You Can Build a Wooden Dummy
by Brian McCarrie
Having a wooden dummy seems the ultimate in martial arts. I've seen them in kung fu movies like "Descendant of Wing Chun" and "Rumble in the Bronx," and I've always thought it would be cool to have one. Besides, anyone who has their own wooden dummy must be a serious martial artist.
A few things always held me back from getting one. First, I don't study Wing Chun kung fu, the art that the wooden dummy is typically associated with. I study 7 Star Praying Mantis and Northern Shaolin. Second, the cost. Those things are pricey. I have a wife, two kids and a mortgage. How could I ever justify spending close to $1,000 on a wooden dummy?
To use the dummy, I knew I would have to learn some Wing Chun (more on this later). And if I was going to have a wooden dummy, I realized I would have to build it myself. So the journey to build my own wooden dummy began.
I started out by doing some research on the web. I found a lot of websites that had wooden dummies for sale. But as I've said, I don't have $700 to $1,200 to drop on a dummy, so I kept looking. I found some other websites that had plans for sale. Maybe I'm just cheap, but I didn't want to pay for the plans either. Eventually I found a couple of sites that had plans on them. I used parts of each plan to come up with the final design for my dummy.
The first thing I needed was a body for my dummy. After making some calls to different lumber yards, I contacted a rough-cut lumber yard to see if they had what I needed - a five foot long, nine inch diameter pine log. I decided to use pine because I live in Colorado, and there's not much teak around here. I also intended to use my dummy in my garage, so the elements wouldn't be an issue.
The log cost about $38. When I got it home, I saw that it had some very large cracks in it. I also realized why they called it a "rough cut" lumber yard. The thing was anything but smooth. I filled the cracks with wood putty and got to work sanding. It took a few hours, but I finally got it to the smoothness I desired.
After sanding, I had to transfer the measurements from the plans to the body. Sounds easy, right? Well it was a bit more difficult than I had expected. First I drew a straight center line down the length of the body. All of my other measurements would come from this. Making the marks for the leg, easy. Making the marks for the lower arm, no problem. Making the marks for the two upper arms, BIG PROBLEM. The arms are 11 inches long and are supposed to be 8 inches apart at the tips. I had no idea how to find the exact angle to cut the holes so that the arms would be in the correct position when I was done. I got creative and ended up making an adjustable protractor out of some scrap wood. I attached the protractor to the top of the body and adjusted the arms so they were 8 inches apart. I now knew where the centers of the top arm holes should be.
I then prepared to make the leg for my dummy. The plans provided the angles I would need, but because the leg has a bend in it, I had no idea how to make it. I ended up making an overlapping joint for the leg using glue and screws. I figured if I broke it, I could always make another one. It turns out that my overlapping joint is pretty strong.
After the leg was made and the measurements transferred, I was ready to start drilling and chiseling. I took my time, measured a few more times and got to work. Starting with the leg hole, I used a one-inch spade bit on my drill and a three-quarter inch chisel. After I drilled the hole, I started chiseling. I would chisel down a little bit and then insert the leg as far as it would go just to make sure that I had the right angle. Before I knew it (about an hour of chiseling) the leg hole was done and the dummy was starting to take shape.
I don't have a lathe and I wanted the arms to be made from oak, so I faxed the plans off to a woodworker to get them made. It ended up costing about $112 for the three arms, but it was worth it because they came out great.
After getting the arms from the woodworker, I started drilling the holes. I took the same slow and steady approach as I'd used with the leg. Each arm hole ended up taking about an hour to drill and chisel. Now my dummy was looking like a dummy. All I had left was to mount it to the wall.
I drilled and chiseled the mounting holes on the back of the body and made a bracket on the wall of my garage with some four by fours and lag bolts. The dummy was now mounted in place and ready to use. My only problem now was, how the heck do I use this thing?
I thought I had to know Wing Chun in order to use it, so I bought a book and some videotapes and started learning the wooden dummy form. A friend of mine who had studied Wing Chun before helped me go over some of the applications in the form. Everything was fine for a few months, but I soon realized that my primary style, 7 Star Praying Mantis kung fu, was suffering because I was spending so much time on Wing Chun and the dummy.
I thought to myself, "What am I doing? I don't even know 7 Star Praying Mantis as well as I should, and here I am learning a new style just so I can use this dummy." After that, the dummy kinda sat in my garage for a while.
By chance, I found an old, out of print, Seven Star Praying Mantis book on the web. I ordered it. Upon its arrival, I paged through it and was amazed to see a Seven Star practitioner using a wooden dummy with mantis techniques! Could this be real? Can I really use a wooden dummy for something other than Wing Chun? There was the mantis hook, the seven star sweep, the dodge, parry, leg check punch. It was all there, I just hadn't seen it.
It was a good Seven Star book, but what it really did was open my eyes to the idea of doing different things on the wooden dummy.
You don't have to know Wing Chun to use a wooden dummy
Training on the wooden dummy.
Now I use the wooden dummy regularly. I don't stand in front of it for hours like I used to, trying to work on a form. Now I work on a form like I always have. Then I select a few techniques out of the form to try on the dummy. I drill the techniques over and over on the dummy until I feel pretty good with them. I try to string them together in different sequences, and the next time I'm with a live partner, I drill the techniques more.
It turns out that the wooden dummy serves as a great "stepping stone" for taking techniques from form to application.
All it really takes is a little adaptation. Many forms are very linear in motion. I've noticed that instead of using this linear motion, I end up moving from one side of the dummy to the other to perform the next technique. To me, this makes a lot of sense because of the side-stepping nature of many techniques.
I've discovered that almost any technique can be taken from a form and performed on the wooden dummy. All it takes is an open mind and a little creativity.
The whole process of building the dummy has been very rewarding, and it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. As for discovering that I didn't need Wing Chun to use the dummy and that I could adapt it for my own needs, that was a big bonus. In the end I've found a valuable tool for practicing almost any technique - and I must admit, it's pretty cool to have one.
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Written by Brian McCarrie for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM