Kendama King

By Daniel Braverman (Photos by Nathan Sonnenfeld)
Spring 2017

A lathe spins over and over again and wood shavings fly into the air while George Bruno, a 17-year-old junior at Manlius Pebble Hill, shapes a rectangular cherry wood block into an old Japanese skill toy known as a kendama.

George Bruno cuts a piece of local cherry wood before turning it on the lathe.

Five hours later, Bruno puts the three pieces together, checks the measurements one last time, and smiles. Before he can be fully satisfied, Bruno completes his final test for quality: he plays with it. As he lands his first trick, Bruno nods and sets the finished kendama to the side, ready for it to be put up for sale. The toy may appear simple at first, but there are more than 1,000 different tricks ranging in difficulty that players can try to master.

In January, Bruno combined his passion for hand-turning kendamas with his passion for entrepreneurship when he launched his company, Handturned Kendamas.

While Bruno enjoys making kendamas, he finds playing with them even more fun.

Despite being in high school, Bruno has been able to balance the amount of work his company requires on top of his schoolwork. Utilizing free blocks effectively to focus on homework, Bruno is able to spend roughly two hours a night during the school week either woodworking, marketing, or doing anything else involved with the business.

While some high schoolers might find running their own company overwhelming, Bruno has handled the added responsibility well.

“It’s something that is very fun for me, and I enjoy every minute of it,” Bruno said.

Bruno’s blend of hard work, passion, and superb craftsmanship has helped him gain customers from all across the United States.

“I think with his handturned kendamas, he can really make a difference in [the kendama market],” said customer Andrew Benincasa, a freshman at MPH.

Bruno first became fascinated with kendama in October 2015. Four months later, he started to make the skill toy. Before thinking about starting a company, Bruno focused on making his kendamas as high-quality as possible. It wasn’t until his Advanced Portfolio class with Teresa Henderson, chair of the visual art and design department, that Bruno began to seriously think about selling them. Through the class, Henderson developed into a mentor for him, guiding him on many aspects of his business such as branding, photos, packaging and marketing. Henderson and others who have given him advice or assistance are why Bruno sees being an entrepreneur while still in high school as an advantage.

george2ndtry_6 (1)“Being able to run your own company at a young age is really cool,” Bruno said. [It’s] an experience [where] you keep learning things as you run into problems and have to solve them.”

While the idea of launching a company was Bruno’s, his older brother and father both influenced and inspired him. Bruno’s father had a passion for woodworking from a young age, and he shared this passion with Bruno, who also found it interesting and decided to start woodworking. However, when it came to entrepreneurial endeavors, Bruno’s biggest inspiration was his brother Simon, who also had his own businesses in high school. Growing up, watching his older brother run his own businesses inspired Bruno to do something of his own.

“I just thought it was cool how my brother, since he was my age, was doing his own little businesses and just pretty much figuring stuff out on his own and learning through starting a business,” Bruno said. “I always liked that and thought it really fit my learning style to do something like that.”

When Bruno launched his company and his kendamas hit the market, all five sold out. Customers from places such as Los Angeles, San Diego, New York City and Pennsylvania all hurried to get their hands on one. To date, Bruno has sold more than 40 products; however, the majority of these have not been kendamas but another product called a kururin.

Just before launching his company, Bruno became fascinated with the kururin, a rolling desk toy also from Japan. After making three, each a different size, Bruno found the shape he liked. He started to hand-turn them and put them for sale on his website.

The wood Bruno makes his products out of is received in large slabs.

At the time, the kururin was a brand new toy, and Bruno said Handturned Kendamas was one of the few companies in the United States to sell it. Kururins tend to be popular among people who play kendama.

Kururins, called roru on his site, have been Bruno’s most popular product. Five times in the first month of business, Bruno released a batch of four or five kururins, and each batch sold out. Additionally, one of his kururins made its way to a customer halfway around the world in Japan.

In places such as California and Japan, kendama has become a trend in which kids spend their free time practicing, as opposed to playing video games or watching a screen. At MPH, Bruno has helped make kendama a trend with a community of students ranging from sixth to 11th grade playing. These students are often seen together playing kendama during snack, Upper School Kendama Club, or Middle School Kendama Club. Bruno sees all this kendama playing as a great thing to do.

In just a month and a half, Bruno’s company not only benefitted the MPH community, but his products have also been sold to customers all across the country. However, there is much more to come from Bruno’s company. He is currently working with a distributor to have his products sold on its website as well. Additionally, Bruno may release apparel in the near future and recently released another skill toy called a belgeri. However, considering how quickly the company has grown, Bruno doesn’t know exactly where it’s headed.

“The way that George thinks is fantastic,” Henderson said. “The limitations for George are whatever he wants to put on himself, which is really cool.”

Bruno burns the signature two stripes seen on all of his products using wire.