Far over the misty mountains cold To dungeons deep and caverns old We must away ere break of day To seek the pale enchanted gold.
JRR Tolkien – The Hobbit
In the previous post I described the three sliding trays in my toolchest. In this post we will descend beneath those trays into the lowest depths, a lonely space I call “the Dungeon.” So light your torches, unsling your axes, and let’s see what lurks in the dark. Don’t worry about me, Gentle Reader, I’ll be right behind you.
Many things suffer durance vile in the toolchest, but by far the largest number of denizens are chisels. They are sharp, dangerous tools and difficult to store securely and access safely.
As mentioned in previous posts in this series I have a handy dandy 10-pc set of chisels mounted in the lid. This is a high-quality set of hand-forged shinogi oirenomi but they are not my best chisels. Those are stored in four wooden chisel boxes kept in the dungeon.
One chisel box contains a 10pc oirenomi set, another a 10-pc mukomachinomi (mortise chisel) set, the third and fourth boxes contain various usunomi, kotenomi, atsunomi, and other specialty chisels. Approximately 38 Kiyotada-brand chisels reside in these boxes, mostly custom-forged.
l have, and use, too many chisels to store in trays, so my work philosophy is to store them, sorted more or less by types, in wooden boxes which protect them thoroughly even outside the toolchest. I can remove my box of mortise chisels, for example, along with my box of usunomi paring chisels from the dungeon and set them either on or under my workbench and have quick access to all widths without wasting time digging around in the toolchest. When I am done with a chisel for a time, I wipe it down, oil it with my oilpot and return it to its place in its box keeping my workbench uncluttered and my valuable chisels protected.
Removing these four chisel boxes is as easy as sliding the 3 trays to the rear and reaching down into the dungeon which, along with the trays is designed specifically to provide adequate clearance for easy removal.
When I need to grab an oiirenomi chisel for a quick job, however, the 10-pc set mounted in the lid is handiest.
Other Implements of Torture
You will also notice two tan-colored plastic containers holding plow planes of various widths and a moisture meter. To avoid noise and dust problems I don’t have any electrical routers with me here in Tokyo, so while not as efficient, these rather old-fashioned and sometimes cantankerous tools are the best alternative.
Also visible in the photo are several canvas tool rolls containing mostly handmade rasps and files, as well as a cardboard box containing a router plane, another essential tool for the unplugged shop.
Besides chisels and planes I can also store a hewing hatchet, an adze, and a large Japanese “gagari” rip saw on top of the chisel boxes, but I usually remove them, wrap them up, and hang them on my wire shelf when the toolbox is in residence.
In the Dungeon’s far left-hand corner one American framing square and two Japanese kanejaku squares, one in centimeter scale and the other in shaku/sun scale, can be seen resting against the back wall. They were sleeping quietly at the time of the photo probably because of a late night. Judging by the ruckus they made and the dead soldiers they left laying about, they spent the entire evening drinking, playing dice on the chisel boxes and arguing loudly about the superiority of the Japanese “Shaku” measuring system vs. the metric system vs. the imperial system. Fortunately, while squares have both tongues and blades, they do not have arms or legs, so their drunken deliberations seldom devolve into violence. I don’t allow them any stogies, however; One must draw the line somewhere.
In the next post in this we will examine the toolchest’s bottom panel. Not as sexy as you might imagine, but more important than you may know.
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, incompetent facebook, or the Congressional IT department of the Democrat Party and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. No sir.
Written by Guest Author, Gavin Sollars, Timber Frame Carpenter, UK
The proper proportioning of roofs forms one of the, if not the most important branch of the art of carpentry, testing alike the manual dexterity of the craftsman, and the taste of the designer.
George Ellis, Modern Practical Carpentry, 1910
In Part 1 of this three part series about the reconstruction of an historically significant timber frame water mill located on the beautiful River Test in Southern England for which he was responsible, Gavin shared some background about the project, some design details, the challenges his team faced at the jobsite, and the fabrication, delivery, and assembly of the green oak timber frame on-site. In this post he will share some details about framing the roof structure. If, Gentle Reader, you have not read Part 1, you may want to do so before reading further.
Framing roofs has always been the most satisfying aspect of carpentry and one to which I have dedicated the most amount of study. When I first began learning the trade I was fascinated by the way more experienced carpenters succeeded in making differing planes and angles intersect. I often struggled to get my head around how they made it all come together. From those early days I made it my aim to soak up as much knowledge as I could from other carpenters about their approach, how they overcame problems and most crucially the ways in which they worked.
During the time I spent with the Compagnons Du Devoir in France I was introduced to a way of thinking about the roof as more than a functional structural component, but rather the highest expression of the carpenters’ craft, indeed timeless art.
Compagnons Du Devoir has regulations, and one of my favorites reads as follows:
“Individuals are invited to sow beauty with their hands, hearts and minds.”
Compagnons Du Devoir
One only needs to see some of the chef d’oeuvre (masterpieces) that Compagnons Charpentiers have completed, many of which required in excess of 1,000 hours to complete, to understand the deep respect these craftsmen have for their trade.
In addition to my time with Compagnons Du Devoir I have been very lucky in my career to have worked under and alongside many extremely talented carpenters and craftspeople who generously shared their time, knowledge and skills with me. As the years go by I have come to a greater appreciation of the fact that the information and techniques they passed on to me were in turn passed on to them by other generous craftsmen in the past, and so on down through the ages. The knowledge we have today of structural woodworking is a gift from many generations of carpenters who worked to perfect their craft, serving their communities while at the same time training future generations.
While the roof is essentially about providing shelter from the elements, one of the most basic human needs, over uncountable millennia carpenters the world over have built diverse roof structures for diverse conditions, to perform in different ways and to convey many meanings far beyond simply keeping the rain off – some as a display of wealth and power, others as a show of skill and mastery. Many stunning examples are breath-taking monuments to the earthly representations of the deities they protect.
What I aim to show in this article is how we framed out the roof for this humble watermill project, in particular the two valleys – areas of the project I was directly involved in. Some of the elements are complicated so I have included photographs and drawings to aid in visualizing.
The reconstruction of this watermill was undertaken in two phases. The majority of the main house (with one side along the river Test) and the original watermill structure were destroyed by fire in 2018. In the aftermath of the fire the main house building had been repaired by a contractor, leaving us the bare bones of the original mill on the other side of the river to reconstruct. The main contractor had left us an exposed gable end on the already restored house to connect our frame to the existing dwelling. This was achieved via a small link building at right angles to the mill and ultimately spanning the river.
We cut as many components as possible in the workshop, either from drawings or by standing the roof components up in the shop and working directly from them. In the long run this way reduces expensive site assembly time and it’s generally easier to complete the work in the comfort of the workshop protected from the English weather. On this occasion however, it wasn’t practical to pre-cut everything in the workshop because of the many unknowns, the impending assembly date, and the high risk of critical components not fitting correctly at the job site.
Ultimately the two buildings did not end up square to each other creating a sort of crushed box geometry effect in the roof that joined the structures. While not a problem in itself, this unusual geometry complicated matters a bit. Small variations made what should be even and regular roofing lengths and bevels suddenly slightly irregular, amplifying small discrepancies over distance.
My team cut the simple common rafter pairs in the workshop. They were joined at the apex using a pegged bridle joint (see sketch below) with the seat cuts pre-cut based on measurements taken from our drawings. We also pre-cut the bridle connections at rafters that either met a valley, or formed an opening for a rooflight or dormer, but left long them long and trimmed to final length on-site.
With the structural frame assembled, two members of the team set to work fitting, pegging, and nailing in place the standard common rafter pairs whilst I and another worked on the purlin returns and the valleys. When the framing of these elements were completed we were joined by another colleague, Jamie, who framed out the hipped gable end, dormer and rooflights.
Definition of a Purlin – “Horizontal beams supported by the trusses between the ridge and the wall plate that carry the common rafters” Corkhill, T., 1979. A Glossary Of Wood. London: Stobart Davies, pp.431,432.
In the run-up to this job I held an interim leadership role – this watermill was one of the first jobs I had overall responsibility for, and to date one of the largest roofs I have worked on. From the instant I first saw the drawings I realized these purlin returns would be one of the more difficult elements.
One of the more unusual things of note about the way in which the purlins are framed is that they are clasped between the underside of the principal rafter and a short tie. This method was often traditionally applied on trusses with smaller sections where the size of the principal rafter would decrease above the purlin. However in this case we cut a scallop (seen in the rendering above) to allow the purlin to be rolled into it’s housing after the trusses were in position.
The purlins are positioned at the same elevation around the whole building, which means that at the intersection of the link and the main frame one returns into the other and wraps around a principal rafter, throwing up the slightly odd compound cut shown in the rendering above. Ordinarily purlin returns can be tricky enough to get right, they often result in either a mitered cut or one notching around the other.
With the help of our draftsman and my roofing square I made a test piece to take to site to aid in tweaking the final fit where necessary.
On site after some careful measuring, test fitting and a little adjustment we got the returns installed.
The next step in the process was to pitch the valley rafters. On each side there was a lower and an upper rafter. The lower one was relatively straight forward, springing from the top plate (or wall plate) and striking the side of the principal rafter. However the upper sections were a different kettle of fish.
Where the valley struck the purlin a complex cut wrapping around the top arris of the purlin was necessary (shown below) before striking onto the side of the principle rafter. This took a little bit of trial and error, but with my colleague Dom’s assistance in figuring out a couple of the bevels, we got them cut and fitted with satisfying results.
Definition of a Plane – “A flat surface; one in which any two points lying on the surface may be joined by a straight line lying on the surface” Corkhill, T., 1979. A Glossary Of Wood. London: Stobart Davies Ltd, p.411.
Definition of a Layboard – A layboard is a board of timber fixed to the rafters of one pitched roof to take the feet of the jack rafters of an adjoining roof.
Once all the head scratching over complexities was out of the way it was onto cutting the jack rafters to length. You may notice that the above photograph of the two valleys shows them sitting in the plane of the main roof similar to a ‘layboard.’
A design like this has few advantages for cutting the feet of jack rafters. On one side of the roof the cuts are beveled across the face and square on edge making them simple to cut. And on the adjoining roof there is again a beveled cut on the face but with a seat cut angle on edge. Whilst one carpenter trimmed out for the rooflight window, two others set about cutting and fitting the jacks to the left of the valley. As this was progressing I concentrated on determining the lengths for the right hand side and cutting the pairs on the adjoining link building. Once cut, the rafter pairs were raised one by one and nailed off. We used galvanized wire nails where they would be concealed from view (bright steel corrodes badly with the high tannin content in green oak). And where visible we used tapered rosehead nails for a more decorative finish.
Once completed we stood back and admired the work. Everyone involved put in a great deal of time, care and effort to ensure this frame was both structurally sound and looked the part. Leaving nothing behind but a hand-jointed timber framed building of this sort of size and quality was very satisfying.
I hope my Gentle Readers have gained some insight into the basics of how traditional timber-framed structures like this are built, and how, despite using more modern techniques to do the “grunt work,” the ways in which these buildings are constructed has remained fairly unchanged throughout the generations.
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 “Post Comment.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or sneaky data miners and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. No sir.
In the previous post in this series we talked about the difference between mass-produced and hand-forged gennou heads. In this post we will take a look at a more antique style of gennou head.
A Laminated Gennou Head
Prior to the advent of cheap imported steel from Europe, gennou had bodies forged of soft low/no-carbon steel with wafers of hard, high-carbon steel forge welded to each face. The shiny strips called “ Hachimaki” meaning “ headband,” polished onto the sides of the ends of genno heads sold nowadays are vestiges of this old-timey method.
The photos above are of a laminated gennou head hand-forged by Kosaburo which came to me long ago as payment for a debt. Laminated gennou heads made this way are still available today at exorbitant prices. I understand Hiroki occasionally makes a few.
Some believe the combination of hard face and soft body produces a softer impact and less vibration making the gennou less tiring to use. Others prefer the slightly different sound a laminated gennou head makes. I have used this laminated Kosaburo head for many years, and while I am very fond of it, I cannot detect any advantage to its laminated construction.
While laminated gennou are much more expensive, the blackmsiths I have spoken with have told me that they are significantly easier to make than one-piece high-carbon steel gennou since they do not require the more difficult differential hardening process. And they all agree that laminated construction provides no practical advantage to the end user. A practical curio in other words.
If you are just getting started in woodworking, or are on a tight budget, a quality mass-produced genno head will do the job if you clean up the eye and replace the handle with one that fits your body.
Better yet, buy a hand-forged head by Hiroki or Kosaburo and make your own handle in the best craftsman tradition.
However, if you have the budget and enjoy collecting traditional tools, then by all means try a laminated gennou head. They are not easy to find nowadays.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May the fleas of a thousand camels infest my shorts if I lie.
It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.
J.R.R. Tolkien,The Lord of the Rings
In the previous post in this series we looked at the the lid of your humble servant’s toolchest, and the tools mounted inside it. In this post I intend to liven things up with an exciting discussion about trays! Be still my heart!
Item No. 4 in the Performance Criteria list in Part 5 of this series is as follows: “Tool Access: Tools used regularly are to be easily and quickly accessible without bending over or moving trays around.” This was a critical factor in my mind, but one traditional toolchest designs often do not satisfy, so I had to get creative: always a dangerous thing.
The logic for this criteria is simple: Bending down and pawing through a jumbled toolchest is both unpleasant, inefficient, and distracting at a time when concentration is important. Shifting trays hither and thither every time a tool is needed is irritating and wasteful too. In addition, knees and backs do not last forever, no matter what we imagine when we are young, so a lot of bending is not acceptable. Therefore, contrary to some toolchest doctrine promulgated nowadays, the solution I struck on was for the tools I use regularly to be either mounted in plain view in the lid, or contained in exposed trays as wide as the chest’s internal dimensions would permit.
With the lid open, the top tray positioned to the rear, and the second tray positioned to the front as shown in the photo above, the tools I use most are all positioned front and center so I can quickly locate, extract and replace most of them one-handed without bending over, shuffling trays, or digging around. Maximizing the width of the trays and visibility of their contents was therefore of prime importance. Tool access is faster than any other “tool storage system” I have used besides exposed pegboard and open shelves, storage methods that do not provide adequate protection for my tools without a climate controlled environment.
The design includes three trays each dimensioned to half the chest’s internal width. All three trays differ in depth to accommodate specific tools and to leave adequate space in the lower dungeon for larger tools and chisel boxes.
The four corners are dovetailed and bottoms are twin frame-and-panel construction. Three panels might be better, and would certainly be luckier, being an odd number of course, but two is OK. Just where did my lucky fuzzy dice run off to….?
Unlike many traditional toolchests, but true to the British design that inspired it, I did not mount saws, chisels, screwdrivers or anything at all to the inside of the toolchest’s front wall, so the trays are the maximum width possible with nothing obstructing travel backwards or forwards.
This decision came from my strong dislike, for the three reasons listed in the previous post in this series, of storing sharp or pointy tools in a situation where I might cut myself on them while trying to dig out another tool. Run your wrist over the edge of a chisel just once and you will understand. The current mounting system places these tools in plain view with edges protected. I also find mounting tools to the front wall of the carcass to be an inefficient use of space. You will need to do the math yourself, but whatever you decide, please don’t let your chisels bite you!
The Top Tray
The top tray contains more of the tools I use all the time, including precision straightedges, layout tools, more hammers, inkpot, scrapers, jigs, odds and sods. The shallow depth of this tray is intentional.
Despite appearances, it is not a rat’s nest: I know exactly where every single tool is located. I believe excessive tidiness to be a mental illness people of intelligence should vigorously eschew.
With the sawtill removed and placed nearby to serve as an independent toolchest dedicated to saws, the second tray normally resides in the forward position so I can see and access all the tools in the lid, the first tray, and this middle tray without moving anything. I will present the sawtill to you in a future post
As you can see, this tray contains 13 planes, (I like planes and use them a lot), including a 45mm mame plane, 60mm, 65mm, and 70mm hiraganna, LN rabbet block plane w/nicker, and an LN skewed rabbet plane. Molding planes are stored in a separate chest of drawers.
Japanese planes are more compact than their Western counterparts, as Gentle Readers no doubt noticed. I haven’t calculated the necessary volume, but it is certain 13 Bailey-style planes would not fit in the same space, and the weight would probably be nearly double.
The third and lowest tray is deeper than the other two, and contains heavier and larger tools I don’t use as often, or tools I remove once at the beginning of a woodworking session and leave out all day.
You can see a Lie-Nielson No.6 and No.7, and scrub plane. I also have twist drill bits, two digital vernier calipers, spokeshaves, various jigs, a precision bevel square, two 80mm planes, shoulder planes, two kiwaganna planes (skewed rabbet planes), an adjustable 45° chamfer plane, etc. stored in this tray.
Thank you for your patience so far with this lengthy show-and-tell. In the next post we’ll peek into the toolchest’s dungeon to see what shall see. Rusty chains and moldy bones, perhaps? Please stay tuned.
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. If I’m lying may I swallow a thousand needles.
The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I have finished my travels.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
In the previous post in this series we discussed the various styles of gennou heads you might consider when planning a custom-made gennou that fits your body perfectly, as well as the range of weights for each application.
While one has few options besides either using a mass-produced head or making one yourself nowadays, in Japan there are still a few blacksmiths that specialize in hand-forging high-quality gennou hammer heads. In this post we will compare mass-produced heads and hand-forged heads to help you make an informed decision.
Comparing Mass-produced Heads to High-quality Hand-forged Heads
When selecting a gennou head you have the choice of a mass-produced gennou (usually with a handle attached) or a handmade gennou head without a handle, if you can find one. Lets examine the differences.
Mass-produced genno are readily available, relatively inexpensive and for the most part, entirely useable. However, as with any product, it is wise to inspect a gennou carefully before purchasing it, as discussed in a previous post in this series, or to at least buy from a retailer with a solid return policy. When purchasing any gennou, check to make sure the eye is centered in the head and not skewed.
The practical advantages of a hand-forged gennou hammer head over a mass-produced factory head are as follows:
Proper differential hardness;
Precise eye placement;
Uniform interior dimensions of the eye, resulting in time saved and aggravation avoided;
Faces are square with the long axis of the head;
Unique appearance and pride of ownership.
Let’s examine these five points in more detail next.
Most Gentle Readers will have never given this matter any thought, but the quality of the heat treatment matters… a lot. This is a chemical/crystalline property impossible to confirm long-distance, so we must rely on the manufacturer, be it factory or blacksmith, to get right. Therefore, the manufacturer’s QC reputation as well as the retailer’s guarantee also matters.
A good head will be hard at the faces, becoming gradually softer towards the the eye, certainly softer than a file, to make the head “tougher,” using the materials engineering term, and to reduce resonant harmonic vibrations. If you have used hammers with uniformly hard heads and integral steel handles you have felt this tiring vibration before.
The faces must be hard, around 50~55Rc, to prevent deformation, but not so hard the hammer will chip or crack. You may think that wooden chisel handles could not deform a steel hammer face, but if the striking faces are not properly hardened, they will mushroom sure as eggses is eggses, something your humble servant learned when he made a gennou head for himself from octagonal bar stock back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It’s interesting to note that the handle I made so long ago was straight, unlike the handles your humble servant currently advocates, and that lower 1/3rd of the face mushroomed, while the upper 2/3rds did not deform at all. Curious…. This was the first time I really noticed that the head of hammer with a straight handle attached perpendicular to the head’s centerline tends to hit the chisel/nail cocked and not in-line with the long axis of the chisel/nail. I also realized that the direction of flow of this steel indicated a lot of energy was being wasted by my straight handle. I hope you can see why the solution the anaya carpenters of Japan developed so long ago resonated with me so strongly.
But what happens if the heat treatment results in a head that is too hard? In this case, while the head and faces may not deform, the face may chip and the entire head may fracture, sometimes even causing embarrassing leakage of sticky red stuff.
A word to the wise: always use properly heat-treated hammers and wear safety glasses when pounding nails, mixing acid, or writing your name on your forehead in pen after losing a tequila shot contest.
Precision of the Eye
Gentle Readers may think it passing strange that your most humble and obedient servant is seemingly fixated on the precision of something as boring as the hole in a hammer’s head. Rest assured, this concern is not a fever dream resulting from an obsessive/compulsive over-analysis of negative space, but was born of bitter experience. My new therapist concurs.
Of all handtools, the hammer is one of the simplest. But is also the one that moves the fastest and is most influenced by dynamic physics. Things like concentricity, center of gravity, and moment of inertia make a difference to an object moving this quickly, then suddenly slowed by an impact with a chisel or nail, and then returned to battery for another blow faster than you can say ouch. Negative spaces like holes influence the physics, and therefore the stability, of hammer heads. Don’t make me inflict you with differential equations, just take my word the hole needs to be centered, not skewed, and of uniform size or the hammer will be skittish.
Another advantage of a well-made gennou head is that its eye will have uniform interior dimensions. We talked about this in an earlier post. In summary, all four walls will be straight, clean, flat, free of wind, parallel and square to each other. This matters because a sloppy eye will not apply uniform pressure on the handle’s tenon, ensuring it will come loose sooner than later. In addition, this uneven pressure may also induce unwanted vibrations in the handle.
If a gennou head has a sloppy eye, it needs to be trued, a task that is difficult to accomplish using files. Depending on the degree of error, correcting the inside walls of that tiny hole in a steel head with tiny files can be frustrating work and may even help your therapist buy that new bimini top he wants for his fishing boat. You see, most people make the problems worse the first time they try to correct them. If you count your time worth anything, the extra cost of a precision eye is money well spent, and certainly cheaper than a new bimini top.
Precision of the Face
Let’s move on to item 4 “Faces are square with the long axis of the head.” The striking faces of mass-produced hammer heads are often not square with the head’s axis, resulting most obviously in bent nails, but the less obvious consequence is that energy we intended to transmit directly to the chisel and into the workpiece ends up being wasted as heat and violent movement of the chisel out of alignment. It also wastes time and undermines the user’s confidence, once again providing a windfall to head doctors everywhere.
A hammer made using a good head and a handle made to fit both that head and your body will perform better than any tool you have experienced before. You won’t need to look when you pick it up to tell which face (or claw/vs face) is oriented towards the nail/chisel because your fingers will know instantly. The handle will fit your hand perfectly without slipping or causing blisters or needing to be “choked-up on.” You will be able to sense beforehand exactly where the center of the hammer’s face will strike, and will be able to hit the target dead-center and squarely even with your eyes closed.
The hammer that is stable during the swing and makes a solid impact exactly where you aimed it without producing strange vibrations or wasting energy will help you make every strike with confidence and greater control, and will make your woodworking more enjoyable and profitable. Not insignificant benefits.
Appearance and Pride of Ownership
And finally, let’s examine the more ephemeral item 5: “Unique appearance and pride of ownership.” I have mentioned it elsewhere before, but it is a fact that, no matter how much they may deny it, humans are competitive beasties in all endeavors.
As a day job your humble servant manages construction projects in Japan and spends a lot of time inspecting jobsites, meeting with construction companies and speaking with craftsmen. Indeed, there was a time when I was labor instead of management on construction jobsites, so I have enough experience to know that while professional woodworkers may not care about hair fashion or fine Italian footwear during the workday, they are conscious of their personal performance, and the performance of their tools, in comparison to those of their peers. It’s a guy thing, something women think they understand because they have similar tendencies in other areas, but rarely do. This performance is difficult to ascertain unless one is working side by side with one’s peers, so it is human nature to make indirect judgements about performance by observing the quality and condition of a fellow worker’s tools.
Of course, one casually notices the brand of chisel or plane a fellow craftsman is using. Next, if it can be done without being rude (sometimes a difficult thing to accomplish), one examines the fellow workman’s tool’s cutting edge and its sharpness because this tells much about his character and skill (chisels are terrible gossips, you see). Such a close examination may not be possible, but one can usually examine the finish left by his plane and crispness and precision of his chisel cuts.
But more than plane or chisel, the tool that is always visible to others during the workday is the craftsman’s hammer comprised of the head forged by the blacksmith, and the handle made by the craftsman himself. The quality of this combination tells Japanese craftsmen much about the man that owns and uses the tool. A hand-forged head by Kosaburo or Hiroki with a graceful, professional-grade handle made by the owner, even if it is dinged through years of hard use, will be noticed by those with eyes to see for decades, even generations.
Among the Japanese professional woodworkers your humble servant knows well, most of whom ceased getting older long ago, a highly-decorated expensive head is thought to be a gaudy, obvious plea for attention, and in poor taste, like wearing a purple sequined silk suit and Jimmy Choo 8″ gold lame stilettos to the hardware store (best saved for the New Years party, you sexy beast). A plain head by Hiroki or Kosaburo, on the other hand, is understated tasteful evidence of a serious craftsman that appreciates tradition and places quality first. Very much a wabi sabi kinda thing.
And finally, a quality hand-forged head is a lifetime tool, one that won’t wear out or break. The handle may be damaged and wear out over time and need to be replaced, but such wear and tear is unavoidable if the tool is actually used, like a good pair of workboots. But the handle made for a quality head will last longer and be much much easier and quicker to replace. To the professional focused on turning his time into money, this is not an insignificant consideration.
A mass-produced factory head, by comparison, simply won’t work as well. It is of course neither high-quality, unique, nor a lifetime heirloom tool. It isn’t pleasing to the owner’s eye nor impressive to his fellow workers. It is a consumable, expedient tool, the sort of thing a craftsman does not want himself to become.
A high-quality head combined with a handle that fits your body will accomplish more work more precisely with less mental concentration and physical effort. It will become a lifetime friend and a source of satisfaction boosting your confidence. It will be relatively easy to make replacement handles for during your lifetime, and those handles will stay tighter longer. It will tell those who see it that you are serious, no-nonsense craftsman who understands true quality and prefers understated elegance.
If you take pride in your tools, appreciate heirloom value, don’t want to waste time reworking sow’s ears into silk purses, and are not inclined to invite psychiatrists to rummage around in your head, then a hand-forged gennou head is worth owning, in the opinion of your most humble and obedient servant.
In the next post in this swashbuckling adventure on the high seas we will try to dispel some rumors about laminated gennou heads.
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.
Even the smallest person can change the course of history.
Lady Galadriel – The Lord of the Rings
In previous posts in this series about toolchests, and your humble servant’s toolchest in particular, we looked at how the design was guided by performance criteria such as portability, tie-down and lifting, and pixie infestation prevention. In this post we will examine one solution to another performance criteria. Perhaps the solutions I settled on will help you solidify your storage requirements.
Inside the Lid
Key Performance Criteria No.4 defined in Part 5 of this series is as follows:
Tool Access: Tools used frequently to be quick to locate and easy to remove and replace without bending, kneeling, or shifting trays around.
The solution I selected was to mount many of the tools I use most frequently inside the lid where they are in clear view and quickly accessible. This technique is one seen in historical examples, but as always, I wanted to do things a little bigger, a little better.
Alas, I had fallen under the spell of a philosophy that many suffer from, indeed one that has destroyed entire civilizations and can be summarized as “ if a little bit is good then too much must be better.” I began the planning of this space with visions of Mr. Studley’s famous toolchest dancing in my head. The image in my mind was mahvelous dahling, simply mahvelouse, but the conceptual drawing was only good. While I was distracted by my dreams, reality snuck up behind me, shot me in the head and dumped my virtual body in the river. The water was cold!
After a refreshing swim I realized my plan was too dense, too inflexible, too expensive, and most importantly, violated the unwritten performance criteria common to most human endeavors: “It must be finished in my lifetime.”
The compromise I arrived at is shown in this post. It is not perfect. You should not emulate it. But it is the fruit of trial and lots of error over many years and it works reliably.
An obvious problem with mounting tools inside a lid is their rebellious desire to drop to the bottom of the chest when the lid is closed, especially if the petty pernicious pixies that sometimes skulk in the shadows of my workshop lend a claw. To deal with this mischievous propensity, each tool’s mounting mechanism must retain the tool securely in place while the lid is opened, closed, and even while the toolchest is being moved around. At the same time, the mounting mechanism must be simple and quick to operate. This combination of security and speed is not as easy to accomplish as you might think because, well, tools can be naughty, and gravity is not our friend when the lid is closed. And pixies.
So let’s examine the tools and how they are secured.
The upper third of the lid is dominated by two full-width parallel boards secured to both sides of the lid. These two boards have edge lips and matching notches . The left side holds 7 marking gauges of various lengths and types. Four of them are dual-blade mortise gauges (kamakebiki) made by Kinshiro. After placing a marking gauge in its designated set of slots, it is secured by extending the tool’s beam or blade upwards and locking it in place with its own adjusting screw. This mounting method has been entirely successful.
The right hand side of these parallel boards holds 8 hammers (gennou). The back-side of each notch and the surrounding lip is shaped to fit a specific hammer, and super-magnets help hold each hammer’s head in place. The handles of the chisels mounted below also help to retain the hammers, as you can see from the photo. This is not a perfect solution, but it works well enough.
The 11 chisels on the right side are held in place by friction between the chisel’s cone-shaped ferrules and the closely-fitted wood notches, and stay in place even when the lid is closed. But vibration can become a problem if I need to move the chest over a rough surface with the lid closed, so I wrap a rubber bungee cord around the chisel’s handles to keep them in their slots during rough transport.
The cutting edges are oriented downward when the lid is open, close to the lid’s side (below) so that there is little danger of snagging a finger or wrist on the extremely sharp edges. I strongly dislike any storage system that leaves sharp blades exposed. Whatever chisel storage solution selected, I strongly urge Gentle Readers to ensure there is no opportunity for chisels to express their peckish nature for three reasons: First, 10 fingers is better than 9; Second, sticky red stuff promotes rust; and Third, Murphy always has the last laugh. I promise you won’t like whatever gives that bastard the giggles when chisels are involved.
Behind the chisel and hammer handles, you can see my Starrett protractor head, and my father’s old Stanley brace with rosewood fittings. Bits are placed in tool wraps and stored in a compartment behind the chisel blades. Not easy to get at. I have thought about combining the chisel rack into a drawer to hold the bits, but have not done anything yet.
On the left side, a Starrett 92 divider and two spring dividers are secured by a block screwed to the far left sidewall. Chastely closing the divider’s legs together pinches a screw head locking them securely in place. If you don’t already own a Starrett 92, you need to get one.
Behind the dividers, there are several steel rulers and a bevel gauge secured by a hook on top and retained by the Starrett 92’s arm. In the center are mounted 3 Matsui Precision hardened stainless steel squares, a Starrett combo square, a Starrett adjustable mini square, and a thickness caliper.
I also mounted an unused hand-carved Zelkova-wood Japanese inkline/inkpot (墨壷 sumitsubo) with silk wadding in a central position of honor. While this is a practical tool, I mounted it there just as decoration, as you can tell because the silk line is still blue and the silk wadding is still white. I have a more convenient sealed plastic sumitsubo stored in the top tray I use when I need to snap a line.
At the bottom of the lid I mounted an old Millers Falls eggbeater drill. I don’t recall the model number, but I purchased it used in Delaware, Ohio. The cap on the handle was damaged by fire sometime before I bought it. It’s a handy a little guy, but nothing special.
On the left side of the center vertical divider are mounted 2 Yankee spiral screwdrivers, bits and gimlet blades, as well as an antique Japanese screwdriver with a polished steel shaft and a bulbous Zelkova wood handle. I am irrationally fond of this old tool.
I have tried different arrangements for mounting tools inside the lid over the years, and I will continue to improve it because I am confident this is not the best possible arrangement. It’s a difficult planning problem for two reasons. First, the tools in the lid are the most easily accessible and therefore must be ones I need all the time. Assigning priority and ease of access seems as easy as falling off a greasy log, but it isn’t. The Studley solutions to storing tools are amazing, but not really practical. Second, I need to be able to remove and store these tools quickly, but at the same time, they can’t be so heavy or so difficult to secure they fall out when the lid closes or opens. Once again, the conflict between safety and security is tricky to resolve.
Regarding priority, marking gauges and other layout tools see the highest frequency of use, followed by chisels, hammers, drills and screwdrivers. This priority is reflected in their location inside the lid, as you can see.
I don’t use the protractor head, brace or bits very often, so they are assigned a lower priority and reside behind the hammers and chisels. It takes time to remove them, but on the other hand, they would always be in the way if placed in the trays, which is more valuable real estate, so this is their home.
To hold the lid open and keep it from flopping back, I installed a brass toilet chain on the left side, and boxed out a space so it doesn’t get hung up on tools. When the lid is closed, it automatically lays along side the top tray. This chain is strong, will never rust, and has never caused me a second of grief.
Well, that’s all for this post. Next time we’ll look at the trays. There will be planes. Oh joy!
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.
When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman.
Jean de la Bruyere
Gentle Reader, welcome to this second installment in my series of articles about the Japanese floor workbench called the “Atedai.” In Part 1 we looked at some of the design considerations and construction techniques involved in making this tool. In this presentation we will get to the fun part of putting it to use.
These workbenches, as I hope you will see, are incredibly versatile tools that can be used in endless ways. My objective in this article is to show you a number of those methods, some traditional and some less so, and inspire you to maybe give it a go yourself.
I will use examples from my own work, as well as examples from master craftsmen (including a few National Living Treasures of Japan) who have completed rigorous apprenticeships and used atedai professionally much longer than I ever will.
I have not received any direct training in this method of working but have ‘stolen’ many ideas and methods (lit. “Gijutsu wo nusumu” 技術を盗む) through observation and practice of their techniques.
This is the way traditional apprenticeships run in Japan – the master seldom gives direct instructions and entertains few questions, yet the apprentice is expected to learn everything – through observation and practice – and is thus said to “steal” his master’s techniques. Only in my case, my teachers are Stan, books, the internet, and videos!
I will use a fair number of pictures and video links in this blog, as they will show much more nuance than words can about how master craftsmen use their Atedai.
If you live in a ‘chair culture’ and are just starting to work lower to the ground, then this may be the first time you have sat cross-legged on the floor since school. Take it easy! Go slow, improve your flexibility gradually and your knees will thank you. This style of woodworking is physical, and you must orient your whole body with the work to be efficient, and safe, which at first can cause some aches and pains. Bear with it – the results will be worth a little suffering!
If the floor is out of the question, don’t despair! There are a number of ways to use an Atedai either sitting on a stool or standing, which we will explore in this article as well.
With that said, let’s begin!
Sawing using an atedai falls mainly into two categories – rough sawing for stock preparation, and precision sawing for finer work/joinery.
Rough sawing doesn’t differ much from using low sawhorses… you lay your work flat on the bench, making sure to hang it over the side, or off the far end of the bench, and use your foot to stabilize the board while your hands work the saw. This is very quick and accurate and doesn’t require large, bulky, difficult-to-store sawhorses typically used in the Western woodworking tradition, but it is dependent on using Japanese saws.
The process of rough sawing is the same, more or less, as when using low sawhorses. Using one’s feet to stabilize the workpiece helps significantly. You can also stand with both feet on the stock, which can be very useful when making big rip cuts in large stock.
Fine sawing can be slightly ‘fussier’ in getting the work where it needs to be, and can depend on the kind of joint you are cutting. That said, it often helps to prop the work up somehow, particularly when ripping. This can be accomplished by leaning it vertically against the end of the Atedai, or laying the work flat on the bench (a clamp can help here) and propping up the end of the Atedai – experiment and see what works for you. I have seen craftsmen using plane blocks to prop up the near end of the bench – an ingenious and elegant solution, yet maybe not as quick as just leaning it on the end…
Note the size of the stops on Mr. Mogami’s atedai are much smaller than my own, and very much in the sashimono tradition.
Any cross cut, like the cutting of tenon shoulders, can be made off to the side of the bench or, if your stops are low enough, in the middle of the bench itself. I prefer to saw to one side, giving my arm room to move back and forward without having to shift position too much. You can also use shorter Western joinery saws here, by pushing the work into the stops, almost like a bench hook.
Planing at the Atedai is accomplished in only one or two positions… sitting down crossed legged, sometimes with one leg extended, or while on both knees. Give it a try and see what works best for you in your work.
You reach with your plane, and pull. Simple.
In my experience, I have found that kneeling on both knees works best for powerful roughing strokes, because I can make use my upper body weight to press down on the workpiece while making powerful, controlled cutting strokes with the plane. Alternately, planing while sitting with one leg extended works best for me for finish planing. YMMV – experiment and find what works for you.
For really long stock you can, in theory, lunge forward with one leg and rock back with the planing stroke, but that still has a length limit (not to mention the need for very strong leg and back muscles) and standing up really has all the advantage in this situation. Traditionally, craftspeople such as Tategu-shi, joiners who specialize in doors and shoji, have a dedicated planing beam in their workshop, used standing, for longer stock preparation, and use their Atedai used for mortising and other smaller tasks.
“What about my Baileys?!” I hear you cry.
Fear not, Gentle Reader, for you can still use Western planes… both on the normal push stroke, as well as the pull… by adopting this work style. I often use No.5 and No.7 planes for initial rough stock preparation, and both can be used well low-down, although it must be said not quite as well as Japanese planes. To push I often kneel to the side, or sit on the work and push towards the stops. Maybe not elegant, but still good enough for me – either way, no one is watching, except maybe Master Sprocket, the neighbor’s cat, who meticulously supervises every step of my work!
Another way to use push planes is to stand the atedai on its side and clamp the workpiece to its face, which allows you to plane standing up… this can also be useful with Japanese planes when planing longer boards or when you just need to stretch your legs and rest your back.
Jigs for any number of planing tasks are used as much in the Japanese tradition as they are in the West for 45° and 90° angles and, except for being designed for the pull stroke, do not really differ. One jig, however that may be new to you is a rather simple, but incredibly effective, device helping to shoot long edges. It is simply a flat board with a stop, which elevates the board above the surface of the bench, allowing your plane to shoot the edge of a board. This is one of the reasons you will often see 2 stops rather than 1 long stop on the Atedai. One stop braces the shooting board and workpiece while the gap between the two stops allows the plane to pass through and finish the stroke.
Just as when planing, there are a number of ways, and many more besides, to use chisels at an Atedai depending on the task at hand.
For mortising, and other similar tasks, a great way to hold the work is with your derrière. Yes, finally we come to the famous bum clamp. Sitting on your stock (while potentially uncomfortable on narrow or high stock) is one of the best ways to keep the work steady while positioning yourself for efficient and safe work with your eye directly over the mortise to help ensure the chisel stays plumb. As we will see, this is also very effective while at a standing bench too.
Hollowing work, like that used in kurimono carving, is often performed while sitting to the side of the bench directing all the force into the stop, and keeping the work steady. Be warned here, keep a mental note of where your left knee is in relation to your chisel! In this position it’s easy to make powerful horizontal hammer blows, and the last thing you want is a chisel jumping out of the cut into your knee.
The final ‘standard’ chiselling position is at the end of the Atedai, often using your foot to stabilize the work piece, although clamps may also be used. This allows for quick repositioning of the workpiece, if needed, and holds the work solidly enough for the work at hand (foot?). As you tend to chisel more or less vertically in this position, your foot isn’t in much danger, but it still pays to be cognizant at all times.
This number 3 in a 9 video series of Mr. Nakadai, designated one of Japan’s National Living Treasures, making a beautiful serving bowl for the tea ceremony from pauwlonia wood. You can view the entire playlist on YouTube at this link.
Standing & Sitting
So far, we have looked at using the Atedai while it is resting on the floor, but there are a number of other ways to use it if your knees say “no”, or if you just prefer to work while standing up.
A great way to integrate the planing bench into your normal workflow is to have a slightly smaller Atedai for use on top of your normal workbench. This can be a great option if you use a mixture of western and Japanese planes, and can give you the best of both worlds. If you dimension it so you can place the Atedai under your table workbench when not in use, you can quickly and easily pull it out when needed.
By placing the Atedai on sawhorses, you will have a versatile, and mobile workbench which, with some practice, will do everything you ask of it. Carpenters in the field will often use a bench similar to this, made with materials on site, although they can sometimes be rather quick and dirty affairs.
In the photo above, Mr. Makoto Imai, a highly skilled carpenter, is using a similar set up, which was immortalised in ‘The Workbench Book’ by Scott Landis. The stop here is just a screw, which is all you need for most planing operations – although care must be taken if you don’t want to mark the end grain. I love the simplicity of this set up, and find Makoto’s work truly inspiring. Credit: Daiku Dojo http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/20070414_tfgwc_asilomar_makoto_imai_demo/
While easier on the body in some respects, the lack of vises (Editor’s note: “virtually free of sin”) still means these workbenches require good flexibility and the use of body clamps. There is no escaping the fact that Japanese woodworking can be very physical. With that said, due to the need to lift your knee/leg up to, or to sit on, this kind of bench I have found the work surface needs to be slightly lower than your normal Western bench – for me about the height of my downward facing palm, with my arm by my side.
As you have no doubt seen, the potential ways to use the Atedai are incredibly varied. In this section I will outline some interesting techniques and ideas that may help show you just what is possible with these benches, or at least give some food for thought.
Firstly, using low sawhorses of the same height as your Atedai is a great way to extend the length or width of the work surface, and is a great solution for things like doors or shoji frames. It can also be incredibly useful if combined with, for example, a chop saw set at the same height.
Next, in a real blurring of east and west, you can put dog holes in your workbench – similarly spaced as you would on a normal workbench, for use of bench dogs, and hold fasts (Veritas make a lovely version which you can hand tighten). This can really add some versatility to your bench.
These holes will also give you an alternative to the ‘foot clamp’. By making a piece of wood with a hole drilled about ⅓ of the way in from one end, and a bolt passing through it into a dog hole (no need to attach a nut to the other end), you can create a foot-operated lever to press a workpiece into your stop, holding it very securely. The picture below shows Mr. Inomoto using this ingenious tool with his atedai
So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour of how to use an atedai. As you can see, the atedai is hugely versatile, and can offer all woodworkers, especially users of Japanese tools, a great way of working.
Low workbenches of various styles are used by a huge range of specific crafts within woodworking (as well as an equally large number of crafts outside of woodworking). I hope to have sparked some ideas that will be useful in your own work. Even if you continue using a Western bench, I hope you got a hint just what can be achieved with a couple of stops and your body…
While this way of working initially may appear quite simple, this simplicity belies the huge degree of nuance required to get the most out of it… from construction details to actual use. Often it’s not what the bench brings to you, but what you can bring to the Atedai, that determines the benefit it can provide.
You will also have seen that the benches themselves, as well as the methods of using them, are as unique as the craftsman employing them, so if something works for you, and is safe, crack on. There is no ‘one way’ to work with an Atedai, and I would love to see you at work with one of your own.
The best way to get a real sense of these benches in use is to view a range of craftspeople, including some of Japan’s “Living National Treasures,” actually using them, and so I wanted to leave a list of links for you to ‘steal’ some ideas of your own.
In the previous post in this series about Japanese hammers we examined a feature found in all modern hammer heads: the essential, unblinking unseeing eye. In this post we will touch on the style of heads recommend for using with Japanese chisels. We discussed this subject in this postas well.
Gennou Head Shapes
The most common head shapes commonly available in Japan nowadays are: ryoguchi, daruma, funate, yamakichi and various hybrids thereof.
Ryouguch is the most common style of head, at least in Eastern Japan. It has two faces: A flat one for striking chisels and nails, and a slightly domed opposing face for kigoroshi and setting nails below the surface of boards.
While a simple design, this style of head has a relatively high moment of inertia, making it is more stable than other styles and therefore less likely to twist out of alignment during the swing, or twitch upon impact, a positive thing if you are a card-carrying member of NBA (Nail Benders Anonymous). (ツ)
Face designs in this style vary widely including round, oval, square, rectangular (usually with corners removed for a more octagonal shape) true octagonal, and the “Ichimonji” style with roundish sides and a flat top and bottom. We prefer the rectangular shape with cut corners best, but one style is no better than another. We don’t recommend, however, faces with 90 degree corners as the corners are counter-productive during kigoroshi operations and are structurally weaker.
If you are worried about pulling nails, we encourage you to use a nail bar to reduce the number of broken hammer handles wandering the world sad and lonely as a cloud.
Named for a famous buddhist priest of oval stature who lost both arms and legs through excessive meditation in his quest for “satori,” an intensely spiritual obsession that no doubt consumes the attention of some of our more enlightened Beloved Customers, the daruma (pronounced dah/rhu/mah) style gennou head is a stubbier version of the ryouguchi gennou, always with a round face.
This style of head is more popular outside of Japan than it is domestically, for reasons your most humble and obedient servant fails to understand. From a physics viewpoint, at a given weight it is less stable than any other style of gennou, but because it has a bigger face, and is intended to be used at constantly differing angles such that stability is not so much a virtue, it is preferred by carvers. Joiners like it too for cutting repetitive mortise and tenon joints, but it is not favored by most trades and may invite remarks at jobsites from other workers about the owner being unable to find his derriere with both hands and a GPS. That said, your humble servant frequently uses daruma heads for cutting precise mortise joints. Wait a minute…. where did I set down that darn GPS tracker….?
An 80monme/ 300gm/ 11oz daruma head with an rock maple handle.
The funate gennou is closer in appearance to Western hammers with a skinnier neck behind the striking face, but without the split-tail “piano chisel” a foreman from my misspent youth named Jack Frost called the claw on his 28oz waffle-face framing hammer. It is more commonly seen in the Western Japan than Eastern Japan where I learned Japanese woodworking.
This gennou is useful for finish work involving nails and for tapping-out plane blades, but less useful for wacking chisels.
Yamakichi was the name of a gennou blacksmith working in Fukuoka on Kyushu Island that originated this style of head and gave it his name. “Yama” 山 means “mountain” and “kichi” 吉 means “luck” or “lucky.” Kosaburo introduced this style to Tokyo in response to customer demand and with Yamakichi’s permission, we are told, improving the design somewhat.
This style is a heavy-duty stubbier version of the funate with a slightly domed face and a kinda sorta pointy tail, perhaps better suited to driving/setting nails than the ryouguchi head, but certainly better for striking chisels than the funate style.
Better with nails than the ryouguchi style, this head makes an excellent all-round hammer for working in the field, and can even handle tapping-out and kigoroshi tasks.
The design has a unique and interesting appearance which reminds this humble scribbler of a 1956 Ford F100 truck in that, while neither sleek nor smooth, it has a sculptural quality not seen in the other styles that “grows on you.” It feels good in the hand.
There are other in-between head shapes, but these are the four basic styles generally available for woodworking today.
The subject of gennou head weight was examined at some length in a previous post.
Regardless of the type of gennou head you select, weight is a critical factor that will depend on what you plan to hit, your height above the thing you are hitting, how hard you need to hit it, and how precisely you need to hit it. Your own practical experience is the best basis for selecting the genno weight for a particular job, but some guidelines can be suggested.
To begin, the traditional measure used for gennou in Japan is the “monme,” with 100 monme equaling 375 grams or 13.2 ounces (1 ounce = 28.35 grams).
The standard middle-of-the-road weight for genno used by carpenters in Japan is 100monme (375grams/ 13.2 ounces). The most common hammer used for finish carpentry in the United States weighs 16oz = 120monme, a size commonly available in gennou too. So if you are going to buy your first gennou, and you intend to use it for general finish carpentry or furniture making, a 100 or 120 monme genno is a good place to start.
For finer work, an 50-80 monme (11-7 oz) to gennou is a good choice. If you intend to make furniture or joinery, one in this weight range is a must-have.
For cutting deep mortises in heavy timbers with large chisels, as in timber framing or boat work, a 200monme (26oz) hammer is frequently used, but 250 (33oz) and even 300monme (40oz) heads are available. I own and use them when necessary. Some factors to consider when selecting a heavy gennou are that with greater weight comes greater impact force, and greater penetration, but heavier gennou are more tiring to swing and harder to control precisely.
Other factors to consider are the width of the chisel blade being used, since a wider blade requires more force to cut to a given depth, and the hardness/toughness of the wood being cut. Only experience can tell Gentle Reader what weight will work best in a given situation. Just be aware that, unlike bobby socks and government health care, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
We hope this article has answered some of Gentle Reader’s questions on the subject of selecting a gennou head. If you have additional questions or need clarification, please use the “Leave a Reply” form below.
In the next post in this metaphysical adventure series we will discuss the differences between mass-produced and hand-forged gennou heads. We will look at woods suitable for making handles, and gennou design in much greater detail in future posts, promise.
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 by using 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.
Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
Since we wrote the tutorial (located here) describing the advanced procedures we recommend for setting up Japanese chisels ten years or so ago, we have frequently received questions from Gentle Readers about the fact that the chisel setup procedures described therein differ in important ways from those taught by most retailers of Japanese tools in the USA and Europe, as well as those expounded in videos on NoobTube, or posted on the woodworking internet forums.
In response to these questions, we recently added a few paragraphs at the end of the tutorial in question which we are including in this post to dispel confusion among Gentle Readers that have not had the opportunity to read the article.
The most common question is: “Why does your description of how to setup Japanese chisels vary so much from those given in online videos and the woodworking forums?”
A knee-jerk response to this question might be that the questioner should take a big, heaping spoonful of that online advice, then hold their nose and swallow it down, yes, all the way down, …. keep swallowing now, then judge for themselves if it is sugar or BS. As the saying goes: “the proof is in the pudding,” or was it “laughter is the best medicine?” We forget. In any case, while such a hasty reply would be entertaining, it would also be crude and unrefined, and since we are nothing if not always gentle and elegant, we will instead try to provide a more palatable explanation.
The Long Answer
Yes, Virginia, we have seen the various online videos about setting-up Japanese chisels. The creators of most of them are simply parroting instructions that some long-gone employee of a Japanese wholesaler, someone who had never used a chisel professionally, heard from another guy working at a chisel factory assembling thousands of chisels everyday as quickly as possible from cheap parts, some of which may have been imported from China.
Some Gentle Reader may be saying to themselves: “Wait just one frickin minute there! What do you mean, “made in China!?” Please, take a deep breath, smell the napalm, and realize that many of the components assembled into products in advanced countries are actually made in China at low cost. Poor quality is the natural consequence of procurement policies aiming to maximize profits above all else. The components used in C&S Tools’s chisels, however, are all made in Japan of quality materials and to reasonable tolerances.
Here’s the problem: Imagine a chisel handle and/or crown manufactured to such careless tolerances that one must beat the heck out of the handle with a hammer (kigoroshi) to crush and break the wood cells to reduce the handle’s diameter enough so the poorly-matched crown will fit. With this still percolating in your head ask yourself two questions: (1) What sort of attention is being paid to quality control that these two simple parts aren’t manufactured to better tolerances? And (2), will crushing the hardwood handle’s cells improve or harm its durability and/or longevity?
Or imagine, if you possibly can (difficult, we know), a handle and its crown or ferrule so poorly matched that one must swell the wood with water to get the crown or ferrule to stay attached long enough to ship the chisel overseas. Is your mind boggled yet?
Do you suppose poor tolerances or ham-handed setup techniques make for a better chisel, one that will provide good long-term service in the real world? Sadly, this is the grade of chisel with which the PooTube “Creators” and the so-called “experts” on the orc-infested forums have hands-on experience.
The manufacturers of these hardware store-grade tools provide zero warranties. Their products disappear into anonymous overseas markets where consumers are accustomed to being deceived as a matter of course, and the quality of most of their competitor’s products in the local markets, essentially sharpened Chinese-made screwdrivers, are of even poorer quality, so there is no backlash, only profits.
If any of this sounds to you like proper quality control or good value for the consumer, then there’s some swamp land located next to an abandoned plutonium extraction plant in North Korea, shovel-ready for resort development, that’s for sale at an amazingly low price. We read about it on an internet forum, so it must be true. All you have to do is send US$3,000 in small bills via FedEx to a private P.O. Box belonging to Prince Musa Adebayo in Abuja, Nigeria. It’s a limited time-offer, so you’d better hurry. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
Most of our Beloved Customers are not new to Japanese tools. They have bought the sizzle before, found it rancid, and come to us for honest handmade tools that meet the rigorous demands of advanced Japanese professional woodworkers.
The Short Answer
Let’s wrap this up by concisely answering the original question.
First, the setup techniques we recommend are different because the tools our Beloved Customers need to setup are different from those to which the “Creators” on Gooble’s PhewTube and the trolls on the internet forums are accustomed. They are made by true craftsmen, not unskilled factory workers using mass-produced components, much less mass-produced Chinese components. Our craftsmen are Japanese gentlemen living and working in Japan using crowns, ferrules, and handles made by them to reasonable tolerances, and the highest-quality hand-forged blades, also made by real Japanese blacksmiths working in their own smithies. Kigoroshi and water soaks are not necessary to setup these chisels, and will in fact harm them.
Second, because our Beloved Customers selected C&S Tools, we assume they are more advanced than the easily-deceived amateurs that typically buy hardware store-grade mass-produced chisels, and therefore actually want to do initial setup in accordance with the highest standards, not the lowest. It’s their choice, of course, but it would be grossly irresponsible of us to advocate lesser techniques like those of the GooberLube posers or the slimy denizens of the internet forum troll pits.
And third, unlike the wholesalers and distributors that peddle hardware store-grade tools overseas at inflated prices, we take our warranty seriously, and therefore actually care about the performance and longevity of the tools we sell. Accordingly, we need our Beloved Customers to set them up properly using the advanced techniques in our tutorial because we have a reputation to protect and a direct financial interest in customer satisfaction.
Five Potential Solutions
We hope the foregoing explanation clears up the original question. In addition, the following list describes five potential solutions to the other problems we touched on above. Sorry, but you’re on your own in the case of Prince Musa:
Purchase only high-quality tools made to reasonable tolerances from quality materials by genuine professional craftsmen and blacksmiths that have long-term relationships and reputations that might be damaged by shoddy quality, not factories;
Buy chisels and other edged handtools only from retailers (like C&S Tools) that both offer and honor a full international warranty on materials and workmanship, one that doesn’t require you to expend additional funds to benefit from. Good luck finding anyone else;
Beware the often well-intentioned posers on Yoogle’s GooTube (or is it Toogle’s YouGube? We forget) who specialize in spinning an ounce of BS into 7 minutes of visual entertainment, all without any responsibility for the accuracy, completeness or honesty of their representations;
Beware the chittering of the pustulous trolls and execrable orcs scuttling about in the fetid darkness of the internet forums;
And last but not least, always remember the most reliable litmus test for veracity: Money Talks and BS Walks (see point 2 listed above).
Or, you can always try the spoon test described above: Bitter lessons teach surest. (ツ)
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 won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.
Three things are needed for success in painting and sculpture: to see beauty when young and accustom oneself to it, to work hard, and to obtain good advice.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
In the previous post in this series about toolchests we examined solutions to two of the Key Performance Criteria I established when planning my toolchest, namely durability and longevity. In this post we will examine the solutions to three more performance criteria: Sealing, Insulation, and Security. It may be long, but I hope our Gentle Readers will at least find it diverting.
Sealing & Insulation
Sealing the toolchest tightly and insulating it are important factors to consider when planning a toolchest, as mentioned in previous posts in this series, because a leaky chest can allow cold air, dust, and insects access to the tools stored inside it, potentially soiling, corroding, and damaging them. There are several details one can include in a toolchest design to minimize this problem. Some of the measures I employed are explained below.
The role of a toolchest’s lid in sealing and insulating it over many years cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, many historical examples eventually failed miserably either through poor design or poor execution. I was determined to avoid those failures.
As I mentioned in previous posts, chests in museum exhibits and books all look great, many having been at least partially restored, but if Gentle Readers want to get a sense of how chests fail, they should also inspect the busted examples in antique stores and restoration shops.
The first common failure I found when inspecting antique chests was a poor seal at the lid. This is almost universal. It frequently stemmed from a poorly-fitting lid, one that probably fit nice and tight when new but warped over time. In other cases, the lid had cracked and split like the seaman’s chest in the photo at the end of Part 2 of this series. Another common problem was due to what could only be an intentional gap on the hinge side of the lid. And then there were the gaps caused by thin, narrow and weak iron hinges secured by short wood screws bending, wearing and/or loosening. So how to avoid these problems?
Let’s look at wood first. A policy that has served me well over the years is to always assume that a solid board of more than a few inches in width will eventually warp if left to its own devices. Of course, in the real world this is not always the case, but I’m a belt & suspenders & safety harness kinda guy. Besides, remember the 200 year useful life-cycle objective.
I also assume that a board more than a few inches wide will eventually split, or cause damage to another board in the assembly, if overly constrained from responding to both normal seasonal changes in humidity and the unnaturally dry conditions created by air conditioning systems inside modern buildings. Am I overly cautious? Perhaps more so than captain Edward Smith of the RMS Titanic was on a cold night in April 1912.
The historical record represented in the museums and antique stores I visited support this assumption in the long-term, especially when one considers the effects of AC and central heating systems lacking expensive humidity controls. Therefore I designed and constructed the lid so it included no constrained boards more than 2-13/16″ inches in width. In addition I also reinforced the lid from warping as a unit to prevent it from self-destructing during the planned 200 year useful lifespan. Not that hard to achieve with a little thought and a few sharp saws and chisels.
The lid is comprised of two main components: A horizontal top which is joined to the lid’s vertical sides. The top is frame and panel construction, a technique which allows the cabinetmaker to build wide, stable surfaces using a joined framework of narrower pieces of wood with free-floating panels set in between. The framing pieces are narrow enough to accommodate cross-grain construction at the joints safely. The larger panels are too wide to permit cross-grain construction without eventually failing, so they are not glued to the frame members, but are free-floating so they can expand/contract with humidity changes without cracking, splitting or breaking the frame. Gentle Readers who have never done F&P work before should learn how. It is a skill every self-respecting maker of solid-wood casework or joinery must have.
The top’s frame consists of 6 pieces of wood 30mm (1-3/16″) thick by 70mm (2-13/16″) wide. Four perimeter pieces are joined at the corners using pinned (wooden dowels) dovetail bridle joints to form a rectangular frame 1,015mm (39-15/16″) x 595mm (23-7/16″). Two pieces of the framing wood divide the long dimension of this rectangle into 3 equal-sized spaces filled with 21mm (13/16″) thick free-floating raised panels using a tongue and groove joint. Both tongues and grooves are coated with Briwax (beesewax and naptha) to prevent glue squeeze-out and paint from gluing the panels into their grooves, something that happens frequently and almost always causes the panels to crack and even split. I just hope that future generations are wise enough to not refinish the chest by glooping paint on these joints effectively gluing the panels in-place eventually destroying the lid. Much excellent antique woodwork has been destroyed by careless painting.
Given the thickness of the frame, the sturdiness of the corner joints, and the quality of the wood, the lid is an extremely stable construction all by itself, one that has not warped or cracked in 25+ years. Good enough, perhaps. But wait, were are my suspenders?!
This top is attached by glue and wooden pins to a vertical four-piece perimeter framework that extends downwards an additional 130mm (5-1/8″) making the total external depth of the lid 160mm (6-5/16″). Theses four vertical boards are also 30mm (1-3/16″) thick, joined at each of their four corners by 7 pinned through-dovetails. Even if the glue fails someday, the pins will keep the dovetails locked in-place. This construction makes the lid assembly extremely rigid and resistant to wracking and prevents the top and sides from warping. This lid assembly has never warped, stuck, bound or even squeaked. Not once.
Besides providing stability and a gap and crack-free seal, this construction creates the space I required to house many heavy tools inside the lid as well as the structural strength to handle the load without noticeably flexing or twisting. This is directly related to Performance Criteria No. 4: Accessibility.
A wide, bold surface like this lid with exposed joints just begs for the addition of engraved metal plates and hand-forged straps of the sort easily obtainable in Japan. I freely admit that decorative hardware would really look cool, but I managed to avoid the temptation because history shows that, if firmly affixed to the wood, metal plates and straps tend to constrain the wood’s natural expansion and contraction often eventually opening joints and cracking wood totally defeating the purpose of the elegant frame and panel construction. None of that nonsense for me, you wascally wabbit.
The Seal Between Lid and Case
Chests made in the tradition of Western countries often have an interlocking lip between lid and base which more or less seals three sides, but which leaves a gap at the hinge side where dust, humidity, cold air, fungi, insects and pixies can enter. That’s nonsense. But what are the realistic options?
One well-published toolchest has the hinges supported on corbels attached to the exterior back wall of the chest. I think this is a clever solution, and one I considered, but ultimately rejected because it increases the toolchest’s overall width by the corbel dimension without increasing internal storage space. I of course considered rubber gaskets, and even magnetic refrigerator gaskets. Either would have sealed well at least until the unavoidable day of reckoning when the rubber and plastic oxidized, cracked and crumbled. They won’t last 200 years anymore than Cher’s beauty will. Oops, sorry. Too late.
The solution I eventually settled on was a detail common to Japanese casework, namely a lip applied to the inside of the lid where it meets the lower case. While not quite airtight, this lip does ensure the lid and case are precisely aligned when closed, that there is no gap at the hinge side, and that very little cold air, dust, fungi, bugs, or even anorexic pixies can infiltrate the toolchest once closed. I used a tough, fibrous, exotic hardwood for this lip that has held up well. The seal is so good that, even with 25 pounds of tools mounted inside the lid, I can drop the lid from full-open and the air-pressure created by this tight seal will make the lid close slowly without a sound. I have not had to replace it in 25+ years, but it would be easy to do if necessary.
This simple detail, combined with the natural thermal properties of the 30mm thick wooden sidewalls and lid, satisfied the criteria for insulation too.
We discussed a few methods involving wood to prevent drafty lids above. Next let’s examine metal hinges.
Another failing of antique chests common to all the traditions I was able to investigate was inadequate and/or poor-quality hinges. When hinges are lose and sloppy when new, or become loose and sloppy over time due to wear and/or corrosion, or when the tiny often poor-quality nails, staples or screws used to attach most hinges loosen and become “idiots” as they say in Japan, the lid won’t align with the case and/or a gap develops between lid and case. Secondary damage results. Dirt, air, bugs and pugilistic pixies infiltrate. It’s the beginning of the end.
Traditional blacksmith-forged iron or steel hinges with decorative engraving or hammer marks are extremely attractive, but they just don’t meet my performance criteria. To begin with, iron/steel always rust. Rust then expands, becomes abrasive, and wears off destroying tolerances, a nasty cycle. Handmade hinges look cool, but tolerances are poor. And most importantly, traditional hinge pins are short and small in diameter with tiny bearing surfaces that wear quickly, and since their ends are peened, they cannot be removed easily. That would never do.
Instead of installing pretty traditional hinges or the cheap hardware-store hinges most people use for chests, I chose to use five solid-brass commercial door hinges with removable steel pins, made possible by the 30mm thickness of the case walls. I give them a dab of oil every couple of years. There is a reason modern door hinges can endure a lot of wear and abuse, and it has nothing to do with historical accuracy, I promise you.
I inset both leaves of these hinges and attached them using 2″ long grade-8 stainless steel screws (made in the USA not China) after dripping glue into the holes. They have not loosened or even developed a squeak in 25+ years.
The long strap hinges used on American and British chests may look sexy, but they often cause the lid to crack and split. Think about it.
More often than not, quality chests have historically had locks of one sort or another installed. If you, Gentle Reader, decide your toolchest needs a lock, you should develop a security strategy early in the design process. Here’s mine.
As part of my day job I have talked with a lot building security experts when planning restricted-access facilities for Clients that have a lot to lose if their corporate secrets are stolen. I’m not suggesting you need 10-lb locks with biometrics, multiple layers of 1/2″ hardened plate steel doors, contact switches, keypads, cameras backed-up in Colorado, or armed guards. But I can share with you something I have learned applicable to cabinetry.
A lock won’t dissuade a determined thief with a crowbar for even a minute, but it may help keep an honest man honest.
But thieves are not all we need to worry about.
Ever have one of your adoring children or your loving spouse (yes, the one that thinks you have too many tools already and should buy new kitchen counters instead) borrow a tool, or even worse, lend it to a friend or neighbor without telling you? How often did that tool find its way back to its proper place in your toolbox or workshop?
How often has one of your precious, carefully-sharpened chisels ended up being used as a combined paint can opener and stirring stick only to spend the following months or years smeared with paint, humiliated, alone, forgotten, sadly weeping behind old paint cans in your neighbor’s garage? Besides the indignity of paint spots (chisels are often vain, you know), imagine the emotional trauma the poor thing suffered. Not to be bourne….
To help preclude this sort of trauma, Gentle Readers have three choices when it comes to casework locks. The first is to use standard locking hardware that requires a modern keyed lock with a tumbler. These work pretty well, but most look ugly in handmade casework. Appearance aside, the real problem is that, given time and privacy, and lacking lock-picking skills, a determined thief will simply break wooden casework with a crowbar. We see this sort of damage in modern cabinets frequently. It’s expensive to repair.
The second choice is to use heavy bars, locks and chains. I use this technique when I ship my toolchest by first padding the chest with plywood and blankets and then running a 10mm hardened-steel chain (chain-hoist chain) around the chest through the hardened-steel lifting eyes on both ends crossing underneath and on top of the case. This I secure with a heavy, high-security padlock underneath the rolling base. Bolt cutters won’t cut the locks or chain, but a largish hydraulic bolt cutter could. Likewise, an angle grinder could get through given some time, noise and sparks. This is a lot of trouble both for me and the thief, but it will absolutely stop a pilferer with a crowbar. 30mm thick sides and lid, remember. But it is not at all practical for routine access to the tools inside.
The third method is to install a lock that is convenient to use but easily defeated so a determined thief won’t destroy the chest in the process of bypassing it. A strange approach, I know, but it is logical and practical. The locking system I selected is a simple, old-fashioned brass half-mortise chest lock. You could pick it with a hairpin if you know how, or pop it open with a clam hammer. It’s quick and easy to lock and unlock, and it deters rugrats, wives, casual pilferers and even pernicious pixies, all while looking classic and unobtrusive. If a determined thief has the opportunity, he can easily break the lock and get in. The upsides are that he can do it without destroying the chest, and you will know he did it. Not ideal, but nothing ever is.
The portability criteria I established during the planning phase required the toolchest be light enough in weight to be carried up stairs by two men when empty. It had to also be easily moved over flat surfaces by one man with a full complement of tools inside.
Gentle Readers may recall the following image of a Japanese kuruma dansu from Part 2 in this series. This tradition served as inspiration for my design.
In Japan this type of chest is called a “kuruma dansu 車箪笥,” which translates to “wheeled chest.”
You may wonder why anyone would need wheels on a piece of casework intended for interior use. The reason is simple practicality: Japan has a long history of urban fires that destroyed entire cities on a regular basis, but the addition of wheels to casework made it possible to quickly roll them out before the house burnt down, thereby saving valuables. Try doing that with a wall cabinet! Or try doing it over unpaved streets with tiny fragile casters screwed to the base of a loaded chest.
Wooden wheels are cool and mecha retro, but I rejected them for two reasons. First, they have solid axles, and if rolled around much both the wheels and the floor will be damaged, a lot, especially if grit and small stones become embedded in the wood. Not practical.
The second reason is more complicated. To begin with I wanted to be able to remove the wheels at times to comply with the maximum height criteria I had established in order to move the chest up narrow Asian stairs. Even with the current design, I need to remove the lid to get it up some stairs, including the house I currently live in.
The wheels in a kuruma dansu not only add a lot of fixed additional height, but that height is volume I would prefer to have inside the chest for tool storage instead of being occupied by an integral undercarriage, wheels and axles. But by using a detachable torsion box base with modern extra-heavy-duty lockable industrial casters with urethane tires, ball-bearings, and crazy pivots (free to rotate around a vertical axis), I was able to raise the chest further above the floor to improve access, satisfy the maximum height and portability criteria, and secure more interior space. If the casters go bad, I can replace them easily without impacting the chest in any way, unlike some examples where the casters are screwed to the bottom of the chest.
Besides, there have been a few years when the toolchest spent time in state (in full view) in our living rooms, and while my wife is Japanese, she simply doesn’t like the appearance of kuruma dansu. Go figure. During those periods, I simply removed the wheeled torsion box and rested the chest directly on the floor. My wife placed a colorful cloth noren over the chest with a flower vase on top. Some of her lady friends from church who visit occasionally liked it enough to ask if I would make chests for them.
Tie-down & Lifting
The performance criteria for tie-down and lifting were as follows: “Can be secured to the walls or floor of a shipping container or moving truck, and lifted by crane quickly and easily and without employing complicated rigging or straps touching the wooden surfaces.”
As seen in the picture above, a hardened steel ring is through-bolted to each endwall of the toolchest. These are not reproductions or homemade rings, but certified load-rated hardware that serves three purposes. First, they make it easy to secure the toolchest to the side or floor of a container or truck. This capability is very important in the case of a toolchest that must make international moves frequently. If you think it would be easier to just have the movers throw blankets over the chest and strap it down, you’re absolutely right. The problem is that the likelihood of those conscientious, patient and gentle professionals that load conex boxes and trucks properly positioning the toolchest so it won’t shift, and then tightening the straps or ropes (if they even bother to use straps or ropes) so they don’t loosen, or scratch and abrade the toolchest, are slim and none, and Murphy always makes sure Slim is drunk on moving day.
The second purpose of these rings is to make it easy for two men to carry the chest by looping straps through each ring and over a 2×4 passed over the chest and placed on each man’s shoulder. This too is a traditional Japanese method of transporting heavy boxes, and is directly related to the “Portability” criteria discussed above.
And third, if I need to chain the chest closed to prevent pilfering, as I do when it is stored in a warehouse, I can pass a hardened chain through the rings, over the top and secure it with a padlock under the base without fear of the chain being slipped off, as described above under “Security.”
Sorry this article was so long. Perhaps these scribbles will suggest some solutions to our Gentle Reader’s tool storage systems.
In the next post in this Homeric tale of mystery and adventure we will take another look at hinges and examine the tools mounted inside the lid.
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 won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May I swallow a thousand needles if I’m lying.