“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”
The “Tsuba” in Tsuba Nomi is the Chinese character 鍔 which means “guard” as in a sword or knife guard.
Two nubs attached to opposing sides of the blade just below the handle look like the guard for a knife or sword. This chisel is driven with a hammer to quickly create a pilot hole for nails or screws. The blade becomes tightly wedged into the wood, but by striking up on these projections with a steel hammer, the blade can be extracted.
This unique chisel comes with blades with round, square, or rectangular cross-sections.
Square and rectagular blades usually have a chisel-point beveled on two sides, but sometimes are beveled on just one side. Round blades may have simple pointed ends, but sometimes they have short triple tines to drive the crushed wood fibers into the hole.
While this chisel severs the wood fibres, unlike an auger, drill, or gimlet, it does not remove material from the hole. The ends of the severed fibers are angled down into the hole, and over time and exposure to humidity and water, will partially swell back to their original shape locking nails in tightly.
This chisel is still used in the wooden shipbuilding industry, but other than that sees very little practical use nowadays. I own one but have have never used it in anger.
“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”
This is the second and final post about the heavy-duty Japanese carving gouges.
The Sotomaru Nomi” 外丸鑿 is what is called an “Incannel Gouge” in the West. “Soto” 外 means “outside” or “external,” “maru” 丸 means “round,” and “nomi” 鑿 means “chisel.” The name corresponds closely to the English language term for incannel gouges.
As with other Japanese chisels, the Solomaru nomi has a thin layer of high-carbon steel laminated to a softer low-carbon steel body with a neck and tang. They also have the ferrule which compresses the handle’s wood to keep the blade’s tang firmly attached to the handle and prevent the handle from splitting, and a crown to prevent the handle from cracking when struck with a steel hammer. Unlike most Japanese chisels, however, they do not have a hollow-ground ura.
The cutting edges differ from their Western counterparts in that the bevel is a single, flat plane, instead of a curved surface. The advantage of this detail when sharpening would be difficult to overstate. The blade can be sharpened on a normal, flat sharpening stone without pesky slips, finger contortions, or heaven forfend, miniature die grinders.
This is an unusual chisel outside Japan, but is indispensable for working round wood and bamboo used in Japan’s sukiya and teahouse construction traditions. Although this chisel has many advantages, it will not waste wood as rapidly as the uchimaru chisel we looked at in the previous post. Its shape is more conducive to cutting precisely curved surfaces than its concave sisters.
The hard steel lamination in this chisel has more support than its brother the uchimaru gouge we looked at in the previous post, making it a bit tougher.
Sharpening is easier and quicker than other gouges because the bevel can be treated as a single flat plane. The area called the “flat” or “ura” on conventional chisels is convex so it can be worked on a flat stone eliminating entirely the need for those pesky grooved stones and slips.
The disadvantage is that the flat bevel/curved cutting edge cannot make clean stopped cuts against 90 degree surfaces. This shortcoming is easily dealt with, however, by making a few more passes.
The sotomaru nomi is perfect for fitting straight line curved surfaces in some situations because its convex surface can ride and index directly on the concave surface being shaped, whereas the more common concave gouge must be tilted at an angle on its axis to cut, with less precision.
Since this chisel can cut parallel to its axis, and does not need to be angled up from the surface being worked to cut, it can cut and carve in much tighter locations than standard gouges.
If you need to make curved cuts at 90° to the workpiece’s surface, as in the photos above, then this chisel is indispensable. I’m sure you can see why this chisel is a must-have for the elegant ” round work” the Japanese love so much.
Another advantage is that the sloped cutting edge can easily make undercuts, something their Western counterpart cannot do. This is an essential performance criteria for accomplishing a few traditional Japanese architectural details such as the edge detail in the beam nose shown in the photo below. Good luck cutting that with a standard gouge!
It’s always nice to have the right tool for the job at hand.
Standard sizes are 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 42mm.
“A good tool improves the way you work. A great tool improves the way you think.”
The name of the Uchimaru Nomi is composed of 3 Chinese characters (kanji): 内 pronounced “uchi “which means “ inside” or “interior,” 丸 pronounced “maru” which means “round,” and 鑿 “nomi” which means chisel.
This gouge has a blade very similar in cross section to its Western counterpart, but unlike Western gouges, it is made of laminated steel, has the combined tang and ferrule construction typical of Japanese chisels, and a crown to reinforce the handle and protect it from violent hammer blows. These are strong chisels used by carpenters to carve large-scale architectural components, and sculptors.
They come in different sizes and sweeps, although not as many as the Swiss make. Some are the size of typical oiirenomi bench chisels; others are the size of the larger heavy-duty atsunomi.
As you can see, these blades are are not hollow-ground.
The relatively hard layer of steel which forms the cutting edge is often subjected to more lateral forces when carving than their straight-bladed cousins, and are sometimes damaged as a result. Professional carvers will hold the thin cutting edge over a small candle flame to reduce the hardness over a small area to reduce this tendency. I’m not recommending this practice, just conveying information.
The technique used for sharpening Japanese gouges is identical to their Western counterparts. To sharpen the outside bevel, typically one will use dedicated sharpening stones with grooves worn into them that are slightly greater than or equal to the radius of the gouge. One removes the burr and polishes the inside curve by using a short stone with a radiused edge.
A piece of leather charged with polishing compound can be used to put a final polish to the bevel. One can also bend this piece of leather to polish the gouge’s inside surface. Easy peezy.
Standard sizes are 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 42mm.
There are also uchimaru gouges made as paring chisels, with longer blades and handles, slimmer necks, and without crowns.
If you need a gouge that that can hog a lot of wood, will take an exceptionally sharp edge and will maintain it a long time, then this is a tool you should consider.
In the next post, we will look at a different type of gouge, one you may not have seen before.
“Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures.”
In a previous post, we looked at various types of oiirenomi (bench chisels) and mortise chisels. In this post we will examine a type of tatakinomi called the “Atsunomi.”
The ”Atsunomi, ” written 厚鑿, translates to “thick chisel.” This is the largest variety of tatakinomi and is almost identical in design to its petite oirenomi sisters. Being larger, heavier and stronger it is able to transmit and endure the impact forces of heavy hammer blows from sunup to sundown and cut a lot of wood. Indeed, I can remember times when the handles of the 24mm and 30mm Kiyotada atsunomi in the photographs on this page became seriously hot after long hours of heavy hammer blows.
The 24mm chisel in the photograph below was the first atsunomi I owned. All three of the Kiyotada atsunomi chisels shown herein have seen hard use with heavy hammers, but have held up well.
If I can liken the bench chisel or oiirenomi to a 1/4″ cordless hand drill, then the atsunomi is a 9 amp 1/2″ corded drill (when combined with the right steel hammer). Serious business indeed.
The atsunomi is ideal for heavy work such as timber framing and wasting large amounts of wood quickly. However, carpenters are not the only trade to use them. Many professional craftsmen in Japan, even those that never work on construction sites, prefer to use atsunomi even for delicate work because of their relatively longer blades, greater durability, and cost-effectiveness.
Because of its greater size and weight, the atsunomi is not as nimble as the smaller varieties of tataki nomi and demand greater strength and skill of the user. But on the other hand, it is very stable in the cut and wastes wood with oodles of gravitas.
As with all tataki nomi, the handle is big enough to use with one hand, but not two. Atsunomi always have a mild steel katsura crown installed at the end of the handle to reinforce it and prevent it from splitting under hammer blows.
Standard widths for atsunomi are: 12㎜, 15㎜, 18㎜, 21㎜, 24㎜, 30㎜, 36㎜, 42㎜, 48㎜.
There are several varieties of atsunomi, some with very wide blades and others with very long necks, but I will not go into that level of detail in this post.
In Part 9 of this saga of romance and derring-do, we will examine the Uchimaru Nomi.
“You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.”
This tool is a specialty mortise chisel with two blades for cutting twin mortises at the same time. It was developed specifically for cutting mortise joints in wooden stiles and rails for doors, shoji, cabinets and other joinery.
Interestingly, double or twin tenons are not called ” nihon hozo” (hozo means ” tenon”) but “ nimai hozo “ (二枚ほぞ) with “ni “ meaning 2. In this case the number is combined with the counter “mai “ used to count flat things like a sheet of paper or tenons. Japanese is almost as messy as English… I blame those pesky Buddhist priests for the complications involved in reading and writing Japanese, but I’m not sure who to blame for English.
The name is a variation of the name of the standard mortise chisel ” mukomachi nomi” in my previous post, and no, I still don’t know what it has to do with ” waiting over there.” In front of this is added ”nihon” (二本) with ” ni” meaning ”2” and ” hon” being a counter for longish things, like pencils or trees, or in this case, blades. The word is pronounced ” knee hone.”
Allow me to wander off the path a bit and talk about the Japanese language since you might find a few details interesting. If you don’t feel international today, please feel free to jump over the next few paragraphs.
The nation of Japan is called “Nihon” or “Nippon “ in the Japanese language and is written with the two characters “Ni “ 日 and ”Hon” 本 sometimes pronounced “pon.” Yes, the same pronunciation and one of the same characters used in nihon mukomachi nomi. Besides being a counter for pencils and trees and longish things, it also means ” book” and ” source. ” The word for the nation of Japan means “The source of the sun,” a jab by the Japanese at an arrogant Chinese emporer some millenia ago.
Spoken Japanese is not that difficult for English speakers to figure out, but the reading and writing are crazy difficult because of the vast quantity of Kanji, the multiple pronunciations possible for most of them, and the multiple meanings attached to many.
Elementary children are required to learn 1,006 kanji characters along with the various meanings and pronunciations. In total, a minimum of 4,272 characters are used in newspapers and magazines and must be learned before graduating middle school. Most educated people in Japan can read well over 6,000 of the over 13,000 registered kanji in Japan. Universal literacy requires a lot of study and memorization at a young age. This should give you an idea why education is so highly valued in Japan.
When I was a young missionary in Japan in the 1970’s, I spent several months stationed to Ehime prefecture in rural areas of the island of Shikoku, back when many farmhouses in that locale still had thatched roofs, no glass windows, and no electricty. Many of the older residents had spent their entire lives on their little farms and could not read or write, and had never seen a brown-haired blue-eyed foreigner before.
But the children in these mountain villages were always excited to see a foreigner and would swarm around and ask us where we were from. My standard response to this somewhat rude but innocent question was to point down at each of my legs and count them saying ”One leg, two legs. I’m a Nihonjin.” The “nihon” I was was jokingly referring to was the same as the mortise chisel which is the subject of this post, not Japanese Nationality which is pronounced identically.
Now you know a stupid pun in Japanese, so never say you didn’t get your money’s worth at this blog!
The twin-blade mortise chisel is exceptionally difficult to make, and even new ones require the owner to perform a significant amount of tuning to convince them to perform well. They have never been common, and I am not aware of anyone forging them now.
The twin tenons this chisel specializes in cutting are almost twice as strong as a larger single tenon, and are the preferred joint for high-stress wooden connections worldwide, especially joints in doors and windows. If you haven’t tried them before, you should. They look pretty cool as through tenons too.
Twin tenons have three advantages that justify the extra work. First, while they may have the same or even less cross-sectional area, they have more surface area than a single tenon in the same space, creating greater friction when assembled, if properly cut, creating a joint that is much more likely to stay assembled when stressed.
Second, this larger surface area also means a larger glue area, a big advantage with the right glue.
And finally, twin tenons are much more resistant to twisting, an huge advantage for highly stressed joints in operable doors and windows. This is their biggest advantage and is nothing to sneeze at. If you want a door to last, always use twin tenons, at least at the bottom rail.
I purchased one of these chisels many years ago. They are difficult to tune. But even after all that work, the gentleman I learned tategu work from many years ago was not impressed with my clever tool insisting that a regular mortise chisel does a better job. There is an obscure structural reason why this makes sense, which I will not delve into here, but I did not ask Mr. Honda at the time for an explanation because it would have been improper to question a master who had been a professional joiner at his level for 60 years.
I can’t get these chisels made anymore, and know of no blacksmith that makes them nowadays. The time is not far away when handmade tools will not be available except as collectors items.
Japanese mortise chisels are called “Mukomachi Nomi” 向待鑿. I am unsure of the origin of the name, but the Chinese characters can be read as meaning “wait over there.” A curious name, it may refer to the shape of the transition from blade to neck, called a “machi” which is unique in Japanese chisels. I will simply call them “mortise chisels.”
Mortise chisels are single-purpose tools for cutting rectangular holes in wood for mortise and tenon joints, the oldest recorded wood joint known.
Unlike other Japanese chisels, and even Western mortise chisels, the sides of the Japanese mortise chisel are shaped square to the “flat” instead of being angled slightly less than 90 degrees. The surfaces of the sides are of course straight along their length, but are either flat or slightly hollow across their width.
Other varieties of chisels have sides angled inwards to prevent the chisel from binding in the cut. This is less than ideal, however, when cutting small mortises because it allows the chisel to twist inside the mortise scoring the sides and reducing precision. The Japanese philosophy is that the blade’s sides should shave and clean the mortise at the same time it is cutting it so the sides don’t require additional cleanup with a paring chisel. Its a matter of precision and efficiency.
The straight flat sides of the mortise chisel have a relatively larger surface area that can create a lot of friction in the cut making extraction difficult in some cases, so the standard maximum width is 15mm.
Many advocate using double bevel cutting edges for Western mortise chisels. I have no problem with double bevels for atsunomi used to cut wide, deep mortises because the double bevel tends to kick more waste out of the mortise hole than a single flat bevel, although double bevels are more trouble to sharpen. But in the case of the standard Japanese mortise chisel, I recommend using a simple flat bevel for two reasons:
The first reason is that, since sharpness is critical for precise work, and a flat bevel is quicker and easier to sharpen, a flat bevel is more precise.
The second reason is that a flat bevel tends to stabilize the chisel in the cut more than a double bevel blade can, keeping it from twisting out of alignment and gouging the sides.
The mortise chisel is a specialist chisel for joinery, cabinetmaking and furniture work. It is not generally used by carpenters. Craftsmen that routinely use mortise chisels work to much tighter tolerances than most woodworkers, so a professional-grade mortise chisel must be forged and shaped to tighter tolerances than other chisels.
I only have one blacksmith with the skills and attention to detail required to make mortise chisels to my specifications. He thinks I’m too picky. I think he’s too stubborn. We’re like an old married couple（ツ).
If you need to cut lots of precise mortise holes quickly, then this tool will definitely improve your results and increase your satisfaction. It may not be the most handsome chisel in your toolchest, but you will come to rely on it more than any other for quality joinery work.
Standard widths for mortise chisels are 3mm, 4.5mm, 6mm, 7.5mm, 9mm, 12mm, and 15mm, but Sukezane won’t make 15mm mortise chisels for me anymore, dagnabit.
More than any other, mortise chisels are subtle, intelligent beasties, or at least they can be. I will talk more about what to look for in a good mortise chisel, as well as how to realize their Einstein-like focus to help you do better work, in future posts.
“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” – Robert Louis Stevenson
So, you finished building that fine cabinet, or 8-panel entry door, or carved balustrade and the day has come to install it at the jobsite. Will you need to cut a bit of gypboard or lath-and-plaster while installing it? Might your chisel get jammed against or into bricks or concrete in the process? Will you need to cut a notch in sandpaper-grit filled plywood or OSB? Any hidden screws or nails in the way that might require more than stern words?
Jobsite installations and remodeling often demand nasty work everyday tools can’t accomplish without serious damage. At that moment, having a tool tougher than the job is the difference between working and whining. This is that tool.
HSS oiirenomi are a modern variation of mentori oiirenomi made using high-alloy steels tougher and more resistant to abrasion and high temperatures than more traditional steels.
These chisels are useful for doing remodeling work and cabinet and equipment installations where plywood, MDF, OSB, LVL, drywall, acoustic board, insulated board, plaster, mortar, underlayment and studs full of hidden nails, and even ALC (autoclaved lightweight concrete) panels need to be cut, trimmed, fitted or demolished. Demolition…Oh joy (not).
Although High Speed Steel (HSS) won’t become as sharp as plain high-carbon steel, and takes more time to sharpen using a grinder and diamond plates, when you need to cut or trim the hard abrasive materials listed above, these blades will keep clippin’ without chippin’ when a standard chisel would be turned into an expensive gasket scraper. Also, one can quickly repair the damaged edge on an HSS chisel with a bench grinder or angle head grinder of the sort found on any construction jobsite without burning or softening the steel, a handy feature indeed.
HSS oiirenomi are hardened using special processes that leave the metal bright instead of creating the black oxide skin typical of standard high-carbon steel blades, an appearance some people find attractive.
Before I tried my first HSS oiirenomi, I kept a couple of old plastic-handled steel-cap Stanley chisels in my toolkit as “beaters” for cutting gritty, abrasive materials. They were soft and instantly dulled, but their edges would dent instead of chipping and were easily repaired. Poor things; some days they ended up looking more like rounded-over wide-blade screwdrivers than wood chisels. HSS chisels are just the ticket for this kind of brutal work.
The chisel pictured above was manufactured by Mr. Usui Yoshio under his brand “Sukemaru” (助丸). He is the fourth generation in this long line of famous blacksmiths.
The blade is one-piece of high-speed steel, not laminated high-carbon steel. The neck, however, is a softer, more malleable stainless steel which adds toughness to the tool while reducing costs.
Interestingly, the blade and neck are not welded together, but are connected by spinning the neck at high speed and forcing it against the stationary blade fusing the two components together more securely than is possible by welding. An amazing sight to see. High-level mechanical engineering going on here, boys and germs.
Standard widths for high-speed steel oiirenomi are 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 21mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 42mm.
“Do not wait; the time will never be “just right.” Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.”
The oldest style of oiirenomi currently available nowadays is called ” kakuuchi oiirenomi” （角打追い入れ鑿）which means ”square-forged oiirenomi,” refering to the squarish shape. In cross section, the blade is rectangular with 4 more-or-less square outside corners. Other than this cross-sectional detail, it is identical in appearance to the mentori oiirenomi we discussed in my earlier post here.
Where the Shinogi Oiirenomi in the previous post is thin and light, the Kakuuchi Oiirenomi is more bulky and heavy. They are also stiffer in the blade and even in the neck, which can be an advantage in narrower widths.
This added stiffness is not due to the extra mass of metal alone, but also to the fact that the steel layer is wrapped further up the blade’s sides than is possible for the thinner beveled sides of the mentori oiirenomi, as you can see in the photos above. Wrapping the high-carbon steel cutting layer up the blade’s softer low-carbon steel sides in this way creates in effect a hardened steel “U” channel with an increased moment of inertia, which makes the blade much stiffer. The thicker the chisel’s sides, the deeper the U channel, and the stiffer the blade.
The U-channel construction of Japanese chisels is a clever but subtle structural detail unique in the universe of chisels and one most people are not aware of.
Carving chisels do not have this U-channel detail and therefore are not as stiff or as tough as chisels that do. When you are considering buying a chisel, this is an important feature to confirm.
Kakuuchi chisels take less time for a blacksmith to shape than the mentori oiirenomi we discussed in Part 2 of this series. The difference in shaping these two styles of chisels is the added step of grinding the extra bevels that make the mentori oiirenomi sleeker.
Indeed, most styles of Japanese chisels can be obtained with a Kakuuchi cross section, including the oiirenomi version shown in my previous post, as well as atsunomi and usunomi, chisels we will examine in future posts.
Kakuuchi-style chisels take a little more effort to sharpen because the area of the bevel is larger, and more significantly, the area of the hard steel layer is greater, but on the other hand, they feel more stable on the stones.
More than a preference for greater weight, stiffness and stability, I suspect most individuals who prefer this old-fashioned chisel are making a fashion statement, something like “brogues not oxfords,” if I can adapt a movie quote.
In my opinion, they are not as elegant in appearance as either the mentori oiirenomi or shinogi oiirenomi referenced in previous posts, but they do have undeniable dignity and presence.
“The best investment is in the tools of one’s own trade.”
The next variety of oirenomi we will look at is called the ”shinogi oiirenomi” (鎬追入鑿).
Shinogi (鎬) means ”ridge” as in the angled ridge of a rooftop or mountain. It is pronounced “she-noh-gee.” I believe the word was borrowed from the sword world where it refers to an angled ridge design on the back edge of Japanese swords (shinogizukuri 鎬造り). This detail is used not only in tatakinomi but in tsukinomi as well.
Shinogi oiirenomi are beveled like mentori oiirenomi but are different in that the bevels extend all the way to the centerline of the blade’s face creating a definite ridge. The thickness of the blade’s right and left edges is typically thinner than oiirenomi making it easier to get into tight corners.
I am very fond of this handy, lightweight style of oirenomi and keep a 10pc set mounted to the inside of my toolchest’s lid.
The downside to this design is that the chisel blade loses some stiffness compared to other styles, so they are less than ideal for heavy-duty wood hogging.
Some call these ” umeki” or ” dovetail” chisels. Indeed, some blacksmiths will grind the bevels to a very thin edge for this purpose.
My blacksmiths will not create these thin edges for three reasons: First, shinogi oirenomi are not all that rigid to being with, and thinning the sides further is inviting breakage. Second, warpage is especially difficult to control in thin cross-sections resulting in more rejects and increased costs. And third, people always cut themselves badly using chisels with sides made thin enough to actually fit dovetails. Neither my blacksmiths nor I want that responsibility.
Most umeki chisels do not have the thin sides most people expect.
If you need very thin, sharp sides, you should grind and polish the bevels yourself. Don’t forget to keep a first-aid kit close by, one you can use with just one hand. Seriously.
Shinogi oiirenomi are available in the same widths as oiirenomi.
In the next post I will introduce an old-fashioned but still useful oiirenomi called the “kakuuchi oirenomi.” Stay tuned.