My first experience with board breaking was a total humiliation. I was a ten-year-old Karate student, with six months of practice under my orange belt, when my sensei decided we should all break some wood. He asked each of us to acquire a stack of boards, one square foot by one inch in size, and bring them to our next class.
As a bright but naive child, I had no idea that the practice of tameshiwari, or breaking, was an instrument of martial arts fraud. I only knew that it looked cool, and that it required focus–or so my teacher said. After class, my Dad and I went to a local lumberyard to pick up some wood for our upcoming test.
“What kind of wood?” the salesman asked us. “I dunno…regular.”
Tip #1: Some woods are stronger than others. For an easier break, use pine boards. Avoid oak or plywood.
I don’t remember practicing my breaking skills in preparation for next week’s class. Why would I? I was led to believe that successful breaks were a product of kime: focus and determination, honed to perfection through the repetition of Karate kata. There was no apparent need for experience with actual wooden targets–and aside from Judo-chopping pencils with my schoolyard buddies, I had none.
When class arrived a few days later, we each took a partner, and held their board vertically in front of our chest, to be split with a single punch.
Tip #2: The board must be held firmly in place, or it will not break. Striking downwards at a stationary board is easier than striking forwards at an unstable board.
After two or three tries, everyone in class was able to break their boards. Everyone except myself, that is. Maybe this stunt was meant to instill confidence in Karate students, but it had the opposite effect on me. I wasn’t the youngest, or the smallest kid in class, but nevertheless I was a complete failure at breaking. Sensei didn’t offer any useful advice, as I recall.
At the time, I was ashamed of my performance. When I quit Karate a few months later, it was in part due to this terrible experience. I wasn’t yet old or wise enough to understand that my failure was, as much as anything else, a failure to cheat.
Tip #3: Pine is weaker and easier to split when dry and brittle. Cook your boards in the oven before striking them. Seriously.
It was Bruce Lee who rekindled my interest in martial arts, a few years later. Bruce Lee didn’t bother much with breaking–“Boards don’t hit back,” he famously said in Enter The Dragon. Forget wood, or even concrete blocks: Bruce Lee broke people instead.
Following his lead, I put aside any remaining interest in tameshiwari, in favor of speed drills and punching bags. Thankfully I discovered through this training that, contrary to the assertions of a few cheap wooden planks, I was not completely inept at martial arts. But I still hadn’t realized that, in mainstream Karate at least, the fix was in.
Tip #4: When breaking multiple boards at once, use spacers to separate them. This makes your break much easier, but your audience probably won’t know the difference. An average adult can break 3-5 prepared boards this way, with no training whatsoever.
It was nearly a decade later, after watching a series of increasingly ridiculous martial arts demonstrations, that I finally understood why I had failed in kiddie Karate.
In the first show, I saw a frightened wooden board split itself, a quarter-second before the supposed Taekwondo master actually kicked it!
In the second show, I watched a tiny first-grader and Hapkido student punch through her boards with an ease bordering on nonchalance. Surely these were not the same boards that I, at nearly twice her size, couldn’t conquer?
The final shocking episode occurred during the setup for a performance. An assistant accidentally dropped one of his boards on the ground. It fell three feet, landed flat…and broke in half.
Tip #5: Make your own “rebrakeable boards”. Secretly break all your boards before the demonstration, then tape or glue them together again for the big show. It’s pathetic, but it works.
After seeing this, I lost all my respect for breaking demonstrations. Folks, you have to assume the game is rigged unless and until proven otherwise.
Kudos to those martial artists that play fair, using materials without any hidden or prepared defects, and circulating them through the audience for inspection. They deserve some credit. But lest anyone forget, ability to hit a stationary target is a poor representation of combat skill, or self-defense skill, or physical and mental balance, or any other significant benefit that one would normally expect from martial arts mastery.
In other words, it is a dubious performance even when the materials are genuine. When they are not, it is an absurdity. Call me when boards start hitting back.