In The Blood

Make of yourself an honest man, and there will be one less rascal in the world.

Thomas Carlyle 1803 – 1855

It behooves a man to know human nature in general and his own nature in particular, at least in your humble servant’s opinion, which, along with $1.25, will buy you a soft drink in a can.

Has Gentle Reader ever wondered why people do some of the things they do? While it makes perfect sense to work diligently for the necessities of life such as food, clothing, and housing, we do many unnecessary things that yield no apparent profit, for example gardening, despite fruits, vegetables and even flowers being easier and cheaper to purchase in a grocery store. And how about the large, lush green lawns and ornamental plants and trees we install around around our homes and maintain at great effort and expense, plants that serve no practical purpose but cost us time and money and other resources?

What whips drives us to these excesses?

I daresay this isn’t just a guy thing, either. Many ladies insist on weaving, knitting, and sewing clothing and home furnishings by hand even when mass-produced, inexpensive products of similar quality and utility can be readily purchased from stores anywhere. It just doesn’t make sense, and I say that as a husband that, at the behest of She Who Must be Obeyed, has spent thousands of dollars on CNC sewing machines with unobtanium armatures and smoothie attachments all to make quilts that never spend a second on a bed and seldom even see the light of day.

What is this madness that has her gripped in its talons?

But I fear the madness runs deeper still, for many males of the species spend inordinate amounts of time and money buying trucks, ATVs, clothing that makes them look like trees, camping gear and weapons of death and destruction (aka WODADs) in preparation for hunting season, a time when otherwise sane people don orange costumes and chase Bambi around the mountains and forests just to obtain the most expensive meat to be found anywhere in the world. It’s just nuts.

And don’t even get me started about fishing. A good time was had by all during these hunting and fishing expeditions, but the benefits are impossible to calculate. It just isn’t logical…

Woodworking is useful for making housing and furniture and many of the tools essential to civilization, but what about woodworking as a hobby? Isn’t it quicker, easier, less expensive and more sliver-free to buy pre-fabricated houses assembled on-site with bolts and furniture made of MDF, plastic and steel excreted by Chinese factories? Of course it is, so what is this friking parasite madly manipulating levers in our brains compelling us to make these things with our own hands instead?!

I don’t know why we do these things, I only know we want to do them and that doing them gives us satisfaction. But I do have a humble theory I will present for Gentle Reader’s consideration, just for giggles.

I believe that the habits and actions that successfully preserved our ancestors long enough for them to produce and raise each generation of humans became imprinted in each subsequent generation’s DNA.

Successful farmers survived since ancient times leaving descendants with their genes. I suspect it is the farmer gene that compels so many of us to grow fruits and vegetable and surround our homes and cities with lawns and plants, a form of agriculture similar to that which kept our ancestors from starvation. It’s the only possible explanation for the universal compulsion to plant stuff.

The children of women who spun, wove, knitted and sewed clothing and bedding survived cold winters inheriting the sewing gene. I’m not sure where smoothie attachments fit into the equation, but sewing machines are clearly part of the compulsion.

The children of successful hunters and fishermen survived too. The compulsion to perform these activities is still strong in many, your humble servant included. I’m sure you’ll agree that the ritual of talking around the evening camp fire about the big one that got away while saber tooth tigers and cave bears prowled in the shadows beyond the fire is much much older than recorded history.

Somewhere not far out on a limb of Gentle Reader’s family tree are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ancestors that shaped lumber to make houses to protect and keep their families warm, and beds, tables, benches and chests to make life cleaner and more pleasant. This is a healthy and noble urge, one that, like farming, sewing, hunting and fishing has been useful in keeping body and soul in intimate contact for many thousands of generations in humanity’s past.

My father inherited the woodworking gene from a carpenter ancestor, one of two brothers that left England in the 1600’s to travel to South Carolina by leaky boat. It appears I in turn have passed it down to my sons and grandsons. I am glad of this for mayhap I hear the toenails of wolves clicking on stones in the dark shadows just outside the firelight just now, so a solid door of thick hewn oak with a sturdy cross-bar may come in handy before the morning.

But for now, please ignore the snuffling and scratching noises at the door, pull up a chair by the fire and let’s get started on that chess game, shall we?

YMHOS

Waiting for dark, and dinner

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my riding lawnmower lose power as I pass between two ready-mix concrete trucks on the Tomei Highway.

The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel – Part 2

By concentrating on precision, one arrives at technique, but by concentrating on technique one does not arrive at precision.

Bruno Walter

As mentioned in the previous post in this series, in Japan the mortise chisel is called the “Joiner’s Chisel,” because it is specifically designed for precisely and quickly cutting the many small mortises craftsmen in the joiners trade use in making doors, windows, shoji, screens, furniture and cabinetry.

Why must it cut mortises quickly? Simply because a few seconds of time wasted on each one of many mortises cut during the workday by an uncooperative chisel will quickly add up to hours of lost productivity.

Why must it cut mortises precisely? Simply because defects hidden inside mortises with poor internal tolerances tend to accumulate and too often turn what would otherwise be a well-made piece of furniture or joinery into a rickety old Chinese lawnchair.

In this post we will discuss what to look for in a mortise chisel, and how to correct some typical problems. Most of the concepts discussed in this post are applicable to oiirenomi and atsunomi used for cutting mortises as well, although such chisels lack the same shape advantages.

Klipstein’s Law of Thermodynamics

Just in case Gentle Reader didn’t notice, your humble servant has strong opinions about mortise chisels, partly because I was trained by no-nonsense professionals to cut hundreds of mortises in a single sitting, and partly because bitter experience has taught me the truth that sloppy mortises result in both sloppy products and crushing headaches. Nothing like a bunch of tiny errors when making a series of latticework doors to painfully confirm the validity of Klipstein’s Law of Thermodynamics: “Tolerances inevitably accumulate unidirectionally toward maximum difficulty to assemble.”

Because of this hard-earned experience we have given our blacksmiths specific dimensional tolerance criteria for the mortise chisels they make for us. I can’t always clearly hear what they are muttering in response to my pointed insistence, but it sounds something like “frikin prissy pink princess expects too much of a damned chisel.” Your most humble and obedient servant, however, is much too dignified and polite to respond in so many words, but at such times I think they are stubborn old farts that have never used a mortise chisel. In any case, those who use our mortise chisels benefit from the princess impulse in us.

What to Look For

Mortise chisels are used routinely by only the most skilled craftsmen. Despite their simple appearance, mortise chisels are required to cut to tighter tolerances than other type of chisel, but because they are handmade in the traditional manner without the use of CNC machinery, and because perfection is unattainable in mortal endeavors, they are seldom perfect when new, so Beloved Customer should plan on tuning your mortise chisels before doing serious high-volume work. Indeed, it has long been standard practice among Japanese joiners to modify their chisels and planes to their preferences, and correcting the dimensional imperfections of mortise chisels is at the top of the list, not because they tend to have more imperfections than other chisels, but because more precise work is expected of them.

If you recall some of the mortises you have cut before now you may have noticed that despite your best efforts and forehead-splitting concentration, the sides ended up out-of-square with the workpiece’s top surface, or the side walls were raggedly gouged, or even undercut. These defects are not unusual, and may be due to pernicious pixies, your technique, or perhaps a combination of both, but my money’s on the chisel being the culprit.

Please examine your mortise chisel. If it does not meet the ideal standards in the list below (and it won’t), you should make corrections. You’ll be glad you did. There is a link to a document below that illustrates the ideal mortise chisel as well as some typical problems that may prove useful.

  1. The plane formed by the flat lands surrounding the hollow-ground ura depression should be truly flat and without twist over its entire length from cutting edge to shoulder.
  2. The blade’s width should be consistent over its entire length. Alternately, it is acceptable if the blade’s width becomes just slightly and gradually narrower moving from cutting edge to neck. But not too much. On the other hand, a blade that widens towards the neck is an abomination to be avoided like the spotty-bottom footpads at the California Franchise Tax Board.
  3. The blade’s sides should be flat, planar, free of twist, square to the ura, and square to the blade’s top face. Accordingly, a cross-section taken anywhere across the width of the blade should be rectangular anywhere along its length, with all corners 90°. Picky details, but they can make a big difference in the quality of the finished mortise.
  4. The top face (surface where the brand is stamped) need not be straight, but it must be square to the sides at all points along the blade’s length.

Make no mistake, this is a tall order in a hand-forged tool that has never seen a milling machine, planer, or CNC grinder. Few handmade mortise chisels can meet these standards when new, but these details can make all the difference.

Let’s begin the examination part of this job. You will need a 6~12″ straightedge, a small precision square like the Matsui Precision products we carry, and a vernier caliper.

Record Your Observations

Too often the number of dimensional irregularities that require attention are complicated enough to create confusion. This can result in even experienced people making one irregularity worse, or even generating new problems, while attempting to resolve the initial irregularity, like inadvertently creating more knots while trying to untangle a snarled mess of string.

To avoid confusion, I recommend  you make a simple orthogonal hand sketch of your chisel to record irregularities. This sketch should show at least four views of the blade including left and right sides, its face (opposite the hollow-ground ura), and an end view looking towards the cutting edge’s bevel. You may also need to make a few cross-section sketches

Record the results of your examination as annotations and red lines on these sketches to help you plan and execute the work of correcting any problems you may find. There are always a few, and you will need to keep track of each one, and its relationship with the others.

Examine and True the Ura

The first step is to check the ura, the polished lands (flat surfaces) surrounding the hollow-ground depression on the chisel’s back. These must be flat and in the same plane (coplanar). This detail is very important.

A straightedge is good enough for a quick examination, but a more reliable method is to use a granite surface plate. A less expensive and handier option is a simple piece of ⅜” or thicker float glass. 

To use a glass surface plate, apply marking pen ink or Dykem to the ura’s lands. Smear a tiny amount of finishing stone mud around on the glass plate. With the entire blade resting on the plate, and finger pressure straight down in the middle of the blade’s face, move it in a oval pattern through the sharpening stone mud. The ink or Dykem at the high spots will be rubbed off, but will remain at the low spots. This will show you where and how much material must be removed to flatten the ura’s lands

Then, true the ura using a diamond plate, diamond stone, sharpening stones, and/or the glass surface plate. This step is not so important in the case of other types of chisels, but a mortise chisel must have a reasonably flat ura. Without a planar ura, the rest of your examination may be inaccurate. The article at this LINK contains a more detailed discussion with pretty pictures.

Do this work carefully. If you heavy-handedly remove too much steel, the useful life of the chisel may be dramatically reduced. This is a one-time operation in the life of most chisels.

Examine the Blade’s Width and Taper

Next, check the width of your mortise chisel measured across the ura using a vernier caliper or micrometer or other reliable gauge. Relative width is what you need to check, not absolute inches or millimeters, unless you expect your chisel to cut precisely-dimensioned mortises, something that is seldom necessary in the real world.

Measure the blade’s width at five or six locations along the cutting edge, in the middle, and near the neck before it narrows. Make a sketch of the blade and annotate these dimensions on it

Use the glass surface plate at this time to check the sides for flatness. The black oxide surface skin will be worn away by the sharpening stone mud marking the high points, but don’t let the change in cosmetic appearance bother you.

Ideally, the blade will be the same width its full length. However, it is usually acceptable if the blade is slightly wider at the cutting edge than near the shoulder. But if it is wider at the shoulder than the cutting end, it will bind in the cut, tend to split the mortise, and the finished mortise will be skiwampus. This must be remedied by grinding the blade on diamond plates and polishing on sharpening stones.

But don’t do anything yet since there are more details you need to examine first. Just make a note on your little sketch.

Examine the Blade’s Sides

Straight Sides

Use a good straight-edge to check both sides of the blade’s sides. They must be straight. If they curve in or out it will be difficult to convince it to cut a clean straight mortise. If the blade is banana-shaped, it can’t cut a straight mortise anymore than a politician can tell the truth while his heart beats (it’s rumored that some have hearts).

If the blade’s sides are not straight, they must be corrected by carefully grinding and polishing them. But hold your horses there Hoss, don’t do anything drastic yet, just make a note on your little drawing: there’s still more to check first.

Flat Sides

Next check the sides of the blade across their width. They must be either flat (best) or hollow ground (acceptable). If they bulge outwards the blade will bind and can never cut a clean precise mortise, so corrections are absolutely necessary. 

Mark any irregularities on your sketch.

Right Angled Sides

The sides of the blade should be at right angles (90°) to the ura lands. If not, the chisel will skew left or right during each cut, a common problem with most chisels. Gentle Reader has no doubt experienced this.

Slightly less than 90˚ may be acceptable (but less than ideal) if both sides are the same angle. If, however, one side is 90˚, for instance, and the opposite side measures 80˚, well that is not good and may require correction.

For now, just mark any irregularities on your sketch.

Examine the Blade’s Face

Next, examine the chisel’s face (the surface with the brand). 

This surface need not be straight along its length. It doesn’t even need to be flat across its width, but can even be be hollow or bulging to a minor degree without causing trouble. But you do need to pay attention to two key details. 

First, if it is hollow or bulging, the curvature of the bulge or hollow across the blade’s width must be uniform. If not, you should grind it flat. 

The second thing to check for is that a line between and touching the corners where the surface of the face meets the blade’s sides must be parallel with the ura. In other words, if you draw a line 90˚ across the width of the face, that line should be parallel with the ura. If it isn’t corrections are necessary.

Why does the relationship of these two surfaces with each other matter? Two reasons. First, if they are not properly aligned, and assuming the ura is flat, it means the blade is thicker in cross-section at either the right side or left side. There is a strong tendency for the bevel and to become skewed during sharpening, with the result that the cutting edge is not square to the center line of the blade’s long axis.

Of course a skewed cutting edge will push the blade to the right or left in the cut, and cannot cut a flat bottom, a serious defect in advanced mortise and tenon work. This deformity can be compensated for with careful attention during sharpening, but you should not have to work so hard. Better to correct the problem now and get it over with once and for all, I promise.

The second and most important reason is that the skewed bevel will cause the blade to dive to the right or left when cutting a mortise ruining precision and gouging the mortise’s walls. This is different from the problem noted in the previous paragraph, although it may seem to be the same. It’s a serious defect in a mortise chisel, one that causes the most self-doubt among craftsmen.

Even the very best blacksmiths frequently fail to give this surface proper attention You are hereby warned: Do not underestimate the importance your chisel’s face.

Examine the Blade’s Corners

Finally, examine the two lines formed by the 90° intersection of the sides and the ura. Are they clean and sharp, or are they ragged, radiused or chamfered? These corner edges serve an important function in dimensioning and shaving the mortise’s side walls. They must be clean and almost acute enough to cut your fingers, but please don’t.

If they are not right, you can correct this now or a little bit at a time during subsequent sharpening sessions. The important thing is to be aware of any defects so you can make corrections, so make a note on your little sketch.

The Plan

You should now have a sketch describing those areas that need to be corrected. Use it to make a plan. A rough sketch showing how a mortise should should be and common problems is linked to below.

Beloved Customer should keep two important factors in mind in mind when planning and executing corrections to mortise chisels.

First, you should strive to achieve the corrections with the minimum expenditure of time, effort and stone/diamond plate, and while wasting the minimum amount of steel. I am not saying work hard or work fast, but rather to work efficiently.

Second, you should work carefully to avoid creating new problems while attempting to fix existing ones. This is why you need a plan, one that will vary a little with each chisel, to guide you in working efficiently and carefully. Remember, double work takes more than twice the effort, and often wastes lots of expensive steel.

I suggest you write your plan down.

I also recommend you keep the following points in-mind when considering your plan and its execution.

  1. As mentioned above, the first step is to true the ura so it is planar. It need not be perfect at first; Close is good.
  2. After the ura is more-or less planar, grind the right and left side, whichever is in better shape, straight along its length, flat (or sightly hollow) across its width, and perpendicular to the planar ura using diamond plates. Electrical grinders and sanders can be used, but there is a real risk of ruining the temper if you allow the steel to get hotter than is comfortable to touch, so great caution is necessary. This means working slow and using lots of water.
  3. When one side is done, grind the opposite side straight along its length, flat (or sightly hollow) across its width, and perpendicular to the planar ura using diamond plates (if necessary). It will be at the same angle with the respect to the ura as the opposite side, of course. Here is where more caution is necessary: pay close attention when grinding this side to make it parallel with the opposite side. Worst case, the blade width measured across the ura can be slightly wider at the cutting edge than the neck, but uniform width is best. On the other hand, a blade narrower at the cutting edge than near the shoulders is useless for cutting mortises and must be corrected.
  4. Finally, grind the face of the blade (the upper surface with the brand) so that any point along its length is parallel with the ura. It need not be straight or even perfectly flat over its entire length, just parallel with the ura to guide the chisel straight in the cut.

At the conclusion of the steps described in this article, your mortise chisel should now have an ura with all the lands surrounding the hollow-ground swamp forming a single flat plane. You should also have a nice little sketch describing all your chisel’s imperfections and a plan for making corrections.

In the next article in our joyous journey ass over teakettle down this rabbit hole of obscure woodworking tools, I will describe my observations about a particular mortise chisel, the plan for adjusting that chisel, and show the execution of that plan. Indeed, I have a box of chisels that are simply wiggling and squeeking with frantic anticipation to be first!

YMHOS

P.S.: After many months, we now have mortise chisels in-stock again. They won’t last long. Prices and availability can be checked at this LINK

A formal procession of frogs mocking the feudal lords of medieval Japan. I bet you haven’t seen many frogs walking around with swords. Such work was a rare opportunity for artists and the common people to mock the rich and powerful nobles that ruled the many little nations of the Japanese islands at the time with a steel and despotic fist.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my mortise chisels all turn to glass.


Other Articles in “The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel” Series

Japanese Handsaws: The Twins

Communism is the opiate of intellectuals [with] no cure except as a guillotine might be called a cure for dandruff.

Clare Boothe Luce

his article is a show-and-tell about a matched set of custom-forged handsaws which have been your most humble and obedient servant’s trustworthy companions in the noble profession of making sawdust for many years.

The Twins

The archaeological record suggests that, at least in areas of the world where rusty remains have been excavated, the standard metal handsaw in ancient times had rip teeth only. As evidenced by the superior mental powers Gentle Reader exhibits, Woodworkers have historically been extremely intelligent people, so no doubt many sawyers, carpenters and joiners back in the mists of time independently discovered that filing (or stoning) their sawteeth to an acute bevel angle and alternating the direction of the bevel made the saw cut much faster and with less effort across the grain (i.e. crosscutting).

With this discovery, the crosscut saw was born, and thenceforth has been a worthy servant to its masters and a good companion to its elder sister the rip saw.

In modern times with the proliferation of inexpensive (and dangerous) circular saws, rip handsaws have become as rare as selfless tax collectors, but the combination of a rip saw for making cuts parallel with the direction of the grain of the wood, and a crosscut saw for making cuts perpendicular to the grain of the wood has been common-sense among those who value accuracy and efficiency at least since the proliferation of carbon steel saws.

Some decades ago while working as a carpenter, your humble servant realized he needed a set of larger rip and crosscut saws for fabricating joints in timbers. The search resulted in the purchase of several saws, but the set described in this article are the two I have come to rely upon for such tasks most.

Both saws were hand-forged 70~80 years ago in Sanjo, Japan by a saw blacksmith named Azuma with the brand-name of Nakaya Choujiro (中屋長次郎), a venerable name in Eastern Japan. The grandson of this blacksmith is still producing saws in Sanjo today, including the Seijiro brand ryouba saws we carry. Nowadays nearly all of his production has shifted to short saws used by luthiers.

I found these saws in a tool store in Tokyo which is now defunct due to the owner’s inconvenient relocation to the big lumberyard in the sky. At the time of purchase, the store owner informed me they were originally commissioned by, and custom forged for, a Miyadaiku (temple carpenter) in Arakawa Ward of Tokyo, but sadly he had moved on to sorting boards in heaven without picking up these sawblades, leaving them sad and lonely in a cabinet hidden behind buckets of paint and roofing materials.

I get misty remembering their joy at being rescued after languishing so many years in darkness…

The Bukkiri Gagari Rip Saw

The saw in the photograph above and at the top of this article is a large kataba (single-blade) rip saw with aggressive, progressive-configured teeth called a “bukkiri gagari.”

“Bukkiri gagari” is a name used for large rip saws with this style of handle. The word “gagari“ refers to a large rip saw. The word “ bukkiri” probably means “chopped” or “cut down,” referring to the shortened tang.

The pointed tang, typical of handsaws intended to be fitted with a straight in-line handle, was bobbed at the time the saw was forged, evidence that it is not a conversion, but was intended to be a bukkiri gagari when just a twinkle in Grandfather Choujiro’s eye.

The large brownish-orange discoloration seen on the blade is neither corrosion nor a shadow due to poor lighting, but a remnant of the heat-treating process common to saws forged in Eastern Japan, more evidence of quality handwork.

The blade’s length measured from tip to the beginning of the tang is 425mm (16-5/8″). The cutting edge (teeth) measures 330mm (13″), making it a 1-shaku 1-sun blade a slightly unusual length. The blade’s overall length measured from the tip of the exposed tang to the tip of the blade is 625mm (24-5/8″). It measures 130mm (5-1/8″) at the widest point at the tip of the blade. The back of the blade has a slight curvature away from the cutting edge as is standard for larger rip saws forged in Eastern Japan.

A closeup of the tang of the bukkiri gagari member of the team. Sorry for the poor focus, but the hand-carved signature of Nakaya Choujirou (中屋長次郎) is plain to see. Some people prefer to jamb the handle on permanently, while I prefer the options a wedged handle provides. The wedge can be inserted from front or back, top or bottom, changing the angle of the handle and its distance from the cutting edge. The forge-welded connection between iron tang and steel handle is more visible in this photo. This detail is coveted by aficionados of Japanese saws as witness of quality handwork.

I made the handle from Japanese White Oak stained mahogany color. It measures L270mm x w38mm x t30 (10-5/8″ x 1-1/2″ x 1-3/16″).

No doubt Gentle Reader is familiar with the more common Japanese handsaws with straight, softwood handles. This style of handle is called a “shumoku tsuka” 撞木柄 (shoe/moh/ku/tsu/kah) and is attached to the blade’s tang at an angle.

A shumoku is a wooden mallet used to strike bells in the Buddhist religion. I don’t know why this word is used for a saw handle; No one I have asked has been able to provide useful insight.

The shumoku handle can be attached to most any Japanese sawblade with a straight tang. It has several advantages. First, compared to the standard long handle attached in-line with the tang, it makes the saw much shorter in length and therefore handier for working in tight spots. This is especially useful when making vertical cuts from below for joints in the ends of large timbers resting on sawhorses or during erection where a long handle would get in the way.

The second advantage of the shumoku handle is the fact that, when combined with the stiffer blades of large rip saws, the user is better able to bring the stronger muscles of legs, back and both shoulders into play for more powerful cuts, an ergonomic principle similar to the thumbhole handle once common in Western handsaws.

The stance this handle makes possible also provides more leverage (greater moment couple) when cutting in tight situations and at unusual angles than a longer, straight handle can. This last factor makes the bukkiri gagari saw most valuable IMHO.

The Crosscut Saw

Notice the curvature to the back which is the approximate inverse of the curvature of its twin the bukkiri gagari saw shown above. Subtly beautiful.

The crosscut member of this dynamic duo is also a kataba 片刃(single-edge) saw with a custom-made but more ordinary straight handle.

It’s overall length is 845mm (33-1/4″), with 420mm (16-9/16″) of that being the blade extending past the handle. The blade is 125mm (4-15/16″) wide at the tip.

The cutting edge portion of the blade matches its companion at 330mm (13″), so it too is a “Juissun” saw, meaning 11 sun.

It too has a beautiful curvature to its back which in this case is directed towards the cutting edge instead, giving it a diligent posture. As is the case with all matched sets forged by the same blacksmith (at least in Eastern Japan) the curvature of the back of each saw is the inverse of its partner so that they nest neatly against each other all lovey dovey. Although these cosmetic details have little if any practical purpose, Japanese shokunin are unreasonably fond of these matched saws, as am I.

Of course, the handle is approximately the same length as the the blade (not including the tang), and oval in cross section measuring 30 x 35mm x 425mm (1-3/16″ X 1-3/16″ X 16-3/4″). We will discuss how to make this type of handle in a future article.

I made this handle long ago from a piece of scrap Akita Sugi cedar (cryptomeria) , wrapped it tightly with copper wire at the mouth end to reinforce against splitting, applied a dab of solder to lock the wire in-place, and finished it by rubbing the wood with a tool called an “uzukuri” made from skinny but hard plant roots to partially remove the softer summer wood leaving an excellent, textured surface that won’t slip no mater how wet with sweat it becomes. I love Akita Sugi

Gentler Reader (may the hair on your toes ever grow long!) may be wondering why one would use a short, sideways handle for a rip saw but a long straight handle for a crosscut saw. An excellent question indeed and further evidence of your superior intelligence!

Some crosscuts in timber work benefit from a longer reach. But more importantly, while the longer handle provides less power than the shumoku handle, it provides more control, essential for precise crosscuts. The way it was explained to me is that the large bukkiri gagari rip saw is used up close to the face and “guided by the nose,” while the large crosscut saw is guided from further away by the eye. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.

Although I haven’t used these saws professionally for far too long, I had the teeth sharpened and plate tuned a few years ago by a famous blacksmith and saw sharpener named Nakaya Takijiro located in Kawagoe.

In one or two of the photos you may detect the little marks his tapping tapping tapping hammer left on the blade when he trued and corrected it. No, he didn’t straighten it, but he induced internal stresses to relieve some oil canning that had existed from Choujiro’s forge. He also made other subtle stress adjustments with his little hammer that made the saw track straighter and smoother with less friction as it heats up. What a difference it made! He is literally a genius with a sawblade.

The blacksmith’s hand-cut signature on the crosscut saw: “Nakaya Choujiro.” The blade was shaped and tapered in thickness by hand using a “sen” scraper, as evidenced by the visible marks. Close observation reveals that the soft tang is not electronically welded to the blade as has become SOP post-WWII, but is forged welded, a technique lovers of hand-forged saw greatly appreciate. Sadly, most of the surface corrosion occurred before your humble servant rescued these excellent saws.

I don’t use these saws much anymore, but I enjoy taking them out of their protective wrappings once or twice a year to clean and oil them, catch up on news, and sing a song of sawdust together. They love to sing.

I hope you found this little show-and-tell amusing. I have other unusual saws I will introduce in future.

Until then, I have the honor to remain,

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the teeth on my saws all snap off.

The Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot 墨壺: Part 3: The Modern Sumitsubo

The newest Cylon-inspired modern sumitsubo by Shinwa

The way of the carpenter is to become proficient in the use of his tools; First to lay his plans with true measure and then perform his work according to plan. Thus he passes through life

Miyamoto Mushashi – Go Rin no Sho

In the previous article in our series about the Sumitsubo, we examined some traditional wooden examples, and a plastic version of the same.

In this edition we will take a look at the modern version sold in hardware stores around Japan.

In the previous article your humble servant mentioned that this style of sumitsubo appears to have been designed by Cylons, the chrome-plated red-eyed nemesis of the Battlestar Galactica and her brave crew. Gentle Readers must decided for themselves whether or not alien machine lifeforms from a far galaxy were engaged in the design process or not, but I have no doubts on the matter (シ).

The Design Concept

These modern sumitsubo function much the same as traditional wooden sumitsubo in that a line, stored on a reel, is spooled out through a reservoir containing absorbent material soaked with ink, becoming partially saturated with ink. The wet line is then secured to the material to be marked at one end using a “karuko” bob with a needle. At the opposite end of the material, the line is aligned with another mark, tensioned, lifted up and released snapping against the material and leaving behind a line of ink.

Besides the intergalactic alien design influence, the most obvious difference between these modern sumitsubo and the traditional ones is that the line, the reel, and the ink reservoir are entirely enclosed in a cleverly-designed, tough and lightweight plastic housing which not only keeps the ink from drying as quickly, but permits the tool to be dropped into a tool bag or toolbox without risk of getting black ink all over everything. Much more convenient.

The ink reservoir is concealed under a little plastic hinged door that one opens to add ink to little sponges. In the better sumitsubo this reservoir has rubber seals and special slits to prevent ink from leaking. This combination of sponges and seals works quite well so long as one doesn’t add too much ink. But everyone does this at least once…

In the case of automatic sumitsubo, as are the examples shown, a coil spring enclosed in the reel mechanism automatically spools the line back onto the reel in preparation for the next snap. Some versions lack this spring and must be rewound by rotating the reel using one’s fingertips.

Please note that this spring action, while quick and convenient, is not 100% blue bunnies and fairy farts because the karuko’s sharp little point can give the user a serious boo boo if control is lost. To prevent embarrassing injuries (i.e. leaky eyeball syndrome), the karuko sold with most of these sumitsubo are designed to automatically retract the needle safely into a plastic housing when released.

As someone who has unintentionally initiated one or two haphazard tattoo patterns on hand and arm over the years with flying karuko needles, your humble servant highly recommends Gentle Readers “stick” with these retractable needles. And don’t forget your safety glasses.

Changing the line of the modern sumitsubo is much easier than with traditional sumitsubo because there are no holes to thread the line through. All that’s necessary to change a line is to open the ink reservoir, remove the reel, tie the new line to the reel and karuko, replace the reel, lay the line through the reservoir, and close the lid. Eazy peazy japaneazy.

Gentle Reader may recall from the previous article that, when using the traditional sumitsubo, one must simultaneously press down on both the line and wadding in the ink well with a bamboo sumisashi as the line is spooled out to ensure an adequate amount of ink soaks into the line. This is not possible in the modern sumitsubo with its covered ink reservoir, so instead, one pushes down on a rubber button while spooling out the line to achieve the same results. This rubber button in turn presses down on the line and sponges transferring ink to the line.

Major Brands of Modern Sumitsubo Available Today

There are two major brands of sumitsubo on the market in Japan today: Shinwa of steel square fame and Tajima best known for its tape measures.

Two of both brand’s most popular models, in various states of undress, are shown below.

When it comes to sumitsubo, Shinwa is the older and more experienced of the two, but Tajima has more eye-catching products and a powerful marketing department with a nation-wide distribution network.

A side view of the Shinwa Sharp-line sumitsubo with extra-fine line. The design looks much like a space ship with a non-slip grip. Phasers and proton torpedoes are currently not available options for this model. Maybe next year.
The Shinwa Sumitsubo with its lid open. Yellow sponges to contain ink are mounted in the lid and body. A blue rubber seal installed in the lid seals the ink reservoir to prevent leakage and reduce evaporation. Although not visible in this photo (see the photo at the top of this article) the sponges and line can be squeezed together by pressing on a rectangular rubber button in the lid. The stainless steel pin visible to the left of the reservoir guides the line and keeps it from abrading the plastic. A stainless steel ring at the sumitsubo’s mouth (far right) guides the line and keeps it from abrading the body too. The needle in the karuko is spring-loaded so if left on its own it retracts into the karuko’s plastic body, but in this photo it is held extended with tape. The karuko has a rubber “O” ring of sorts molded to its end that fits tightly into the body’s mouth to prevent leakage. The Tajima Sumitsubo lacks this detail. At the far right end of the lid a black operable metal tab can be seen extending from the body. This helpful widget is used to precisely locate and press down on the line before the snap. This too is not found in the Tajima version. At the far left can be seen a loop for attaching the tool to the toolbelt or safety harness with a lanyard as required by Japan’s safety regulations when performing overhead work. Beam me up, Scotty.
The newest Shinwa sumitsubo disassembled, a three second operation accomplished without tools. The body with the lid to the ink reservoir and its sponges and rubber seals is open in the center. The reel is upper left. The circular casing that secures the reel within the body and contains the brake and drag, features also not available from Tajima, is lower left. The karuko with its spring-retracted needle extended with tape is located center right. Liquid ink is dripped onto the sponges and the lid is closed locking the reel and line in-place. A coil spring inside the reel assembly spools line back onto the reel automatically.
The Tajima version of the modern sumitsubo. It has a slightly more organic shape reminiscent of a gourd, a traditional motif in Japan. The narrow waist in both the Tajima and Shinwa models ensures a comfortable one-handed grip in the field. This sumitsubo has a round rubber button located to the right of the word “EVO” to actuate pressure on sponges and line.
A side-view of the Tajima sumitsubo showing the lid’s hinges. The karuko is inserted into the mouth in this photo, and is larger than the Shinwa’s karuko.
The disassembled Tajima Sumitsubo. It has two blue sponges mounted inside the body, instead of Shinwa’s yellow sponges, one of which is mounted in the lid. Accordingly, the underside of the more complicated circular rubber pressure mechanism can be seen in the open lid. A black rubber seal mounted in the lid keeps ink from leaking from the reservoir (at least that’s the idea). Unlike the Shinwa, the line must be thread through the mouth without the karuko attached, a little less convenient. This sumitsubo has two stainless steel pins guiding the line to and from the reel, although I’m not sure why two are necessary. It too has a stainless steel ring at the mouth to limit wear, but it can’t be seen from this angle. In addition, a hard, wear-resistant plastic block is inserted where the line exits the reservoir to the right to reduce wear. The reel is held in place by the plastic ring bottom left, which is twisted then locked into place when the reservoir’s lid is closed. This tool comes in various sizes and colors and is probably the most popular sumitsubo commercially available in Japan today.

Your humble servant, being gleefully addicted to trying out new tools, owns both brands of sumitsubo. Perhaps I need a 12-step program and a good detox to mitigate my tool-based delirium tremens? In any case, I’m convinced Shinwa products are perhaps a little superior in performance, but the Tajima sumitsubo are undeniably good too.

As I wandered around a construction project in Chiba Prefecture I’m in charge of last week I paid attention to the sumitsubo workers were using and observed that Tajima products were in greater evidence. Not a scientific study by any means, but more accurate than the flyblown tripe the hopelessly corrupt World Health Organization calls science lately.

A few weeks ago I visited a local hardware store I do business with regularly. Although it’s not the first or even the second building that has housed this business at this same location in Suginami Ward in Tokyo, the family that owns it has been selling tools and building hardware to contractors and professional craftsmen for over 100 years. Inside it has tools and building supplies literally stacked to the ceiling, much of which is cantilevered precipitously over the narrow, crowded aisles between steel shelves to the point where entering the store and moving around is not a simple task. A death trap should an earthquake strike, I fear.

The current owner is 90+YO with a warm smile and honest habits who is easy to trust. I asked him which sumitsubo products are most popular among his professional customers. His answer was that they seem to buy the Tajima products more, although he couldn’t give a single reason why. I suspect the fact his shelves are full of Tajima products with nary a Shinwa product in-sight has something to do with their selections.

Tajima’s distribution network is hard to beat.

My old ten-year old Shinwa sumitsubo. It’s currently setup for construction jobsite use with heavier line and a karuko with both a needle and super-magnet base for use with structural steel and LGS studs. The reservoir lid’s hinge is half broken, but still works good enough. I purchased the Cylon blue Shinwa sumitsubo dissected above as a replacement in anticipation of its imminent retirement.

Inklines

The lines used in sumitsubo were once all made from either hemp or silk fibers, I’m told. Nowadays, hemp can’t be had for love or money, but silk is still available. Modern fibers made from polyester and nylon are most prevalent of late. Better lines contain kevlar or spectra fibers for extra strength.

I am fond of thin (>0.4mm) lines for cabinetwork because they make cleaner marks, but skinnier lines are less durable and the marks they leave are less visible from a distance and on rough surfaces, so for construction projects, although 1.0~1.5mm lines can be purchased, 0.6~0.8mm lines are what most people use.

Conclusions

I am fond of the simple, elegant, antique appearance of the ichimonji-style wooden sumitsubo.

A carpenter-made ichimonji-style sumitsubo in the workshop. We share the same ebony karuko

I have used the more modern Genji-style wooden sumitsubo for many years, and like them enough to have one mounted inside my toolchest for good luck. Like many older craftsmen, I appreciate the appearance of a tool beautifully hand-carved from attractively figured colorful wood, and think the traditional wooden sumitsubo feels better in the hand and adds dignity to the work.

But the modern Cylon-designed plastic sumitsubo is cheaper, tougher, and much more convenient, which is why I reach for one when I need to snap a line. Who was it that sang: “The times they are a-changin?”

Which style do you prefer?

YMHOS

To pixies that stray too near, the little turtle gives his best Lee Van Cleef glare and growls: “Stay away, vile creatures, or I’ll bite you in two, snicker-snak!” He is most persuasive.

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Other Posts in Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot Series

The Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot 墨壺: Part 2: The Classic Version and the Modern Variant

The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.

T.S. Eliot

This is the second article in our series about the Japanese Sumitsubo.

We’ve discussed this tool before, but this time we will examine historical examples as well as an example of an actual sumitsubo ink pot (墨壺 pronounced sue/mee/tsu/boh) currently in your humble servant’s possession. Certainly not a comprehensive explanation by any means, but hopefully it will be informative and mayhap even interesting.

Although the Western chalkbox is now available in Japan, and the Japanese version of this tool is a big improvement over the ones my father taught me how to use when I was a slender “ute,” in Japan the inkline has only been augmented, not replaced, by the chalkbox.

Let’s begin by considering if the sumitsubo is a tool of value to the professional woodworker.

Why Use a Sumitsubo?

Carpenters, woodworkers, steel fabricators, masons and those in many other trades need to mark straight lines for layout and cutting purposes, but what is the longest line one can accurately make using a steel or aluminum straightedge? 1 meter? 4ft? Do you own a truly accurate 1 meter long straightedge or a 4ft long drywall square? How much did it cost? How fragile is it? Will it fit in your nailbag or tool box?

The laser is becoming more and more practical for layout work, but such electronic tools are still not small, light or inexpensive and certainly won’t leave a permanent line. And they have those pesky and expensive batteries that must be constantly recharged and periodically replaced. Very profitable for the manufacturers, of course, but they inevitably end up as poisonous landfill stuffing. When a permanent line is needed for layout or when making long rip cuts with handsaw or circular saw, the snapline is the only viable portable option.

Indeed, the snapline has been the tool for making long, straight layout lines by humans since before recorded history. Sometimes the line has been coated with chalk or limestone dust, sometimes with red soil dust, sometimes with charcoal dust, and in Asia, with a wet ink made from the soot of burned pine tree sap. But humans have such short memories, so most craftsmen younger than 30 years old have forgotten this tool.

The problem with the chalkbox and dry colorants such chalk, charcoal dust or soil is the wide, fuzzy, unclear line they produce.

By comparison, the inkline snaps a relatively narrow, clearly delineated and easy to follow mark on wood, stone and masonry. Not as perfect as a line drawn with a technical pen, of course, but no wider than a laser line and much better than a chalk line.

The second advantage of the inkline is that the line it produces will never get blown away by wind, or be easily smudged. And if you use waterproof ink, one that can be washed away while still wet but becomes indelible once dry, even rain isn’t a problem. And sumitsubo ink has long been available in many colors, including psychedelic hues. Groovy, man!

Does the inkline have downsides? A few, of course. To begin with, you need to be careful to keep the ink bottle tightly closed so it doesn’t leak. Yea, I’ve done that (シ)。

Next, you need to add enough ink to the inkwell to wet the line but not so much it sloshes out making a mess. To paraphrase the ancient Greek poet Hesiod: “Moderation is good.”

And finally, while it can be minimized or even avoided with caution and practice, using an inkline involves getting a bit of ink on at least one fingertip. Fortunately, the Japanese variety doesn’t stain skin like fountain pen or ballpoint pen ink, but washes off quickly and cleanly.

It used to be that a craftsman had to make his own ink by rubbing a stick of sumi ink on a stone with water, a tedious task. Some miyadaiku carpenters still make the ink they use for the first layout lines on important projects in this time-consuming traditional way as a sort of meditative, purifying ceremony, but nowadays, handy ink that won’t separate or mildew is sold cheaply in sturdy plastic bottles. There are of course other ways for a carpenter to obtain Satori.

In any case, your humble servant believes the sumitsubo to be a tool with concrete advantages diligent craftsmen should consider for the toolkit they carry along the sawdust and shaving-strewn path to woodworking enlightenment.

Let’s next next turn our attention to the main subject of this post, the classic, hand-carved wooden sumitsubo.

A Couple of Antique Styles

Not long ago the sumitsubo was a tool each craftsman made for himself by his own hand, giving him incentive to use unusual, even fanciful shapes as an expression of his personal woodcarving skills and artistic sensibilities. Can you judge the skill of the craftsman by his tools? Perhaps not, but it is human nature to do so nonetheless.

Besides the shapes shown in this article, wooden sumitsubo have often been made in the image of animals such as squirrels, rabbits and frogs, insects such as snails and grasshoppers, and even vegetables and plants, not to mention religious images and mythical shapes such as dragons or baku. Many were made to resemble musical instruments such as the three-stringed shamisen, or even boats. Human imagination combined with willing wood and sharp cutting tools can produce fun things.

A variety of hand-carved antique sumitsubo

In the next section we will examine three historical styles that more-or-less illustrate the development of the tool over the centuries.

The Split-tail Sumitsubo

The first style your humble servant would like present is called the “Split Tail” sumitsubo shown in the image below. We discussed this well-preserved example in this post.

I have never owned or used this style of sumitsubo, but friends who have tell me that the excellent air circulation it provides to the reel and resulting mildew reduction is its biggest advantage.

Despite its unique appearance, this style is obsolete for good reasons. Its first design problem is the small inkwell not suited to easy use with a sumisashi pen. And then there’s the total lack of a waist making it easy to fumble. And don’t forget the relatively weak legs and fanciful details easily damaged if the tool is dropped.

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The so-called “Split-tail” sumitsubo. This example is estimated to be nearly 700 years old. Notice the metal ring located in front of the reel intended to facilitate using the tool as a plumbline of sorts.

The “Ichimonji” Style Sumitsubo

The second style of sumitsubo we will examine is a simpler, more compact one called “ichimonji” 一文字, which translates directly to “The character one” and refers to the shape of the tool being a simple line as in the number one, or “一” as it is written using the Chinese character.

A modern ichimonji-style sumitsubo in daily use in the workshop. A simple, elegant design easily fabricated. I know a miyadaiku who uses a similar tool daily in the temple construction work he performs in his workshop.
An antique ichimonji-style sumitsubo. The inkwell was replaced with a wooden insert sometime in the past, probably to deal with ink leaking from the crack visible on its side.
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Another antique ichimonji-style sumitsubo with tasteful gold-leaf decorations. A compact, simple, and attractive version of this ancient tool.

This antique style is compact, easy to make, visually uncluttered, classy and appealing to many craftsmen that make their own sumitsubo, even nowadays. But it too has fallen out of general use for good reasons.

Like the split-tail, the ichimoji sumitsubo has a slab-sided body and no waist making it clumsy to grip in one hand, fine inside the workshop but less than ideal on a construction jobsite.

Another problem is the tiny inkwell which runs out of ink quickly and is clumsy to use with a sumisashi pen.

The reel is obviously on the small size too holding less line than is sometimes needed.

And notice that more than half the reel’s surfaces are enclosed within the body, and that the body has no piercings to encourage air circulation, making mildew growth a problem. At least that was the case before the advent of commercial mildew-resistant ink.

Despite these shortcomings, it is a style appropriate to a workshop environment where the lines snapped are shorter, fumbling is not a concern and the smaller size is useful.

The Genji-style Sumitsubo

A side view of my hand-carved Zelkova wood Genji sumitsubo. Seen from this angle, the crane carved into the prow does not pop out, but his right wing wrapped around the hollow inkwell is clearly visible. The crane is looking towards the heavens, while the angry-looking turtle with his long kilt of seaweed is focused more on keeping the inkline under control, evil pixies at bay, and Murphy feeling hung-over. He’s a serious little fella not prone to small-talk. In Japanese mythology, storks and turtles are considered extremely lucky creatures with the crane said to live 1,000 years and the turtle 10,000 years.
A view of the sumitsubo’s prow. Please notice the unused blue inkline entering the inkwell from the reel to the right and exiting the inkwell at the prow on the left. Please also notice the ceramic thimble inlet in the end of the tool through which the inkline passes and keeps the line from wearing a large hole in the wood. There is a similar thimble where the line enters the opposite end of the inkwell. Sometimes these are made of brass, and other times glass, but fired ceramic is considered the best material for the job. A sumitsubo without thimbles simply won’t last.

The sumitsubo in the photos above and below was hand-carved from zelkova wood (keyaki 欅), a wood popular in Japan for architectural work, carving and furniture. Most exposed woodwork seen in Buddhist temples in Japan is zelkova. It has a pronounced grain, nice color, carves nicely, and is fairly rot-resistant, although not nearly as much as Hinoki, the wood preferred for Shinto shrines. The brandname of this example is “Tsubo Gen” 壺源 .

Back in storage in the US I have a medium-grade wooden Genji sumitsubo I bought in Japan and used for many years, but I purchased the tool pictured here in Tokyo 9 or 10 years ago and have not used it at all, as you can tell from its pristine condition.

It was finished with lacquer when I purchased it so I refinished it with Cashew brand natural urethane last year just for vanity’s sake.

I normally mount this tool inside the lid of my toolchest to please the eye, attract good luck, and fend off malevolent iron pixies. It has accomplished these tasks well probably due to the noble efforts of the scowling little turtle; The crane doesn’t seem to impress them, I fear. We will discuss the lucky aspects of this tool below.

This is a Tokyo version of the Genji sumitsubo as witnessed by the brass crank used for spooling in line. In Western Japan, cranks are not as common, so craftsmen pass the palm of their hand over the top of the reel to spool in line. I’m not sure which style is most efficient.

It is a clever design evolution that resolves the shortcomings of the older designs. I see the following six advantages in this design.

The first advantage to the Genji design is the narrower waist between the reel and inkwell that makes it much easier to securely grip the tool in one hand while at the same time tensioning the line or even braking the reel with the same hand. This is a huge improvement over all older styles.

The second advantage is the wider, larger-capacity inkwell which stays wetter longer and makes it easy to use with a sumisashi for applying layout and designation marks on timbers. It also provides a stable place to rest the sumishashi when not in use without setting it down in the dirt or stuffing it in a nailbag pocket (and making everything else in the pocket wet with black ink).

The third advantage is the larger-diameter inkline reel which contains more line while at the same time being quicker to reel in.

The fourth advantage to this design is the improved air circulation to the line stored on the reel thereby reducing mildew growth. Not only does the wooden reel project further out of the top of the body, but it is also pierced with carved spokes exposing the sides and even the underside of the line on the reel. In addition, the body is pierced at the sides and even the underside to further improve air circulation and reduce weight.

The fifth advantage is that, despite the larger-capacity inkwell and reel, much unnecessary material has been carved away making the tool relatively lighter in weight.

And finally, the sixth advantage of this design is the lucky symbols frequently carved into the body. We all need a little luck.

Typical of many things Japanese, a lot of thought went into these subtle design improvements.

Propitious Symbology

The Japanese Tancho Tsuru crane

One of the most common lucky symbols in Japanese mythology is the crane, said to live 1,000 years and bring good luck, prosperity and happiness. The Japanese love these tall cranes with their little red caps and graceful mating dances. Here’s a link to an interesting video about them.

The turtle, especially the sea turtle, is also considered extremely lucky but for a longer 10,000 years. The turtle carved into sumitsubo usually has a trailing skirt of seaweed flowing from its shell, as does mine, evidence of its great age and accumulated wisdom.

Dragons, Chinese Lions, Baku and other mythological creatures of good fortune are also used.

I’m not a superstitious guy, but I’ll keep my crane and scowling turtle close by just in case, thank you very much.

The components of the typical Genji-style sumitsubo. The body, shown from above, is in the lower half of the photo. The inkwell is coated with a shiny elastomeric polymer to prevent ink from soaking into the wood. The blue polyester line can be seen passing through inkwell, exiting at the prow where it connects to an ebony “karuko” with a steel needle at the far left. When in-use, the pristine natural-color silk wadding above the body is stuffed into the inkwell where it surrounds the inkline. When soaked with ink, this wadding shrinks in volume to half, and wets the line as it passes through the inkwell. The inkline and wadding in this photo have never been used and so are not blackened with ink. The reel, carved with pierced spokes in imitation of the classic Japanese wagon wheel motif, is above and to the right. Notice how the inkline is exposed on both sides and towards the center of the reel improving air circulation and reducing the growth of mildew, not a real problem with modern commercial sumitsubo inks. The brass insert in the reel’s side receives the threaded end of the crank, connecting reel to crank and retaining the reel in the body. The spring on the shaft of the crank is one I had laying around the shop that I added to take up slop, but it’s actually unnecessary. Easier to disassemble than a Glock 19.

The First Modern Variant: The Plastic Sumitsubo

An economic and durable plastic version of the Genji sumitsubo.

The first sumitsubo I owned I bought in the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku Island in 1978. Having few funds, I was unable to afford the hand-carved wooden one I admired, so I bought a plastic version of the Genji-style wooden sumitsubo identical to the photo right.

Being made of plastic using molds from a hand-carved wooden model, it looks exactly like the traditional wooden sumitsubo except for the color, texture and weight. Offsetting the marvelously unsatisfying feel in the hand, this tool has several serious advantages.

The first advantage is its low cost. It can be purchased new for around ¥2,100.

The second advantage is the toughness of plastic. A wooden sumitsubo will at least be dinged and dented if dropped and may even break, but this one will take a likin and keep on tikin. I have seen one survive being run over by a truck.

The third advantage is the certain fact that the inkwell will never develop cracks or leak, unless you notch it with a circular saw or melt a hole in it with welding sparks (yes, I’ve seen that done too (シ)).

And it still has the elegant lucky crane to bring happiness and productivity and his snappy little turtle buddy to keep Murphy away. What more could you want? Egg in your beer?

The classic wooden sumitsubo may not be the most practical tool in the field, but it is the one selected by master carpenters when doing layout, not only because of the tactile experience it provides, but because the tool reflects on the craftsman that uses it. Face it, like a light-blue polyester leisure suit worn with white belt and white shoes, the plastic sumitsubo may be practical but it is simply undignified.

We will discuss some other Modern Variants in a future post.

How to Use the Sumitsubo

The image below is not only historical, but instructive in ways to use the sumitsubo. It depicts an ongoing construction project at the Kasuka Shrine during Japan’s Kamakura period (1192~1333) where carpenters are preparing lumber and timbers to be incorporated into the shrine.

An excerpt from the “Kasuka Gonge Genki E” scroll.

Please notice the “Split-tail” sumitsubo resting on the ground near the feet of the carpenter on the bottom-left, and in the hands of both carpenters to the right.

The team of two carpenters in the lower half of the image are using an adze to keep the log from rolling away and their squares to layout plumb lines on both ends of the log. The carpenter on the bottom right is orienting his square in the vertical direction by squinting at a plumb line made using his inkline and sumitsubo, while the carpenter at the bottom left is matching his square to that of his partner by sighting along the horizontal short tongue of his square. Winding sticks? We don’t need no stinkin winding sticks!

In his right hand you can see the bamboo sumisashi ink pen he is using to mark the plumb line, not doubt with ink from his sumitsubo’s inkwell.

The carpenter and his helper in the upper half of the image are using a sumitsubo to mark the edges of a split plank. The scruffy helper at the left holds the line in place to a mark, while the carpenter in the fancy hat lifts the line with his fingertips and releases it to snap a line of ink onto the plank.

Maybe it’s his hat, but he appears to be laughing like a maniac at some joke I wish the artist had recorded in this image since there is so little humor left in our dry-as-dust politically-correct world ruled by willfully brain-dead, corrupt zombie scolds. No doubt Gentle Reader has met a few of these zombie scolds who tried to suck every ounce of joy from him. Never fear, because I am convinced friend crane and friend turtle can discourage them from climbing the tree to get at us.

The steps to using the wooden sumitsubo are described in the photos below.

One adds ink to the inkwell from a plastic bottle of commercial ink as shown in this photo. The sumishashi ink pen is resting securely across the crank with the wider business end in the inkwell. In this position, one can carry the sumitsubo and sumishashi securely in the left hand with little risk of fumbling or dropping either tool. An excellent design!
The bamboo sumisashi pen is indispensible not only for operating the sumitsubo but for also marking layout and designations on boards and timbers. In recent years, pencils, ballpoint pens and capless marking pens have become popular for these marking tasks. An important role of the sumitsubo is to retain the sumisashi pen in a handy orientation when the sumitsubo is not in use, as shown above. This sumitsubo was carefully designed specifically to retain the pen in-place as shown, and my scowling little lucky turtle considers it his job to keep the pen from running off and getting lost. He hates pixies with a deadly wrath, BTW, and has snapped off the legs, wings, arms and even the heads of many of the pernicious creatures who were bold enough to get within reach of his jaws. I think you’ll agree he does a great job, and never complains. And because of his natural lucky powers, Murphy can’t interfere.
The first step is to wrap the inkline around the needle in the end of karuko. Please note that the line in this photo is dry. When making an actual snapline, the inkline must be wet with ink.
Next, push the sharp needle into the wood to be snapped with the line carefully aligned with a mark. No mark is shown in this image, but if snapping an actual line, one makes the mark first.
This sumitsubo in this photo does not contain ink and so the raw silk wadding is still white and fluffy and the line is blue, but ink is of course necessary to actually snap a line. To persuade the line to soak up ink, one must press down on the wadding and the inkline simultaneously with a sumisashi pen as the inkline passes through the inkwell and out the hole in the prow. The sumisashi and sumitsubo are a team. One controls the tension on the line by pressing the heel of the left hand against the side of the reel, or the pinky finger against the underside of the reel, an operation the design of the Genji-style sumitsubo makes easy, unlike earlier styles. I have my right hand on the crank in this photo, but that was just to take up extra line. To spool out wet line, simply pull the sumitsubo away from the karuko and its needle as the crank spins free, while controlling the tension on the line with the heel of the thumb, and simultaneously pressing down on the line/wadding with the sumisashi. There are two ways to manipulate the sumisashi at this point. Some people hold the sumitsubo in the left hand and pull it to spool out line while using the right hand to press the sumisashi down on the line/wadding. Many people prefer smaller sumitsubo, but the kindly gentlemen that taught me how to use them insisted that the sumitsubo’s inkwell must be large enough and shaped so that the sumisashi can be laid across the line, pressed onto the line /wadding, and securely retained in this position by the left thumb alone as the line is spooled out, as shown in this photo, leaving the right hand entirely free to control the inkline and/or the board being snapped. It’s also much safer when working at any height. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. The Genji style sumitsubo is the only one that makes this more efficient and safer technique possible, entirely by design.

Here are links to a few GooberTube videos of guys using sumitsubo. My old master would have been disappointed with their techniques, especially with how they let the sumishashi get in the way, with one guy even sticking it in his mouth to free his hands (egads!). But there’s no denying they are getting the job done. Video 1, Video 2.

Both of these gentlemen are using sumitsubo without cranks, strongly suggesting they are located in Western Japan and not the Tokyo area.

I’m sure Gentle Reader will agree that the hand-carved wooden sumitsubo adds class and dignity to a craftsman’s work, and maybe even a little good luck.

In the next post in this series about the Japanese sumitsubo we will take a look at the most recent evolution of the tool. They look like something designed by Cylons, but they are serious, effective tools nonetheless.

Until we meet again, I have the honor to remain,

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor an Assistant Director of the FBI and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my scowling lucky turtle nip notches in my fingers if I lie.

Other Posts in Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot Series

A Few Masterpieces

“Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation.”

J.R.R. Tolkein

In this post your humble servant will present a few modern masterpieces of the blacksmith’s art produced recently by a single craftsman. I hope you are as thrilled as I am to know there is at least one craftsman left in the world that can produce chisels of this quality.

The Blacksmith

The craftsman that made these chisels is very unusual in that, unlike the frantically self-promoting, technically mediocre Hollywood blacksmiths such as Tasai, Funatsu, Kiyohisa, and the modern Chiyozuru gang, he is reclusive and shuns attention. Accordingly, I have been requested to not share any personal details about him, so please don’t ask. The fact is I don’t even know his real name just the brand he uses.

I won’t discuss why he is reclusive, but I will go so far as to say that he is self-employed, well-known in his chosen field, and that chisels are not his primary work product but only a sideline. He makes no more than 5 chisels monthly.

His business philosophy and blacksmithing techniques are interesting so I will share some details about them. He has four strict requirements that a Customer must satisfy before he will accept an order. The first two are business-related, and the last two are about the Customer.

  1. The Blacksmith sets the delivery schedule. Period.
  2. The Blacksmith sets the price. Period
  3. The Customer must be a professional worker in wood who needs and will use the tools the Blacksmith will forge daily. His track record must be independently verifiable. Amateurs and/or hobbyists, regardless of their skill levels, need not apply. Collectors are specifically unwelcome.
  4. Besides being expert in the use of chisels, the Customer must have a minimum level of skills, including the ability to make chisel handles and cut a high-quality Japanese plane block using only hand tools. Once again, this must be verified before an order will be accepted.

Your humble servant commissioned a few chisels from the Blacksmith many years ago and went through this same qualification process, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

The quality of his forging and heat-treat technique is unsurpassed producing a crystalline structure in hard steel that will take an extremely sharp edge, will hold that edge without easily dulling, chipping or rolling while cutting a lot of wood, and is easily sharpened.

But it is his metal shaping and finishing skills that are so awe-inspiring. Please notice the straightness and cleanness of the lines and planes, as well as the uniform and smooth curvature at the shoulders, and perfect symmetry. If Gentle Reader is unimpressed, I encourage you to make a full-scale model from cold wood before trying it in hot metal. I promise you will be convinced.

The Blacksmith uses only “free-forging” techniques, and does not employ the rough shaping dies other modern blacksmiths rely on to improve production speed. His forging technique is so sublime that the entire chisel is shaped to nearly final dimension by fire and hammer, not grinders and belt sanders.

He finishes his products using only hand-powered scrapers (sen) and files.

The performance of Blacksmith’s products are equal to or better than those of Kiyotada back in the day, and are more precisely shaped and more beautifully finished than those of Ichihiro (the Yamazaki Brothers) at their very best. They are simply the best chisels that have been made in Japan in the last 70 years.

Let’s take a look at four chisels recently completed for a Beloved Customer in the USA.

34 x 485mm Anaya Chisel

The Anaya chisel is an antique style used for cutting deep mortises and making other joints in large timbers. It is no longer commercially available.

Top view of a Anaya 34x485mm Anaya chisel
Ura view of 34x485mm Anaya chisel
Side view of 34x485mm Anaya chisel

57 x 485mm Anaya Chisel

42 x 490mm Bachi Nomi

The Bachi nomi is the equivalent to the fishtail chisel in English-speaking countries. The word bachi comes from the splayed tool used to play the 3-string Japanese shamisen, a banjo-type musical instrument. Here is a link to a video of two ladies using shamisen and bachi to perform a famous traditional song in Tokyo.

The Bachi nomi excells at getting into tight places to cut joints with acute internal angles such as the dovetail joints that connect beams to purlins.

There are several ways to resolve the angles at the tool’s face, but in this case the Beloved Customer and Blacksmith agreed on the most difficult, rigid and beautiful solution, the shinogi. This design has the advantage of maintaining a shallower side-bevel angle from cutting edge to neck return providing better clearance in tight dovetail joints.

The handwork performed on this chisel’s face is simply amazing, but the hollow-ground ura is even more spectacular to those who know about this things.

54 x 540mm Sotomaru Incannel Gouge

The Sotomaru or incannel gouge is a strong and convenient chisel used for cutting joints in logs and rounded members on architecture. More information can be found at this link.

This is an especially beautiful example as seen the symmetrical confluence of planes and curves at the shoulders.

Conclusion

I hope Gentle Reader found this post informative. You will never find better examples of the Japanese blacksmith’s art outside of one particular museum. It is exciting to consider that there is still one craftsman alive that can routinely perform this level of work.

While your humble servant has praised these chisels and the blacksmith that made them highly, please do not make the mistake of assuming that I am soliciting orders, or even suggesting that commissioning them is possible, because they are simply not available at any price. Please don’t ask.

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my ootsukinomi roll from my workbench and land cutting-edge down on my toes if I lie.

The Japanese Handplane Part 5: The Chipbreaker

A 60mm plane blade with its chipbreaker resting on the ura as when installed into the wooden body. Please note that there are no screws connecting these two parts making it a simple and reliable system.

There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.

Benjamin Franklin

In this fifth post in our series about the Japanese handplane, we will discuss a single component of the handplane, the chipbreaker.

Professional woodworkers that use handplanes daily usually have this simple widget thoroughly figured out, but your humble servant has been asked to clarify why the chipbreaker is necessary and how to make it work so many times recently that I can no longer gracefully avoid my duty to share a more complete, BS-free written explanation with Beloved Customers, may the hair on their toes ever grow long.

As always, this post is intended to provide a bit of insight, or at least a different viewpoint, to our Beloved Customers, many of whom are professional woodworkers and Luthiers.

This is a longish article. If your humble servant was a lazy man I would simply state stand-alone conclusions as have so many with half-baked knowledge of handplanes, and leave it up to Beloved Customer to figure out the why of things on your own, but that would be boorish behavior.

Even if you already know everything there is know about the chipbreaker, you may still find a new crunchy tidbit or two if you look.

Factors Critical to Controlling Tearout

The sole purpose of the chipbreaker is to control, and whenever possible, completely prevent the unsightly and wasteful tearout that often appears when using a handplane to surface wood. We will examine the causes of and some solutions to tearout below, but let’s begin this discussion by examining factors critical to controlling/eliminating tearout that actually take precedence over the chipbreaker. Your efforts to control tearout should always begin with these factors. But first allow me to share a story.

Back in the mists of time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and your humble servant was but a slender young man with much more hair on his head and far less dignity under his belt, I liked to think I had a sound understanding of both steel and wooden Western-style planes, but I knew little of Japanese planes. Later I was blessed with the opportunity to learn about the Japanese handplane in Japan from master craftsmen.

As is the case with excellent craftsmen of all ages, these gentlemen talked very little but assigned me what seemed at the time to be daunting work assignments.

While they would allow me to examine their tools and observe their techniques in-person, the only instruction they would provide initially were two or three-word critiques of my frequent mistakes. I understand now that they were kind gentlemen, albeit 40~50 years older than me, but at the time this apprenticeship-style of training was frustrating. Only when I showed progress would their answers stretch to 5 or 6 words because, unlike your humble servant at the time, (here is wisdom) they understood that only experience obtained through many failures and a few successes can produce true learning

The first assignments given me were to sharpen everything in the workshop that would hold still long enough to touch with a stone, from axes and adzes to chisels, handplanes and even saws. This went on for months. They weren’t being mean, just wise, because sharpening is the first and most important woodworking skill. Only when I had mastered all aspects of blade preparation and sharpening did they share further light and knowledge with me.

They then assigned me the task of making an old-fashioned Japanese handplane, one without a chipbreaker, entirely by hand. This was an educational effort, one that I magnificently failed twice before finally getting it right, but which taught me the three most important factors in reducing tearout in handplanes, whether with wooden or steel body, with chipbreaker or without. Those three factors can be summarized as follows:

Factor 1: The blade must be sharp. This factor depends on the quality of the blade and the skill of the person who sharpens it. We have a series of 30 posts about sharpening Japanese woodworking blades Beloved Customers may find beneficial. The series starts with this LINK.

Factor 2: The mouth opening (gap between the sole and the cutting edge) must be as tight as practically possible and still pass shavings. Please make an effort to truly understand what this means, because it is not always easily accomplished. Of course, the mouth opening of a super finishing plane intended to take transparent shavings will of necessity be narrower than that of a plane intended to dimension boards by taking thicker shavings;

Factor 3: The area on the sole directly in front of the mouth opening, a strip across the entire width of the sole of the plane and perhaps 3~6mm wide, must be true and flat and apply even pressure on the board being planed right up to the mouth opening.

Why are these three factors critical? To begin with, a dull blade won’t sever fibers cleanly but will tend to pull contrary fibers up and out of the board’s surface. Can’t have that, ergo, Factor 1.

Since the soles of handplanes wear and consequently mouth openings constantly vary, Factors 2 & 3 are dependent on the team of craftsmen that originally made the handplane as well as the craftsman/owner that uses and maintains the handplane over its lifetime.

Indeed, Factors 2 & 3 act in unison to control the movement of contrary fibers immediately before and after they contact the blade directing them into the cutting edge where they will be cleanly severed by the sharp blade, while at the same time serving to bend and buckle those fibers that would otherwise tend to develop a lever arm and tear out below the surface of the board. If this doesn’t make sense to you, please give it careful thought because you must figure it out if you intend to become proficient with handplanes.

These three factors are bedrock essential to controlling tearout regardless of the type of handplane in question and whether it has a chipbreaker or not. Beloved Customers are strongly encouraged to understand and gain absolute control of these three factors. It will take more than just reading, so consider it an assignment. Indeed, expect to screw it up royally at first and learn from your mistakes. That’s how we learn.

The Chipbreaker & Historical Lumber Processing Techniques

Two carpenters selecting a curved log to use a roof beam

To better understand the chipbreaker, Beloved Customer may find it useful to understand a few historical factors about the wood they are shaving.

Before the proliferation of the large rip saw, and especially the water-powered sawmill, the only practical method of producing boards and beams from logs was to “rive” (split) them out using wedges and axes.

The thing about logs is that not all of them have grain straight enough to produce useful lumber when riven. Large, straight, old-growth trees are most easily processed. As nearby old-growth primeval forests with tall, large, straight trees were cut down and premium logs became harder to come by, much construction and shipbuilding came to rely on more economical beams, posts and boards sawed from logs with wonky grain.

Riven wood has two convenient advantages. The first one is that, because the grain of the lumber is relatively straight and continuous, runout is reduced, making it somewhat stronger structurally. And second, the occurrence of tearout when surfacing riven lumber is often less than sawn lumber.

Unlike a carpenter team using axes and wedges, large rip saws in the hands of sawyers made practical through the proliferation of inexpensive, reliable steel, and especially the sawmill, could more easily and quickly cut long, straight boards and beams out of most any log regardless of grain direction. Consequently, logs that would have been rejected before the days of the sawmill can now be readily processed reducing the man-hours/cost of producing lumber significantly. On the other hand, the grain direction of lumber produced using large saws and sawmills tends to wander everywhere increasing runout and making the job of cleanly surfacing the boards more difficult for subsequent craftsmen. This is the situation we face now.

We don’t know when or where the chipbreaker was invented, or how the concept spread around the world, but it’s a safe bet to assume its ability to calm the wild grain of sawn lumber during surfacing was the reason for its popularity. At least, that’s how it went in Japan. Wood is wood no matter where you are.

Naturally-shaped logs used as roof beams in the restoration of a historically-significant building in Japan

Why Does Tearout Occur?

Let’s next examine some basic causes of tearout.

Please recall that wood is comprised of various types of cells, each with a job to do, but most of those that eventually become lumber specialize in transporting water up from the ground to the leaves, and nutrients formed in the leaves to the rest of the tree. Transporting literally tons of water from the roots far up into the sky is the job of continuous groups of cells that form what are effectively waterpipes. In a living tree these pipes have semi-flexible cell walls, and while they mostly grow parallel with roots, limbs and trunk, their shape is influenced by wind, rain, snowload, shifting soil, microbes, bugs and ever-changing exposure to the sun over the life of the tree, so they are seldom perfectly straight. Indeed, once dried, it’s the changes in direction of these tubular cells, often called fibers, that gives harvested lumber its beautiful grain patterns and shimmering chatoyance.

When planing with the grain, the blade severs fibers which are oriented either parallel with or sloping up to the board’s surface and angled in the plane’s direction of travel producing pretty shavings comprised of relatively short, flexible segments of fiber.

But when planing against the grain, the blade must sever fibers that are diving down into the board. Instead of consenting to being cleanly severed, often these longer, more rigid fibers tend to ride up the face of the blade, avoiding the cutting edge.

When this happens, instead of severing them cleanly, the blade tends to lever these longer fibers up out of the board’s surface until they suddenly break off below the surface of the board leaving a rough uneven surface. This damage is called “tear-out” in English and Sakame (sah/kah/meh 逆目) in Japanese, which translates directly to “reverse grain.”

The blade on the left is cutting with the grain and is unlikely to produce tearout, while the blade on right is cutting against the grain and is more likely to produce tearout.

How Does the Chipbreaker Work?

Whether the handplane in question be Western or Japanese in design, the chipbreaker, or Uragane 裏金 (oo/rah/gah/neh) as it is called in Japan, seems at first glance to provide little benefit in exchange for the added weight and complication. Indeed, if all the cuts you make when planing wood are in the direction of the grain (id est fibers either oriented parallel with, or rising up to, the surface of the board and angled away from the direction of the cut), the chipbreaker will be about as useful as pasties on a boar. But wood grain is seldom so cooperative, donchano.

With the addition of the chipbreaker, and in combination with the three factors listed above, those contrary fibers that try to ride up the face of the blade without being severed immediately run smack dab into the abrupt face of the chipbreaker thereby bending, buckling, and preventing them from developing the lever arm necessary to break them off below the surface of the board.

At the same time the collision with the chipbreaker redirects many of these mischievous fibers into the cutting edge to be severed, thereby preventing, or at least reducing, nasty tearout.

Bless us and splash us, preciousss! What a wonderful counterintuitive thing!

To better understand how the chipbreaker works, I highly recommend Beloved Customers devour, like starving little piggies, the video titled “Influence of the Cap-iron on Hand Plane,” Created by Professor Yasunori Kawai and Honorary Professor Chutaro Kato, Faculty of Education, Art and Science, Yamagata University (with subtitles). Much will come into focus after watching this.

Downsides to the Chipbreaker

While your humble servant has written glowing things about the chipbreaker, it would be less than honest to suggest all is blue bunnies and fairy farts because the chipbreaker has some downsides:

  1. The chipbreaker adds weight, complication and cost;
  2. The impact of wood fibers on the chipbreaker produces friction heat and consumes energy whether cutting with or against the grain. This energy loss is not insignificant;
  3. When cutting with the grain, the chipbreaker adds little benefit while tending to reduce the luster of the planed surface;
  4. To be effective, the chipbreaker must be setup, tuned, installed and maintained properly, requiring the user to have adequate knowledge and to put forth some effort periodically.

Despite these downsides, your humble servant believes, as millions of craftsmen have, that the chipbreaker is a component worth mastering.

Alternatives to the Chipbreak

In light of the gains and losses associated with the chipbreaker, it would be short-sighted, indeed amateurish, to assume it is always necessary, and just as short-sighted and amateurish to assume it is never necessary. So let’s examine some alternatives next.

Alternative 1: No Chipbreaker

Assuming performance is more important than convenience, the first alternative to the chipbreaker we must consider is, of course, no chipbreaker. Indeed, if you always plane with the grain of the wood, as mentioned above the chipbreaker adds no value. Indeed it may even reduce the quality of the finished surface’s appearance.

In the case of the Japanese plane, the chipbreaker can be easily and speedily removed. The resulting finish created by the plane may or may not be improved, but the force required to motivate the tool will absolutely decrease. Sadly, such cooperative wood can be elusive.

This is an excellent solution, one I highly recommend to Beloved Customers.

Alternative 2: High Bedding Angle Without a Chipbreaker

Another option with a long history worldwide is to install the cutting blade in the plane’s body at a higher bedding angle, perhaps 50~55˚+. Combined with a sharp blade, tight mouth and solid uniform contact/pressure between the board being planed and the area of the sole directly in front of the mouth opening, the more abrupt change in direction forced on shavings by this high-angle blade will then tend to buckle the long contrary fibers on its own without a chipbreaker. But no guarantees.

While a high bedding angle does indeed tend to reduce tearout, adding a chipbreaker is also a proven way to further reduce tearout in woods with contrary grain even more.

The one constant downside to a high bedding angle is the extra energy one must always expend to motivate the plane.

Alternative 3: Bevel-up Handplanes Without a Chipbreaker

Another alternative is the “bevel-up” planes that have become popular in recent years. This style of plane is not a new solution. I own some and have used them, but other than the block plane versions, I regret falling prey to specious marketing claims.

Amateurs like them because parts are fewer, maintenance is easier, and the necessary skills one must acquire are fewer.

One gentleman boldly informed me that he believes bevel-up planes to be superior to all others because he would rather spend the time it takes to master the chipbreaker into making wooden objects. By this logic, there is no need to attend school or even remove the training wheels from our bicycles. Imagine how much work we could accomplish if we stopped wasting time on stupid stuff like reedin, rightin and ritmatik! When I think of the time and money I’ve wasted on silly edumacation, my mind boggles like a weasel snacking on crystal meth….

Bevel-up planes work in the same way high bedding-angle planes do by presenting a steeper angle for contrary fibers to climb causing them to be severed or to buckle instead of tearing-out. This assumes, of course, that the blade is sharp, the mouth is tight and contact between the board being planed and the area of the sole directly in front of the mouth opening is uniform.

Sadly, the efficacy of this action is no more consistent than the high-angle blade without a chipbreaker.

The downside to the bevel-up plane is that the additional, more-consistent results afforded by a well-tuned chipbreaker are, like Heaven’s pearly gates to a California politician, forever unattainable.

Alternative 4: Back-bevels

Another alternative is the quick and dirty back bevel applied to the ura or face side of the cutting edge, as discussed in a previous post. This works for the same reason the high-angle blade does, but it is not an effective long-term solution, and certainly qualifies as tool abuse in the case of Japanese handplanes IMHO. Consider yourself well and truly warned.

Even if the “3 R’s” may be overrated, I highly recommend Beloved Customers use planes with chipbreakers and learn how to sharpen, properly setup, maintain, and adjust them for maximum results. It’s the way advanced professional woodworkers with real skills get the job done.

Keys to Making Chipbreakers Work Effectively

A naturally curved log shaped as a “Nijibari” rainbow beam at the main entrance to a Buddhist temple.

The following is a condensed list of tasks Beloved Customer needs to accomplish to get consistently good results from their chipbreakers. We will discuss all these items in greater detail in future articles in this series. I strongly encourage you to invest in yourself by developing the requisite skills:

  1. Fit the chipbreaker to the blade as lovey dovey as two newlyweds and so there is no gap between the cutting blade and extreme edge of the chipbreaker. This is not difficult to achieve, but the fit must be nearly perfect to prevent naughty shavings from wiggling between the blade and chipbreaker, because if they do get jammed, back-pressure will increase and the finished surface will look like poached crap on toast. We will discuss this more in the next post in this series;
  2. Fit the chipbreaker to both the plane’s body and retention rod so the chipbreaker will remain in-place;
  3. Grind a 70˚~80˚ striking bevel at the cutting edge of the chipbreaker to effectively buckle shavings. It doesn’t need to be a perfect bevel, and if it is rounded, that’s OK too. Yes, I know this seems ridiculously steep; If you don’t like it by all means experiment until your little pink heart sings, but after you’ve wasted a few months on hit-and-miss research, please remember that YMHOS toldjahso;
  4. Polish the striking bevel to reduce friction and prevent wood sap from building up on it too quickly. Re-polish it as necessary. If you pay attention to the condition of this abrupt bevel you will notice that it may actually become pitted from the heat and friction of the wood shavings, especially when planing wood containing hardish minerals. Total neglect will harm efficiency;
  5. Clean away wood sap from the striking face and oil it occasionally with your oilpot to reduce friction;
  6. If shavings tend to become stuck in the mouth, check to see that the chipbreaker is not so thick as to obstruct their smooth passage. If necessary, grind the chipbreaker thinner near the mouth and polish it to improve the flow of shavings;
  7. When you deem the chipbreaker necessary, install it as close as practical to the cutting edge. The ideal distance will depend on your plane, the wood you are cutting, and the depth of cut, but 0.5~0.8mm is usually a good place to start. I highly recommend you actively experiment to find the best distance. With practice it will become second nature. While it is not applicable to Japanese handplanes, Rhett Fulkerson of Nice Planes in Frankfort, Ky., has an intelligent technique for systematically setting chipbreakers and cap irons I find useful. LAP has an article about it here.

Conclusions

The chip breaker has been around a long time, not because it is easy to use or costs nothing, but only because it consistently works.

In Japan, where the single-blade plane was the standard for hundreds of years, with the shift from riven lumber to more economical sawn lumber, the chipbreaker was added to the handplane because it consistently works.

The chip breaker won’t solve all your tearout problems, but it will definitely help on condition that you set it up and maintain it properly. It isn’t difficult and the results of doing so set the professional apart from the amateur.

In the next post in this swashbuckling tale of bare-chested Scottish warriors riding feather-footed war horses over the highlands rescuing buxom lassies clad in flowing gowns from evil Lords, we will describe in detail how to setup and maintain the awesome chip breaker. Don’t forget your kilt and claymore!

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter or a manager of the Democrat Congressional IT team and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie, may all my chipbreakers chip and fail.

Other Posts in the Japanese Handplane Series:

The Intelligent Chef: Cutting Boards

Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.

President Ronald Reagan

This article is about the cutting board, a tool every household contains, but about which relatively few have given serious thought despite it’s constant role in our lives and the potentially huge negative health impacts it sometimes conceals.

Civilization’s Ultimate Tool: The Knife

Some anthropologists have asserted, and with good reason, that the food-preparation knife is not only the oldest, but the single most important tool ever invented by the human race, increasing populations, improving health and longevity, and saving many hours not only in harvesting food, but in making it edible, nutritional and safe to eat.

We will discuss kitchen knives in a separate post, but because a food-preparation knife without a cutting board is less than 100% effective, I will focus on cutting boards in this article.

Cutting Board Materials – Plastic vs. Wood

Allow your humble servant to begin this article by urging Gentle Readers to please use wooden cutting boards in their kitchens.

But before we dig into to the engineering aspects of cutting boards, I would like to make an observation (maybe even a rant) about modern societal trends that have influenced health and safety laws. I beg your kind indulgence.

As I grow older I am constantly amazed at how many people are blithely immune to facts in both their private lives and public duties, and proud as a peacock of it. They demand that their uninformed opinions and personal biases be given precedence over both actual, verifiable evidence and the scientific method, and call anyone who disagrees with them fascist and/or anti-science. Talk about psychological projection.

A recent example of this tendency in the United States is the strange idea that requiring voters to provide personal ID when voting is both unnecessary and “obviously” voter suppression, implying that minorities are either too lazy or too stupid to obtain and keep track of such ID, an insulting, racist, and demonstrably false supposition. Anyone who made such an assertion 20 years ago would have been universally viewed as either corrupt or mentally deranged. What does it mean that, during the last 4~6 years, top leaders of the US Congress and Senate as well as the top executives of major corporations routinely insist this strange concept should govern elections?

Political gamesmanship aside, some health professionals blame this form of brain damage on social media, but it is an unfortunate tendency that was around even before Twitter and facebook.

What people believe in their private lives is up to them, but to allow such tendencies to rule public policy and determine regulations with possible health and penal consequences is a big step back towards barbarism, IMHO.

Sorry, I almost fell of that damned soapbox and broke my silly neck again! Back to the subject at hand.

I am fully aware that many governmental health agencies in advanced countries around the world require commercial kitchens to use non-porous cutting boards made of plastic, HDPE (high-density polyethelene) or other synthetic materials. Like much of what is claimed to be hard scientific fact nowadays by incompetent, lazy, illiterate, irresponsible, unaccountable bureaucrats who then make regulations with teeth based on their poor understanding of unverified results produced contrary to the scientific method, the ban on wooden cutting boards too is based on nothing more than a casual supposition rather than verifiable facts.

This webpage summarizes this fubar beyond all doubt.

Your humble servant first became aware of this cutting board contradiction when I asked sushi chefs in Tokyo some years ago why they used wooden cutting boards in full view of customers instead of the more sterile-looking white plastic boards seen in the commercial kitchens I had constructed over the years. Their response was eye-opening.

Their first point was that wooden cutting boards are easier on their valuable knives keeping them sharper longer. That makes perfect sense, depending on the wood, of course.

Their second point, that wood is simply more sanitary than plastic, shocked me.

Now I know for a fact that the Japanese health agencies that regulate commercial kitchens are very strict about food safety, and that compliance costs commercial kitchens tons of money for special health & safety related equipment. I also know that most commercial kitchens in Japan do indeed use HDPE cutting boards. So why would sushi restaurants that serve raw fish and shellfish be different?

During subsequent conversations over several years with government health agencies, kitchen designers and subcontractors involved in obtaining kitchen permits and inspections for my construction projects, I asked them this same question. One gentleman responded by showing me the studies that formed the basis for health regulations for cutting boards. I have since done more research.

The essence of the concern about the safety of cutting boards in general is that liquids and particles of food, along with bacteria scrambling around on those foods and floating in the air in even the cleanest kitchen, not only spread over the surface of a cutting board in-use, but soak into the many cuts left by knife blades. In the case of wood, these may soak into the wood fibers too. Yuck, right?

Whether made of plastic or wood, liquids, particles and bugs can and do interact on the board’s surface where bugs make lots of baby bugs. Yes, that’s right: bug orgies on your cutting board! Double yuck!!

If the surface of the board is left wet and dirty for long, bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels to contaminate foods placed on the cutting board and later consumed causing food poisoning. BTW, most cases of food poisoning occur when eating out.

Try as we may, we cannot escape microbes and viruses entirely. They contaminate the surface of cutting boards regardless of both our caution and the cutting board material. The only workable solution to the sometimes lethal danger bacteria pose, short of working under burning UV lights, irradiating all foodstuffs with Gama rays (yes, that’s a real thing) and working in a cleanroom periodically drenched with anti-bacterial chemicals, is to limit their numbers and their growth so we can avoid ingesting more than our immune systems can safely deal with.

The misunderstanding that became the basis for health regulations in some areas outlawing wooden cutting boards in commercial kitchens started honestly enough with the observation that bacteria find their way into cuts below the surface of cutting boards and can potentially increase to dangerous levels. But the undeniable fact is that the researchers tested non-porous materials, not wood. Their reason for objecting to wooden cutting boards was based on an assumption, which they did not bother to check, that because wood is more porous than plastic, the bacterial infestation in wooden cutting boards must of course be much much worse than plastic. Government health agencies responsible for making kitchen regulations took this supposition at face value without bothering to do more thorough research. The earth is flat because, well…, it makes sense.

To make wise decisions about materials, responsible and intelligent people always obtain a sound understanding of the materials in question, something the advocates of plastic cutting boards fail to consider. So let us bravely examine plastic cutting boards and wooden cutting boards from a microbe’s eye view.

The first difference between plastic and wood is nothing less than a miracle of nature. Wood comes from trees which are, functionally, big waterpumps reaching up into the sky. Therefore, unlike plastic, which started life as black goo deep in the earth, living wood spends its entire life both wet and exposed to soil, fungi and bacteria. God designed trees and wood specifically to be resistant to fungi and bacteria, producing chemicals to fight them off. Even many years after a tree has been turned into lumber, these chemicals remain more or less effective at killing and preventing the growth of bacteria that cause food poisoning too. Microbes are offended by trees with such noxious flavors, and rightly so. I like my wood spicy. What about you?

Does plastic contain chemicals unpleasant to microbes? No, not unless someone applies them. Tabasco Sauce is a proven antimicrobial, BTW, although I am not suggesting Gentle Readers douse their plastic cutting boards with it, unless they REALLY like spicy flavors, a sure sign of a warm personality. (ツ)

There are of course antimicrobial chemicals, such as silver colloid compounds, that can be added to plastics to control bacterial growth for a time, but you don’t want them in your food.

The second difference between wood and plastic is found in the very structure of wood, because the cellulose tubes that make up wood are designed specifically for transporting water. Consequently, liquids that enter the wood through knife cuts tend to be wicked away and dry relatively quickly denying bacteria the moisture they need to grow out of control. The result is that bacteria in the knife-cuts in wooden cutting boards do not survive long, much less grow to dangerous levels. This assumes standard cleaning and maintenance, of course.

But wait a minute now. Plastic cutting boards dry out too right? Of course they do, but the sucky reality is that, while the surface of a plastic cutting board may be dry, the liquids, food particles, and bacteria inside the knife cuts, having fewer avenues for evaporation and/or dispersion than wood provides, remain wet for much much longer forming a pleasant environment for bacteria to continue their bug orgies and enjoy water sports. The Salmonella Water Polo Team not only kicks ass but is super horny! Goooo Salmo-!!

To eliminate bacteria inside cuts in plastic cutting boards one must either soak boards in chemicals such as chlorine that will permeate all the way into the cuts to kill bacteria, or subject the board to high temperatures almost hot enough to melt the plastic. While they may make your teeth whiter and your breathe less dragon-like, do you think chlorine or other bactericides will improve the flavor of your favorite sushi or salad? Tabasco Sauce might, but chlorine won’t.

In addition, plastic boards are demonstrably harder on the cutting edges of knives, dulling them much quicker than wood does, an important factor for professionals.

Assuming proper cleanliness procedures are performed regularly, a wooden cutting board is better for your health, better for your knives and better for the flavor of your food.

The Bacteria Water Polo League and Your Cutting Board

Although we don’t like to think about it, the fact remains that the materials we make our meals from contain bacteria, some more than others. This is why God gave humans stomach acid.

Heat kills bacteria too, which is why cooked food is much safer than raw food. Next time you belly-up to a salad bar in Bangkok or Beijing, Gentle Reader, think about the cleanliness of the water and fertilizer farmer Bui used to grow those veggies, and if a little heat might not be a good thing.

Chicken, beef, and pork are good examples of problematic foods because these domestic animals all live in feces-covered environments and have higher tolerances to microbes like Salmonella and E.coli than humans in advanced countries typically do. Chicken products from large industrial poultry farms are especially bad. Unfortunately, too frequently these killer fecal bacteria are transferred to meat and poultry when being processed.

According to WebMD, 83% of the chickens tested in a recent Consumer Reports investigation were contaminated with one or both of the leading bacterial causes of food-borne disease — salmonella and campylobacter. Most of this bacteria was found on the chicken’s skin. As someone who has repeatedly suffered painful and debilitating food poisoning from eating contaminated chicken, believe me, Fuzzy Freddie Nietzsche was absolutely wrong because, while salmonella poisoning may not kill you, it won’t make you stronger but will just make you wish you were dead. Seriously.

The Salmonella Water Polo Team kicking back between matches and bug orgies
The screwy Campylobacter Jejuni bacteria cause most food-poisoning cases.

What does all this have to do with cutting boards? Let’s take a common, real-world example.

Say you cut up a chicken for a barbecue using your favorite knife and cutting board. The heat of the grill will kill salmonella, but the bacteria on the chicken skin will have transferred to and remained on your cutting board sure as eggses is eggses.

Now that the chicken is cut down to size, shall we slice some carrots and celery for a dip, and maybe cut some tomatoes, lettuce, cheese and ham for a salad? Sounds like a yummy plan.

But wait a second, Gentle Reader. Do you think the Salmonella or Campylobacter microbes left behind on the surface of the cutting board by that bird-brain chicken will have all died and gone to bug heaven during the two minutes you were getting the lettuce out of the fridge? Not so much. And will either Water Polo Team call a time-out on the surface of board and refuse to transfer to the veggies you will cut on the same board and eat raw 20 minutes from now? See the problem?

There are three potential solutions to keep horny microbes under control. The first is to clean and sterilize cutting boards used to cut poultry or other meats with boiling water before using them to cut foods you will serve raw. I highly recommend this technique, and have made some proven suggestions below.

The second solution is to have two cutting boards on-hand, one for meat and one for veggies.

The third, more economical and space-saving solution is to have only a single cutting board but to designate one side dedicated for cutting meat and the opposite side for veggies and other foods that will be eaten raw. Not a perfect solution but it will help.

Wood Varieties for Cutting Boards

The Japanese are very particular about the taste of the food they eat. Indeed, they claim, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the steel of the knife used to prepare the food, and the sharpness of its blade, both impact the flavor of the food, especially foods eaten raw. This is something worth investigating for yourself if you hadn’t noticed it already.

It makes sense therefore, that the material the cutting board is made from can impart flavors good or bad to the food we prepare. So what are some good woods from the viewpoint of flavor, and why?

Hinoki Cypress

Many Japanese sushi chefs like cutting boards made of Hinoki wood, a type of cypress.

Hinoki is a beautiful, light-yellow colored wood that planes like no other wood in the world. It has a unique characteristic in that it reaches maximum strength approximately 300 years after being felled, which, when combined with the natural resistance of the wood to fungus and bugs, explains why Japanese temples and shrines last for so long. Amazing stuff.

It also contains essential oils that smell very pleasant, and make time spent in a Hinoki bathtub filled with hot water absolutely heavenly.

These preservative chemicals are effective at killing fungus and bacteria, but they also impart flavor to the food they touch, especially when a knife is making fine cuts releasing fresh volatile oils constantly. These essential oils compliment the flavors of rice and most varieties of fish used in sushi and sashimi. But not all foods.

And while Hinoki has layers of soft summer wood, it also has harder layers of winter wood that, while not as harmful to a knife’s cutting edge as is Douglas Fir, for example, are not ideal. So what are the other options in common professional use in Japan?

Willow

Willow wood is considered by many professional Japanese chefs to be the ideal wood for cutting boards. It is soft, easy on knives, and it has a neutral flavor.

Ginkgo Biloba Wood

A quarter-sawn cutting board of Ginkgo wood

Gingko Biloba, also called the Maidenhair tree because of the spreading shape of its leaves, is another wood popular with professional chefs for cutting boards. It is my favorite.

Called the ”Ginnan” or “Ichou” tree in Japanese and written 銀杏 in Chinese characters, it’s the official symbol of Japan’s capital city of Tokyo and is planted along many city streets in part because it is hardy, beautiful, and quite resistant to urban pollution. It is also the symbol of the Japanese university where I earned my graduate degree, and is included in the logo mark of C&S Tools

Despite being a huge deciduous tree, Ginkgo wood has a uniform grain with little difference between summer and winter wood, a feature that helps keep knives sharper longer. It is also flavor neutral. It’s cells naturally contain flavonoids (polyphenolic secondary metabolites) that are effective at reducing odors, rare in woods, and especially suited to food preparation involving strongly aromatic food ingredients such as garlic.

Ginkgo, Willow and Hinoki are the three woods Japanese professional chefs prefer for their cutting boards. We carry cutting boards made from Ginkgo wood, and highly recommend them based on many years of direct experience.

Cutting Board Maintenance

There are two aspects of maintenance Gentle Readers should consider. The first is keeping the cutting board clean and sanitary, and the second is keeping it relatively flat.

Cleaning and Disinfecting a Cutting Board

Obviously we need to keep our cutting boards clean and free of nasty bugs if we are to avoid tummy aches, diarrhea and expensive visits to hospitals, but there is more to proper maintenance and keeping them free of dangerous microbes than wiping them down after each use.

Unless your wooden cutting board becomes covered with oily, greasy stuff, don’t wash it with detergents or scrub it with cleansers. Detergents remove the natural chemicals in the wood that control bacteria. Cleansers do too, but they are much nastier because the hard particles they contain can become embedded in the wood dulling your precious knives and adding unpleasant chemicals to your food for a long time. This applies to plastic cutting boards too.

The best way to clean a cutting board of any variety is to wash it under running water while scrubbing it with a brush, and then stand it on-edge to air-dry. Running water combined with physical force is very effective. Air circulation is important when drying, as is sunlight.

I also recommend you pour boiling water on the board’s work surfaces after each use to sterilize them. Here is wisdom: While disinfectant chemical products packaged in colorful handy-dandy plastic bottles provide employment for thousands of marketing minions and make tons of cashy money for corporations, nothing you can use in a kitchen is more effective at killing bacteria and violating viruses than boiling water. Nothing.

Just place the board in the sink with one end elevated an inch or so to help it drain, and pour boiling hot water over it from a pot or tea kettle. Turn it over and repeat. Don’t dry it by wiping it with a cloth or paper towel, just let it air dry because any cloth you use will be less sanitary than the board is now. Nothing beats hot water or steam for open-air sterilization purposes.

Some people like to oil their cutting boards. Not a good idea, IMHO, because oil makes airborne dust and bugs stick to the cutting board.

Never use any wood finishes on a cutting board because the chemicals they contain are seldom safe to ingest, which you will.

If you don’t plan to use the board for more than a few days, wrap it in clean, fresh newspaper to keep dust and other contaminants off while allowing the wood to dry.

Flattening a Cutting Board

If you use knives on your cutting board, eventually it will become hollowed-out in the center, much like a sharpening stone. A hollowed-out cutting board makes it harder to cut foodstuffs quickly and cleanly.

Yet another advantage of the wooden cutting board is that you can re-flatten its surface and make it absolutely pristine with just a few passes of a handplane, making it once again a pretty, happy tool. Try that with a slab of plastic.

If you have a few minutes here’s an experiment you will find interesting. Use a hand plane to true the face of one wooden cutting board. Then use a belt sander or other abrasive tool to true the face of another. Then gently place a single drop of water in the center of each board at the same time. You will notice that the water drop stands proud of the surface of the planed board, while it quickly soaks into the surface of the sanded board. Which surface do you think stays cleaner and is less inviting to the Salmonella Water Polo Team?

And which surface has more knife-dulling, tooth-wearing abrasive grit embedded in it?

Cutting board maintenance is a good reason for owning and using handplanes even She Who Must Be Obeyed can appreciate.

Here’s how to efficiently flatten your cutting board. You will need a straightedge at least as long as the board, a handplane, a marking gauge, and a carpenter’s pencil.

You don’t want to unduly reduce the useful life-span of your cutting board, so plan your work to return the board to uniform thickness if you can. Examine the ends and sides of the board. Is it uniform thickness on the edges? Many are not.

Use your straightedge to sight the length, width and diagonals of the board, noting where depressed areas are.

Use your pencil to cross-hatch the surface of the board to help you check your progress. Remember to plane the high spots first and avoid the low spots until they are only a wood shaving’s thickness lower than the higher areas. While planing, periodically check the board using your straightedge and apply more graphite cross-hatching.

Once you have one side flat, use a marking gauge to mark the target thickness of the board on its edges. A guestimate of this thickness is fine, but if you want to get a precise measurement, fit feeler gauges between the straightedge and the lowest depressed area, and mark this thickness on the board’s sides and ends using a marking gauge.

I know it’s tempting to just shave wood as fast as you can, but with a little bit of examination, planning and layout, your cutting board will look and cut better and last a lot longer.

Or, if you have an electric thickness planer, knock yourself out. But carefully.

Conclusion

I will end this article with a question: In the case of cutting boards, which material is healthier, tastes better, is easier on expensive kitchen knives, more biodegradable, requires less energy and releases fewer carbon emissions to produce, and is more sustainable – petroleum products or wood? If the answer isn’t obvious, you may want to check your ID.

YMHOS

PS: We carry a special line of Ginkgo wood cutting boards. These are solid wood, not laminated. Most are quartersawn for stability. They make a great gift. If you would like to give one a try, please let us know in the “Contact Us” form below.

An avenue of Ginkgo trees at night in Tokyo

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie, may the Salmonella Water Polo Team forever have icky orgies in my cereal bowl.

The Marking Knife

A spearpoint marking knife

“Make sure that you always have the right tools for the job. It’s no use trying to eat a steak with a teaspoon and a straw.” 

Anthony T. Hincks

There are many varieties of marking knives used for woodworking around the world. In this article your humble servant would like to discuss the Japanese version.

We will begin with some definitions, followed by an explanation of the design details and structure of the tool. We will save the best for last by describing two subtle but effective professional modifications to improve the tool’s performance and the results produced.

Definitions

The Japanese marking knife is called a “shiragaki” or sometimes “shirabiki.” The characters used vary, but can mean “white pull” (白引き), which makes some sense, or “white persimmon” (白柿), which makes little sense, so I suppose the persimmon character is used as a phonetic substitute for “kaki” (書き) which means to write. I choose to write the word as 白書 so the Kanji translate directly to “white writing.” That makes more sense to me.

Such confusing substitutions are all too common in the Japanese language in the case of words with purely phonetic origins. The fact is that, much like psychologists, lawyers, and priests, the Japanese people enjoy confusing terminology. It’s an ancient habit that probably won’t change soon. I say this as someone that has been reading, writing and speaking the Japanese language at graduate school level for 45 years, been a resident of, attended school and worked in Japan for 30 years, and been married to a Japanese woman and had Japanese relatives for 43 years. I can get into serious trouble in the Japanese language.

Now that we are done with the Japanese language lesson, I will simply call this tool a “marking knife.”

The marking knife is used to cut thin, precise layout lines in a board’s surface, most often but not always at a 90 ° angle to the direction of the wood grain.

Every woodworking tradition I am aware of includes the marking knife, and regardless of their preferred style, anyone serious about woodworking will own at least one, and know how to use it.

Advantages

The marking knife has some advantages over other methods of marking a line more-or-less perpendicular to the direction of the wood grain. Here are a few:

  1. The line it makes can be as thin as the edge of nothing, achieving precision unapproachable by pencils, pens, scribes, sumisashi, inklines, chalklines, laser-sights, or even wishful thinking for layout in wood in the case of lines at more-or-less 90˚ to the direction of the grain. The line it makes, however, is not as easy to see as an ink or even pencil line, so it is not always useful for rough layout work;
  2. The line cut by a marking knife penetrates the wood’s surface providing a physical place into which the woodworker can index the edge of his chisel, or nicker of his plow plane or rabbet plane, or the teeth of his saw, or points of his divider quickly, precisely and confidently without relying heavily on Mark-1 Eyeball, improving the efficiency and quality of both his layout and fabrication efforts. The resulting time savings, improvement in accuracy, and reduction of eye strain the indexing benefits marking knife lines provide are huge.
  3. When making layout lines on perpendicular faces of a member, such as a table apron, for instance, after making one line on the reference face, the remaining three lines can be indexed and extended from each other with a marking knife, confirming the accuracy of the member’s dimensions and ensuring the tenon shoulders will be sawed accurately creating an excellent tenon, assuming the craftsman knows how to use a saw properly, of course.
  4. The line cut by a marking knife severs the fibers near the board’s surface helping to prevent fibers from being torn out of the wood avoiding a ragged cut with saw, chisel or router.

Are you convinced yet?

Design & Materials

Shirabiki Ura by Konobu

There are many styles of marking knives used around the world, and your humble servant has tried most of them at one time or another, but none that I am aware of are as simple as, or functionally superior to, the Japanese version.

Lacking a pretty, turned handle and looking more like a blackened steel popsicle stick than a finished tool, the Japanese marking knife appears unfinished, even barbaric. But despite its stark appearance, it’s a sophisticated design that employs superior metallurgical and blacksmithing techniques.

Like many Japanese woodworking tools, the professional-grade marking knife is made with a layer of hard high-carbon steel forming the cutting edge, forge-welded to a softer layer of low-carbon steel which forms the body of the tool. They are almost always flat, generally thin, and not especially wide tools. Perhaps 1/2 the length of one side is ground flat and bright and includes a hollow-ground depression called the “ura,” while the other side is plain and includes the cutting edge’s bevel.

Some marking knives, such as the photo at the top of this article, have a spear point or “kensaki” (剣先)meaning “sword point” which is convenient because the same knife can be used either left-handed or right-handed. Some people prefer this style, but in my experience it has limited usefulness. To each his own.

The demands on the marking knife in terms of sharpness, durability, and edge-holding capability are not as high as for chisel and plane blades. The better-quality ones are hand-forged of high-carbon steel and quality jigane, properly shaped and filed, and carefully heat-treated.

Because of their thinness, marking knives tend to warp badly during heat treat, and consequently demand either a blacksmith with good skills or the use of high-alloy steels that warp little. Even experienced blacksmiths end up with a few rejects due to cracking and excess warpage, which perhaps explains the relatively high cost of handmade ones. It has mostly been a tool made by specialist blacksmiths.

For this reason, and because the performance demands on the cutting edge are not severe, Blue Label steel is entirely acceptable IMO.

The Ura

I mentioned the “ura” above, but let’s examine it a bit more. Ura is a Japanese word written using the Chinese character  浦. It means a bay or inlet from a lake or ocean, usually without lots of rocks, and often with a sandy or gravelly shore. You can imagine why this word was employed to describe the hollow-ground depression in many Japanese woodworking blades.

In North America, similar curved surfaces and depressions were once called “swamps” even though they were made in metal. This term is obsolete nowadays.

The ura is what makes the Japanese marking knife superior to its Western counterparts for two reasons. The first reason is that the ura makes it easier to keep the hard layer of steel at the reference side flat. Second, in light of the hardness of the cutting edge layer, the ura makes it easier to sharpen the cutting edge.

Without the ura, the hard steel would be time consuming to sharpen and would tend to become rounded instead of remaining a flat reference face to index against a steel square or straightedge. It’s a subtle and clever design more sophisticated than its simple appearance suggests.

In use, the flat ura side is pressed lightly against the leg of a steel square with the point cutting lightly into the wood and the heel floating above. The blade is then pulled toward the user to cut the straight layout line.

Lubrication

I recommend Beloved Customer use an oilpot to lubricate the marking knife’s blade to reduce friction and wear between the blade and the square, as well as friction between the cutting point and the wood. Not only will  your square last longer, but your layout lines will be more accurate. Don’t believe me? Give it a try.

Recommended Modifications

Marking knives are simple tools for a simple job, but there are a couple of subtle improvements some advanced Japanese craftsmen, especially joiners, make that Beloved Customer may want to consider.

1. Habiki

The first improvement is intended to minimize one downside of the marking knife, namely its habit of shaving metal from the square or straightedge used to guide it. In Japanese this modification is called ” habiki “ 刃引き which translates directly to “ blade pulling, ” as in pulling the blade’s cutting edge over a stone to intentionally dull it. It is a term borrowed from the sword world.

The steps to accomplish this modification are as follows:

  1. First, sharpen the blade;
  2. Then, with the tool’s ura side facing you, stand the blade vertically on its cutting edge on the face of a medium grit waterstone or oilstone with the last 2~3 millimeters of the blade, measured from the tip, hanging off the stone’s side so the tip does not contact the stone;
  3. Finally, drag the blade towards you creating a flat on the cutting edge, while leaving 2~3mm of the blade’s tip sharp. Voila.

The dulled portion of the cutting edge will now be less likely to shave your square or straightedge, while the sharp tip will cut the wood and make a pretty, accurate layout line, assuming you do your job, of course.

I know that the idea of sharpening a good blade and then intentionally dulling part of the cutting edge sounds gaga. In fact, when Honda-san showed it to me, I thought the old guy was pulling my leg. But Honda-san was a master among masters, a man in his 80’s who had been making extremely high-end custom joinery since he was 15 years old, one who took his tools extremely seriously. In addition, he let me try his knife so I was quickly convinced.

Honda-san’s technique works, so gather up your courage and give it a try before allowing your inner-troll to embarrass you. I promise you’ll like the results and your square will thank you.

2. Tip Bevel

The second modification is also one Honda-san taught me. There are several ways of doing it, but the essence is to grind an angled flat 15~18mm long  on the top edge of the blade’s side angled away from the ura, ending at the cutting edge’s point. The goal is to create a very sharp “clipped” point.

This angled flat has three purposes: First, it removes metal that would otherwise get in the way of your clearly seeing the knife’s cutting tip. This is important because often a knife must be indexed off a tiny divider point’s mark or a previous layout line, for instance when marking the shoulders of a tenon on four sides of a stick of wood. Removing this unnecessary metal will make it easier to begin the mark exactly where it is needed.

The second purpose is to reduce the friction between blade and wood when cutting a layout line, thereby improving control like racing tires on a fast car.

And third, it provides a convenient place to rest your fingertip to better control the knife.

If you imagine this modification can’t make much of a difference, then your lack of experience is showing. How embarrassing >~(ツ)~<

The Square

I know there are those who prefer to use a wooden square for layout work, and others who like brass ones. Both work just fine with a marking knife until they don’t. You would be wise to consider using a hardened steel square, or better yet, a precision hardened stainless steel square with your Japanese marking knife; They simply last longer and stay straighter.

There are hardened carbon steel and hardened stainless steel combination squares and die maker squares available on the market, but I think they are too bulky and too costly for making simple 90° layout lines on wood.

Matsui Precision produces a series of excellent hardened stainless steel squares that are popular in Japan and well worth the cost. I have been using them for years. Send me a note if you are interested.

The Japanese marking knife is a great tool. Once you use one, especially after making the modifications described herein, you will wonder how you ever got decent layout work done before.

YMHOS

My old marking knife was hard on my eyes and fingers, but now I know how to fix it!

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my square always lie to me if I lie to you.


Salt, Rice, Sake and a Prayer

Mother troll introducing her two handsome, well-dressed sons as suitors to a fairy princess. A difficult choice!

But when the fairy sang the whole world listened to him. Stephen felt clouds pause in their passing; he felt sleeping hills shift and murmur; he felt cold mists dance. He understood for the first time that the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands. In the fairy’s song the earth recognized the names by which it called itself.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Most of the posts to the C&S Tools blog are focused on how to select, maintain and use woodworking handtools. But in this article your humble servant would like to examine the relationship between supernatural influences and construction jobsite safety from a Japanese perspective.

We will also briefly examine a traditional way to deal with supernatural beings in order to increase both safety during construction and the welfare of those who will occupy the completed structure.

Gentle Readers involved in construction, either as customer or worker, may find this article informative and maybe even helpful.

Supernatural Beings

Your humble servant has often sensed unexplainable presences when alone in deep forests, high mountains, dark caves, and open deserts where human influence is absent. These irrational feelings may spring from an overactive imagination, or perhaps the gentle ministrations of a butter-fingered baby-sitter when I was small, but I’m not alone in my perceptions because humans in all parts of the world have felt similarly about certain places on the earth such as hills, groves, and caves since before recorded history. What about you?

The peoples occupying the heavily-forested islands of Japan have, since ancient times, believed that spirits reside in trees, hills, rocks, rivers and of course the ground. Indeed, Japan’s indigenous religion, called Shinto, which can be translated as “The Path of the Gods,” is a vague belief system based almost entirely on this amorphous perception. It is no coincidence that Shinto has heavily influenced Japanese architecture and carpentry traditions.

If one believes that supernatural beings reside in trees, groves, mountains, water and even rocks, it’s not a stretch to believe that some of those beings, or spirits, are naughty and some are nice. Besides, the bad things that happen to us can’t all be blamed on Fortuna, right?

Since we cannot see these beings or spirits, and they don’t give a rodent’s ruddy fundament about what judges and lawyers do and say, how can we protect ourselves from their naughty tendencies, especially when human activities might evoke their ire?

What human activities piss-off vengeful supernatural beings in nature? Loud music? Social injustice? Wearing socks with sandals? Nah, none of those. In the case of Japan it has been traditionally held that clearing and grubbing trees and vegetation and excavating soil for construction projects is asking for trouble from the supernatural beings that call such places home. Accidents, injuries and even deaths during construction work are believed to be a direct result of such activities, and the malevolent effects of PO’d spirits can make entire buildings dangerous, unhealthy and unlucky places.

So how does one keep possibly dangerous spirits happy? A traditional approach is a ceremony called the Jichinsai.

Jichinsai Ceremony

The name of this common ceremony is pronounced jee/cheen/sah/ee, and is written 地鎮祭 in Chinese characters as used in Japan.

The first character 地 means ground or earth. The second character means “weight” as in “paper weight,” but it also means to “suppress” or “calm.” The last character is pronounced “sai” and can also be read “matsuri,” meaning ceremony or festival.

There are records of Jichinsai being performed in Japan as early as AD 690. The background of the ceremony is the belief indigenous to Japan, and found in many other locations around the world since ancient times, that spirits reside in places and even plants.

I think I participated in my first Jichinsai in Japan in 1987. I have since attended many in Japan and even a couple in the United States.

I like to think of the Jinchinsai as a ceremony to keep mischievous pixies sleepy and to hide the building and workers from Murphy’s attentions.

The Jichinsai ceremony is typically performed prior to the beginning of a construction project. Its goal is to show respect to and appease the local spirits, and thereby forestall them from seeking revenge for the contractor’s rude disruption of their happy homes.

The ceremony accomplishes these goals by providing offerings of food and booze and greeting to the spirits, showing proper respect, a bit of entertainment, and saying prayers informing them of the construction plans and asking for their protection. Basically, salt, munchies, wine and flattery followed by a polite, well-phrased request, just like a good pickup line. (ツ)

Nowadays, this ceremony has been appropriated by Shinto priests hired to conduct the ceremony, but it is neither Buddhist nor even Shinto in origin, having roots older than formal religion.

Indeed, while priests saying theatrical prayers and dressed in silk brocade robes and oh so goofy hats add to the pageantry, and they insist the efficacy, of the ceremony, in your humble servant’s opinion they add little but cost because, at its heart, the only true participants in the ceremony are the workmen who will perform the construction work, those who will live in or use the completed building, and the spirits that reside in the vegetation and ground to be disturbed. But it is human nature to enjoy and even find meaning in pageantry. If not, the Academy Awards program would have been canceled years ago for being such a boring, preachy stinker. And besides, priests need work too. 

Indeed, if only the builder conducts and attends the ceremony, that is sufficient for purposes of promoting safety for himself and his workers during the construction work, although the Owner, if he doesn’t participate, could arguably miss out on some of the blessings possibly provided by the ceremony such as his safety and prosperity in using the land and building.

A Shinto priest dressed in silk robes, wooden shoes and lacquered hat conducting a Jichinsai ceremony for a corporate construction project. A specialist subcontractor has erected the tent and provided seating and props. Notice the wooden stand with offerings of salt, foods and wine, standing bamboo at the four corners, and Cleyera Japonica cuttings below and behind. At this point in the ceremony, the Priest has sung several prayers and scattered bits of paper around. The pile of sand in the foreground is still undisturbed, but towards the end of the ceremony the Client’s representatives will poke it with a wooden hoe to let the spirits know dirt work will start soon. The step-by-step program for the ceremony is listed on the board to the right. Participants in the ceremony are required to stand, clap hands, bow, drink a drop of demon rum and make plant offerings several times. It is an extremely solemn business.

Groundbreaking ceremonies have been around for a long time in other nations too. Nowadays in the West, they have degraded to a photo opportunity for publicity hounds like politicians and business owners, but the tradition of dedicating, blessing and/or sanctifying the ground upon which a building will stand has ancient roots in Christian and Pagan traditions too. 

Nowadays most versions of the ceremony are centralized on a wooden table set up on the site where the building will be constructed surrounded by green bamboo cuttings stuck into the ground forming a square. A rope is strung around these poles and pieces of paper cut into a special pattern particular to Shinto ceremonies are hung from these ropes. 

Various offerings are placed on the table, always including at least rice, salt and sake. Some additional offerings might include products from the sea, such as fish, and products from the mountains, such as the various herbs and vegetables that supernatural beings like to munch on. Fruits are often included as well. Other than fish, meat is not included.

The general contractor usually hosts the ceremony, sets the stage, makes other arrangements and pays the costs. Of course priests don’t work for free so the cost of the ceremony is included in the contractor’s construction contract amount, although it is seldom shown as a line item. Often, however, the GC will inquire before bidding if the Owner desires a Jinchinsai to ascertain if the cost should be included or not. 

I won’t go into all the details of what goes into a Jinchinsai because it would take months of research and a book I do not have the time to write.

The following links are to YouTube videos of an actual Jichinsai with all the trimmings. Video 1 Video 2

Why Perform a Jichinsai Ceremony?

I mentioned above that I do a lot of work for international corporate Clients. Indeed, Gentle Reader no doubt uses their products daily. These are corporations that are decidedly non-religious and are careful to avoid allowing religious influence to become apparent in their business dealings. So how do they justify spending money and time on a ceremony intended to deal with metaphysical influences? The reasons, as I understand them, are twofold: (1) Peace of mind; and (2) Avoidance of blame. 

Let’s examine reason number 1 first.

After many millennia of belief, the local employees of even large international corporations have a fear of malevolent supernatural influences embedded in their DNA, so to actively reject a harmless, basically non-religious, non-controversial tradition intended to protect them may cause undue stress in some individuals.

You don’t believe me? Here’s a true story.

A Ghost Story

Some years ago my team and I were managing a two-phase construction project for a very wealthy and well-known international consumer electronics company.

Phase One included office fitout work and cleanroom construction (tenant improvements) in a leased space in a brand spankin new building located in Yokohama. Although the grade of the completed project was exceptionally high, it was just a temporary facility.

Phase Two, however, was the construction of a large, elegant, high-tech, structurally-advanced building intended for long-term operations. When completed it was without doubt the most beautiful and both technologically and environmentally advanced building in Japan, if I do say so myself.

The Client anticipated hiring hundreds of new engineers to work in both the Phase One and Phase Two spaces, but sadly hiring lagged far behind plan, so even though we had completed the construction work of the Phase One office spaces on-time and installed some nice office furniture too, it was mostly empty.

For many months after most of Phase One was complete, my team and I used the otherwise unoccupied, high-ceiling leased space as our workplace for the planning and design of Phase Two. It was a large, lonely space.

This intense project involved working late into the evening far too often. An exceptionally diligent lady on my team I will call Naoko worked many evenings alone in these empty spaces. After a few months Naoko became seriously stressed and complained about hearing strange noises and feeling like she was being watched by unkind eyes. Even I thought the place felt creepy. Soon the entire team was feeling weird and stressed.

I took Naoko’s complaints seriously because, when it comes to workplace stress, perception is absolutely reality. And so I shifted our base of operations to a less-comfortable pre-fab jobsite office sooner than originally planned to get the team out of that creepy place. Problem solved.

Indeed, there may have been something unlucky about the leased building because, besides the hiring SNAFU, the Client’s operations in the building accomplished much less than planned. Indeed, serious and very unpleasant acrimony developed among the Client’s employees that occupied it. When the new building was completed, they too moved out of the leased space as soon as humanly possible.

We later learned from the general contractor that developed and owned the office building that it stood smack dab on an old graveyard. Hmmmm.

Did I mention that the Client decided to not perform a Jinchinsai prior to construction of the leased space?

A Good Beginning

For the new building, however, the Client wisely decided they wanted to avoid the risk of not doing a Jichinsai, a decision that was welcomed by the general contractor and the thousands of workmen that were involved in its construction.

Despite having 14 large crawler cranes lifting heavy stuff and drilling deep piles, and 600+ heavy trucks carrying soil out of and concrete and materials into the extremely tight and dangerous site daily, and over 10,000 workmen for months on end, we only experienced one injury when a sheet-metal worker cut his hand on some sharp metal scrap, and one accident when a careless iron-worker managed to start a small localized fire in some urethane concrete blankets with a cutting torch.

Another worker with a well-documented history of a bad ticker had a fatal heart attack on the way home one day, but that incident was ultimately deemed unrelated to the construction work.

This safety record was a miracle in my book. Was it a direct result of the Jichinsai? Who can say. I only know that if we hadn’t done the ceremony, and a serious accident or death had occurred on the job site, the Client would have been blamed for carelessly not performing the ceremony and the work would probably have suffered as a consequence.

And this illustrates the ultimate reason for conducting a Jichinsai ceremony: Better to be safe than sore. 

The Simplified Jichinsai

There are various approaches to pacifying possibly malevolent spirits. One is the full-blown Jichinsai ceremony, of course. Another is a simpler, humbler, and less-expensive way, because, after all, what the ceremony boils down to is a sincere offering of salt, rice and sake and a silent request to the resident spirits for forbearance.

One such simplified example is quietly and routinely performed by either the general contractor or his steel erection subcontractor. They simply place a small mound of salt, another of uncooked rice, and a small cup of sake wine at the base of the first column erected, then the employees of the GC and/or the erection team offer a silent prayer. No muss, no fuss, no silly hats, but it’s still taken very seriously by the workers.

When I was a self-employed contractor, I would do something similar. Before beginning any excavation, I would politely place a small mound of salt, another of rice, and a small cup of local wine on the ground at what would later become the center of the completed building or renovation and leave it overnight. I would also lay a branch of the local vegetation, be it tree or bush, beside the offerings. Before leaving at the end of the day, I would offer a silent prayer to heaven, and whoever else might bother to listen, that the job would proceed without accident or injury to any workmen involved, and that it would remain on-schedule and under-budget.

Did it work? I don’t know, but the only serious jobsite injuries and deaths I have experienced over the years have been where a Jichinsai of some sort was not performed. Cheaper insurance you will never find.

One Beloved Customer located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States Coast recently began construction on a small but elegant outbuilding using beautiful Port Orford Cedar wood with traditional and extremely intricate interlocking Japanese handcut joints and hand-plane-finished, and natural stone foundations with fitted posts.

The photos below are of his simple Jichinsai. No accidents or injuries so far!

YMHOS

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