Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

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

Michelangelo 1475-1564
Hidari no Ichihiro Oiirenomi

This is the first in a series of posts that will describe the sharpening procedures I use and recommend for Japanese plane and chisel blades.  

This long series of posts is not comprehensive, but I hope it will at least remove some of the confusing fog that seems to swirl around the process of sharpening Japanese woodworking blades.

I didn’t learn the techniques outlined in this document from books, magazines, DVDs, tool retailers/importers/distributors, the internet, or even woodworking classes. They are the result 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, 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 months, maybe years. It certainly took me years to unlearn my bad habits and develop the necessary skills. These tips should make the process more efficient for you.

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 tools. 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. 

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 YouTube 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 skills, the techniques described here are not for you. 

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, sharpening stones, or heaven forfend, powertools with laser sights. I have never been lent or given a tool in exchange for a nice review, or been wined, dined, laid or paid to write good things about crappy tools. 

Over the years, my professional needs and curiosity have 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 that I put my money where my mouth is; and that 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 I sell know how to properly sharpen them, so that those tools will provide them long, productive, high-performance service. Tools have feelings too.

But my primary motivation is to fulfill a promise I made to freely share the techniques I learned from the many carpenters, woodworkers, blacksmiths, tool makers and professional sharpeners in Japan who taught me. In exchange for this free advice all I ask of you, Gentle Reader, 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.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

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