The Japanese Floor Workbench (Atedai 当て台) by Dominic Campbell – Part 1

The Shokunin’s art is difficult, if not impossible, to separate from his work space, his tools and his equipment. The craft is not apart from his life so much as it is a heightened detail of life.”

Toshio Odate
My workspace, and newly finished workbench. Credit: D. Campbell

Foreward

Today’s article is a guest post by Mr. Dominic Campbell, a friend and deeply Beloved Customer residing in Old Blighty who, when he needed a workbench, decided to make a traditional Japanese atedai, a solution I too am very fond of, even if my knees aren’t anymore.

This is the first in a two part series about his atedai Dom was kind enough to share with us. This first part is about the design and construction of the atedai in question. The second part will be about how to use this excellent tool. Enjoy!

Stan Covington

Introduction 

I began woodworking, I guess, like a lot of the readers of this blog, with some hand-me-down western tools, and a pair of cheap, flimsy, store-bought sawhorses. A lack of space, the inclement British weather and my lack of any form of work holding made sawing and other simple tasks difficult and frustrating.

I then stumbled across a video of a Japanese craftsman working in a very similar manner, yet with far superior results… I had to know what this guy knew. While reading, practicing, and absorbing as much information as I could ( some would say falling down the Japanese woodworking rabbit hole), my work developed, and I built up my skills to a point where I felt the need for a dedicated workbench. Using Japanese tools for 95% of my work, I have found they work best as part of a system, and so decided on a Japanese floor workbench AKA an Atedai (/ah/teh/dai 当て台). This kind of workbench lends itself to a very flexible workspace. It can be adapted to use standing up, and easily stored out of the way conserving space when necessary, an important part of the Japanese tradition.

Much of my own work is kurimono (刳物), or carving from solid blocks of wood, as well as a bit of sashimono casework (指物) and tategu joinery work (建具), including kumiko-zaiku (組子細工). I tried to make one bench that would work for all of these specialties, but with an emphasis on the heavy chisel work needed in kurimono. 

The first trays, called Wagatabon (我谷盆), I made with my new workbench. All carved from solid blocks of walnut. Credit: D. Campbell

After keeping Stan up to date with my progress on the workbench build, and showing him what his tools had been up to, he asked if I wanted to share my thoughts on this style of workbench.

And so, in this mini-series, I hope to show you, Gentle Reader, a method of working, and work holding that may, or may not, be of immediate practical use to you, but that is interesting, and provides some food for thought, nonetheless.

Atedai Construction

Before we look at how to use an Atedai, we first need to build one, and although the construction of the Atedai is simple at first glance, there are a few important considerations and details to keep in mind.

It must also be said here that all workbenches are as varied as the people that use them, and this is no different for the Atedai. The type of work you do, the materials you work with, the training received, how tall you are, how you intend to use it… the list is endless…will all dictate your bench’s dimensions, design details and final appearance. It is not uncommon for craftsmen to have several atedai on-hand depending on the task undertaken. In this post I will focus on just a single way to get the job done.

A craftsman caressing his atedai’s top. This picture was taken by his wife who wished he would give her as much attention. But what would she say if he beat on her with a hammer? Be careful what you wish for. (SRC)

The Work Surface

The work surface is the heart of any workbench, and it is no different here. We mostly have the same considerations too: single slab, or laminated? What species of wood? How long? How wide? How thick? What height? Will it be flat or angled? There are no right or wrong answers, within reason, and is often a case, the final selection will depend on what you can get hold of, what you like, and the type of work that you do (you can start to see why craftsmen often have a number of benches in their workshops – they are easy enough to make, and store easily out of the way, taking little space, so why not?).

My own bench top is a 57″ x 17″ x 3.5″ sycamore slab (and 7″ high with the legs in). This is quite long for the work I do, but it gives the bench good weight/inertia, and is useful for the occasional long beam I have to work. It was not, however, easy to get flat, nor is it easy to keep dead flat along its entire length and width. You pays your money and you takes your chances…

An old beechwood atedai (SRC)

Four laminated atedai in a woodworking classroom stacked off to the side. Notice they are stacked on their left edges and not their right. This is because the right edge is used for shooting and must be kept clean and free of grit. (SRC)

A Few Observations

There are a number possible answers to the questions posed in the previous section, and so I thought it would be useful to briefly explain my thoughts behind the selection and preparation of my work surface in order to give some insight into the kinds of questions you should be thinking of.

With regard to construction, you have to weigh up the pros and cons of each approach, and make a decision that works for you. A laminated top will tend to be a bit more stable, whereas a solid top could be liable to warping a bit more. A solid slab is a bit more traditional, can be made to move a bit less through certain techniques (as we’ll see below), and is quick and easy to put together – i.e. you buy it, and apart from surface prep, the top is basically done. That said, big slabs can be harder to find (depending on where you are), and can be expensive. I actually found it easier to find a slab, than it was to find smaller stock of the same woods…. most lumber yards near me won’t give small orders the time of day… it was either construction pine, or a big hardwood slab. I hope you have better options!

In terms of wood choice, most woods commonly used to make workbenches will work fine. Too soft and the atedai will be easily damaged, but too hard and the atedai may damage your work (especially if using softer woods), and become slippery. Woods with contrasting hardness between winter/summer growth like douglas fir can work, but problems can arise especially if you shoot a lot on the surface, as the winter wood and summer wood can wear down at different rates leaving ridges. I went with Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus – actually a kind of maple) as it has a fine grain, is medium hardness, and I could get hold of it in the right dimensions for less than £100… all important considerations!

To make sure my top was as acclimatized as possible, I left it for about 5-6 months in the workshop where it will be used (it was air dry when I bought it, but I don’t know for how long). My shop is an unheated 1 car garage, and not climate controlled (I use a small dehumidifier, however), so I expect some movement. That said, I wanted to give it the best chance of settling in before I started flattening the top, and doing the joinery for the stops and legs.

When I got hold of the slab, it had quite a bit of cup and twist – one potential downside of using big slabs – and it took some hard yards to make it flat and twist free. I left the underside untouched as much as possible – to retain as much weight as I could in the bench – planing only where the legs would go, plus a bit on either side. Preparing a big slab, unless you have an industrial sized planer, is a hand tool job, so prepare yourself for a work out.

The sides of my bench are 90° to the top, with special attention placed on the right hand side when sitting at the working end. This is traditional with atedai because the user indexes a plane vertically against the right hand edge of the top to quickly shoot the edge of boards to 90° , although I prefer to use shooting jigs to help when 100% precision is needed. You can also attach a length of wood to the right hand edge to form a support ledge for the plane when shooting.

As you can see in the pictures, this slab has a few knots scattered about, which I stabilized with CA glue, and planed flush. This has worked well so far, but if the knots come loose in the future, I will cut them out and patch them.

With regard to dimensions, the general rule of thumb is that if you work wider boards you tend to need a wider bench (although you can up to a point plane wide boards on the narrow bench, it can be hard to use the bench as a reference surface to check for twist). However, too wide is harder to keep flat, is heavy, and is more expensive. 

Too short a bench makes it harder, if not impossible, to plane longer stock. But again, too long is heavy, expensive, and harder to keep flat (can you see a trend here?). It is also impractical, unless you are Stretch Armstrong, as you can only plane as far as you can reach while sitting or kneeling. That said, you can (as you will see in Part 2) put a floor bench on saw horses (or your normal workbench) to use standing up to increase your reach, in which case a longer bench can help cover long stock prep too.

A zabuton cushion for use while sitting on the floor (SRC)

The final question regarding dimensions is total height, a combination of top thickness plus the legs. Most people use an atedai while sitting on a zabuton cushion placed on the floor like the blue one shown in the photo above. In this case, the bench top should be low enough to hit your knee so you can stop it from sliding, but high enough that your plane will not hit your knee (ouch!) when planing or shooting down the middle of the stops. Somewhere between 4-7 inches high normally work well, with a slab thickness of between 2-4+ inches, YMMV. If in doubt, go higher – you can always reduce the height slightly later down the road.

Another consideration is perhaps unique to the Japanese atedai, namely whether or not to build the top with a slope. Some craftsmen prefer the bench to slope down towards the end they sit at for ease of planing, but I prefer a flat surface. It’s a better allrounder, and it’s easy enough to jack up the far end temporarily if desired.

To slow down any movement, I sealed all end grain surfaces (using Osmo End Grain sealer) on the completed workbench (top, legs, and stops). All of this combined (plus dovetailing the legs, as explained below) has worked well to stabilize the top, and movement has been minimal, although it’s always worth checking before any fine joinery task… little and often is a good idea for keeping a bench flat. 

The end grain sealing is all the finish I have applied to this bench. I left the top with the planed surface in order to keep it from becoming too slick. As I don’t use a lot of glue or finishes in my work, I didn’t apply anything else to the surface, but a light coat of oil can help things from sticking too much if needed, however.

The Legs

Now back to the construction of the atedai, we come to the legs, or battens, which should be thick and solid – in my case 4×4 inch sycamore attached to the top with sliding dovetails. 

You can simply toe-nail, or similar, the legs in place if you wish, but the sliding dovetail helps to keep the board flat and is, IMHO, a much more elegant, long term, solution. It is not uncommon in Japan for these benches to be passed down from master to apprentice, so I built mine too with longevity in mind. Sliding dovetails can also help knock the bench down for storage or transport, if that is something that you will need.

This bench was made entirely with hand tools. The double tapered sliding dovetail is hard to achieve using machines. Credit: D. Campbell (tools by C&S Tools)

After talking to Stan, I went with a double tapered sliding dovetail, which helps the legs fit extremely tightly (while also being much easier to slide in place), and helps resist humidity fluctuations, bangs and vibrations better than a standard tapered sliding dovetail – all important advantages for a workbench. 

The double taper in this case refers to a taper not just in the width of the dovetail (as is normal), but also in the height of the groove along its length, with the leg tapered to match. This connection can be achieved in any number of ways, in my case with plane and kotenomi. The tapers on my bench were around 1cm in width, across the board, and 0.5cm in height – this still made for a pretty tight fit. 

My legs right now are just a bit proud of the edge of the top while it settles in, so I can knock them in further later if needed. Their slight projection doesn’t interfere with shooting with a top that is 3+ inches thick however, so they aren’t causing any headaches being a little proud…

The Kote Nomi, or Trowel Chisel, excels at this work and is a joy to use. Credit: D. Campbell

As a final touch on the legs, to give the bench the most stable footing possible, it is wise to relieve the middle of the legs slightly – just enough to keep it clear of the floor. Also, some thin rubber, cork, or in my case, part of an old chisel roll, help to prevent the bench from sliding around. You don’t want to use anything too thick however, as that will absorb too much shock, reducing the efficiency of your hammer blows when chiseling.

A view of the underside of the atedai showing one leg tightly inserted in a self-locking double-tapered dovetail. The legs are slightly relieved in the centre to prevent high-centreing on uneven surfaces. Non-slip feet are optional – just don’t make them too thick. You can see where I have left the underside rough-sawn to retain as much weight as possible. Credit: D. Campbell

The Stop(s)

The work you do will determine what kind of stops you need. Sashimono-shi tend to use much thinner stops, while those using the bench for kurimono, or hollowing work, will often (but not always) use more substantial stops to stand up to the forces involved, often with just one stop across the entire width of the board. Again, it’s horses for courses.

Back then, to our good old friend the sliding dovetail. In my case for the stops, I used a regular stopped sliding dovetail. I didn’t taper the stops at all, as I wanted to make sure they stay in place firmly – a sideways knock on a tapered stop will send it flying too easily for my liking.

Completed stops. You will get plenty of sliding dovetail practice while making an Atedai. Credit: D. Campbell

My stops are quite substantial, much bigger than I have seen sashimono-shi use, but stop short of a full width stop, in order to leave room for morticing longer stock (see part 2, coming soon, for the venerable bum clamp), as well as a gap for shooting. If you decide to make your own atedai, you will need to consider what work you will use it for, and plan your stops accordingly.

One useful feature of the stops is that being dovetailed, you can make several and interchange them, or remove them completely, depending on what you are doing. These benches really are incredibly versatile, and are completely custom to the work you do – a joy to use.

Summary

The finished Atedai, ready for action. Credit: D. Campbell

And there you have it. Four sliding dovetails and you have yourself a workbench that is ready to go to work.

I hope, in this post, to have given you some insight into how to build an atedai workbench for yourself, and some of the considerations you must think about if you do. They are simple benches, but there are a few important considerations to think about before you decide to make one. If you have any questions, just leave a comment below, and Stan or I will do our best to help.

In Part 2 of this mini-series I will show you how you can actually go about using such a workbench, some further customizations that one can make, and some examples from other craftsmen to help inspire you – I hope you’ll join us. 

Yours in wood,

Dominic Campbell, Kent, UK

The Japanese Gennou & Handle Part 5 – Kigoroshi

The difference between something good and something great is attention to detail.

Charles R. Swindoll
A Japanese shipwright using a hammer to perform “kigoroshi” on the edges of planks for a traditional boat. The planks are joined using long nails “toenailed” from the upper plank into the lower plank. The pilot holes for these nails are made using a “tsubanomi.” When the boat’s hull is later wetted the fibers crushed during kigoroshi will swell back to near their original size filling gaps and tightly locking the planks together, even when the planks are once again dry.

In previous articles in this series about the Japanese hammer known as the gennou, we examined the background, history and general varieties commonly available nowadays. In this article, we will expand our analysis of the gennou to include a function not well known outside Japan. We hope our Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers find it amusing.

Kigoroshi 木殺し

As mentioned in Part 4 of this series, the standard ryoguchi gennou hammer has a flat striking face on one end and a domed striking face on the opposite end. The flat face is well suited to striking chisels, driving nails and the ceremonial wacking of thumbs, while the domed striking face excels at setting nails below the surface of a wooden board, just as Western hammers are. It can also be used for a task called “kigoroshi.” Indeed, this is a technique that can be employed with any hammer having a domed face, although the domed face on many Western claw hammers may be too drastic in some cases. It is a technique worth knowing.

The term Kigoroshi (木殺し)translates to “wood killing” meaning to use a hammer to temporarily crush wood cells. It is achieved by judiciously striking the wood with the hammer or gennou’s domed face. Easy peezy.

When a piece of wood is subjected to successful kigoroshi, the wood cells are deformed reducing their internal volume, but if the pressure is later relieved and some moisture added, over time the cells of many (but not all) species of wood will swell back to near their original volume.

So how is kigoroshi used? For instance, in the case of a mortise and tenon joint, the tenon is cut oversized, and then struck with the convex face of a gennou to deform the wood cells to the point the tenon will fit into the mortise. With time, the tenon absorbs moisture from its surroundings and naturally tries to swell back close to its original size locking it tightly into the mortise. I’m sure you can see the possibilities.

In this short video, the carpenter is performing kigoroshi with the convex face of his gennou to the shoulders of an Akita Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) beam to enable it to fit inside a housed dovetail mortise. The shoulders will later swell back to close their original dimension closing any minor gaps and perhaps locking the beam tightly into the mortise hole.

Another application of kigoroshi is seen in traditional Japanese boat building where the edge joints between planks forming the hull are hammered, effectively making the planks narrower. After the planks are attached to the ship’s ribs, their crushed cells gradually swell and attempt to return to their original volume, tightly pressing the planks against each other and closing any gaps to create a waterproof joint. In this way, a joint that might otherwise loosen with time and changes in moisture content can be made to remain tight and waterproof. This boat building technique is not unique to Japan, of course.

A Japanese shipwright performing kigoroshi on the edges of planking prior to joining them together.

One more example. When making a rectangular wooden cask or bathtub from hinoki-wood boards (not staves) in the Japanese style, grooves are cut in the bottom board to receive tongues from the vertical side boards. If these tongues are planed oversize and then their sides are pounded judiciously with a hammer with a slightly rounded face like that of a ryouguchi gennou to reduce their thickness to fit into the groove, when assembled and then wet with water the crushed wood cells in the tongue will rebound and will expand to close its original thickness not only locking the tongue and groove tightly together, but also creating a watertight connection. If done properly, the joint will remain tight even after all the boards are no longer wet, same as the ship’s planking mentioned above.

Many people’s understanding of kigoroshi is too shallow to use the technique effectively and consistently without some practical experience. The opinions of inexperienced people therefore should be scrupulously ignored, but the Beloved Customer of C&S Tools are expected to meet a higher standard of woodworking, so I share this advanced technique with you.

There are a few points you should be aware of before attempting kigoroshi in a professional situation, in other words, a situation where cost, schedule, or reputation are at risk.

First, please remember that if the flat face of the genno is used for kigoroshi, or the domed face is cocked so its corners dig in too far, or is used with too much force, the striking face’s perimeter edges may crush cells and sever fibers permanently so that they cannot return to anywhere near their original volume thereby defeating the purpose of kigoroshi and simply weakening the wood. That’s not good.

Second, be aware that if used in fine cabinetry and joinery work, kigoroshi can create unpredictable tolerance shifts at joints, making, for instance what should be a flush joint offset, so caution and experimentation may be necessary to avoid embarrassing snafus.

And third, kigorishi does not work well with some woods, especially hard, stiff woods, and can cause permanent damage in some cases. We will discuss this further below. But first, let’s examine the mechanics of kigoroshi.

Nuts and Bolts

Most commercial varieties of wood grow in climates with seasonal changes of winter and summer. A tree is essentially a big water pump that pulls (not pushes) water and some nutrients up from the ground through the pressure differential created by water evaporation at its leaves. The highest volume of water pumped, and cellular growth, occurs when the weather is warm, water is moving, and the sun is shining. Without water, sunlight, and functioning leaves, the pump stops. In the case of freezing weather, evergreen trees stop pumping water to prevent freezing and the resulting expansion that would destroy the tree.

During the colder months, beginning when leaves fall and the sun fades in Autumn, the pump as well as the tree’s growth slows and then stops. The pump starts up again during the spring thaw when water moves, the sun again shines, and leaves bud.

The stained cross-section of oak below is an excellent illustration of this point. The photo is bifurcated by a a nearly solid band of tight fibers bordered above and below by larger cells, some are rather large white voids. This nearly solid band of cells forms during late Autumn and early spring and is called “late wood” or “Autumn wood.” The areas of less density and larger voids is formed during warmer months of high-growth and is called “early Wood or “Spring wood.” These voids form branching and merging tubes leading from the tree’s roots to the tiny holes in the leaves where the water they carry evaporates powering the pump.

The difference in appearance between these bands of cells (aka growth rings”) can be seen on the surface of a board as its “grain.”

Every type of wood, indeed every piece of wood, is different and will react differently to kigoroshi attempts. Let’s review the physical properties of wood relevant to kigoroshi by examining a cross-section of a tree. For instance summer wood is carefully designed to transmit large amounts of water and nutrients, and so is comprised of large cells with thin walls. After the tree is felled and as the moisture content of the wood decreases, the cells shrink, the cell walls become thinner, harder, stronger and wrinkled and crinkled.

A cross-sectional slice of White Oak dyed red for clarity.

Winter wood in most commercial varieties is designed less to transmit water and nutrients and more to resist wind and winter storms. It is comprised of much smaller cells with thicker, stronger walls.

Effective kigoroshi temporarily squashes the cells of summer wood in what is called elastic deformation, meaning the deformation is temporary so that the cells rebounds to near their original volume when the moisture content is increased depending on the nature of the wood and the elapsed time.

The cell walls of winter wood, on the other hand, instead of squashing and then rebounding, are often shattered by kigoroshi in many cases and will rebound little. This is called plastic deformation.

Why does this matter? Consider a cube of quartersawn Douglas fir, a wood with very soft summer wood, and very strong winter wood. If we strike this cube perpendicular to the parallel rings, the larger, weaker cells of summer wood will squash down while the harder lines of winter wood will just be pressed closer together as the layer of summer wood squashes. An application of moisture to this block of wood will cause the summer wood to return to near its original volume and the cube of wood may retain any apparent damage.

https://i0.wp.com/www.microlabgallery.com/gallery/images/Pseudotsuga%20MenziesiiCS40X.jpg
Doug Fir

Now what happens when we wack an identical cube in-line with the layer of harder winter wood? Some of the winter wood cells are squashed elastically and will rebound. But the rebound will be less and some of deformation will be permanent.

The oak, on the other hand is more dense and the cell walls are stiffer than a softwood like pine, so crushing the cells in kigoroshi will result in even less rebound, and may greatly weaken the wood permanently.

The point is to be aware of the nature of the wood you plan to do kigoroshi to beforehand.

Kigoroshi for Gennou Tenons, and Chisel Handles

There are those who advocate using a hammer to perform kigoroshi on the tenon of gennou handles, the idea being that an oversized tenon can then be crushed a little allowing it to fit into the eye, and that the wood will rebound later locking it into the eye tightly. This sounds like a great idea, but it has problems that stem from the fact that gennou handles are typically made of dense hardwoods like white oak, and not softwoods like cedar.

We need the extra toughness and density that hardwoods provide when making a gennou handle because tenons cut in softer woods will loosen over time. Hard woods like white oak, for instance, do not submit well to kigoroshi because the more rigid cell walls are broken in plastic deformation instead of elastic deformation and won’t rebound enough. In other words, kigoroshi on hardwoods like oak, hickory or persimmon may decrease the cellular volume, but it will also physically weaken the wood. Why would you want to do that?

Instead of kigoroshi, a better solution is to use a good dense hardwood and to precisely cut the tenon just enough oversize so that a lot of force is required to insert it fully into the eye. In this way, you will have a tight tenon without compromising it’s cellular strength, a better long-term solution and a more craftsman-like technique.

Another option especially effective when making a gennou handle in humid months is to cut the tenon oversized and shrink it by removing water from the cells using gradual heat. Placing the handle in a more-or-less sealed container with a dry heat source such as an incandescent light bulb will do the job. Silica gel desiccant is another method, but slower. I do not recommend putting the handle in an oven of any kind to accomplish this, however. You have been warned.

Still others advocate performing kigoroshi on the ends of chisel handles to make the crown (hoop) fit better. They then say one must soak the end of the handle in water to make it swell back to shape and lock the crown in place. While popular, this is poppycock which wastes your time and weakens the handle. Please do not do this with C&S Tool’s chisels.

If the handle is in fact too big to accept the crown (unlikely if you purchased the chisel with a handle and crown already attached), please shave or file the end of the handle down to a dimension where it takes a number of hard hammer blows from a steel hammer to drive the crown onto the handle. The crown will thereby automatically perform all the kigoroshi necessary. This method is more professional and will provide better service.

Kigoroshi is a useful technique in some applications and with some types of wood. You may not need it but it’s worth understanding, especially if you have a gennou.

In the next post in this series we will examine the ancient ergonomic roots of the gennou handle we advocate and the unusual Japanese carpentry guild that codified them.

YMHOS

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.

Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Ergonomics

Part 3 – What is a Gennou?

Part 4 – The Varieties of Gennou: Kataguchi, Ryoguchi & Daruma

What Are Professional-Grade Tools?

Shibamata Taishakuten Temple, Katsushika, Tokyo est.1629

I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), “Ozymandias,” 1818

Here at C&S Tools we frequently use the term “Professional-grade” to describe our products. This is not a “term of art” sculpted from soggy newspaper for marketing purposes, but has an important meaning I will break down in this post so there is no confusion among our Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers.

To begin with let’s consider the term “professional.” The formal dictionary definition of a professional, and the one we intend when we use the word, is a person recognized by his peers as having received a certain amount of intensive, prolonged training and education in his chosen occupation, has achieved some minimum satisfactory level of skill in the performance of that occupation, and is paid for his work and work product. That’s five factors including education, training, skill, occupation, and financial compensation.

We accept as valid the premise that many individuals develop professional-level skills through their diligence and OJT without formal education, training, or qualifications especially in light of the current decrepit state of apprenticeship and training programs in most countries. If they then go on to make a living performing competent work for pay, then they certainly qualify as professionals in our opinion. However, we do not accept the self-aggrandizing theory some put forth that anyone with skill and an artistic flair is a professional even if they aren’t paid for their efforts. Money talks and BS walks.

Woodworking professionals are committed to their trade long-term, and use their skills, time and tools to earn a living by making things for clients, customers or employers in accordance with an agreed-to design, specifications, cost, and schedule, normally formalized in a written contract. Therefore, unlike the talented amateur or hobbyist, the financial and contractual aspects of his job place a professional under constant pressure; If he fails to deliver the promised products consistent with the Client’s requirements and budget on-time he will suffer serious financial and reputational consequences.

By contrast, an amateur woodworker may be skilled and even routinely do museum-quality work, but he has little at risk so tool inefficiency and failure to deliver on-time can only make things unpleasant, not catastrophic.

So what does this have to do with woodworking tools you say? Glad you asked.

While the professional woodworker too must resharpen his chisel and plane blades periodically, the sharper he can make them, the more wood he can cut between sharpenings, and the less time expended sharpening his tools, the more time and energy will be available to him to expend each day toward meeting his commitments and getting paid. On the other hand the blade of a plane, chisel, knife or adze that can’t be made very sharp, dulls quickly, is easily damaged, or takes a long time to sharpen impedes the professional’s work thereby reducing his income and potentially harming his reputation. It is a simple calculation, but one most people, especially amateurs and writers who do not face the same pressures as the professional woodworker, neglect to perform, partly because they are never called upon to assign a monetary value to the time expended sharpening tools, something professionals do everyday when preparing binding cost estimates.

These are by no means new expectations, but in a time when amperage is more important than sharpness, dull blades go into the garbage to be replaced by factory-sharpened new ones, and precision is built-into the machinery used, many professional craftsmen have forgotten them.

The Japanese professional woodworkers I have worked with during my career spanning 45 years have been uncompromising regarding quality and schedule. And they are obsessed with sharpness. It’s in their DNA. This is the same DNA that for millennia have demanded Japanese blacksmiths to always make better, sharper tools.

These blacksmiths and their professional woodworker customers have always been focused on real-world performance above all else. Not reputation or fancy names. Not appearance. Certainly not “mystery.” So what sort of performance should we look for in a “Professional-grade” tool?

Performance Criteria 1: Sharpness

The primary performance criteria of a professional-grade plane, chisel, or handsaw is not how it looks or how much it costs but that it cut extraordinarily well. This high degree of sharpness depends on the following three factors:

1.1 Crystalline Structure of the Steel: The crystalline structure of the blade’s steel is the primary determining factor in sharpness since a blade cannot be made sharper than the carbide crystals exposed at the cutting edge will permit. If the crystals are large and isolated, instead of small and evenly distributed, sharpness will suffer. Impurities like sulfur, phosphorus and silica harm crystal formation. Chemicals such as chrome and molybdenum are added to most tool steels nowadays to overcome the negative effects of these impurities, decrease manufacturing costs, and eliminate the need for advanced blacksmithing skills, but an unfortunate side effect of these alloys is their tendency to develop large carbide crystals which reduce sharpness. Consequently, a professional-grade Japanese blade will be made from a pure high-carbon steel like Hitachi Metal’s Shirogami (White-label steel) No.1 and No.2, Aogami (Blue-label steel) No.1 and No.2, or Sweden’s Assab K120 steel. See this post for further explanation.

1.2 Skills of the Blacksmith: The manufacturer of a chisel or plane blade can use the best steel in the world but if he doesn’t have the skills and dogged perseverance to work it properly, the crystalline structure of the finished blade and the degree of sharpness it can accept will suffer, even if it survives forging and heat treatment. All our blacksmiths, without exception, are masters at using Shirogami No.1 steel, an unusually pure plain high-carbon steel. Indeed, they have used it every working day over their entire 40~60 year careers. All of them are self-employed and work in their own one-man smithies. Their skills are not suited to mass-production, nor can they be learned in a few weeks or even a few years by factory workers in China, Mexico or Ohio. Feeding materials into a production line won’t cut it.

Mr. Nakajima (1936), blacksmith for our Nagamitsu brand chisels.
Mr. Nakajima’s smithy, as simple, unassuming and compact as they come. The sinister-looking black machine in the center of the frame is called a “spring hammer.” It uses no hydraulics or pneumatics at all. An electric motor makes the linkage attached to the arched leaf spring assembly front and center move rapidly up and down. This in turn causes the square-faced hammer connected to the leaf springs by two arms to move up and down impacting the anvil below it where Mr. Nakajima uses it to beat the holy heck out of the yellow-hot steel he heats in the gas-fired charcoal forge to the immediate right of the spring hammer. His quenching tank filled with water is buried in the floor in front of the spring hammer covered by a wooden lid which he uses as a seat. The gap between the lid and the tank’s edge is where he inserts tools to quench them. There is a pit located in front of the spring hammer to accommodate his legs when forging. A larger rectangular anvil is located to the right of the pit. Mr. Nakajima has been making chisels here since he was 14 years old. He knows a thing or two about forging and heat treating chisel blades.
Mr Nakano, blacksmith for our Sukezane brand chisels.
Mr. Nakano’s Smithy

1.3 Skills of the Sharpener: The finest blade forged by the world’s best blacksmith will become no sharper than the physical skills and diligence of the person who maintains and sharpens it. There are no shortcuts, tricks, books, videos or classes that can transfer those skills through osmosis. I have shared information through the series of 29 articles on this blog that will help, but the end-user must develop the skills in their own eye and hands through their own efforts. Fortunately, anyone with two hands, at least one eye and some determination can obtain professional-level sharpening skills. Please do it.

Mr. Takagi Junichi (1937~2019), sharpener and Japan’s last adze blacksmith.
Mr. Nakano Takeo (1941), plane blade blacksmith extraordinaire, expounding on the Mystery of Steel from his living room

Performance Criteria 2: Cutting Longevity

A professional-grade tool must remain usefully sharp a relatively long time in order to precisely cut more wood between sharpening sessions. A blade that dulls quickly is inefficient, irritating and makes the workman look lazy. A professional in Japan can’t allow such poor-quality tools a home in his toolbox. This is the most significant difference between Western and Japanese woodworking tools. Two factors govern cutting edge longevity:

2.1 Excellent Crystalline Structure: This factor is directly influenced by Nos 1.1 and 1.2 listed above. A blade with poor crystalline structure will dull quickly and may even fail.

2.2 Hardness: Be not deceived: a blade may have excellent crystalline structure, but if it is soft, it will dull quickly, regardless of marketing claims. Professional-grade Japanese planes, chisels, kiridashi kogatana knives, and carving chisels should measure in the neighborhood of 65~66 on the Rockwell C scale, as do all our tools. The hardness of Western chisel and plane blades nowadays is typically Rc55~60, with a few going as high as Rc63, the nature of their relatively unsophisticated design making greater hardness likely fatal to the blade. At an average hardness of Rc62~64, consumer-grade Japanese chisels and planes are harder than their Western counterparts, but are still softer than our professional-grade tools. Indeed, the laminated construction and hollow-ground ura of Japanese chisels and planes are features essential to ensure a hard blade will perform reliably even if motivated with a steel hammer. This extraordinary hardness does however require the user to employ a few professional-grade skills, which is why tools targeting amateurs and for export to markets where consumers typically lack these skills are made softer by design. Indeed, as the number of professional users of planes and chisels has decreased in recent decades, what were once well-respected Japanese tool brands have intentionally reduced the hardness of their blades to avoid warranty issues and appeal to an inexperienced amateur market. These are not bad tools, but neither are they “professional-grade.” What is most concerning is the the way they are marketed, however.

Shibamata Taishakuten Temple: Beam-end carving in zelkova wood of a mythical creature called a Baku

Performance Criteria 3: Easily & Quickly Sharpened

If used, eventually all blades must either be resharpened or replaced. But if a woodworking blade takes a long time to sharpen, if it takes special equipment to sharpen or if it is unpleasant to sharpen, not only is it uneconomical but it will not be loved. Professional-grade Japanese chisels and planes are easily and quickly sharpened despite the hardness of the steel. Indeed, they are a pleasure to sharpen. There are reasons for this:

3.1 Nature of the Steel: Steels that contain alloys such as chrome, molybdenum, vanadium and/ or tungsten are ideal for mass-production by untrained factory workers and are constantly praised in marketing sprays as “ tough” and “ abrasion resistant,” but experienced professionals know they are a time-wasting pain in the neck to sharpen. Our blacksmiths do not use such adulterated, uncooperative steels. The blades of professional-grade planes, chisels and knives will ride sharpening stones gladly, can be quickly sharpened, and indeed are a pleasure to sharpen.

3.2 Blade Design – The Ura: A professional-grade Japanese chisel or plane blade has a well-shaped hollow-ground area on the blade called the “ura.” This detail makes it easy to sharpen the extra-hard steel used in our plane and chisel blades while maintaining the ura in a flat plane. The importance of a properly ground ura cannot be overstated.

3.3 Blade Design – Laminated Construction: While extra-hard steel cuts a long time, it can be brittle making a blade fragile, which is why Western chisels, with their homogeneous construction, must be made softer to prevent them from breaking. In professional-grade Japanese chisels, the hard steel cutting layer is skillfully forge-weld laminated by hand to the blade’s body comprised of a softer low-carbon steel or iron called “jigane” that protects the extra-hard steel cutting layer from snapping in half while still being easy to sharpen.

Our blacksmiths do not use inferior pre-laminated steel, despite its convenience.

There are other design and fabrication details characteristic of professional-grade tools which we will not delve into here.

The Amateur and the Professional-grade Tool

Don’t let the discussion above discourage you from using our tools even if you aren’t a professional woodworker because, while tools are terribly vain and frequently gossips, so long as you let them cut wood, they are happy regardless of the user’s profession. And for those who use chisels, planes and knives for the joy it brings, as I do now, the extra sharpness and edge-retention capability, and the satisfying feeling of sharpening them will increase the pleasure you find while woodworking.

When using professional-grade Japanese woodworking tools, there a few things you should keep in mind. The first thing is that, since their steel is harder than that found in tools intended for amateur use, you mustn’t use them to pry wood, chip concrete, or open paint cans. They are not sharpened screwdrivers stamped out in lots of thousands by peasant farmers in Guangzhou, but elite tools born to cut wood. They simply won’t tolerate such amateurish abuse.

The second thing is that you need to learn how to sharpen and maintain them properly. This includes using flat sharpening stones and maintaining a proper bevel angle. More details are available in our Sharpening Series of posts.

If you can show the tools the same respect the blacksmiths that forged them did, then you are well on your way to becoming professional-grade yourself, regardless of your day job. We see it as our duty to help you along that path.

The Future of Professional-Grade Tools

As we look to the future, please note that it is common practice by some manufacturers in Japan to mass-produce chisels and plane blades from inferior materials with mediocre crystalline structure and lesser hardness, but identical in appearance to professional-grade tools, and sold at high prices to uninformed consumers who are none the wiser. These modern corporations cleverly use dubious marketing techniques that invoke “mystery” and “ancient traditions” when the fact is they have replaced traditional materials and techniques with modern mass-production materials and techniques developed during the last 3 decades specifically for making inexpensive consumer-grade kitchen knives. After all, one can’t tell the quality of a steel blade’s crystalline structure by looking at photographs.

While lower-quality tools purveyed using deceptive marketing strategies will no doubt continue to be profitable for some, our Beloved Customers know how to sharpen and how to properly evaluate a blade. They appreciate honest value more than artful marketing, so we refuse to insult the intelligence of the professionals that are the majority of our clientele through such shabby nonsense.

The demand for professional-grade chisels and planes has decreased dramatically among modern consumers in Japan at the same time those master blacksmiths with the skills and determination to make them are either retiring or moving on to the big lumberyard in the sky. And with the decreased demand for such tools, Hitachi Metals has practically ceased production of Shirogami and Aogami steels. Truly, the strongmen holding up the veranda (縁の下の力持ち)are gradually disappearing.

The future supply off these excellent tools looks bleak, but we hope to continue to be able to provide them to our Beloved Customers for a few more years, God willing and the creek don’t rise.

YMHOS

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 all our readers 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. Just ask the next baku you meet if it ain’t so. They eat nightmares, comfort small children in the dark, and simply can’t tell a lie, you know.

Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

More than just keeping tools together in one place, the challenge facing the toolchest designer is how to protect those tools while also keeping them organized and easy to access. So let’s examine some of the things we need a toolchest to accomplish.

Tool Organization

Obviously, the first and most important objective of a tool storage system must be to efficiently house and organize tools. A cardboard box is lightweight and does these tasks inexpensively, but not well. If you have ever worked out of a cardboard box you know how inefficient and frustrating they can be. These are not easy tasks to accomplish especially when space is as limited as it is in a toolchest. I’ll discuss this important subject more in future posts.

Tool Protection

A tool storage system should protect the tools inside from dings, moisture, dirt, corrosion, vermin, insects, and in some cases unauthorized borrowers, thieves and, of course, pernicious pixies during its useful lifetime, in this case 200 years.

Let’s examine the types and causes of tool degradation an effective tool chest must protect against, as well as the miracle of tool evolution.

Dings

Ding damage occurs when things strike or scrape tools, especially when they fall, rattle, scrape or bang against each other. Tools stored in a jumble in cardboard boxes are likely to be damaged every time the box is touched. A good toolchest must prevent this.

Moisture

Assuming the toolchest is not left out in the rain for days at a time or subjected to flooding, what sort of moisture damage is most likely to occur? The answer is condensation corrosion.

When relatively warm humid air contacts relatively colder metal, such as carbon-steel tool blades, condensation will occur and rust will develop, especially if the place where the tools reside is not constantly heated and air-conditioned. This is not my opinion, but simple physics, and although it may take years before the corrosion becomes noticeable to the naked eye, it will happen sure as eggses is eggses. 

An example of condensation corrosion in a barn.

To prevent condensation corrosion, an effective toolchest will accomplish two things. First, it will insulate tools from sudden temperature swings due to convection (heat transfer through the toolchest’s walls, floor and lid) and second, it will seal well thereby minimizing temperature swings due to infiltration of colder/warmer humid air that might produce condensation. 

Remember, it is not temperature itself that causes condensation, rather it is the differential temperature between rust-prone metal and airborne moisture. Also worth remembering is the fact that large temperature changes occur in most locations of the world twice a day as the sun rises and sets. If there is moisture in the air, condensation will eventually occur. A good tool chest will satisfy these two performance criteria to effectively reduce long-term corrosion. 

Corrosion aside, moisture and temperature changes can create problems with some tools, especially wooden-bodied planes, which can warp when subjected to sudden swings in humidity causing them to misbehave in frustrating ways. Even a little warpage can make a wooden-bodied plane stop functioning. 

Most people understand that changes in humidity can cause their wooden-bodied planes to warp sometimes to the degree that they will no longer take a shaving, but why is this? The simple answer is twofold. First, wood fibers in a plane body exposed to increased humidity will absorb moisture and try to expand, but if later exposed to decreased environmental humidity the same fibers will release moisture and try to shrink.

The second factor in the equation is that wood absorbs or loses moisture much quicker through end-grain than side grain.

The result is that the exposed end-grain at both ends and the plane’s mouth opening absorb or discharge moisture quicker than the interior portion, and therefore expand or contract quicker, so that when exposed to rapidly changing humidity, the ends of a stick of wood such as a plane body are constantly fighting with its middle, creating differential stresses which cause warping. It is this same phenomenon that causes green logs to split from the ends first. Once the moisture content in a wooden plane body reaches equilibrium, it will usually calm down, and return to functioning normally. 

A tightly sealed wooden toolchest will smooth out the mountains and valleys in the moisture content curve inside itself, and likewise in the wooden plane bodies it houses, helping them reach equilibrium quickly, thereby reducing internal stresses in the plane bodies contained in the toolchest and the resulting warpage. 

Cardboard boxes provide some insulation against temperature and humidity fluctuations, but unless all the seams are tightly taped closed, those changes still occur rapidly. 

Aside from airtight containers, most commercially available metal and plastic toolboxes do not moderate temperature or humidity fluctuations well at all.

Dust & Dirt

Why is dust a problem, you may ask? I have supervised the design and construction of many laboratories and high-level cleanrooms during my career, and know well the damage dirt can cause, and how difficult it is to keep out. Of course, I am not suggesting you should make your tool container from insulated clean-panels and connect an expensive and bulky AHU and HEPA filters to it. I am only stating that dust and dirt will eventually become a serious problem if not controlled.

Dust consists of particles of whatnot made airborne and blown hither and yon by winds and storms, vehicular traffic, construction, mining, farming, landscaping, industrial activities, forest/mountain fires ( California), wood fires, and diesel engines, just to name a few sources. This dust fills the atmosphere and streets and finds it ways into our homes and workplaces. Indeed it rises and billows around us with every footstep, and will infiltrate a toolchest through every opening, crack or gap. Given enough time and neglect, airborne dust literally buries civilizations. You can sweep it and vacuum it but you can’t stop it entirely.

Airborne dust is not just ungodly. When it settles on tools it absorbs and contaminates protective oils and wicks moisture into contact with the tool’s metal surfaces promoting rust. Sawdust has the same effect, by the way. This is compounded by the fact that dust often contains salts and other chemicals that actively accelerate corrosion. Salt in dust, you say? Yes indeedy. If there is salt in the air, as in near the seashore, or salt or chlorides are used to melt ice and snow on roads, there will be corrosive chemicals in the air and in the dust.

The damage caused by dust and dirt is not limited to corrosion: Dust from outdoors always contain particles that are harder than the steel of your tool blades and will dull them. Never forget this fact. So a toolchest that seals out dust and dirt is indispensable, at least if you want your tools to last.

Insects

Woodworm Larvae. BTW, this what the EU demands we eat in place of meat. Anyone up for a worm burger with a side of fleas?
Deathwatch Beetle

I mentioned insects above, but bugs don’t eat tools, do they? Well, as a matter of fact they do eat some tool parts, and what they don’t eat they can ruin.

Beetles and termites are fond of wood, and given a miniature bottle of tabasco sauce and time will eat most woods including tool handles and wooden plane bodies, not to mention the tool storage system itself if made of wood or cardboard. If you doubt this, go examine some antique wooden furniture, plane bodies, and tool handles. 

Termites will march into a toolchest through gaps they find or holes they chew as bold as a Shat Francisco politician lying on CNN. Moths and other bugs fly in and lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars or beetles, some of which eat natural fabrics, while others eat wood. No doubt you have seen these critters, or at least the holes and sawdust they leave behind.

Termites at Table. Pass me the hot sauce please.

While they can ruin a nice soup, you wouldn’t think of flies as being harmful to tools. But the fact is the little buggers constantly excrete wet corrosive globs everywhere they alight, and these specks make rust. Best avoided.

And then of course there are those tough little cockroaches that may not eat your tools but will lay eggs among them and use them as la cucaracha outhouses. A good toolchest therefore must not only keep bugs out, but resist being eaten or infested by them.

Rodents

And let’s not forget rodents. Mice and rats are fond of making nests in warm, dry, enclosed spaces, and don’t mind chewing a hole into a box or a baseboard to upgrade their living conditions. Cardboard is especially susceptible to the ravages of rodents, but experience and history shows us that wooden casework is by no means invincible. If you have seen the corrosion rodent feces and urine can wreak, you know why they must be kept far from your valuable tools.

Sticky Fingers

Perhaps you use and store your tools where there are no pilferers, thieves, or eight-fingered pixies, but even then, your tools may be at risk. Have you ever found one of your valuable saws laying rusting in your backyard after being used by a mysterious stranger to prune a tree? Ever have a nice but forgetful neighbor borrow an expensive chisel to open a paint can without telling you and find it laying discarded under the old lawn-mower in his garage months or years later? If you have, there were probably other tools that suffered even worse fates that will never be rescued.

Are you aware of the darwinian evolution of tools, a curious but common phenomenon whereby tools sprout legs and beetle away when you aren’t looking? Between children, helpful spouses, conveniently forgetful neighbors, pernicious pilfering pixies and Darwin’s legacy it’s a miracle any of our tools survive.

A lock won’t even slow down a thief with a crowbar, but it may keep honest people honest. Wooden chests have traditionally incorporated a locking mechanism of some sort. I think this is a traditional feature worth retaining.

Exposed Storage Solutions

While a cardboard box placed under a downspout may be worse, the pegboard or open shelf is a dismal way of storing tools long-term. Ditto for the wall-mounted open sawtills all the woodworking publications cyclically regurgitate like a cat with a hairball fetish.

Many people love to arrange their tools hanging on the wall in plain sight like a movie film set. Tools are beautiful things, and I understand the attraction of tool porn, but unless you work in a dust-free, air-conditioned film studio, or the tools are daily cleaned and re-oiled, tools hung on the wall or placed naked on open shelves are exposed to dirt, dust, sawdust, temperature and humidity swings, and even banging against other tools. They are especially susceptible to damage from corrosive flyspecks in a garage or other workshop with a big roll-up door. Don’t laugh, it happens billions of times every second of every day, and degrades exposed steel like Hollywood movie producers do foolish lasses and laddies.

These tools are handy, but does “patina” improve their performance or add to their longevity?

Case in point (about pegboards and shelves, that is, not flexible virtue): My father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker born in 1930. After retirement he stored his tools in his garage in central Utah hanging on pegboards, stacked on open shelves, and in a jumble under his workbench for many decades, and for the last 20 years or so of his life they were entirely neglected. The dust, condensation rust, dings, fly specs, road salt, and rodent doodoo that accumulated during those years turned all of his planes, chisels, and saws to rubbish. Such a waste. The only tools of his that survive in a useful condition today are the ones he gave me before he retired.

A durable, tightly sealed, insulated container that keeps out dust, bugs, vermin and pesky pixies, and keeps your tools from sprouting legs and beetling away to Darwinian adventures when you are not looking is just the ticket.

In the next post in this series we will consider the design process. The anticipation is killing me!

YMHOS

Seaman’s Chest

Other Posts in this Series

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

Toolchests Part 2 – History

Toolchests Part 3 – Pros & Cons

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.

Toolchests Part 3 – Pros & Cons of Wooden Toolchests

An antique “Steamer Trunk” with a domed lid to add strength and to keep people from stacking other trunks on top of it.

Short cuts make long delays.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

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.

Gang Box (60"L x 24"W x 24"H) (Knaack) - Farrell Equipment ...
A steel gangbox typically used for tool storage on commercial jobsites. A padlock inserted into the square hole at the upper left-hand corner protects the chest from theft.

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, is another shortcoming common to traditional 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, motions 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 Part 2 of 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, Gentle Reader, 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.

YMHOS

A seaman’s chest with an arched top. At first glance the thick walls, plentiful dovetails, and elevated bottom appear to have held up well. But notice what happened when the cross-grain construction at the ends of the lid and the steel straps constricted the wood’s expansion and contraction. Notice also how shrinkage has caused the long escutcheon plate (at the keyhole) to bow outwards. This is a direct result of the wood shrinking more over time and with changes in humidity than the maker anticipated. Some may say the steel straps are holding the chest together, and that may be true now, but only because those same straps caused the wood to crack and fail over many years. Be careful of the unintended consequences of restraining wood movement.

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.

Other Posts in this Series

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

Toolchests Part 2 – History

Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

The Japanese Gennou & Handle Part 4 – The Varieties of Gennou: Kataguchi, Ryoguchi & Daruma

It’s hubris to think that the way we see things is everything there is.

Lisa Randall

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

〔千吉〕片口玄能 小

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.

A funate-style gennou hammer with bubinga handle. The eye has a built-in forward cant. This style is popular in much of Western Japan, but not so much in Eastern Japan and Tokyo.
The face of the tapered end of the funate gennou, much smaller than the Yamakichi-style gennou pictured below. If this end is sharpened it can be used to start a hole for the diagonal nails used to join ship planking, perhaps why it’s name references 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.

A Yamakichi gennou by Hiroki with an American Osage Orange handle (thanks for the wood Matt!). This is the Kosaburo version of the Yamakichi style which originated on Kyushu Island. The face is not entirely flat, but is still flat enough for striking chisels without damaging them. The tapered end has a square face great for starting and setting nails. it also works well for “tapping-out” plane blades. Not quite as stable as the more symmetrical ryouguchi style, but it’s undeniably more versatile. If you need a gennou for driving nails, including finish nails, as well as striking chisels the yamakichi style gennou is hard to beat.
The tapered, square end of the Yamakichi gennou, perfect for starting and setting nails as well as tapping-out plane blades.
The butt of the osage orange handle. This shape, which we will explain in detail future posts, is a key factor in the handle design on which this series of articles is focused. Osage orange is a very tough, stringy wood used for fence posts, tool handles, musical instruments and bows for millenia. The color is a scary neon yellow when freshly cut, but when exposed to sunlight changes to this interesting color.

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.

YMHOS

Previous Posts in The Japanese Gennou & Handle Series

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Ergonomics

Part 3 – What is a Gennou?

Part 5 – Kigoroshi

The Japanese Gennou & Handle Part 3 – What is a Gennou?

What we have is given by God and to teach it to others is to return it to him.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
56-1
Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto, Japan

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?

A box-stock, garden-variety, economy Japanese gennou hammer with a one-size-fits-somebody handle

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?”

Technical Matters

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.

Ise jingu Shrine, Mie Prefecture, Japan

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.

YMHOS

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple, registered as one of Japan’s National Treasures.

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

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 2 – Ergonomics

Part 4 – Varieties of Gennou

Part 5 – Kigoroshi

Toolchests Part 2 – History

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
An Egyptian Chest with very warlike decoration of chariots with archers, the main battle tank of the ancient world. What did the boy king store in it?

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, wicker, bamboo, tree bark, stone and various metals.

The chest 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.

A Scandinavian chest made from a section of tree trunk
Another antique chest made form a section of a tree trunk

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.

Small Medieval oak ironbound chest, clamp front in construction and the iron work consists of flat straps with fleur-de-lys motifs and a large butterfly lock plate. Origin: Germany Date: Circa 1400 Dimensions: Width (inches) 36 1/2 x Height 21 3/4 x Depth 16

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.”

An English oak clamped-front ark  17th century the canted boarded detachable cover above a twin panelled front and later filled lockplate, with channelled stiles
A medieval clamp-construction “grain ark.” A household’s goodwife would store her grain in this chest. The lid can be rotated open, but is not “hinged,” per-say. The goodwife would use a quern stone to grind the grain into flour, usually of a rough consistency. This is where the term “daily grind” originated. She would then turn the grain ark’s lid upside down, rest it on the base, and use the trough formed inside the lid to knead the dough to make the “daily bread.” When done, the lid was cleaned, turned right-side up and placed on the base to once again protecting the grain from dust, water, bugs and vermin.
Milling Grain with Water Power
Quern stone used for grinding grain to make flour.
Using a quern stone to grind flour in the Czech Republic.

Chests can be simple, easy to make, relatively inexpensive, and very durable. Or they can be fabulously expensive pieces of fragile high-art intended to communicate status and wealth, as many museum collections can attest. 

An early Renaissance, cassoni, or marriage chest. These were usually made in pairs and sent by the groom’s family to the bride to hold her dowry during the very public bridal procession, making them ostentatious signs of wealth and prestige if only for a few hours, days or weeks while in-transit.

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.

Pennsylvania Dutch (German) dowry chest with painted unicorns and flower decoration.
A Zanzibar dowry chest with red paint, brass hardware and nails
Turkish Dowry Chest covered with mother-of-pearl inlay

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.

A very traditional “Nagamochi” tansu from Japan. These chests were specifically designed for not only general storage, but for transporting goods during the periods of Japan’s history when animal-powered carts were forbidden to ordinary folk. The rectangular bit of hardware seen at the ends was rotated up and a wooden yoke passed through so that two or more men could carry the chest on their shoulders.
アンティーク家具 古民具 骨董 江戸時代 味の良い車長持ち(時代箪笥)
Another traditional Japanese chest called a “kuruma dansu 車箪笥,” which translates to “wheeled chest.” It too has the same nagamochi hardware on each end. Japan has a long history of fires that destroyed entire cities on a regular basis, so one justification for this style of chest was it could be wheeled out of the house or business quickly before the building burnt to the ground saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! My chest borrowed from this traditional design, but substituted modern materials and detachable wheels. I have no patience with tiny, fragile casters.
This antique example is made from softwood in the dimensions of the traditional chest used to store tea, but without the tin lining. A lockable drawer can be accessed from the front, a detail commonly found in Japanese tansu chests. The lid’s top panel is not floating but is constrained by the side pieces, and although it appears to exhibit little or no cracking, please notice that the top panel has separated from the perimeter framework in places and busted the left-hand corner joint, a failure common to this style of construction wherever it is employed.
Hand-forged wrought-iron (minimal carbon content) hardware in a pine-bough motif. The original black lacquer finish can still be seen in a few places, but corrosion has patinated the metal nicely.

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.

An iron-bound chest for containing valuables, the ancient equivalent of a portable safe.

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.

YMHOS

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.

Other Posts in this Series

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

Toolchests Part 3 – Pros and Cons

Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

Toolchests Part 1 – And Away We Go

And Awaaay We Go

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.

My Toolchest. Built in Northern California 25+ years old from Honduras Mahogany

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.”

Related image
Meet Junior: Someday he’ll be President.

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.

YMHOS

Touch me toolchest, matey, and I’ll pump ye full ‘o lead! Harghhh!

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.

Other Post in the Toolchests Series

Toolchests Part 2 – History

Toolchests Part 3 – Pros and Cons

Toolchests Part 4 – Goals & Objectives

The Japanese Gennou & Handle Part 2 – Ergonomics

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” – 

Professor Marshall McLuhan
A Kosaburo hand-forged gennou head on a Black Persimmon handle

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.

Ergonomic Factors

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:

F_{D}\,=\,{\tfrac {1}{2}}\,\rho \,v^{2}\,C_{D}\,A

where F D is the drag force, ρ is the density of the fluid, v is the speed of the object relative to the fluid, A is the cross sectional area, and C D is the drag coefficient, a dimensionless number.

The drag coefficient depends on the shape of the object and on the Reynolds number {\displaystyle Re={\frac {vD}{\nu }}},

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.

Questions

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.

YMHOS

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

Part 1 – Introduction

Part 3 – What is a Gennou?

Part 4 – Varieties of Gennou

Part 5 – Kigoroshi