Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1: Introduction

Hidari no Ichihiro Oiirenomi

It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand

Michelangelo 1475-1564

This is the first in a series of posts that will describe the sharpening procedures your humble servant uses and recommends for Japanese plane and chisel blades.  

The purpose for this lengthy series of posts is to share with our Beloved Customers reliable techniques for sharpening and maintaining the tools we sell. These techniques are standard practice among advanced Japanese professional woodworkers.

Unlike most of what is available on the internet, they are not based on rumors expounded as fact in smelly, troll-infested forums, articles in magazines written by self-educated amateurs, silly videos on NoobTube, or excessive consumption of recreational mushrooms.

This series of 29 posts is not comprehensive, but your humble servant fervently hopes it will disperse some of the confusing fog that seems to swirl around the process of sharpening Japanese woodworking blades.

If it seems less than concise, please understand that it is written with enough detail so even the first-time sharpener can benefit, but with enough advanced techniques to stimulate the interest of even jaded professionals. Of course, if I wrote only for the professionals, then those new to the process would be left confused and frustrated. Likewise, if I wrote only for Beloved Customers new to sharpening Japanese tools, then the professionals reading would begin to make snoring noises (intelligently, of course). I hope you can appreciate the conundrum I face and forgive the solution selected.

I didn’t invent the techniques described herein, but they are nonetheless my techniques, the results of hard experience working with, and lessons learned from, professional craftsmen in Japan over a period of some 30 years, sometimes working as a professional woodworker, and other times working as an employee of two of Japan’s largest “super” general contractors.

This series of posts has 4 objectives: To save you (1) time, and (2) money, and to make your Japanese blades (3) sharper, and (4) cut longer. These benefits are worth obtaining if you are serious about woodworking, as professional woodworkers must be, but the requisite attention to detail and manual skills may not come easy to some. 

Indeed, you may need to unlearn bad habits, and develop new habits, skills and muscle memory in order to achieve these objectives. This is not a 90 minute process but will take weeks, maybe months. It certainly took me years to unlearn my bad habits and develop the necessary skills. I am confident these writings will make the process more efficient for you, if you follow them. I only wish I had the benefit of this information all in one place back in the day.

Of course these are not the only viable solutions available. Many woodworkers are self-taught nowadays and learn how to sharpen from books, magazines, videos, and classes, and have developed methods that work well for them. I am not minimizing those successes, merely proposing methods to further advance their skills.

However, be aware that several of the techniques described herein may directly contradict methods taught by the gurus that make a living scribbling, making videos, and teaching classes about woodworking. These guys achieve popularity and financial success by helping amateurs get better results very quickly after reading only a few pages in their $29.99 book, or attending their 2-hour class. To maintain their popularity and income, the techniques some (but not all) of them promote must be dumb-as-dirt simple, and are often shortcuts and gimmicks yielding “instantaneous gratification,” without the need to actually develop real skills. Nothing wrong with that, but is it good enough for you?

Unlike amateurs satisfied with superficial results, professionals need real skills that yield consistent long-term results. 

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Don’t be shocked, but I am not offering 90 minute gratification in exchange for your money.  I have no “click goals, ” or “SEO strategy” to deploy; I don’t care if you “like” me, “subscribe” to my YubeTube channel” (I don’t have one), or buy access to my online tutorials (don’t do those either). The advice I offer is free, but if you prefer gimmicks to lifetime skills, the techniques described here are not for you. I am sure such Gentle Readers can find some bubble-wrap somewhere to keep themselves entertained.

Do I have a profit motive? Nope, this information is free. I am not a sneaky corporate shill trying to sell books, magazines, videos, advertising space, banners, VPN services, home security systems, sharpening stones, or heaven forfend, powertools with laser sights. I have never been lent or given a tool in exchange for a review, or been wined, dined, laid or paid to write good things about crappy tools. 

Over the years, my professional needs and curiosity lead me to purchase literally hundreds of planes and chisels made by many blacksmiths and companies. The keyword here is purchase. With my own money. Not a single one was ever given or loaned to me. Some I later sold, the good ones I kept. The two points I want to make are: (i) I put my money where my mouth is; and (ii) I have no financial conflict of interest.

I have several motivations for writing and sharing this information. One is simple convenience. Over the years, people have asked me how to sharpen Japanese tools, and I have explained the process in letters, emails, and in person many times. This document is a collection of my scribblings on the subject over several decades, and is intended to make it easier to explain the process.

Another motivation is to ensure that the people who buy the small number of hand-forged tools we sell (our “Beloved Customers”) know how to properly sharpen them, so that those tools will provide long, productive, high-performance service. Our tools deserve to be properly maintained.

With few exceptions, when people experience difficulties with Japanese woodworking tools the causes are not defective tools but rather their poor understanding of basic sharpening principles and lack of experience. Without exception everyone with aspirations to be an excellent woodworker must go through that learning process at least once. We hope this series or writings will help make it a little less confusing.

But my primary motivation is to fulfill a promise I made to freely share the techniques I learned from the many carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, tool makers and professional sharpeners in Japan who taught me. In exchange for this free advice all I ask of you, Beloved Customer, is an open mind and eager hands. Please, don’t cut either of them.

This adventure will continue in Part 2. But be forewarned, the price of admission may double. (ツ)

YMHOS

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

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the bird of paradise fly up my nose.

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

2 thoughts on “Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1: Introduction

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