I've just purchased a staff made of white waxwood. I need a way to make it stand out from other staves made of white pine. The easy answer is of course to use a marker and put my initials on it, but I was wondering if I could do something a little more personal - like putting some engravings on it.

I want the staff to be easily recognizable, that is, without having to pick it up and look at one end or the other, know that it is mine, and more important, have other people know that it is not theirs.

NB - by engravings, I mean etching with a knife, lines that would be at the most 1 millimeter deep.

Now, should this staff be used for striking and blocking, is this likely to be a problem as far as the staff being able to stay in one piece?

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    Perhaps this is a better question to ask on the Armor Archive. – Ho-Sheng Hsiao Jun 5 '12 at 14:46
  • Are you sure it's pine? Generally you don't use soft woods in the construction of bo, though Japanese White Pine are extremely popular in bonsai. More popular are white oak for their density and compressive strength. – stslavik Jun 5 '12 at 15:54
  • Hmm, since everyone is doubting the wood, I'll have to double-check.. Please stay posted; I apologize for any mistake and thank everyone for the help. – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 17:59
  • @Ho-ShengHsiao it might. No one seems to be complaining of this question not being related to martial arts (yet) though, so I'll only go over there if no one here can give an answer. – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 18:02
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    @Trevoke It's not that this question is inappropriate for this forum; it's that you'll get much better answers elsewhere. – Ho-Sheng Hsiao Jun 5 '12 at 18:53

Simply, yes. You will be reducing the compressive strength of the wood by taking away fibers that would make it more resistive.

The integrity loss from engravings could be compensated for by using a slightly thicker piece of wood (the compressive strength then being equal to or greater than the deepest groove – if none were greater than say 1/16", then adding 1/8" to a 1" diameter bo would give you a 1" core.), or by using a more resilient hardwood (using a 3/4" hanbo of osage orange [horse apple], I have broken 1" white oak hanbo on multiple occasions).

Carving with a knife can have additional consequences. Often, if the wood is too dry, the knife can cause further splitting than intended, and your 1mm cuts will become significantly deeper. For this reason, I find a Dremel to be a superior tool for this sort of work.

Any engraving should be followed by a full sanding of the wood, then re-oiling the wood with boiled linseed oil to permeate the newly exposed fibers. This will improve the flexibility of the fibers (their ability to bend without tearing) which increases compressive strength. Please note that only boiled linseed oil should be used for this purpose; regular linseed oil will not permeate the wood effectively.


Very Important! You're using white wax wood, which is a very flexible wood with medium to long fibers. It takes a beating and compresses nicely. Any engraving will shorten exterior fibers, so good sanding and rounding will prevent splintering. Follow with oil to prevent the bigger threat to your engraved wood staff: Wood Worms.

Wood worms burrow into wood, eating away at it which compromises core integrity by creating little tunnels. White wax wood is extremely susceptible to these little pests. Regular oiling and care are a must.

  • I've never experienced wood worms in weapons. Perhaps this is something particular to where you live? Some insects might be more previlant in some areas than others. Given that this isn't a concern where I live (Australia), I prefer not to oil practice weapons. – nedlud Jun 8 '12 at 9:29
  • You usually won't experience it because the wood is treated (with boiled linseed oil – it's a common treatment in commercially available tools). However, when you're removing the top layer by engraving into the weapon, if you don't treat it, you're exposing it to the risk. – stslavik Jun 8 '12 at 15:18
  • When I make my own weapons from wood, I don't don't treat them with anything, and have not had any trouble, although I did just lose my wooden knife after 10 years with it. But I don't think the wood worms took it ;) I recently bought a "white oak" bokken and when I did do some carving on it, discovered that the "white" was just a white lacqure painted over what looked like common American oak :( – nedlud Jun 13 '12 at 1:09
  • "just a white lacqure painted over what looked like common American oak " Sooooo common, and a very good point. Caveat emptor. Most martial arts weapons that are commercially available are lousy, relying on the fact 99% of buyers wouldn't know oak from pine. Quite the dangerous game. – stslavik Jun 13 '12 at 15:46
  • Simply, no, actually. I'm surprised this was the accepted answer. If you look at the overall diameter of the staff, and the reduction in material that very shallow etchings on the surface would cause, and any changes in overall strength and capability of the staff, the effects would be negligible. – PoloHoleSet Sep 27 '16 at 14:40

I've used wood burning tools as a way to mark my rattan, hardwood, and waxwood weapons.

I've never seen any negative impact on structural integrity, they stand out great (IMO), and the work can be as simple, complex, or elegant as desired. IMO it's one of the best ways to mark gear, and it can be pretty.

I've also used tape, but the complexity of a mark that's easy-to-spot, relatively unique, etc. turned into a mathematical problem my tiny brain couldn't comprehend. Using one of those boutique duct tapes is the easiest way around that, but I've had issues with small strips sliding and making sticky weapons.

  • Oh man, wood burning tools? That's a fantastic idea. Which tools? I know nothing about the topic. – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 23:46
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    @Trevoke My latest set is just a cheap beginner's kit; any local hobby shop, chain or not, should have something for maybe $10-20 and have enough tip shapes to get you started. It worked great for me, anyway :) – Dave Newton Jun 6 '12 at 0:03
  • I'd love to mark this as the answer, because I think I might well do that, but ... It's not the question I asked :p – Anon Jun 6 '12 at 0:04
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    @Trevoke I'll survive either way ;) Accepting an answer means it was the best answer for you--and sometimes we don't know precisely what we're asking until we start exploring answers outside of our knowledge base. This happens on stackoverflow all the time. My personal view is that all the upvotes and accepts mean less than nudging someone in a direction they might not have gone otherwise :) – Dave Newton Jun 6 '12 at 0:16
  • @Anon - a cheap pen-style soldering iron works really well for this, as well. – PoloHoleSet Sep 30 '16 at 14:16

I have had more experience than most with wood. I was foreman at a yacht woodworking mill, although that was not the only thing we did to be sure. Some of the previous answers take things a bit too far.

  1. 1st and foremost is the quality of the stave. This means the integrity, any cracks, large knots, rotting, insect damage, etc.
  2. Second would be the drying of the wood and that it was done properly. This will be done long before you get your hands on it. Most won't know if it has been done. A wood moisture meter can tell at what state the wood is currently at. The average for different areas of the world vary. Arizona would be around 8% .South Florida around 13%. For most this won't be an issue. Allowing it to stay indoors in your home for 3 to 5 weeks will allow the wood to find the ambient level.
  3. Third has been mentioned, boiled linseed oil. Applications of this will keep the wood from drying out too much and replaces the natural oils that slowly evaporate. This is a very important aspect of woods abilities to stay intact.
  4. Fourth, frequently check the end grain for cracking and checking. A chamfer should be made with a file or sandpaper. The chamfer protects a section of the grain from propagating a crack that could run the length of the staff possibly making it unusable. Regular inspection after all contact sessions is something that should always be done. As simple as tapping it on a hard surface and feel for vibrations and or sounds indicating cracks.

Realistically guys what are you doing with this... oh ya you are beating the living daylights out of it against other wood, bone, sharp metal. I have found that it has more to do with things that you have the least control of. Mainly how the tree was grown. A good waxwood staff is a small juvenile tree or an exceptionally straight section of branch. More than not it will be a juvenile tree. So how it was cared for will have more to do with its overall performance than most anything else.

That being said shallow engraving will not hurt most. I have done it with mine. A good sanding followed by application of boiled linseed oil is what to do.

If you could select from hundreds of these it would be more important. Since few of us will have this chance, your best bet is to buy from a reputable dealer and 95% of the hard work is done. Buy several of them and keep them oiled and out of the weather. Inspect them every time you use them. Very long answer but this was a living creature, each has their gifts and faults. Good luck.


I wouldnt worry about it too much. Any wooden weapon used in practice where it will be struck by other weapons, will eventually need to be replaced. Some woods will last longer than others. But in the end they all take a beating and will need to be replaced. Will carving it make it more likely to break? Maybe a little. But not nearly as much as bashing it against other sticks.

I say go for it!

As has already been pointed out, make sure you sand the finished results well so you don't give yourself, or your partner, splinters.

I should add that I tend to carve my initials into the end grain at the butt end of a weapon to mark it as mine. No danger of weakening the weapon there.


Any cutting or etching of a stick used in vigorous contact with another stick will cause a dramatic increase in the likelihood of splitting and splintering at the location of the etching.

Shallower etching is less problematic, but it's still going to be a problem to compromise the integrity of a stick you're going to be hitting with. If it's only for kata it'll be fine.

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    Can you describe your source? Some research, or personal experience, or your imagination? – Ho-Sheng Hsiao Jun 5 '12 at 14:45
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    @Ho-ShengHsiao Personal experience with sticks long and short used in karate for kata, kihon, and kumite. I experienced the issue I spoke of. – Dave Liepmann Jun 5 '12 at 15:47
  • @DaveLiepmann I'm aware that what I'm about to ask is next to impossible, but I have to ask anyway: do you have any idea (very roughly) of the proportion of the depth of the etching to the width/diameter of the wood, as well as length of the stick? If not -- approximately how deep were the cuttings/etchings, in your experience? – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 17:57
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    @Trevoke The etchings that I dealt with were deep. Very shallow etching, like in metalwork, might not be a problem. Again, if we're talking about sticks for hitting, it's a safety issue that I would recommend against. – Dave Liepmann Jun 5 '12 at 18:11
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    @DaveLiepmann Yes. You're confusing correlation with causality. Framing it as, "In my personal experience having used my stick with lots of force many times, these etchings creates a lot of problems." That gives your words more credibility than the assumed credibility in your present words. – Ho-Sheng Hsiao Jun 5 '12 at 18:56

I own a Japanese White Oak staff (bo), and my understanding is that it is a protected tree. To me it would be sacrilegious to engrave my bo.

Having said that, Japanese white oak is a tough wood, a small amount of shallow engraving is not going to compromise it at all.

But I would suggest - why not use a small sticker instead? After many hours of thrashing the manufacturer's decal is still on mine, you should be able to get a sticker that is reasonably resilient and sticky, and you can just replace it if it does perish.

Answer edited due to question being edited

  • A sticker is a good idea, but possibly tantamount to the same thing as the marker - I don't want the feel of the sticker while I'm handling the staff, so I'd have to put it on one end of the staff or the other. I'll edit my question to say that I do want my staff to be easily recognizable (read - without manipulating it to find out who the owner is) :) – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 14:02
  • @Trevoke: If you don't like the feel of a sticker under your hands, engraving will not be any better. I took a Dremel to a red oak hanbo I had: you lose the slide that the smooth wood has in your hands. – stslavik Jun 5 '12 at 15:51
  • @stslavik The sticker feels artificial, while engravings don't have that feeling. I've handled hanbos with engravings and I have not had the issue of losing the smooth slide. – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 17:54
  • @slugster apologies for the mistake, the tree is waxwood, not pine. – Anon Jun 5 '12 at 19:50
  • @Trevoke - I made a mistake too, my bo is white oak, not pine. Duh. I've made the correction. The sticker idea still stands though. – slugster Jun 5 '12 at 19:56

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