Building a mat on a tight budget.

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Building a mat on a tight budget.

For many of us the most time consuming and costly part of starting a dojo will be our mat. The “mat” is the central focus of our physical Dojo, so it’s important that we have a robust mat we can be proud of. However for most of us, cost is an issue. Many start their schools out of their garages, basements, or inexpensive warehouse space. While a mat is definitely something we don’t want to “skimp” on, a really nice “store bought” mat can be staggeringly expensive. This is especially true if you are fortunate enough to have a large space.

When selecting the type of mat you need, there are many questions you’ll have to ask yourself. What are the requirements of my space, should be your first question. Do you need a mat that can be put away after every training, or will it be permanent? Do you need to use the space for something other than Aikido. Often times people will run their Aikido school out of a church or youth group building. In a case like this you cannot use a permanent mat because you’ll need to remove the mat for the other functions that the space is being used for.

The size of your space and the cost to “mat” it is important as well. If you have a large space, filling it with real tatami, or faux-tatami is going to get expensive fast. Common tatami size is 71″ by 35.5″ (180cm by 90cm), close to 6 feet by 3 feet. The price range of tatami is going to be between $150 and $1000 (USD) per mat. At that price 8 mats (only 12 feet by 12 feet) is not cheap, let alone a large 100-200 mat space.

When we built our mat these questions became very important. Cost turned out to be the most prohibitive factor for us. The mat we built was based on a mat we had trained on at Aikido of Fresno for years. The design is hard enough so that it doesn’t feel mushy and hard to move on. Yet flexible so you can fall on it over and over without injury. The mat is softer then faux tatami on concrete, but much firmer then a sprung floor covered in tatami. It’s a permanent mat, so not ideal for spaces that must be used for other purposes. But the cost is insanely low. By far the least expensive of all the options we found.

We built our mat for $450, and it’s about 350 sq ft. Covering the same space with faux tatami would have cost us around $2850 (not including shipping). The best thing is it doesn’t cost much more as the mat’s size increases. It’s a perfect mat for your garage dojo at home, or for your commercial school in a large warehouse. You can build a really large, quality mat with this design for very little money, and for most of us that’s pretty important.

So what’s this insanely inexpensive mat made out of? Tire shavings and phone books! With a little persistence and charisma you can find both of these key ingredients FOR FREE!! The expense of the mat is going to be in the covering, the lumber, and the hardware. This is not an extremely difficult undertaking only minimal understanding of hand tools is necessary. This means you can build the mat yourself, saving lots of money. If you take your time and think out each step, you can turn out a really beautiful mat, for little cost, that will last at least 20 years.

Materials list:

Phone books.
Tire shavings.
Painters plastic.
Screw eyes.
Nylon Rope.
Concrete screws.
Duct tape.

Tools needed:
Circular saw.
Power drill
Various drill bits.
Staple gun.
Measuring tape.

Where to start: looking at your dojo, roughly measure the space where you plan to place your mat. Then measure a phone book. Divide the total space of the mat aria by the dimensions of the phone book and find the total number of books you’ll need. This is only a rough estimate. Once you actually get the books you can lay them out and find the true dimensions of your mat.

Next: start calling phone companies. Phone companies always have tons of phone books lying around. When we undertook this project we didn’t realize how varied the dimensions of different phone books can be. So we grabbed up every miscellaneous phonebook we could find. Using mismatched phonebooks means you’ll have to make all these different sizes fit together square. You can save yourself some time by getting all the same kind of book. Depending on your timing it shouldn’t be all that hard to find all the same book. Often times you can find copies of last year’s book that were never used. Start calling up the phone book companies, and ask. Be honest with them, most people will think it’s cute that you’re going to build a “karate mat” out of phone books, and they’ll be happy to help. Also don’t pay for them, they need to get rid of the suckers anyways (phone books are always over ordered), and your recycling plan is more efficient then sending them to the paper shredder.

It’s important that you don’t go any further until you have all the books you’ll need. This way you can be absolutely certain of the mat’s true size. For our mat we used 420 phone books. Once you have your phonebooks in hand, lay them out where you want your mat. Now you will be 100% sure of your actual space, and you’ll be able to stand on it and see if your mat is the size you want. This will be much easier than building the frame first, and cutting phone books so they fit (this is not a fun thing to do).

Time to buy your lumber. Now that you have a good idea of your final mat size it’s time to get the materials for the frame. I would suggest using 4×4’s, we used 2×4’s, and three years later they are holding up fine. But if I could do it again, the 4×4 is much more stable, and would make a better frame. Lay all your phone books out and measure the total space, this will be the inside measurement of the mat. Remember that the outside measurement will be about 8” (if you’re using 4×4’s) greater than this. If you have your phonebooks right up against a wall, you’ll need to allow 4″+ for the frame. If it’s to close at this point it’s an easy fix. Nothing is bolted down. Move some phonebooks around and away you go.

With your measurements go get your lumber. We used simple inexpensive pine, and like I said, no problems to date. You won’t see much of the wood once the mat is finished, so don’t go buy redwood or anything fancy, it’s not necessary. With lumber in hand, start laying it out around your phone books. Don’t cut anything yet. Lay out what fits, and see how it sits in your space. This is where you can start to see any problems you might have, and adjust for them while it’s still easy. Once it looks like it’s going to fit right, make a chalk outline on the ground of what the complete mat would look like. Take measurements for the places that need cutting, and cut the lumber to fit in those spots. With everything cut, all the pieces should fit in your outline perfectly. If everything fits like you want it, we can move on to our next step, hardware.

You’ll need some eye-screws along the outside of your frame so you’ll have something to attach your covering too. We used eye-screws, counter sunk into the sides of our frame. The design works very well, it’s secure, and keeps the eyelets out of the way. Measure the diameter of your eye-screw shafts (the part with the threads on it). Then drill a hole in a piece of scrap wood, and make sure the eyelet will slide nicely into the hole, fitting very tightly. The next step is to measure the width of the “eye” of the eye-screw. Use a drill bit this size to drill another hole, on top of your first one, as deep into the lumber as the width of the eye-screw. This will counter sink the eye-screw making it flush with the side of the frame. Put a washer on both sides of the eye-screw, and bolt it down tight. Once you’ve done all this on scrap wood, and you have your method down pat, you’ll have to drill the holes all along the sides of every piece of lumber. We found out while making this mat that the industry standard is 12” apart. We didn’t know this when we built the frame, so we made them 18″apart. When the man from the covering place came, he kind of snickered and let us know what “industry standard” is. If you’re interested in avoiding some snickers, you might want to put them at 12”, or better yet call the place you are going to get your covering from and ask them what the norm is. Once all the holes are in, put in your washers, and eyelets, bolt them up, and you’re ready to go.

With everything laid out, it’s time to bolt your lumber down. You’ll need a powerful drill, concrete screws, and a concrete drill bit to go into the ground. We put 5 screws in each long board (any board over 4 feet) and 3 screws into every short board. This will give you a strong base to tie your covering. Make sure you get the proper size drill bit to pilot the holes for your concrete screws. They need to be big enough so the screws can get into the concrete, yet small enough so they have a good bight. If you’re not sure, ask they guy at the hardware store. We rented a powerful drill called the “roto-hammer” just for this purpose, it made the job go easily.

With the frame permanently down, you can take the measurements for the covering. Luckily for us, the place we bought our covering from sent a guy to properly measure the cover for us. If your place doesn’t do this make sure to ask lots of questions about how they want the measuring done, and make sure you measure more than one time. The kind of covering we used is a Marine grade 18 oz (rs18) tarp. It’s a common heavy duty reinforced, water repellent tarp. It cost us $350, including grommets (the little metal eyes). I know of at least two schools still using their original covering with over 15 years of daily use. It’s an economical, effective, clean, rugged, attractive way to go.

You’ll want to go over the whole frame top with foam rubber. This will make the edges soft, and protect your covering from wear on the lumber. Cut the foam at least half an inch larger on each side of the frame. This will allow it to round the edges of the wood, to protect your covering. Staple it down with a heavy duty stable gun, then go around it with a hammer, to knock the staples down a bit further. The foam we used was puzzle piece foam for workout rooms. It was about half an inch thick and only cost 9 bucks for a package that covered the whole frame.

At this time you’ll need to get your rubber dust. We got ours for free. We called a tire recycling center and asked if we could have some of their dust. They were more than happy to let us come shovel rubber dust at 5 am. It may take some calling around; Michael Varin called several tire places before anyone knew what he was even talking about. Be persistent and friendly, and you will reap the rewards. How much to get is a tricky question. We eyeballed it and flew by the seat of our pants. We used 36, 13 gallon trash bags (a pickup bed full). That was just enough for 350 sq ft of mat. We kind of think that double that would have been amazing. I wish I could give you a better measurement for this, but hopefully this will give you enough info to make a rough estimate.

Once the frame is screwed down, phone books in, the fun starts. Rubber dust. Put painter’s plastic sheets over your phone books. This will keep your rubber dust from escaping down into the cracks of your phone books, and will also make clean up easier, when (if) you remove your mat. You want the plastic to be quite a bit larger than your actual mat, so you can fold the edges in to trap all the dust securely under your covering. Make sure to securely duct tape all of the edges of the different plastic sheets, so it makes a good strong sheet. After your plastic is down, begin pouring in the dust. Just kind of dump it around at first. You’ll have to rake it for some time to make sure it’s even. Be very careful with your raking, any mistakes now will make lumps in your mat, which will be a pain to fix later. Don’t put your dust down until you are ready to put the covering on, because it needs to be smooth. We took a piece of steel mesh, weighted it with bricks, and dragged it around several times to make sure we had it near level, and lump free. You’ll probably never make it perfect, but do the best you can. Once it’s nice and even, fold in the sides of your plastic and you’re ready for the next step.

Putting on the covering. We’re now nearing the end of this adventure. Carefully lay your covering on top of the frame. It’s time to run some rope through the eye-screws and grommets, thus joining the two together. Just use a simple zigzag pattern between the grommets and eyelets. Use a separate rope for each side, this way if you have to get under for any reason you only have to undue one or two sides instead of all of them. Also this will enable you to get each side really tight. You will have to tighten these ropes several times for the first month or so, as the covering will stretch.

After all is tight all that is left is to clean off the mat and have your first keiko.

*Thanks to Michael Varin for the editing.

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