageable length is next, following by splitting it.
You want to keep splitting pieces in half lengthwise, eventually reaching slightly more than your intended final width dimensions.
Use your bamboo or hunting knife to split the bamboo. If the bamboo is thick-walled, plan on using your mallet/hammer to force matters. I've found you can also help matters by twisting the blade, to split the bamboo, too.
Since bamboo is a grass, the fibers run full length, and that generally helps splitting pieces equally. I say generally, because drier bamboo doesn't always cooperate. I've found simply practicing helps. You'll begin to see the best spots for making splits and "sense" where it's going to split evenly (and also go astray).
Remove interior node walls as needed. I'll knock out what I can, cut some more then plane it down.
The walls need to go because they keep the bamboo from flexing smoothly and evenly. The more even and symmetrical your bamboo, the better it will react to the wind and fly better.
After splitting you'll notice the pieces are cupped, with raised edges. Those edges need to be removed for most uses by planing off the inside face side. Don't plane the outside! Do that and the bamboo will be severely weakened. Pick up your plane and take them off. If the node wall still has a raised bump, this is a good time to thin it to the desired thickness.
Many plans indicate some parts need to be tapered from the center to the ends. Use your plane for that. Sometimes a thin knife can be helpful to get trouble spots.
Heating to shape
You can shape bamboo into intricate shapes by soaking them and placing them in a jig to dry. A quicker, but trickier method for sure, is using the heat of a candle. By heating bamboo to nearly catching fire, you can shape it into curves, tight bends, and more. I prefer tapered or thinner candles less than six inches tall.
Thinner bamboo bends more easily, and quicker than thick pieces. A thin piece - to me! - is less than a 1/8th inch thick.
First, have some water in a dish - or a wet rag - handy to quickly cool down hot spots. Cooling down the bends also "freezes" the bamboo into shape. Since it can retract from the bends some, I tend to bend them past so once cooled, the bamboo is where I intended it to be.
I often reach for my forceps to make holding/bending safer and easier. Sometimes the bends I want are tight enough that the forceps are very useful. Of course, they keep me from burning myself, too!
A selected bibliography (construction methods and plans)
Tsutomu Hiroi, Kites, Sculpting the Sky. A practical and aesthetic guide to making kites. Random House ISBN 0-394-73313-4 copyright 1978
Ha Kuiming and Ha Yiqi, Chinese Artistic Kites. copyright 1990, Commercial Press, Ltd. Hong Kong, ISBN 0-8351-2279-4
Wang Hongxun, Chinese Kites, Traditional Chinese Arts and Culture. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing. copyright 1989 ISBN 7-119-00093-4
Dan Kurahashi, Japanese Kites, Concepts and Construction. Self-published 2000.
Lee Scott Newman, Jay Hartley Newman, Kite Craft, the history and processes of kitemaking throughout the world. copyright 1974 Crown Publishers Inc. NY, NY. LC 73-91154
David F. Jue, Chinese kites, how to make them. copyright 1967 Chalrs E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vt. ISBN 0-8048-0101-0
David Pelham, The Penguin Book of Kites. copyright 1976 Penguin Books, London. ISBN 0-14-004117-6
[] Dan Kurahashi, Japanese Kites, concepts &construction, self-published 2000 version, p. 2, s2-2
Tsutomu Hiroi, Kites, Sculpting the Sky. A practical and aesthetic guide to making kites. Random House ISBN 0-394-73313-4 ©1978. p. 93.
Copyright 2011 by Mike Wilson, 707 Shaker Ridge, Benton, AR 72015. <kitearcher at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.