Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Building Better Trainers

Yesterday I got a surprise phone call from Bill Bednarick, a student of Mushtaq Ali, who is also a maker of training blades for Filipino martial arts. He was calling to compliment me on the design and appearance of the knives and swords I now make. His comments reflected what I’ve been hearing ever since I started making these, that they don’t look anything like plastic. That’s because I’m not just machining simple lines but I’m hand finishing my pieces just as any woodworker using exotic hardwoods. So far the results speak for themselves.

We spent perhaps an hour on the phone, trading tips and comparing techniques. It’s a pleasure to deal with someone who is open and up-front like this. Similarly, some years past someone who wanted to use my rattan hardening techniques to start their own business contacted me. As I’d freely published this information online, I gave him my blessing and as far as I know the guy has done well.

On the other hand, there are people who have copied my synthetic sticks as though it’s been their original idea. Since I pioneered the concept 18 years ago, I’ve seen a few of these guys come and go. Usually they fail by trying to undercut the price of my products. This isn’t a big profit business, so for most it hasn’t been worth the effort, and no one has ever offered the variety of products I offer.

At least with blade makers there is a greater degree of creativity. One must envision the final result. Products may compete but they are not “knock-offs” in the sense of being identical. For this market, we’re all doing personalized hand-made copies of traditional Filipino designs anyway.

There has long been a spirit of cooperation among knife makers, who have guilds and organizations that bring them together in comraderie at knife shows. There is nothing similar for those of us making trainers, a specialized purpose, though some real knife makers might have a few “faux” items available on their table at a show.

Since I've been involved in FMA (25+ years) a lot of creative people have brought new tools to the training market. When I started there were only cheap floppy rubber knives from the martial art stores, useless for training against a stick or doing disarms. The late great Al Mar created a stir with his semi-rigid rubber copy of the Gerber Mk II commando knife. Since then there have been many products introduced, ranging from rubber imitation knives to beautifully exotic hardwoods.

There are many aluminum trainers on the market but many are simple two-dimensional cutouts. As I found out with my own designs, aluminum is hard enough to be damaging to sticks, unlike plastic, which is very similar to wood. Metal is also problematic for swordplay as the edges quickly become rough and sharp-toothed, requiring repair for safety.

Once again I believe I’m cutting new territory with the products I’m designing, both in the material, chosen for toughness, and the level of detail, such as bevelled edges to lighten and balance the blades. My goal in making training blades is to create functional artwork, blades that look as good hanging on the wall as they are useful for training. In doing so, I also figure these will be unique (which is why I’m numbering each individual piece), something that the knock-off artists won’t be able to simply imitate and claim as their own.

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