In the previous two posts in this series about toolchests, we examined a few aspects of their history, as well as a few of the goals and objectives I applied when designing mine.
In this post we will consider the pros and cons of the chest as a tool container and a few methods to maximize the pros and minimize the cons. The ultimate purpose is simply to provide examples of points to consider when planning and designing a toolchest.
As stated previously, this article is not intended to suggest the toolchest presented here is superior to any other. I, your most humble and obedient servant, am neither a Time Lord nor Holy Arbiter of Everything Traditional, so my efforts are unworthy of emulation. I respectfully present this series of articles merely as an example of one planning process and the lowly toolchest it produced.
Points in Favor of Wooden Toolchests
Wood as a material has some advantages over metal and plastic for making toolchests. Namely, it is often relatively inexpensive, can be easily worked, and has relatively high thermal insulative value. And wood is more appealing to many people than plastic, steel and aluminum. I think it’s safe to say that human attraction to wood is deeply rooted in our DNA. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but I understand that robots feel the same way about aluminum, at least that’s what they tell me (ツ).
If you have ever used a steel or aluminum gangbox, basically a welded metal toolbox used on construction jobsites, often with huge locks housed in bolt cutter-proof recesses to prevent theft, or kept your tools stored in a metal toolbox mounted in your truck’s bed, you know what I mean. The metal transmits the heat or cold into the chest and the tools it contains very quickly resulting in condensation on metal surfaces and eventually rust. And the metal box itself dings and grinds the tools. But wood cushions tools and moderates these temperature swings providing the contents additional protection from wear and condensation corrosion especially if the container seals tightly.
As a structural system the wooden chest is easy to make stronger and more durable than modern cabinetry of the same volume, is much more portable, and can easily be sealed much tighter.
And finally, given the same amount of volume, there are many instances where the chest is a more economical storage system than modern cabinets, depending of course on the design and how the chest is used. That’s ten points in favor of wooden toolchests.
Points Against Wooden Toolchests
Wooden chests have fallen out of favor in modern times for valid reasons. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of traditional chests in general is that items stored inside tend to get stacked one on top of the other in a jumble, and that darn Murphy (may he suffer the exquisite torment of eternal languishment in a liberal big-city Department of Motor Vehicle line) has often hidden the item we need in the last place we could possibly look, at the very bottom.
Well-designed toolchests, on the other hand, have traditionally and quite successfully overcome this organizational challenge by using sliding trays and mounting tools to the lid’s underside and elsewhere. But of course, the effectiveness of this organization depends on the user.
Some people never get the knack, or simply lack adequate organizational self-control, and for them toolchests are not a viable solution. Indeed, for the person that lacks basic housekeeping skills and does not value their tools enough to care for them properly, there can be no effective method of storage better than a pile on the floor.
I am not like Adrian Monk when it comes to tool organization, but more than any other tool storage system, the toolchest is easiest for me to keep organized simply because, perhaps like some millionaire American politicians who only remember to wear pants in public because they need someplace to tuck-in their shirt-tail, I must.
Another disadvantage of the traditional chest is its low height compared to modern cabinetry. Space and weight practicalities typically limited the volume and height of traditional chests, resulting in a low profile. Mounting them on bases or adding legs made access easier. This transition from chests resting on the floor to cabinets supported on legs is well-documented in the historical record.
Compared to modern cabinetry which can be built as high as the ceiling permits and attached to walls, the chest may occupy more floorspace per square meter of internal storage volume. Whether that is a practical disadvantage or not depends on the user’s requirements for portability, which the chest excels at, and if storage space inside fixed cabinets located at a height above the user’s line of sight is considered useful or not.
While typically far superior to modern cabinetry, perhaps the most difficult long-term challenge of the toolchest is the lid. Traditional Western wooden chests frequently had a poor seal at the lid. To make things worse, their lids routinely warped over time and with changes in humidity and due to design defects creating gaps and cracks which became the primary avenue of humidity, dust, insect and pixie infiltration. But fixing this detail is not rocket surgery.
Gaskets are one solution, I suppose, but an effective design, combined with skillful execution that lacks gaps to begin with and won’t develop cracks over time, is the most effective solution IMO.
Convenience, including kinky backs and creaky joints are another problem common to chests. Chests often served double-duty as benches, tables and even beds positioned along the wall of the longhouse, at the foot of the bed or under a window, and so tended to be low, stable boxes. Digging stuff out of a traditional low chest requires contortions such as bending over, squatting, and even kneeling, actions hard on old backs and rickety knee joints (tu fui ego eris).
But I don’t sleep on top of my toolchest, or use it as a seating bench, or strap it to a mule when transporting it so a low height is not necessary. Therefore I see no need to make a toolchest squat or lightweight in order follow an inconvenient and even painful tradition that conflicts with function, especially when there are superior traditions to draw on, as we saw in the Part 2 in this series.
Another disadvantage of the chest is that, when closed, it is tempting to stack stuff on the closed lid or use the lid as a work surface, making it difficult to open the lid without removing the accumulated stuff. This is a workflow management problem and not insurmountable, but does require self-control. The historical record gives us us several solutions to the “stacking” problem.
Travelers and traders in past centuries often had their chests made with arched and even peaked lids to prevent shippers and stevedores from stacking stuff, especially other chests, on top of theirs in wagons, trains or ship’s holds. Please see the photo of the steamer trunk at the top of this post or the seachest below. While bulbous lids may work well for storage and shipping of clothing, linen and bedding, I doubt they make a toolchest more efficient. For instance, a chest with an arched lid stored against a wall cannot be opened without pulling it away from the wall at least the thickness of the lid wasting precious floorspace.
Another disadvantage of the wooden toolchest, at least compared to high-impact plastic and steel or aluminum toolboxes, is that it is less resistant to impact forces when dropped, possibly resulting in catastrophic failure. This damage is a real possibility, so a wise man will design and construct his toolchest to mitigate this risk. In my case, besides drops due to careless movers, I needed to plan for rude truck bumpers and vengeful forklift blades. Thank goodness I did.
And finally, wood can be weakened and destroyed by fungus, plenty of bugs love to eat it, and rodents can easily chew holes through it to build their dream home. That makes eight or nine points against the wooden chest, so if you are considering one, you will need to plan appropriate solutions.
Allow me to state an important related point: A bad design constructed perfectly is a still a failure; A good design executed poorly will eventually fail. Your tools deserve better than good-looking sucky failure, so proper planning and skilled execution are both essential.
So far we’ve discussed some pros and more cons of the wooden chest without delving deeply into solutions. I could of course have dived right into a discussion of the solutions I employed, but in the words of Professor Tolkien quoted above: “Short cuts make long delays.” But never fear, in the next post in this raucous tale of swashbuckling high-adventure, we will take a gander at some planning techniques and design criteria you may want to consider to overcome these shortcomings.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Cross my heart.
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Varieties of Gennou: Ryouguchi Gennou
There are several types of gennou. The most popular is the standard, double-faced symmetrical gennou called the “ryouguchi gennou” 両口玄翁 pronounced ryou-guchi-gen-nouh. “Ryou” 両 translates to “both” and ”kuchi” 口 means mouth, so a ryoguchi gennou is one with a striking face on both ends. This category includes its stumpy brother the daruma gennou, which is a shorter, stubbier version of the ryouguchi gennou. One face of ryouguichi gennou hammer is flat, and the opposite face is domed. The flat face is used for striking chisels and nails, with the domed face is used for the last couple of hits on a nailhead to recess it below the wood’s surface. It can also be used for something called kigoroshi (“wood killing”木殺) which we will touch on in a future post.
This most popular of gennou is symmetrical in all axis, an extremely stable shape making it well-suited for using at many different angles and at different swing velocities to make powerful hits where stability during the swing is important. And stability is often not just important but critical because a hammer that easily wiggles or twists out of alignment during the swing, or jinks upon impact, will make you look like a child.
Varieties of Gennou: Kataguchi Gennou
Besides the ryoguchi, the other common variety of gennou is called a “kataguchi” 片口 or single-face gennou. “Kata” 片 in Japanese means “one” or “half” and “kuchi” 口 means “mouth” but for some reason unknown to me is used to mean “striking face” in the case of hammers. It has a slightly domed face on one end with the opposing end tapering to a small square face for setting nails. Besides setting nails, the tapered end is handy for “tapping-out” (uradashi) the hollow faces of Japanese plane blades. The domed face of the kataguchi gennou is shallow enough to be used for striking chisels, but is not as good for kigoroshi. Kataguchi genno include the yamakichi style common to Kyushu Island, the funate or Iwakuni style common to Western Honshu Island and Hokkaido way up north, and several variations thereof.
The hammer pictured immediately below is the “Funate gennou” 船手 which translates to “boat hand” gennou. It is especially suited to driving nails, while it’s tapered tail can be used to make a starting hole for nails, a capability especially suited to ship building.
The gennou pictured immediately below is called the Yamakichi gennou 山吉, with Yamakichi meaning “lucky mountain.” This was the brandname of the blacksmith on Japan’s Kyushu Island who developed this style of hammer. It is a stubbier, heavier hybrid of the ryouguchi and funate styles, better suited to chisel work while still being well-suited to driving nails. I am told that Kosaburo received permission from Yamakichi and modified the design slightly to better meet the requests of his customers in the Tokyo area. If you can only have one hammer with you in the field or when doing installations at the Client’s home or facilities, the Yamakichi gennou is hard to beat. It’s unusual and sexy-looking.
The Varieties of Gennou: Daruma Gennou
The daruma gennou (dah-ru-mah) 達磨玄翁 is a variation of the double-faced ryouguchi genno, but at the same weight, it is shorter and fatter. It is named after Bohdi Dharma, a Buddhist Monk who was the founder of the Zen (Chan) sect of Buddhism in China, as well as an important person in the history of the Shaolin Temple made famous in Hong Kong Kung Fu movies. You will remember seeing Shaolin Priests in Hong Kong movies dressed in saffron robes, and with rows of dots on their bald pates, jumping around thwarting evil warlords with long mustaches.
There are many legends about the Enlightened Dharma, but one story says that while meditating for nine years in a cave near the Shaolin Temple, his atrophied arms and legs fell off leaving just his trunk and head. Because of this legend, in Japan he is portrayed as an oval-shaped figure without any limbs, and with bushy eyebrows glaring out from inside a red hood. He has come to symbolize wisdom and victory through persistence and endurance. This image has deep roots in Japanese culture.
The daruma genno is named after him because, like the buddhist priest, it is short, stubby, and round. Religious matters aside, at any given weight, the daruma is not as physically stable as the standard genno due to its reduced Moment of Inertia.
The Moment of Inertia refers to the tendency of a body to resist changes in position. Quoting from Wikipedia (which is no doubt a quote from some physics textbook): “It is the moment of inertia of the pole carried by a tight-rope walker that resists rotation and helps the walker maintain balance. In the same way the long axis of a dragster resists turning forces which helps to keep it moving in a straight line.”
It is the increased Moment of Inertia that makes a steel I-beam so much stiffer and stronger than a plain steel rod of the same length and weight.
Like these three examples, the standard genno head has its mass spread out from the center, making it more resistant to movement than if the same mass were concentrated in a solid ball.
The math for a rod about a center, which is a close approximation of a hammer head, is I= (1/12) x ML2, where I equals the Moment of Inertia, M equals the mass of the rod, and L equals the length of the rod. As you can see from the equation, the Moment of Inertia varies with the square of the object’s length, so that a ball has the lowest possible Moment of Inertia for a given mass, and is the easiest shape to get moving, while a hammer head with its mass moved away from the center will have a much higher Moment of Inertia, and will therefore be more resistant to changes in direction.
For any given mass, the daruma gennou head has less length than the standard genno head, and therefore has a reduced Moment of Inertia, and so is less stable.
Why is this important? Because you are not a machine, and when you swing a hammer several contradictory forces act on the hammer. Sometimes those forces are large and problematic and sometimes they are small and insignificant, but often some of those forces work to drive the hammer off course so it misses the target, and others tend to cause it to twist during the swing so that a line drawn through center of the hammer’s face and the center of its mass is not aligned with the target causing a glancing blow wasting time and energy. But since a longer hammer head has a higher Moment of Inertia, it will tend to not twist out of alignment as easily as the shorter daruma will during a swing, and is more likely to impart more of its energy into the chisel even if the hit ends up being a bit off-center.
In comparison to the shorter daruma, the longer standard ryouguchi gennou head, or even Yamakichi gennou, will tend to rebound straight back, instead of twisting, helping the user to maintain a steady rhythm thereby saving time. Of course, with practice, the daruma can perform just as well as the standard ryouguchi gennou head, but if you intend to make a lot of fast, hard strokes at various angles, which is common in carpentry and timber framing, a standard ryouguchi gennou with its higher stability is a superior choice.
The daruma gennou has traditionally been the preferred primary hammer for two trades: Joiners (tategushi), who use the daruma to their advantage in a specific way, and sculptors, who don’t require stability but do appreciate a large face. Cabinetmakers, tategushi and tansu makers often have a heavy daruma on hand for assembly work because the high face area/weight ratio is convenient for knocking joints together.
I learned about daruma genno from a retired joiner in Tokyo who was kind enough to instruct me occasionally over a period of several years in the making of Japanese tategu, especially wooden doors, shoji, ranma, and free-standing screens (tsuitate). Nowadays, commercial joiners (tategushi) cut mortises mostly by machine, but traditionally, all joints were cut by hand, so the old boys were required to do very precise work, very quickly, frequently cutting hundreds of small mortises for a single screen or door. The daruma gennou exceeds at this precise, repetitive, speedy work where the chisel is almost always oriented vertically in the cut, the workpiece is almost always located at an unchanging height from joint to joint, and the hammer is not so much swung at the chisel as dropped on it to ensure a very predictable depth of cut with stability not being a significant problem making the daruma suited for very precise cuts in narrower workpieces such as door and furniture parts.
For example, when cutting joints in shoji, the material remaining at the bottom of a mortise cut in a stile to receive a rail may be only be 1/4 millimeter thick, almost translucent, so if care is not taken, the chisel will cut all the way through ruining the stile. To avoid this, the joiner needs to be able to control the depth of cut very precisely, and rather than swinging the hammer, it is more-or-less allowed to drop imparting uniform impact forces than would be more difficult to achieve by swinging the hammer. The hammer should not rebound from the chisel but transfer all its energy for smooth, consistent cuts. When used properly, a daruma genno feels like it is sucked towards the chisel, and when it strikes, it feels like it sticks to the chisel for a fraction of second with little or no rebound providing excellent control and more precise control of the depth of cut. This technique takes lots of practice to master.
I have seen carpenters in Japan laugh at a fellow that brought a daruma gennou to a jobsite because the stumpy things are thought by many carpenters to appear clumsy. I must agree. Also, they assume that a fellow that uses a hammer with a face as big as a daruma does so because he has a hard time finding the end of his chisel with a standard hammer. They may have a point.
For reasons unclear to me, Americans and Europeans have an illogical affinity for the daruma gennou. That said, when I need to cut a lot of small, precise mortises, I use a daruma. When I need to cut bigger or deeper mortises, or mortises at angles, however, I bring out a standard gennou of the appropriate weight for the relatively greater stability they provide. If you only have one gennou, the standard ryouguchi style head or even yamakichi style would be a good choice.
In the next chapter in this bodice-ripping yarn of romance and intrigue we will examine a more sinister application of the gennou hammer, namely kigoroshi, or “wood-killing.” Please use the bathroom before reading it to avoid embarrassing accidents.
Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series
What we have is given by God and to teach it to others is to return it to him.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
There are as many varieties of hammers in Japan as there are in western countries. With one notable exception, and in one specific application, Japanese hammers are not especially superior to their western counterparts. That exception is the gennou (pronounced gen-noh), a hammer intended specifically for striking chisels, adjusting plane blades, and crushing wood (i.e. “kigoroshi” or “wood killing”). This article will provide a further introduction to the gennou hammer.
What Is a Gennou?
The Japanese have different terms for different hammers, of course. A hammer used strictly for driving nails, or banging sheet metal, or driving stakes is called a “kanazuchi” meaning “steel mallet.” The gennou (pronounced gen-noh), on the other hand, can be used to drive nails, but it is also suited to striking chisels and adjusting planes. The word genno was borrowed from the name of a buddhist priest who lived, or so the story goes, in the 1300’s and used a steel hammer to destroy a poisonous rock that was troubling the common folk. I’m not sure what one has to do with the other, but there you are.
The Attraction of the Gennou
Many Japanese craftsmen often have an emotional attachment to their gennou. Perhaps this is because, unlike saws, chisels, and planes that are gradually but inevitably sharpened away until almost nothing remains, or squares or making gauges that loose tolerance or wear out, a quality gennou will last for a lifetime relatively unchanged other than the occasional replacement handle. A good gennou is a simple, reliable, hardworking friend that never complains. It doesn’t have a pigtail; It doesn’t need to be sharpened. And most importantly, it will never ask a dangerous question like “do these pants make my butt look big?”
The gennou is a simple tool consisting of a steel body of some shape or another and a wooden handle. The head has a rectangular hole called the “eye” in English and “hitsu” in Japanese to receive the handle’s tenon. A high-quality gennou with a good eye and a handle made by a skilled craftsman doesn’t have wedges or other silly contrivances to connect the two.
The steel used is typically designated SK, a standard high-carbon tool steel made in Japan used for making hammers, axes, and many other tools. It is very similar chemically speaking to 01 steel in the Americas. Not as pure as Hitachi Metal’s Shirogami or Aogami steel, but still completely adequate for hammers. I wouldn’t pay extra for a gennou head made from Shirogami or Aogami steel, and you shouldn’t either
Mass-produced gennou are drop-forged very inexpensively. The eyes are rough and the handles are secured with wedges. Indeed, the eyes are typically so irregular that the head will not stay on the handle without wedges. A gennou head with rough and/or irregular eyes can create unnecessary problems for the user.
“Irregular” has several connotations when talking about gennou eyes. One obvious problem is an eye that is not truly rectangular. For instance, it may have curved, twisted walls, wonky interior dimensions, or interior corners that are not square. Not only is it a pain in the tuckus to make a handle to fit an eye with these deformities, but you can bet your sweet bippy it will cause the handle tenon to loosen up sooner.
Another irregularity commonly seen in the eyes of poor-quality gennou is rough interior walls. You would think that rough walls would hold onto the tenon better, and perhaps they do compared to highly-polished walls, but rough, uneven walls tend to wear-out the tenon and cause it to loosen over time. Imagine the vibrations the tenon is forced to absorb through those walls and the grinding motion between wall surface and handle that results.
An intentional irregularity frequently seen is end walls (versus the longer side walls) that are sloped from each opening towards the center of the eye, essentially making the eye bulge inwards in the center. The purpose of these bulges is to crush the wood of the tenon when it is forced into the eye, increasing friction, while also providing a dovetail-like area for the steel wedge to expand the eye back into. It is a reasonable solution for rough, irregular eyes in low-cost hammers to be used by amateurs, but one that the craftsman that truly understands gennou and wants a lifetime tool finds undesireable. We will touch on this detail more in future posts.
Still another irregularity the careful craftsman must watch out for is an eye that is not perfectly centered in both axis in the head. You might think that an eye that is a little skewampus couldn’t make a big difference, but it does because, not only is the balance and center of mass of such a head also skewampus so that the head tends to twist during the swing and wiggle on impact, but because making handles for such a head is unnecessarily troublesome. A clean, uniform, straight, properly-centered eye is worth every penny it costs, especially if you are a professional and consider your time and sanity of any value.
A difficult question I am frequently asked is “how much irregularity is acceptable?” The answer is simple: If you think it is too irregular, then it is, because the work to correct the defect or compensate for it will all be on you.
Please understand that properly correcting major defects in hammer eyes is hard work. It takes time, concentration, a good eye, a flashlight, and a deft hand with skinny files and rulers to remove just the right amount of metal in just the right places inside that narrow eye, a task that is much more difficult than removing metal on an exposed surface because the files are thin, it’s hard to see what you’re doing, you don’t have much leverage, and consistently making a straight pass is not easy. Try it yourself and you will quickly see why.
This is the whole point of high-quality heads like those made by Kosaburo and now Hiroki and why they are worth the high cost: Their eyes are true when new, no adjustment necessary, saving the purchaser many hours of tedious work and blisters. Every time you make a handle for a high-quality head, it saves time and leaves you with a good feeling. It’s a friend. On the other hand, a poorly-made head is a curse, a money-pit (if your time is worth anything), and a frequent source of irritation (especially when the head loosens inexplicable) its entire life.
I hate to say it, but our Beloved Customers should watch out for one last defect when purchasing an expensive handmade gennou head. A perfect eye is truly a difficult thing to make, certainly more difficult than making a head cosmetically beautiful. Unfortunately, one or two famous blacksmiths (who shall remain unnamed in this series of articles, so don’t ask) have earned a reputation among knowledgeable professional woodworkers in Japan for occasionally making gennou with skewampus, eyes. Caveat emptor, baby. She may wear high-heels, a short skirt and be beautifully made-up, but if she has a curly tail and oinks she’s probably be a pig, unless she’s a boor.
If you cannot hold and eyeball an expensive gennou head before concluding the transaction, at least make sure you purchase from someone with a solid guarantee, one with no weasel-words and that reimburses you for return shipping, like C&S Tools’s guarantee does. A guarantee that you must argue about and then spend more money to benefit from is less than half a guarantee IMO.
We will delve further into the tempering and differential hardening of gennou, as well as laminated gennou heads in future posts in this series, same bat time same bat channel.
Why Use a Gennou for Chiselwork?
This is a questions we addressed in a previous post, but which we also examine further here.
Almost any striking tool, from steel hammer to leather mallet, can be used to strike a chisel. The problem is that, unless one is either gentle or the handle of the chisel is reinforced, a steel or even brass hammer will eventually destroy the handle. The solution in the West in the last century has been to use a mallet made of wood, leather, rubber, or plastic instead to cushion the blow and preserve the handle. Let’s consider this for a moment.
The purpose for striking a chisel with a hammer is to drive the chisel into and through the wood by cutting it, right? But a soft-faced wooden mallet deforms when it impacts the chisel cushioning the blow and wasting energy through this deformation as well as generated heat. It may also waste energy through air drag, as we discussed in the Part 2 of this series. Since energy is lost, more mallet strikes are necessary, wasting time. This is demonstrably counter-productive.
Besides being relatively soft, a mallet is bulkier, slower to swing, has a huge face, and is therefore less precise than a smaller steel hammer. While there may be some that are thrilled with cutting slowly and expending extra time and energy in the process of cutting a joint, most people want to cut as much wood as possible, as precisely as possible, in the shortest amount of time as possible, and with the least energy expenditure possible. But if a chisel handle is so fragile that one must sacrifice time and energy to keep it intact, then it is only logical to conclude that there is something wrong with the design of the chisel.
The Japanese are very serious about woodworking, as anyone who has gone to Kyoto or Nara and seen the ancient wooden temples there can attest. When it comes to chisel work, Japanese carpenters don’t tolerate such silly nonsense as a chisel that must be coddled, and quite early developed a wooden-handled chisel that can be struck hard with a steel hammer all day long without breaking.
When using a Japanese striking chisel (versus a push or paring chisel) with a hard steel hammer, as much of the user’s energy and time as possible goes into actually cutting wood. The same cannot be said of mallets made of wood, rawhide, or plastic.
The excellent design of the Japanese chisel combined with the quality of steel, and the forging and heat treatment techniques used in manufacturing most Japanese chisels provides a tough cutting edge that stays sharper, longer, placing Japanese chisels at the very top of the evolutionary pyramid of chisels. As the Japanese are wont to do, they developed a hammer specifically for striking chisels.
Most hammers intended for driving nails have a domed face which does not work well with Japanese chisels because it tends to dish out the end of the handle causing the hoop to loosen. This can even result in the handle cracking or splitting. A flat-faced hammer is much better. The Japanese double-faced genno has one face that is forged flat, for striking chisels, and an opposing domed face for driving nails or performing “kigoroshi.”
The simplicity of the design combined with these two types of faces are the primary reasons we recommend using the gennou for motivating chisels.
And while one could grind the face of a Western claw hammer flat and use it to strike Japanese chisels without any problems, the gennou is a hammer that is designed specifically for striking chisels. In my opinion, it is a superior tool for the intended purpose.
In the next post in this series we will examine three varieties of gennou to help you decide which is best for you.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, “share,” or profitably “misplace” your information.
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Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.
J.R.R. Tolkien,The Fellowship of the Ring
This is the second part of this series about toolchests. In this post, just to ensure we have a common understanding, we will examine some of the history and roles of chests in general.
The wooden chest is perhaps the most ancient hard-sided container used by humankind. This fact alone makes it a method of tool storage you should at least consider.
The traditional chest is simply a box with a lid. Throughout human history, most chests have been made of wood, although there are examples made of rushes, stone and metal.
It has 4 fixed sides, a fixed bottom, and an operable lid on top. Some have legs of one type or another, others don’t. Some have drawers, but historically most did not. There are many ways to construct them, some materials and methods were better than others. There are even a few examples of nordic chests made by hollowing-out logs.
Since at least the bronze age, chests used by common folk were expected to provide more than just storage space, but to do double, even triple duty as tables, benches, beds, food storage, food processing equipment and sometimes even fortifications.
For millennia chests were used to house and protect clothes, blankets, linens, armor, weapons, boots, horse gear, cooking and eating utensils, food, and money, just to name a few categories. Nowadays we tend to think of chests as storage space for clothing and blankets, or as a bench seat placed at the foot of a bed, but they were also practical household tools used to store grain in hovels shared with livestock and lit by rush lights when candles were a prohibitively expensive luxury. The inverted lid of these “grain arks” were used as a trough for kneading bread dough after the goodwife had turned the winnowed grain into meal during her “daily grind.”
Chests can be simple, easy to make, relatively inexpensive, and very durable. Or they can be fabulously expensive pieces of high-art intended to communicate status and wealth, as many museum collections can attest.
Throughout history chests have been carved, painted, lacquered, covered with nails, inlaid with mother of pearl or chased metal, and even gilded with gold leaf. They’ve served as strong-boxes for crusader banks, transported Incan gold on Spanish galleons, and accompanied Italian princess loaded down with rich dowry goods. But whatever their purpose or appearance, chests were once the most common storage container in human civilization, with every well-established household throughout the world possessing at least one. Regardless of where you live now or where your forefathers originated, it is safe to say that thousands of chests served your ancestors down through history. The chest is older than the 4-legged chair, certainly older than the elevated bed. Only dirt has a longer track record.
Chests are not as ergonomic or convenient as modern cabinets, and for this reason and others have fallen out of fashion, but their utility is not diminished especially in the case of woodworking tools which do not wrinkle or molder.
There are many surviving examples of ancient toolchests we can learn from. But Europe and the Middle-east are not the only sources of inspiration available.
One of the first pieces of furniture a journeyman woodworker in centuries past would make was a toolchest to house his valuable tools. Accordingly, many old woodworking instruction books included designs for toolchests. One such book was the inspiration for my toolchest.
Based on statistical data, the vast majority of modern buildings have a useful lifespan of around 50 years. Furniture and casework is much less nowadays. While this mindset has been a reality, indeed has been celebrated for the last 80 years or so, it is a wasteful attitude I strongly dislike, one that diminishes the quality of our current existence, beggars civilization’s future, and stuffs landfills. I have no interest in making low-cost objects that self-destruct or that might embarrass me in the eyes of my descendants. Accordingly, I set the useful lifespan of objects I make for my own use at 200 years. There is an off-chance I won’t be around that long, but God willing and the creek don’t rise, I can be sure a few of the things I make with my own hands will, including this toolchest. Do you have useful lifespan goals for your woodworking?
While there are many varieties, no piece of furniture has served humanity longer or better than the chest. If you value your woodworking tools and want a woodworking project that will have long-term value, the toolchest is a storage system you should at least consider.
In the next post in this series on tool chests we will examine the goals and objectives you would be wise consider when designing a toolchest, as well as the challenges toolchests face in the real dirty world.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. We swears on the Precious.
No wise fish would go anywhere without a porpoise.
Lewis Carroll, Mock Turtle, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Every woodworker has tools they need to store. The longer one is at it, and the wider one’s competent range of skills, the more tools one needs.
There are those who advocate owning minimal tools, as if owning many tools is an emotional burden and fewer tools is healthier. Perhaps they are suffering from Marie Kondo syndrome.
I have known old men like that. Guys that grew up during the Great Depression and learned to accomplish many tasks with few tools because they could not afford more. Accomplishing the job without adequate tools became a matter of pride to them. But often the quality of their work suffered.
Or perhaps these minimalists are like a guy I used to work with who owned a favorite pair of expensive loafers and wore them to the office, to the beach, and when camping. He even boasted about wearing them last year to climb Mount Fuji. He is wealthy but strangely proud of owning only one pair of shoes.
Last time I saw his shoes they were scuffed and ragged and didn’t look good with a suit, but he never wore business attire even when he should have. His shoes would suck big donkey donuts in the snow or mud so he didn’t venture into such environments. They didn’t have steel toes, so he had to ask someone else do his jobsite inspections for him. Sure he had fewer shoes, but because of that, he was limited in where he could go, what he could do, and how much he enjoyed those activities. Just another sort of strange obsession, I suppose.
I have a different sort of obsession that I suspect sprang from a time when I had little money, but couldn’t earn the money I needed because I couldn’t afford the necessary tools. A frustrating situation many of our Gentle Readers may also have experienced.
I enjoy the confidence being able to do many different kinds of physical work competently brings. Those skills are useful, however, only because I own the tools necessary to perform that work. Accordingly, I would never get rid of quality useful tools because to do so would mean I could no longer perform the type of work those tools are made for.
So I confess to owning lots of tools. Maybe I need a 12 step program.
I don’t leave my tools laying around in a rusty jumble or, heaven forbid, hanging on pegs in a dusty garage. I store them effectively so they will last and be ready to rock-n-roll when I need them. This, however, takes thought and preparation.
The purpose of my writing this is to share with you one effective solution to tool storage and usage. If even one of our Gentle Readers finds it helpful or even just amusing, then I will count my time writing this well spent.
This series of posts will be a description of my toolchest, it’s design, and the goals, objectives and rational that drove the design and construction. I have also included some discussion about chests in general and toolchests in particular.
At this point, I can imagine many Gentle Readers rolling their eyes and saying to themselves: “Oh no, not another nitwit bragging about his toy box.” As the Arkansas horndog so often said with a slight crack in his compassionate voice: “I feel your pain.”
Much like proud parents posting pictures of their child’s alien-looking carrot puree-smeared visage on facebook to horrify the entire world, thousands of people have boasted about their toolchests online.
This is natural: Everyone is proud when a project is complete. We want to share our satisfaction with others at least partly because the accomplishment of the child reflects on the parent. But too often toolchest blogs are boring tales of unoriginal, unimproved, uninspiring designs and mediocre execution, so I don’t blame you if you suspect this just might be another such waste of time.
Considering past blogosphere disappointments, and the fact that even you, Gentle Reader (may you live forever), have limited time, I have worked hard to make this article informative and even useful with explanations, photographs, and even a roughly dimensioned drawing.
Of course, right now you are probably asking yourself “What qualifies this putz to write about toolchests and why should I bother to read it?” Good questions. No, I don’t mind the harsh language because I have often said the same thing to myself when reading toolchest blogs, albeit with great dignity and refinement (ツ). Allow me to explain.
The first qualification is that I know what I am talking about. No, I am not an author or teacher. I don’t even teach classes about making toolchests, and never will, the gods of handsaws willing. I am no longer a professional woodworker, but was for many years when people paid me to make durable, useful buildings, furniture and casework for them. Indeed, now I manage other people to make such items for my customers and am focused like a laser on design, performance, cost and time effectiveness, and quality.
The second qualification is that, while this toolchest has its roots in a traditional design, it is neither a copy of, nor does it purport to be “faithful” to, traditional designs, whatever the heck that means. It was born from original thinking to solve specific problems. Its design is neither accidental nor experimental.
I know how to manage the design of buildings and millwork costing many hundreds of millions of US dollars, and applied that experience to this design. Consequently, I considered, revised and improved each detail and dimension again and again over a period of several years even before buying the wood, and for good reasons. Of course, I continued to tweak the interior fitout and tool mounting methods during the years after it was completed, and repaired and repainted the outside after an attack by a rabid forklift, but the box is unchanged. I will explain those reasons and the resulting details and will share my conclusions with you. Then you, Gentle Reader (may the hair on your toes never fall out), may judge for yourself.
I am not suggesting that the decisions reflected in this toolchest are the best possible, and that you, Gentle Reader, should slavishly imitate them. Each Gentle Reader’s requirements are different. Their sensibilities are their own. Each must reach their own conclusions.
I read constantly, and believe I benefit from learning about other people’s solutions to the problems I face. I certainly learned from others before I designed and made this toolchest. Hopefully the information contained in this series of posts will help you make wise decisions in your woodworking.
Perhaps my most useful qualification for writing this is that I own very valuable, custom handmade tools I enjoy using and want to preserve. I also researched, built, and later tested this toolchest’s actual performance in housing those tools in several locations around the globe. So the results I will present here are not just a reproduction of historical examples, or one intended to photograph well for publication in a book or magazine. It is an original design with a track record of hard use in various climates around the world.
Indeed, this toolchest has not been sitting in one place for 25 years since I made it, but has followed me through multiple international relocations where it has been used and abused heavily, successfully passing multiple endurance tests. This track record sets this toolchest apart from most.
In this series of posts I will first touch on the definition of a toolchest, and the goals, objectives and rationale that drove the design. Next I’ll discuss the pros and cons of toolchests, and how to compensate for their inherent shortcomings. Then I will address the materials and construction of my toolchest followed by the finish I used.
I hope you will find this series interesting and perhaps even useful.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” –
Professor Marshall McLuhan
Marketing and mass-production have changed many things, but not how the human body works.
In this post we will examine some ergonomic factors of hammers you may find interesting, and ask some questions you may want to consider.
Making tools that fit the user’s body and way of working is an old idea. Here is an example.
Since the time I was a boy with a Daisy BB gun, I have enjoyed making beautiful rifle stocks using marbled walnut for my bolt-action guns and curly maple for flintlock longrifles. But a custom gunstock is not just a chunk of beautiful wood.
During my research into the art I learned how craftsmen have, for centuries, made custom shotgun and rifle stocks to fit each customer’s body. Indeed, unlike factory stocks, custom gunstocks are not straight, but are bent, twisted and offset in subtle ways to fit their user’s bodies to provide a steadier hold, quicker target acquisition, and reduced recoil. These techniques work.
Indeed, there’s a surprising number of calculations one must crunch, measurements that must be made of the rifle’s components, and details of the user’s body that must be determined in advance of designing a custom rifle stock. I’m talking about a rifle made using thousands of dollars of wood and precision-machined steel, designed to fit a particular person’s body, and intended for a particular type of shooting, not a K-Mart blue-light-special killer of unsuspecting tin cans.
Through trial and error and handwork I learned how employing these ergonomic principles could yield significant improvements in the performance of everything from reproduction flintlock longrifles to 1000 yard target bench guns, and even .45 caliber bolt-action elephant rifles. When I heard that a group of specialist Japanese carpenters had, over centuries of experimentation, developed tool handle designs that applied similar principles, the pieces clicked together in my mind like a Purdy double-gun’s breech.
A hammer is not a complicated piece of precision machinery like a modern benchrest target rifle, so we tend to think of the hammer as a stupid tool lacking finesse, but I disagree. Let us consider some of the challenges the lowly hammer is expected to meet that an ergonomic design can help it overcome.
The first challenge is air drag. The hammer is the most dynamic handtool a woodworker uses, moving relatively long distances at relatively high speeds. And during the swing the hammer pushes a lot of air aside creating drag and expending energy. It adds up. This is just one reason why big-faced mallets are inefficient compared to a steel hammer. There are those who will revel in their ignorance by disputing this fact, but to them I say: There is no medicinal cure for stupidity so learn some basic math. If you remember your freshman physics classes, you will recall that the formula for drag in a fluid (which includes air) is as follows:
The drag coefficient depends on the shape of the object and on the Reynolds number ,
You don’t need to input actual numbers into this formula to see that the two factors in this equation we can readily control are the area of the hammer (A) and its speed (v). The factor that we can manipulate to our benefit when designing our handle is the area (A), which includes not only the size of our hammer’s face but the width and length of its handle.
Second, when using our hammer we draw its head back beyond the range of our vision, and then, without looking, swing it with great force to precisely hit targets as small as a chisel handle or nail head, while avoiding hitting our own head, ear and hand. If the hammer’s head naughtily wiggles out of proper alignment during the swing, a headache or smashed finger may result, so we need a hammer head and handle combination that will be easy to keep in alignment during the swing without giving it a lot of thought.
The third challenge our hammer must overcome is the tendency of its striking face to impact the target with its center of mass misaligned with the centerline of the nail or chisel, or with the striking face canted forward or backward or to the side instead of square to the target’s centerline. Think about this next time you bend a nail or your chisel cuts in one direction when you wanted it to cut in the opposite direction.
A person proficient in using mass-produced hammers must train their eye and body to match the hammer they are using at the moment. Of course, this can be done, but it is inefficient. What I am proposing instead is to design our hammer handles so they match our individual bodies and the work we need it to perform instead of being forced to adjust our grip and swing to fit standard one-size-fits-nobody design parameters.
A lot of blowhards and marketing departments give lip-service to so-called ergonomics, but not here at C&S Tools, madame. Indeed, in future posts in this series we will discuss in great detail a number of ergonomic factors our Beloved Customers should include in their gennou design specific to their individual bodies and style of work, including the length of the hammer handle, twist and offset, grip location and shape, handle details to help the gennou index automatically in their hand without having to actually look it, and of course, the angle of the head.
We will both explain why and show you how to design, draft, and make a hammer handle suited to overcome these challenges while in your hand.
I am not fond of gaudy, decorated tools, but that does not mean my tools are plain as mud. As you may be able to tell from the photographs of one of my favorite gennou in this article, I enjoy subtle details that give them a unique attractive appearance, especially if those details improve their performance. My gennou are tools that please both my eyes and hands. I don’t know if they have shaped me, as Professor Mcluhan suggests, but they certainly give me more confidence and joy in my work than a run-of-the-mill rubber-handled hammer ever could.
For years I have encouraged people to ask themselves three questions on the subject of hammers. So I pose them to you now, Gentle Reader.
First, does your hammer and its handle fit your body and style of work, or is it a “one size fits nobody” product made by a conglomerate that knows everything about selling hammers but nothing about using them?
Second, is your hammer aesthetically pleasing to your eye and an extension of your hand, or is it like every other hammer that ever fell off the hardware store’s rack?
And finally, is your hammer likely to become an heirloom appreciated by your descendants, or will it end its days sad and lonely in a landfill?
If you answered nay to any of these questions, I promise you will find something of value in this series of posts.
In the next post in this series on designing and making gennou handles, we will examine some history and the ergonomic factors that resulted in the design that is the subject of this series.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, “share,” or profitably “misplace” your information.
Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series
I do think a carpenter needs a good hammer to bang in the nail.
This is the first in a series of posts about the Japanese gennou hammer (pronounced “gen-noh) in general and and how to design and make a unique one that perfectly fits your body and style of work.
The objective of these posts is to share with you, Gentle Reader, what I have learned over the years about gennou handles to help you design and make your own handle.
I will gladly share the entire series, including the drawings, as a single document with Beloved Customers upon request.
The True Craftsman Makes His Own Tools
A handful of generations ago quality high-carbon steel was difficult to make and expensive, so woodworkers worldwide, especially Japan, could not afford many tools, and the ones they did own or inherit were very important to them.
At least partly to reduce costs, it was standard practice back then for a woodworker (or his master) to commission the metal parts of his tools, such as the heads of his axe, hatchet, adze and hammer, and the blades of his chisels from the local blacksmith. In the United States or other British colonies a craftsman may have purchased chisel and plane blades imported from Sheffield, but he would not want to pay the high costs of shipping wooden components across oceans and over mountains when he could make them himself. After all, woodworking was his business, so a self-respecting craftsman would make all the wooden components of his tools, such as handles and plane bodies, himself as a matter of course. Needless to say, those old boys knew how to make handles.
But things have changed. You may not realize it, but we live in a time of extreme wealth where even the poorest live better than most humans did 100 years ago, partly due to widespread industrialization of all aspects of our societies making the necessities of life, and even what would have been called luxuries, available to everyone cheaply. This industrialization combined with cheap transportation has resulted in craftsmen purchasing pre-manufactured many things they would have made for themselves as a matter of course, including tool handles. I would wager that most woodworkers younger than 60 years old have never made an axe handle, hammer handle, or a plane body, and don’t even know how to.
Accustomed to the easy availability of standard tools, lacking an eye for performance and focused like a laser on lowest cost, most woodworkers nowadays get by with poor quality tools made by farmers in Chinese factories from poor quality scrap metal designed by kids using computers working in marketing departments that have never used a handtool professionally. Those tools may look great on the internet or wrapped in theft-proof plastic hanging on pegs in the big-box retailers, but how do they perform? And how long will they last? And what do they say about the men using them? Tools are terrible gossips, you know.
You cannot purchase a hammer handle like the one we will discuss in this series, and no one can make it for you. A hand-forged gennou head fitted with a handle made in accordance with the guidelines presented in this series will become a unique lifetime tool and the sure sign of a superior craftsman. More importantly, it will help you work more efficiently and give you greater confidence in your skills.
If you think this all sounds too good to be true, I challenge you to put it to the test. In fact, there will be a series of performance tests listed in the last post in this series that will allow you to generate hard proof of the truth of these claims for yourself. You will be impressed with the results.
While Japanese hammers are the primary focus of this series, you can apply the ergonomic principles and solutions I will describe to all varieties of hammer and axe handles.
Modern Tools: Marketing, Design & Manufacturing
I grew up using hammers designed for maximum sales in a competitive marketplace of amateurs, of the type I call “One Size Fits Nobody.” Back then they were made in the USA, but nowadays they are cheaply mass-produced in China. Prices are rock-bottom, and quality is focused solely on getting an attractive product out the door at the right price-point while fending off the hordes of snaggle-tooth slavering lawyers that specialize in product liability and personal injury lawsuits. To these corporations, you and I are beasts in a herd, of no import beyond the content of our wallets and our willingness to open them.
Like the cover of a manga comic book, mass-produced modern tools are carefully designed to immediately draw the eye and excite the senses of those passing by. Bright colors and futuristic shapes war with each other for attention on the pegboards of big-box retailers. Handles are made of plastic and rubber over steel or fiberglass, secured with globs of glue intended to hide malformed ulcerous eyes.
The designers of these blister-makers and nail-benders intend their products to age poorly so they will be discarded by purchasers after just a few years to ensure unending sales of new-and-improved replacements. Plastic and rubber are the materials of choice because they are cheap to fabricate, easy to make colorful, look exciting when new, and speedily surf the spiral wave into the depths of the toilet of planned obsolescence.
The international playboy that Billy Crystal introduced the world to in “Nando’s Hideaway” might have been talking to one of these hammers when he said “This is from my heart which is deep inside my body: You look mahvelous, absolutely mahvelous dahling. Remember, it is better to look good than to feel good.” Perhaps these tools do look mahvelous hanging on those pegboards. But how good do they feel?
The tool conglomerate’s product development departments and marketing geniuses have taken the Latin Lover’s philosophy to heart. They know that tools that look good and turn to garbage quickly sell better and are more profitable than tools that merely feel good. I am sure ‘Nando would go “crazy nuts” if he observed modern hammers in their natural environment, but alas my friends (saludos, my darlings, you know who you are), Nando will not make the journey to a big-box home center to inspect their pegboard tools because he does not feel good.
Clever people these marketing strategists, stuffing their pockets with money and landfills with plastic and scrap metal by selling imitation tools to the herd. But as for me, I’ll have none of that churlish fraud, than you very much.
Hammer Handle Morphology
The hammer is an extremely simple tool, literally as old as rocks. I suspect humans made the first multi-component tools by attaching wooden handles to stones to make hammers, axes and clubs.
People have all but forgotten how to make a proper tool handle nowadays, but it wasn’t always that way. Everyone made their own replacement handles only five generations ago, and their expectations were guided by sweat and blisters. They didn’t need product development departments in Shanghai to tell them what handle worked best.
Axes are an obvious example of how marketing has morphed handle design. Take a gander at an old tool catalog and notice how axe handles have become thicker and curvier in the last 120 years. Do these changes mean that for millennia humans didn’t know how to use axes or make proper handles for them? Do modern human joints and tendons endure the higher vibration and impact forces a thicker, heavier, stiffer handle transmits better than those of our forefathers? Has the nature of modern trees changed such that grain runout no longer weakens a handle made from their wood? No, these recent changes in handle design are not intended to make tools more functional, or more durable, but are rather intended to increase sales of cheaply mass-produced tools of apparently innovative design, but of mediocre quality and disposable utility. They simply look mahvelous, absolutely mahvelous dahling, especially as an illustration in a catalogue or hanging on a peg in a hardware store.
But please, don’t get me started on modern mass-market saw handles.
In the next post we will look at the history and types of gennou hammers. In the meantime, here is some music from Fernando.
PS: Here is an excellent article about the “Devolution of Axe Handles” that jives well with my research and experience, and the advice my grandfather gave me about making an axe handle 50+ years ago.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. I swear it on a stack of bibles.
Subsequent Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.
In previous posts in this series about hammers to use with C&S Tools’s chisels, we looked at factors such as the type of hammer to use, the sort of face a hammer should have, how much it should weigh, and how to use hammers and chisel as a dance team effectively. In this final post we will look at how the hammers can impact our health.
Swinging a hammer is a violent movement that places large, repetitive impact and vibration stresses on joints, tendons, nerves and muscles. These stresses can make our bodies stronger, or break them down. Carpel tunnel syndrome in office workers clicking away at computer keyboards gets all the attention, but hammers are much more likely to cause health problems. Before nailguns it was common for carpenters to have nerve damage in their hands and arms. Chopping dovetails with a pneumatic chisel is not an option, however.
When I was a young apprentice carpenter working in Las Vegas I wanted to be like the older more experienced carpenters on the jobsite that used shiny 32oz waffle-face Vaughn hammers to drive 16d nails through stacked 2×4’s in a single swing (this was before the advent of nailguns and LGS studs). I got where I could do that. I still own that hammer, although it is no longer smooth and shiny, and I have replaced the wooden handle 3 or 4 times.
I barely remember him, but he was a young man with lots of energy focused on gaining respect and being productive. Fortunately, I was blessed to work on crews led by older guys with no ego left, whose joints ached (like mine do now), and who just wanted to get as much good work done as efficiently as possible each day until beer-thirty. What I learned from them went beyond wacking nails, and more about actually building things.
At first I wondered why the bosses would hire old farts when younger guys moved faster and got more work accomplished. What I learned, however, was that while the old guys did not appear to be as active as the younger carpenters, at the end of the day they had always accomplished more actual work, and with less rework. It was difficult for the young man I was back then to accept, but the bosses new their business, including two important points:
“Fast” and “productive” are not the same thing (the tortoise and the hare principle, “Festina lente“);
Rework takes more than twice the time and money to accomplish than doing the work right the first time.
These two principles are key to being a successful professional woodworker, so a forehead tattoo might help to remember. Just a suggestion….
None of those old boys I worked with used extra-long extra-heavy hammers because they knew that productive work required driving nails of different sizes in many different directions (not just straight down or straight forward) more accurately with fewer misses, something a heavy single-purpose framing hammer was not suited to. They knew how to avoid wasted motion and time. They knew about rhythm.
They were not what could be called kindly gentlemen, but looking back I prefer to imagine they were looking out for me when they said things like “bring us more 2×12’s, quick now dammit,” and “stop being a pain in the ass, kid.” Ah yes, good times.
They were prophets too when they warned me that the stresses I placed on my hands, arms, knees and back when I was young and dumb and full of something may not hurt at the time but would hurt every day many years later. It truly pains me to admit it, but those crusty old farts might have been right.
So in memory of those cranky carpenters who are sorting boards in the big lumberyard in the sky nowadays, let me summarize three pieces of profound wisdom they taught me. Do with them as you will. If you still have room, you might want to add them to that forehead tattoo you’ve got going (ツ)
First, strive to use your hammer efficiently with minimum force, minimum wasted motion, and minimum stress on joints and tendons. Or as they put it: “less swingin more hittin.”
Second, use an efficient hammer of the right type and weight that will get the job done without damaging your joints and tendons.
And third, stop being a pain in the ass.
Just be thankful that I am kinder than those crusty critters were and will tell you clearly in words what they communicated to me only with grunts and curses and boots while chewing on stogies and chortling as they watched me struggle with concrete form-work 16 feet in the air like the proverbial amorous monkey with his football. Yes, love was in the air…
Indeed, just to prove what a sweetheart I am, here are two more pieces of detailed advice specifically related to hammers: First, determine the style of hammer and weight that works best for you and the work situation. This will take experimentation.
Second, make handles for your hammers that suit your body and the combined natural frequency and the work you use them for instead of settling for the usual one-size-fits-nobody hammers hanging like noxious neon-colored plastic fruit on the walls of big-box retailers.
This last point will be the subject of another series of future articles.
That forehead tattoo is down past your chin by now, I suppose.
For such a simple subject this series has been rather long. Let me summarize what you should take away:
Use a steel hammer to strike Japanese chisels instead of a mallet made of wood, rawhide, rubber, plastic or brass;
Use a hammer with a flat, polished face to strike your C&S Tool’s chisels for greater efficiency and to increased lifespan;
Through experimentation, determine and use the hammer weight(s) that best compliments the chisel’s weight and width, the hardness of the wood, and the natural frequency of your hand and arm;
Make a handle for your hammer that follows sound ergonomic principles (versus marketing hype), fits your body, and helps you work with greater speed and precision;
Less swingin more cuttin;
Cut the wood with a sharp blade instead of beating it to slivers and prying it out with a sharpened screwdriver;
Control your chisel’s depth of cut to prevent the cutting edge from binding in the wood, slowing the work down, and dulling the chisel;
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May the fleas of a thousand camels infest my crotch if I lie.
The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.
This is the final post in our series about Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Blades, in which I will try to bring all the information provided in the previous posts together into a single practical example. That does not mean the entire contents of those posts is repeated here, however, so please refer to the previous articles if things become confusing. I have provided some links in the text, and provided links to all the articles at the end.
But before we dive into our practical example, I would like to create some context.
The purpose of this blog, as I have mentioned before, is not to sell stuff or attract clicks but to help our Beloved Customers increase their knowledge and improve their skills in maintaining and using the high-quality hand-forged professional-grade woodworking tools we purvey.
Another purpose is to pay a debt of the kind that can’t be recorded on paper, only in the heart.
In this series of posts I have carefully NOT promised quick and easy results, nor have I given abbreviated explanations or promoted dumbed-down techniques tailored to fit neatly within the publishing parameters of a book, magazine article, or a pretty little video. This is because the series is not about me, or my skills, or what I think is best, or selling stuff but rather helping our Beloved Customers obtain real long-term results and life-long skills of the sort expected of professional Japanese woodworkers. And since I can’t instruct them directly, our Beloved Customers must truly understand the principles and techniques so they can train themselves. Fragmentary instructions and short-cuts would be far easier to write about, but wouldn’t help with that training.
I share many experiences in common with most of our Beloved Customers, but I’ve also had some unusual experiences working with and being mentored by extremely accomplished Japanese professional craftsmen including sword sharpeners, tool sharpeners, carpenters and joiners. None of those gentlemen charged me a notched nickle for the things they taught. Likewise, I have never sought compensation for teaching others those same techniques. And so we come to the other reason for this series, namely to pay those gentlemen back for the time they spent and the kindness they showed me.
So gird up your loins, recall the information and techniques presented in the previous 28 posts in this series, and let’s sharpen a blade.
Removing Damage and Correcting the Bevel
We will not even try to deal with all the possible starting points for sharpening a woodworking blade. In this example we shall assume the lands surrounding the hollow-ground area at the blade’s ura are already flat, planar, and polished. If your blade is not in this condition, follow the instructions at the end of this section. We shall also assume the edge has a small chip that must be removed first. These conditions will cover 80% of sharpening jobs.
If the blade’s cutting edge bevel angle is where you want it to be, the bevel is already flat, and the blade isn’t damaged, please skip to Step 11 below.
1. Examine the Bevel Angle: Check the bevel angle with your bevel angle gauge. 27.5° ~ 30° for plane blades, 27.5° ~ 35° for oirenomi and atsunomi. No less than 24° for paring chisels.
2. Correct the Bevel Angle: If, based on the check in the previous step and the blade’s actual performance, you determine the bevel angle needs to be adjusted, correct the bevel angle using your 400~800 grit diamond plate or FLAT carborundum stone either free-hand or using a honing jig like the Lie-Nielson product, the Eclipse jig, or whatever catches your fancy. If you use a honing jig, you may want to add a drop of oil to the moving parts before they get wet. Be careful to avoid making skewed or curved (cambered) cutting edge unless that is specifically what you need.
3. Examine the Edge: Examine the blade by eye and touch. Stroke the edge with your thumb (over and away from the edge not into the edge!) to confirm its condition, and run a fingernail along its length to check for defects as described in the previous post in this series. Your fingerprints will snag on any rolls or burrs, and your fingernail will detect irregularities invisible to the eye. Assuming there is some minor damage, go the next step. If there is no damage, the bevel is in good shape, and the blade is just dull, skip to step 11 below.
4. Remove Damage: Remove chips and dings from the cutting edge by standing the blade, cutting edge down, on a flat 1000 grit stone, with ura facing away from you, tilted a few degrees from vertical towards you, and pull the blade towards you without applying downward pressure. Usually one or two strokes will suffice. The goal is to remove damage by creating a flat at the cutting edge. Examine the flattened edge with eye, fingertip, and fingernail to see if the chip or defect has been removed. Repeat until it’s gone. Don’t overdo it. Whatever you do, don’t allow the blade to become skewed! This method takes a bit of courage the first time, but it is the quickest, surest, and most economical way to get the job done.
5. Clean the Blade: Carefully clean grit and mud from the blade and the honing jig’s wheel (if you use one) to prevent contaminating the next stone. This is important.
6. Check and Color the Bevel: Check the bevel frequently to confirm full contact. You might blacken the bevel with a marking pen or Dykem to make it easier to monitor progress. This step is worth repeating between stones because it is helpful in monitoring what you cannot see otherwise.
7. Sharpen on the Rough Stone: This is the most important stone in the process. Now that all the damage has been removed and the bevel is in good shape, we need to abrade the bevel until the flat we made in step 4 is gone and we have created a tiny, clean burr. Sharpen the blade’s bevel on your roughest diamond plate or FLAT carborundum stone. If sharpening freehand, take short strokes. Always use the entire face of the stone, including corners, edges and ends as described in the previous post in this series. Turn the stone end-for-end frequently to compensate for your natural tendency to work some areas of the stone harder than others. Watch the edge carefully to make sure the width of the flat made at the cutting edge in Step 4 above gradually decreases in width evenly along the cutting edge’s length. If the flat becomes narrower at one corner than the other, apply extra pressure at the wider side, or hang the corner of the blade’s narrower side off the stone for a few strokes to correct. Stop when the flat is gone, and a clean, uninterrupted, but barely detectable burr is created. With practice, you should be able to do this without a honing jig. When using all the stones and plates in this process, keep them wet at all times, and add water as necessary. If the stone becomes dry, not only will it clog and stop cutting efficiently, but friction may cause localized heating of the thin metal at the cutting edge softening it. Remember, you’re tearing metal from an extremely thin cutting edge. You cannot see it and your fingers cannot feel it but this destruction heats up metal at that thin edge.
8. Check the Burr: Your fingertip will feel the burr long before your eye can see it. Stop when you have a small, uniform burr without interruptions the full width of the blade. Confirm this with your fingernail. Anything beyond this is just wasting metal and stones. With practice, this process will go very quickly, and you can move onto the next stone while the burr is barely detectable.
9. Create Skewed Scratches: When you have a uniform burr, work the blade sideways, or at an angle, on the stone to create diagonal scratches on the bevel removing the straight-on scratches the stone produced.
10. Clean the Blade: Wipe and wash the blade (and the honing jig’s wheel, if you are using one) to remove grit and mud. This is very important to prevent contamination of finer-grit stones.
At the conclusion of step 10, the bevel will be flat, uniform, and at the correct angle. The flat created during step 4 above will be gone, and you will be able to just detect a full-width tiny burr using your fingers.
For the next steps, keep the blade attached to the honing jig if you used one in the previous steps. Otherwise, sharpen freehand if you can. Don’t let the honing jig become a crutch that slows you down and prevents you from developing control.
Normal Sharpening Procedures
This is where the sharpening process normally starts when the blade is not damaged and the bevel is in good shape but only needs to be sharpened. It usually does not include a honing jig which can only slow things down.
11. Check and True the Medium-Grit Stone: You may decide to use more than one medium grit stone. I always use a 1000 grit, and often use a 2,000 grit stone as well. Whatever you use, it must be clean and flat. As described in previous posts, you need to check your stones flatness frequently with a stainless steel straightedge. To do this, wash any mud off the stone and pad (don’t rub) the stone’s face dry with a lint-free clean cloth or paper towel. Hold the stone up to a light source, place the straightedge along the stone’s length, across its width, and across its diagonal and check for light leaking between stone and straightedge. Make a pencil mark, such as a line or circle, on high spots using a wide carpenter’s pencil. Once you understand if and how the stone is distorted, flatten it using whatever method you prefer, a diamond plate, a specialized truing block, or my preferred method, another stone of the same grit. If you use my way you won’t need to worry about grit contamination and can save time and money by truing two stones at the same time. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.
12. Sharpen on the Medium-Grit Stone(s): Work the bevel on your medium-grit stone in short strokes using the stone’s entire face from side to side, end to end, and corner to corner, turning the stone end-for-end frequently and being careful to avoid rocking the blade. A bulging bevel is bad news, Bubba. You will know you are done with this stone when all the diagonal scratches from the previous stone, especially at the extreme edge, have been removed. The burr may or may not have disappeared by now. Check with your fingerprints and fingernail. If it still remains, it should be just barely detectable. If it is still big, you need a few more strokes on this stone to shrink it. Using a loupe at this point will be informative. End your work on this stone by creating some new diagonal scratches on the bevel erasing all the previous straight scratches.
You may want to repeat this step using another medium-grit stone, such as 2,000 grit, to save wear on your finishing stones. Either way is fine.
13. Clean the Blade: Wipe and wash the blade (and the honing jig’s wheel, if you are using one) to remove grit and mud. This is very important. Remove the honing jig at this point if you have been using one.
14. Polish on the Finishing Stone: Move onto your finishing stone, usually a 6,000~8,000 grit synthetic stone. This may not be the final finishing stone you use. Be sure it is flat, uncontaminated with grit from rougher stones, and wet. You may want to use your nagura stone to create a slurry from the stone’s corners and edges that will accelerate the polishing process. The finishing stone serves a polishing function, and because it’s grit is so fine, it lacks the ability to distort the bevel badly, so you can take longer strokes and polish the blade on both the forward and return strokes. When all the diagonal scratches from the previous stones are gone, you are done with this stone. If there is still a burr left after the medium-grit stone, it should have evaporated by now. If not, the burr was probably too big to begin with and your technique needs refinement.
15. Examine the Bevel: Take a good look at the polished bevel. Are there still scratches left from the previous stone? This may be because you did not remove all the scratches from previous stones. Or it could be because this stone or previous stones in the series were contaminated with dust or rougher grit. If so, you should figure out why and correct that problem before the next sharpening session.
16. Polish the Bevel Using the Final Finishing Stone: This step may not be necessary, depending on the time available, the degree of sharpness required, and your inclinations. This extra polish probably won’t make a significant difference in the cutting tool’s cutting performance so is often abbreviated during a busy work day. If you use a natural finishing stone or a 10,000+ grit finishing stone, this is the time to use it. Simply repeat the process in step 14 above, but be sure to apply light pressure, keep the stone at least a little wet, and sharpen on both the push and pull strokes.
17. Polish the Ura: With the bevel polished as finely as you intend it to become, polish the ura on the final finishing stone only. Place the last 1/2” of blade’s length on the stone’s edge (the stone MUST be flat) with the cutting edge parallel with the stone’s length, and the rest of the blade hanging off the stone but supported by your right hand. Press down on the bevel with two or three fingers of your left hand. Be sure to apply even pressure with these fingers. These fingers press down only and do not push the blade. The right hand pushes the blade back and forth and onto and off-of the stone. Take light strokes focusing pressure on the extreme cutting edge, but without lifting the blade’s head.
18. Polish the Bevel (Again): After several strokes on the ura, polish the bevel.
19. Alternate Between Ura and Bevel: Go back and forth polishing the ura and bevel, but keep in kind that you want to limit the number of strokes on the ura side (assuming it’s already highly polished as discussed above).
20. Examine the Edge: Check the full length of the cutting edge frequently with your eyes, fingertips and fingernail. The burr should be gone entirely. The edge should be sharp, and absolutely smooth. All the rougher scratches from previous stones should have disappeared. I make a final sharpness test by shaving an ultra-thin slice of skin from a callous on a finger allowing my bones to sense the degree of sharpness. This method is much more accurate than shaving hair off the arm. If you try it please don’t draw blood.
21. Clean, Dry and Oil: After you are done sharpening the blade, rinse it with clean water or sharpening solution (Item 5 in Post 17) and wipe it dry on a clean cloth or paper towel. You may want to strop it lightly on a soft clean cloth (or the palm of your hand, if you are confident in your abilities) to remove hidden water. I recommend applying a spray liquid rust preventative to the blade that displaces moisture, such as CRC Industries’s 3-36 or WD-40. CRC3-36 is paraffin based, floats water out of the blade’s nooks and crannies, and leaves a film that will prevent corrosion long term. However, please note that, while WD-40 is very convenient and displaces moisture, it evaporates entirely and is therefore not adequate for long-term corrosion protection. If you are going to use the blade right away, a little oil from your oilpot is cheaper, more convenient, and will do the job just fine.
With practice, and assuming you have not let your stones become too distorted, this entire process from Step 1 should take no more than 10~15 minutes. This assumes the blade is chipped or damaged and you need to correct the bevel or use a honing jig. Honing jigs slow the process down but are convenient when using rough stones and coarse diamond plates.
If the blade is in good shape and just needs normal sharpening, the goal should be 5 minutes from the medium grit stone in step 11. If you can’t do that quickly right away, don’t rush, just practice and get a little quicker each time: Slow is smooth; Smooth is fast.
Note: If you are sharpening a new blade, or the ura needs to be trued and/or repaired, work the ura on all the stones used in the steps above, but be careful to limit the number of strokes on the rougher stones to the absolute minimum. Also, instead of keeping just 1/2” of the blade’s length on the stones, move it diagonally in and out towards the blade’s center to prevent the stones from digging trenches in the ura. Use special care during this process.
I recommend covering at least your finishing stone with something when you are not using it to protect it from contaminating dust. I simply wrap mine in a sheet of newspaper. It doesn’t take any time or money. Some stones prefer to read the sports pages, others prefer current affairs. Just ask them.
I am confident the techniques described in this series of posts will prove useful if sharp tools matter to you. Your tools may not talk much, but if you train yourself in these techniques I promise they will sing their appreciation.
I trust the gentlemen that taught and mentored me would be pleased with the content in this series of articles, although I doubt they have time for reading nowadays. I will ask them when I see them again in the big woodpile in the sky.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.
The following is an old country folktale of the sort a grandfather would tell his grandchildren before bedtime. So imagine you are little boy or girl sitting around an irori fire with your family on a full-moon autumn night, with the wind rustling the dried leaves on the trees just outside the closed wooden amado doors, as your white-bearded grandfather tells you this tale. Don’t be frightened!
Long ago and far away a traveling merchant was crossing over a mountain in the country of Oki in Japan (Sanin area) at sunset. As he reached the highest point he came upon a large lone pine tree with a crotch at about twice a man’s height. Using a bit of rope he always carried, the chubby merchant managed to pull himself up into the crotch and fell soundly asleep as the darkness deepened around him.
Hearing a strange sound, the merchant woke suddenly and was shocked to see his tree surrounded by dozens of large, long-toothed goblin cats glaring up at him in the darkness and yowling. He panicked fearing the monsters would jump into the tree and attack, and him without any way to escape. But all he could do was sit in the tree and pray the goblin cats would just go away.
At some point the beleaguered merchant began to realize the goblin cats were not just yowling but were actually speaking words he could just make out.
“My fellow goblin cats” said the boss cat. “That plump human in yon tree is the perfect main course for our banquet tonight, but obviously we can’t wait here all night for it to fall out.” The largest cat proposed a solution. “Noble goblin cats, I tell you what; I’ll climb the tree and push the fat lump out. When he hits the ground you jump on him, and our feast will be secured.” Without waiting for a response from his demonic feline friends the goblin cat placed a stick against the tree’s trunk, extended his sharp claws, and using the stick for his first step, slowly crept up the tree trunk towards the intended victuals.
Hearing these strange words and seeing the boss goblin cat’s preparations, the merchant realized he was facing a sticky end best avoided, so he quietly unsheathed his long 9sun 5bu dagger (288mm, 11.3 inches) and readied it for the cat’s attack. (If you like blades, here are some links to YouTube videos of beautiful formally recognized historical examples: (Yoshimitsu tanto (designated National Treasure); A tanto by Sukesada of the Osafune School of Bizen in the “yoroidoushi” style intended to penetrate armor. A tanto designated as a “Tangible Cultural Property” with the name “Uebataima“.)
The plump merchant couldn’t see anything in the poor light, but he heard the frightening sound of the goblin cat’s claws cutting into the treebark as it climbed “Zaku.., zaku…, zaku..”
He thought to himself “Here it comes!” “Just a little more now!!”
Suddenly the merchant saw the cat’s face just as it leaped at him with hooked claws extended and salivating fangs bared, but the merchant’s dagger pierced deeply into the big goblin cat’s abdomen releasing a fountain of blood, killing it instantly. The cat’s body collapsed in the same tree crotch with the merchant.
The goblin cats surrounding the base of the tree yowled and screeched like the demons from hell they were as they circled the tree’s base, shredding the bark with their wickedly sharp claws, then yowled and screeched some more. At last one of the evil creatures calmed down enough to say “It seems tonight’s dinner is more formidable than we first thought.” Hearing this, the merchant pushed the dead goblin cat’s limp and sticky body out of the tree so it landed with a wet thump right in front of furious goblin cats circling below.
Looking at their expired leader’s body, the goblin cats all jumped twisting into the air, cutting with their claws, spitting, frothing, screeching and yowling even harder. Then one said angrily “Now dinner’s gone and done it! This means war!” Spitting, hissing, and screaming things I won’t repeat to you children the goblin cats all scrambled up the tree towards the merchant getting in each other’s way and making a real hash of the job. In the confusion the merchant, who wasn’t really all that good with weapons, used his dagger to hack and stab every goblin cat that came within his reach killing and injuring more of the monsters.
The surviving goblin cats stopped their reckless attack and huddled panting and bloodied at the tree’s base arguing how to deal with this difficult menu item. “What shall we doooooo! What shall we doooooo!!“ they yowled up at the sky in frustration.
As they gradually calmed down one cool cat said “We must avenge these foul murders even if we all die in the attempt.” Another cat added “I’m not afraid to die but I worry about what will become of our mates and kittens if we are killed.”
The cool cat thought for a minute and finally said “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s go ask the blacksmith’s granny for help.” And with that all the goblin cats sped off into the dark like greased lightning.
Seeing his chance to escape, the merchant sheathed his dagger, gathered up his pack, and started to climb down from the tree. But before he could lower himself all the way down from his perch in the tree he heard the rhythmically chanting voices. In the dim light of the rising moon the merchant could just make out a palanquin born by six goblin cats chanting in cadence and surrounded by many others approach and stop beneath his tree.
“This is the place, Granny.” “Please knock that fat human out of this tree so we can eat him at our banquet!” beseeched the goblin cats.
The palanquin door slowly slid open revealing not a human grandmother but a huge white goblin cat of great dignity wearing a sleeveless kimono with a snow-white shawl over its shoulders. The monster rolled its large eyes in disgust at the smaller goblin cats and said “What is wrong with you useless ninnies?! Can’t you even take care of a pitiful human like that? You bunch are hopeless as yakuza.”
She paused her berating of her fellow goblin cats, and gazing up into the tree said “Well, I suppose I must knock this human out of the tree myself. Such a bother! You useless idiots stay out of my way now.”
With one voice the smaller goblin cats all yowled “Thank you Grandmother!”
Grandma cat removed her white shawl and handed it to the closest younger goblin cat, then began carefully testing her claws on the tree trunk. When her claws were ready, and without a second look up at the trapped merchant, she slowly began to climb the tree.
Let me pause here, children, to catch my breath and wet my whistle….. Ahh, thank you Hanako, an excellent libation indeed! Your mother’s sake brewing skills improve every year. And you helped, did you? An excellent child. Well done. Just one more sip.
Ah yes, and where was I? That’s right. The huge white goblin cat, who did not look anything like a granny at all, was slowly climbing a tree high in the moonlit mountains, one sharp claw at a time, to kill a plump, tasty human who had repelled and killed several precious members of her goblin cat yakuza gang.
So far the frightened merchant had bravely driven off every attack, but this time his legs were shaking with dread at the memory of the many goblin cats and the boss goblin cat that had attacked him already, but to make things worse, now a huge white monster goblin cat had arrived in a deluxe palanquin no less, and was climbing his tree! What terrible creatures they were! Can you imagine it little children?
Once again he heard the zaku.. zaku… zaku sound of claws cutting into the tree coming closer, but this time the pace seemed slower than before, perhaps because the newly arrived goblin cat was older and bigger. The poor merchant’s whole body shook like a leaf with fear.
It’s getting closer…. It’s almost here!!
But after another minute passed the big goblin cat still hadn’t reached his roost, so the merchant began to hope he might be able to to fend off the monster with his blade.
He gripped his knife tighter in his sweaty hands… and raised it over his head… just like this!
Suddenly the big goblin cat’s huge eyes appeared right in front of the treed human’s face. Gyaaaaaaa! he screamed in fear.
The monster struck out with its wicked, curved claws cutting the shocked merchant’s face deeply. But the merchant recovered his senses, and despite his injury, cut about wildly with his knife.
The big white goblin cat jumped up onto a limb of the tree and deftly swatted away the merchant’s frantic blows with her huge paws.
In between blows the man and the goblin cat spat curses and gasped for breath covering each other’s face with stringy spittle.
Although it seemed like the battle continued for hours, in less than a minute the merchant had been driven out to the end of the tree limb with no room to retreat. Suddenly, one of the goblin cats down below called out in despair, “Oh no, the sun is rising!”
Hearing this, the big white goblin cat stopped her attack, jumped down from the tree, stepped briskly into the palanquin, slid the door closed, and raced down the mountain road followed by all the other goblin cats scrambling like cockroaches in the sunlight.
As the sun began to rise in the East, the panting merchant collapsed back into his tree crotch. He thought about running far away from the terrible place until he recalled how afraid the goblin cats had seemed of the morning sun. And he thought of getting revenge for his injuries too, but confident there were enough hours of daylight left to make a decision, he collapsed back into his tree crotch and fell into an exhausted sleep. As he slept, he remembered the goblin cats that had first surrounded his tree saying something about the blacksmith’s grandmother.
When the sun was high and bright, the merchant climbed down from his tree, sore in every joint and with deep and painful cuts on his face, and followed the path down the mountain the goblin cats had taken. After he had walked a while he began to hear the “tink tonk tink tonk” sound of a hammer striking metal. Soon he came upon a small blacksmith’s shop with a house nearby. Inside the smithy was sweaty man hammering away at a hoe blade.
“May I ask you a question, good blacksmith?” said the merchant. The blacksmith paused his hammering, looked over the cut and bloody merchant and responded “Yup, what do you want?”
The merchant said “I heard there was a grandmother living around here….” The blacksmith pointed his hammer towards the house and said “Well, maybe. My granny is been sick and hasn’t left the house over there in a long time.” He raised his chin, squinted his eys at the disheveled merchant, just like this, and asked sharply, “What’s your business?” The merchant calmly answered “I have something to deliver to her.” The blacksmith then asked “Who is it from?” The merchant said “they didn’t give their name, just handed me this package and left.” The package the merchant was holding contained a whole yellowtail tuna fish he had bought at a fishmonger’s shop on the way. It wasn’t a very fresh fish though, and stank badly.
The blacksmith gave the merchant a distrusting look, when from inside the house they heard a hoarse voice croaking out “Saburo!” The blacksmith’s name was apparently Saburo because he called back “Yes, grandmother?” The voice answered “What’s going on?” Saburo answered “Somebody brought you a big fish, grandmother.” “Well, what are you waiting for, bring it here.”
With that, Saburo accepted the stinky fish and took it inside the house. When he returned, the merchant whispered to him explaining the events of the night before and pointing at the deep cuts on his face and arms as evidence. But the blacksmith would not believe the strange story and responded “That’s ridiculous!” “But I tell you, it’s true” said the merchant. “If you doubt me, just take a look for yourself.”
The two men then walked around to the back of the house as quietly as a pair of tiny mice wearing fuzzy bunny slippers, slid open the shoji doors into grandma’s room just a crack, and peered inside where they saw an old woman wearing a white kimono sitting up on her futon. The old woman reached out to the package containing the fish, brought her nose close, and smelled it “sniff, sniff.” As the two men watched, she greedily snatched the big raw smelly fish from inside the paper packaging and began to greedily bite off large chunks and swallow them.
With this, the merchant slammed open the shoji door, and jumped into the room. Saburo was too shocked to do anything but let out a roar of indignation. Surprised by the sudden noise, grandma turned back into her true form of a huge, white goblin cat, but before she could attack or flee, the merchant drew his sword and cut down the monster which leaked rivers of bright blue blood and died right there, thank you very much.
Saburo was so shocked by seeing his grandmother change into a monster and then die in a puddle of blue blood he could do nothing but stand there with his mouth hanging open as flies buzzed in and out.
Finally, the merchant asked “How long has she been alone in this room?” Saburo closed his mouth, opened it again, and said “About three years now.” “Three years, huh? Well your real grandmother is nothing more than bones by now, I wager.”
At the merchant’s urging, the blacksmith and his neighbors searched the house, and towards evening they found a pile of white bones wearing the Blackmith’s grandmother’s kimono under the floor, meaning the big white goblin cat had killed grandma and had been passing itself of as her for 3 whole years.
A sad but all too common story. Time for bed now my little ones.
(A folk tale from Oki Province)
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