Materials Used in Making Tai Hei Shakuhachi

  Madaké & Torachiku Bamboo
Professional root-end shakuhachi are made of exceptionally fine madaké bamboo (phyllostachys bambusoides Sieb. et Zucc.) obtained from established groves in Japan, mainland China and North America. These quality instruments are also made from rare Kyushu madaké bamboo whose beautiful color and mottled exterior conforms to the very highest aesthetic for shakuhachi in Japan.

Madaké is a giant timber bamboo most abundant in fertile lowland valleys. Smaller diameter, denser bamboos suitable for flute making are found only in mountainous regions where the soil is poor and conditions for growth are harsh. While madaké is one of the fastest growing plants on Earth -- having been measured at over four feet of growth in one day! -- quality bamboo for flute making is very difficult to find. Exacting specifications demanded by the traditional aesthetic, which considers size, shape, color, root structure and nodal configuration, combine to make the search for shakuhachi bamboo a formidable one. A large grove of madaké provides the maker with only a limited number of usable pieces.

Japan's high population density, rampant development and economic organization of traditional craftworks further compound the problem of accessibility. Acquisition of bamboo for shakuhachi is also limited by the fact that harvesting occurs only during winter months before the sap has risen in the plant. All these factors combine to make madaké for shakuhachi a truly precious resource. As a result, Tai Hei Shakuhachi has labored long and hard to locate supplies of this special resource throughout the world. 

Student & Advanced Student shakuhachi are made from madaké as well as torachiku or Tiger Bamboo (phyllostachys nigra f. punctata), a unique species of black bamboo that is indigenous to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's main islands. Tai Hei Shakuhachi pioneered the use of torachiku for tradition flute craft. Each piece is carefully chosen, treated and cured in the traditional manner.

Madaké Bamboo
Torachiku Bamboo

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Bamboo Used to Make Tai Hei Shakuhachi



  Prehistoric Mastodon Ivory & Water Buffalo Horn

Kinko-style Utaguchi made with Mastodon Ivory bordered with 14K Gold

Water Buffalo Horn is also used for the utaguchi inlay

Tai Hei Shakuhachi are made using a variety of materials for the utaguchi or mouthpiece inlay. To preserve the delicate mouthpiece of the instrument and prevent deterioration over time, a hard dense material is inserted at the blowing edge. Water buffalo horn is traditionally used for this purpose, however, it is prone to deterioration so modern makers increasingly use and prefer specially-formulated cell cast acrylic for this purpose. Ivory is also an option.

Tai Hei Shakuhachi are made without the use of elephant ivory or tusk, teeth, horns or other material banned and prohibited under CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species).

Only prehistoric mastodon ivory is used as it is permitted under this international agreement. Until the end of the Pleistocene (10,000 - 11,000 years ago) when they became extinct, mastodon ranged over North and Central America. Throughout their long reign as species, innumerable individuals died and were buried in mud, ice or peat. These artifacts, although not mineralized in the true sense of fossilization, have been preserved, and due to erosion, geological events or mining have been, and are being, unearthed and used as ivory sources.

Like all elephant ivories these show distinct structural properties which result in a layered structure in longitudinal section and a cross hatched pattern in cross section. This characteristic called the "engine turned" effect is diagnostic of elephantine ivories and absent in all other forms. These ancient ivories sometimes have acquired unusual colors through long contact with minerals and mineral solutions.

Such materials are not prohibited by CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species), as indeed the species are already extinct. In the US, digging for anything on public lands is restricted by Federal land management agencies, but in Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia, Inuits and other native peoples have been greatly benefited by the ability to harvest, fashion, and trade these items on the world market.


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Ivory

Photos of Mastodon Ivory Utaguchi Inlays


  Hypo-Allergenic Lacquers

The result of sensitivity to urushi lacquer

Traditional Japanese shakuhachi are made with urushi lacquer which is distilled from a plant akin to poison oak and ivy. The scientific name of urushi is rhus vernicifera. It is a member of the Anacardiaceae (sumac) family and is native to China, Korea, Japan, and the eastern Himalayas region. The sap of this tree contains a resin-urushiol, which when exposed to moisture and air, polymerizes and becomes a very hard, durable, plastic-like substance.

Urushi is, in fact, a natural plastic. It is also extremely toxic causing severe sensitization and allergic reactions. Urushi allergy and sensitization are quite widespread and problematic amongst members of the world shakuhachi community. I've known people (including my own shakuhachi teacher) who were hospitalized after purchasing a new flute. As the number of shakuhachi players around the world continues to grow, we are finding that a number of people react, not only to the lacquer used in new instruments, but flutes that are quite old as well. Apparently, the gassing effect and vaporization of urushi persists over many years and a full cure of the polymer may never be totally complete. The level of sensitization seems to vary considerably with the individual. While many people do not experience any problems at all, there have been cases reported of reactions occurring by simply being near a flute without even placing it up to one's lips. While this is rare, it is apparent that problems with urushi are widespread and can be quite severe. Most reactions manifest themselves in a nasty skin rash that itches, swells and spreads across the affected areas of the face, chin, lips, eyes and hands. Some people report respiratory problems as well.

Tai Hei Shakuhachi are made with lacquers and other materials that are completely hypo-allergenic, benign and safe for use. These materials are stable, durable and long-lasting over time. All of the materials used to make Tai Hei Shakuhachi have been extensively reviewed, tested and deemed to be safe by established toxicologists in private practice as well as staff at the University of California-San Francisco Occupational & Environmental Health Clinic.

There are no known health problems associated with the alternative lacquers that I use as a replacement for urushi. Nor do these materials have any negative effect whatsoever on the acoustical and performance qualities of the instruments to which they are applied. A growing number players in Japan and around the world who are sensitive to the traditionally-used lacquer have purchased Tai Hei Shakuhachi precisely for these reasons.


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Urushi & Lacquer


 Interior Bore of the Shakuhachi

Cross-section of Precision Cast Bore

By definition, jiari shakuhachi are instruments made with a precision bore fabricated inside the bamboo. "Ji" is the paste used by traditional makers in Japan to work up the precision interior of a shakuhachi. It is made of tonoko (powdered stone) mixed with plaster. "Ari" means "to be" or "is" in Japanese. Hence jiari is a shakuhachi in which ji is used to make the bore and is distinguished from jinashi or natural bore flutes.

The interior precision bore of the shakuhachi is traditionally fabricated with a powdered stone called tonoko, a grout-like compound mixed with plaster and applied to the inner walls of the madaké. Once dry, tonoko can be filed, sanded and otherwise shaped to reflect the parameters of a well-playing gauge flute which a maker attempts to emulate. Since tonoko absorbs moisture, it must be sealed with several layers of urushi lacquer. Urushi, a natural organic polymer, creates an impervious barrier beyond which the excessive moisture produced when blowing the flute is unable to penetrate.

Problems with urushi and the tonoko base upon which it is applied frequently occur when a shakuhachi cracks. Since tonoko's rate of expansion and contraction differs from that of madaké, coupled with the fact that its bonding properties to bamboo is less than ideal, often causes it to crack and/or separate from the inner wall of the bamboo. When this occurs, the lacquers surface cracks as well allowing moisture to penetrate.

Urushi is very difficult to work with. It must be applied in very thin coats (traditional shakuhachi makers use human hair brushes for this purpose) and placed in a wet box designed to set up a warm, highly-humid atmosphere that enables the lacquer to harden. If urushi is applied too thickly, it will buckle and separate from the tonoko base. In extreme case or over time, the buckled lacquer will split or break away from the base as the bamboo naturally swells and shrinks.

"Nashi" means "no" or "none" in Japanese. Hence, jinashi means that no ji was used or, to be precise, a flute whose bore is constructed from the natural bamboo. In fact, any jinashikan ("kan" meaning "tube") worth playing has been painstakingly modified inside with some material added to support the resonance of certain notes.

 


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Precision Cast Bore Technology


Tai Hei Shakuhachi Catalog
Shakuhachi: The Sound of Nature
Origins & History of the Shakuhachi
Bamboo Used for Shakuhachi
Precision Cast Bore Technology

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