Chisel Handles – The Right Wood

Japanese White Oak acorns

The Right Wood for the Right Place 適所適材

Old Japanese Saying

Our customers outside of Japan frequently need some information to help them select the best wood for their chisel handles. In this post I’ll describe the woods available and the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you make an informed decision.

The chisels we sell all have wooden handles in several varieties of wood, the two most common being Japanese White Oak and Japanese Red Oak. We also can provide handles for some chisels in Gumi (Silverberry wood), Ebony, and Rosewood. Let’s look at White Oak first.

Japanese White Oak

巨樹 シラカシ
Japanese White Oak tree

Japanese White Oak (JWO) is very similar to American White Oak in that it is closed grain, dense, and has medullary rays. The color is a little whiter than the American or European varieties, and in fact, it’s a little denser and stronger than either. It holds up well to being struck with steel hammers.

JWO is not a slick wood when dry and does not become slippery when wet, important characteristics in a tool handle where staying attached to the blade and staying secure in a sweaty hand while being pounded on are part of the job.

Like White Oak everywhere, it contains tannic acid. In fact, bark and chips from this wood have been used since before written history to tan leather because this chemical converts animal skins that would otherwise rot into durable leather. Tannin, which is the base word of both tanning and tannic acid, comes from the medieval Latin word tannāre, a derivative of tannum (oak bark), from which the tannic acid compound is derived.

Tannic acid can react with some people’s sweat causing the wood to turn a dirty grey color. This tendency is not strong among the Japanese people, but it is among many caucasians, including me.

This discoloration in no way weakens or harms the wood, it just makes it look dirty.

JWO generally has a bland, indistinct grain with few flecks, not a problem for a tool handle or plane block, but less than ideal for furniture.

Usunomi with Japanese White Oan handle

Japanese Red Oak

赤樫,どんぐり
Japanese Red Oak acorns

Japanese Red Oak (JRO) is as different from American Red Oak as the “the moon and a mud turtle,” as they say over here. It is a much more useful wood.

Similar to JWO, Japanese Red Oak is closed grain and also has medullary rays. It contains much less tannic acid, and ranges in color from a dark red (difficult to obtain nowadays) to a pinkish red.

JRO has been prized in Japan for tool and weapon handles since forever. Indeed, JRO is the preferred wood for the bokken wooden swords used in the martial arts. The better grades are denser than White Oak with a more interesting grain. Unfortunately, this grade of Red Oak has become difficult to obtain.

Japanese Red Oak tree

As with Japanese White Oak, Red Oak is not a slick wood when dry and does not become slippery when wet.

There are unscrupulous people that dye less colorful pieces of Red Oak a dark red color to jack up the price. We don’t deal with such slimy people and our JRO handles are all authentic. Caveat emptor, baby.

JRO has the advantage of discoloring less than JWO over time and tends to look cleaner longer. It makes a more attractive handle.

赤樫 大木
Japanese Red Oak tree

The downside to the JRO generally available nowadays is that it is a little less dense than White Oak. I consider Japanese Red Oak to be the perfect wood for paring chisels, and Japanese White Oak the perfect wood for atsunomi chisels. Either wood works fine for the smaller oiirenomi bench chisels.

Kotenomi paring chisel with Japanese Red Oak handle

Gumi

Gumi (Elaeagnus multiflora or cherry silverberry) is more a hedgewood or bush than tree. It has historically been cultivated primarily for the fruit it bears. It is stronger than Japanese White Oak, but lighter in weight. It has a distinctive yellow color that some people find attractive. I don’t get the attraction, but must admit it has a striking appearance.

Gumi makes a fine, durable handle. It is a more expensive material. My handlemaker has shorter pieces suitable for oiirenomi handles in-stock, but nothing longer.

Hammer handles of Gumi wood

Gumi handles are custom order.

Ebony and Rosewood

Ebony and Rosewood make elegant, durable, well-balanced handles for paring chisels, which are never struck with hammers and therefore unlikely to crack. But material costs are quite high. They are also custom order items that take some time to fabricate.

Oirenomi and atsunomi and other types of tatakinomi with ebony or rosewood handles look great. And in the case of amateurs that buy such chisels (from other sources) just to collect and/or admire, I have nothing to say. But we sell professional-grade tools to be used on real-world jobsites and in workshops by serious craftsmen for serious cutting, not to become safe queens. Using ebony and rosewood handled oirenomi or other varieties of tatakinomi to do real work is like wearing Jimmy Choo stilletto heels to a construction site.

Yes, Jimbo makes elegant shoes. And if your ensemble is well thought-out, a pair of his heels will make your legs look mahvelous dahling, simply mahvelous. Sadly, they will neither last long nor get the job done. Other workers will mock you behind your back. And embarrassing stuff will happen at the worst possible time.

Women. simply do not belong on construction sites... This is a scene from a TV show called Parks and Recreation. This woman is an actor. This woman was paid to fall like that. That woman is not actually that dumb.
Well…. that was embarrassing!

For warranty reasons, we do not sell tatakinomi of any kind with handles of ebony or rosewood. They are too easily and irreparably cracked/damaged if struck with a steel hammer. Professionals will not purchase, and we will not sell, such silly tools.

Customs Duties

While it has not been a problem so far, importation of some exotic hardwoods such as Brazilian rosewood into the United States can be a problem, according to the guitar makers I know and information on the infallible internet (ツ). If you order handles made from these woods, please be aware that you become the responsible importer once such materials cross into the jurisdiction of your local Customs Office. They may confiscate your tools or levy fines. The risk is all yours. That said, it has not been a problem so far.

Not encouraging, I know, but customs services worldwide are in the business of making literally tons of money every hour by taxing the entire world using their absolute authority within their bailiwick, and lots of guns. The most profitable income source for governments, as you know, is not taxes but making and circulating money (literally manufacturing money), followed by customs fees. Such it has always been; such it will always be.

On the other hand, we have experienced difficulties and customs duties in only two countries, namely Spain, which is notorious for once charging confiscatory import duties on gunpowder and cannonballs brought into Spain by Great Britain to free that country from Napolean’s armies during the French occupation.

Australia was brutally difficult on one occasion, but that incident may have been driven more by dazzling government incompetence rather than enforcement of the country’s importation laws.

Conclusion

For standard oirenomi and other tatakinomi intended to be struck with a steel hammer, either White Oak or Red Oak are entirely adequate and cost-effective. White Oak is a little stronger, but its appearance does not improve with use or age. Red Oak is not quite as dense and strong, but it is sufficient for these chisels and looks better over time.

For wider Atsunomi and Mukomachinomi (mortise chisels) which will see heavy use, White Oak is the best choice due to its higher density and superior strength.

If cost and delivery time is not a concern, you like the yellow color and want to be different, then gumi is an excellent choice for oiirenomi. It’s the same as the difference between brown leather work boots and tan-colored Timberland boots.

For usunomi and other paring chisels not intended to be struck with a steel hammer, Red Oak is the best choice, IMO, but White Oak will perform just as well. Gumi is not an option. Ebony and Rosewood look beautiful and feel nice (if you don’t have allergies to Rosewood), but are expensive and require lead time.

I hope this has been helpful.

I remain,

Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Related image
A piece of hot high-carbon steel, which will become the cutting edge, has been placed on the orange-hot low-carbon steel body of a knife. An acidic flux powder has been placed in-between and on the metals in preparation for forge laminating them together into a single blade.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” 

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

If you are reading this, it’s safe to assume you are interested in sharpening woodworking blades. You may have little experience with Japanese tools, and even then you may not be aware of some of their important details. In this post we will try to remedy that by examining some simple historical points common to woodworking blades around the world, as well as some details that make Japanese blades unique.

I believe an understanding of these basic facts will you aid your sharpening efforts, or will at least tickle your interest in Japanese blades. Please comment and let me know your thoughts.

Laminated Bi-Metal Construction

As discussed in previous posts in this series, before technological advances in the 1800’s steel was difficult to make and expensive. Consequently, it was standard practice not only in Japan, but everywhere including Europe and the United States, to reduce costs by minimizing the amount of precious steel used to make axe, scythe, plane and chisel etc. blades by laminating smallish pieces of high-carbon steel to softer and much cheaper wrought-iron bodies through a process called “forge welding.”

Most chisel and plane blade blacksmiths in Japan continue to employ this lamination technique even today, not out of some navel-gazing preference for the archaic, but because it has serious advantages.

A 30mm Hidarino Ichihiro Atsunomi, approximately 12″ OAL.

The best Japanese plane and chisel blades are generally comprised of a layer of very hard high-carbon steel called “hagane” (鋼) in Japanese, forge-welded to a softer low-carbon (ideally no-carbon) iron body called “jigane” (地金). We discussed both of these metals in the previous two posts in the series. Here and here.

Why go to so much trouble? One advantage of this construction is that it allows the cutting edge to be made much harder, and therefore cut effectively longer than a blade of uniform hardness. For instance, a blade made entirely of steel hardened to HRC65 might cut very well, but it would break or shatter in use. And even if it did not break, it would be time consuming and irritating to sharpen such a wide expanse of hard steel. Remember, the harder a piece of steel is the more work it takes to abrade it.

A 42mm Hidarino Ichihiro Oiirenomi

By combining a thin layer of this very hard steel with a thicker layer of soft low-carbon steel or wrought iron the blade can be made thick, rigid, resistant to breaking, and will hold a sharp edge relatively longer while still being easy to sharpen. This once-common ancient structure is clearly superior to all other structural systems for planes and chisels at least.

Laminated Blades in the West

If you have examined antique plane blades with wooden bodies you may have noticed many have blades stamped ” Warranted Cast Steel”

Despite being designated “cast steel” in England and America in past centuries, unlike Conan’s Daddy’s sword, or the orc blades made by in Isengard, plane, chisel and saw blades with this mark were not “cast” by pouring molten metal into a mold to form a blade. Rather the process to make the steel involved melting steel in a crucible and pouring it into molds “casting” a piece of high-carbon steel which is then forged to make the blade, hence the name.

This technology was widely used in the United States and Europe through the 1860’s. In fact, one steel mill is said to have been producing crucible steel until the 1960’s. Toolmanblog has an interesting summary on cast steel.

With few exceptions, these plane blades have a thin piece of high-carbon steel forge-welded to a soft wrought iron body, very similar to Japanese plane blades. I have used a couple of these antique blades to make Krenovian planes and testify of their excellent cutting ability.

Chisels were also once made in Europe using this same lamination technique, although fewer examples remain extant.

Axes, hatchets, and many farming implements were also mass-produced up until the 1920’s in the US using a variation of this same technique with a “bit” of steel forming the cutting edge laminated to or sandwiched inside a body of low-carbon steel or wrought iron. Axes are still made this way in Japan. It’s a proven technique with a lot of advantages, but it does require a skilled blacksmith to pull off successfully.

The point I am trying to make is that blades made using forge-welded laminated technology were the very best available in Europe and the United States for many centuries. It is sad that this superior technology has been discarded and forgotten except in Japan, but wars and economics change everything while people remain the same.

Here is a link to a blog post by Paul Sellers where he praises the old chisels and laments the new.

U-Channel Construction

A closeup of the 42mm Hidarino Ichihiro Oiirenomi showing the lamination line between the steel cutting layer and low-carbon steel body of the blade
The same 42mm Hidarino Ichihiro Oiirenomi. Notice the hard-steel lamination wrapped up the blade’s sides to add rigidity.
A 30mm Hidarino Ichihiro Atsunomi, approximately 12″ OAL. Notice the hard steel lamination forming the cutting edge at the bevel. This is a beautiful lamination.
A beautiful hand-filed shoulder detail typical of Yamazaki-san’s work

The shape of the hard steel cutting layer laminated to the softer low-carbon steel (or wrought iron) body was historically a simple flat plate in Western blades. This is also the case for Japanese plane blades, axes, and farming implements. But if you imagine Japanese blacksmiths would be satisfied with such a simple design for all applications, you don’t know the Japanese mind well.

Notice the lighter-colored hard steel lamination wrapped up the chisel’s sides in the four photographs above forming a “U channel” of hardened steel adding necessary rigidity and strength. This is a critical detail for Japanese chisels intended to be struck with a hammer. Interestingly, carving chisels are not typically made this way.

Plane blades are not subjected to the high loads chisels experience and so would not benefit from this structural detail.

The Ura

Japanese chisel and plane blades, among others, typically have a hollow-ground depression called the “Ura” (pronounced “ooh-rah”) which translates to “ocean” or “bay,” located at what is called the “flat” on Western blades. Notice the polished hard steel lamination extending from the cutting edge to several millimeters up the neck. The black area surrounded by the shiny lands is the same hard metal, but has been ground to form a hollow called the “ura.”

This clever and effective design detail is unique to Japanese tools to the best of my knowledge. We will look at this design detail more in the next post in this series.

The Point

What does any of this have to do with sharpening? Glad you asked. This design has some potential disadvantages that have been cleverly turned into distinct advantages you need to understand when sharpening Japanese woodworking blades.

For instance, the layer of high-carbon steel laminated into our chisels and planes is usually 64~65 HRc in hardness. The typical Western blade is made much softer at 50~55 HRc to avoid breakage. This extra hardness makes the blade stay sharper longer, an important benefit if your time is worth anything. This is good.

But if the entire blade were made of a solid piece of this extra-hard steel, it would a royal pain in the tukus to sharpen, I guarantee you. It would also break. That would be bad.

The softer low-carbon/no-carbon steel or iron body, however, is much softer and easily abraded making it possible to keep the hard steel layer thin, and therefore easily abraded, while protecting it from breaking. This is good.

Unlike the blade’s bevel, however, the ura is all one-piece of hard steel. Without the ura depression, you would need to abrade all that hard steel to initially flatten and regularly sharpen the blade, a necessity I guarantee would ruin your mellow mood without massive quantities of controlled substances. But with the addition of the ura detail, we only need to abrade the perimeter planar lands (the shiny areas in the photos above) around the ura. This is exceedingly good.

The ura depression makes it easier and quicker to not only sharpen the blade, but also to to keep the “flat” planar (in a single plane). Without the ura, such a hard blade would be difficult to maintain planar and frustrating to sharpen. With the addition of the ura, the blade is genius.

An important skill to learn when sharpening Japanese blades is how to maintain the lamination and ura effectively. We will discuss this important subject more in future posts.

Conclusion

If you didn’t learn at least three new things from this post then you are either very smart or weren’t paying attention. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In the next installment in this bodice-ripping tale of romance and derring-do we will examine the hollow-ground “Ura” in more detail. It’s important enough to deserve a special post.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the question form located immediately below.

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Albert Einstein

In the previous post on sharpening Japanese woodworking tool blades we looked primarily at the nature of the hard high-carbon steel used in making woodworking blades. In this post I will try to dispel some of the confusion that surrounds the other metal used in making most Japanese knives, axes and woodworking blades, namely the soft low-carbon steel called “Jigane” (地金). I hope this brief explanation will improve your understanding of some Japanese tools and aid your sharpening efforts.

Sources of Jigane

Most Japanese knives and woodworking blades are comprised of a thin piece of hard high-carbon steel, discussed in my previous post, forge-weld laminated to a piece of softer low-carbon steel or wrought iron called “Jigane” (地金) in Japanese, which translates directly to “ground metal.”

I will write more about this bi-metal lamination in the next post in this series, but for now take my word that it is essential to the performance of many types of Japanese cutting tools nowadays, and for many centuries was critical to manufacturing cutting tools in America and Europe as well.

The best jigane material for plane blade bodies is said to be scrap iron from the boilers of old trains, boats, and factories, etc.. Such boiler tanks were subjected to thousands of heating and cooling cycles during their years in service which drove out impurities, including carbon, making the iron very soft to the point of weakness.

The most desirable jigane for plane blades is called “tired” iron, named because it is not only soft, but looks weak and exhibits a visible grain along with cracks and imperfections which those familiar with Japanese plane blades covet.

A pile of jigane, probably old salvaged structural steel. Looks like boards of old wood, but it ain’t.

Wrought Iron Production

Nowadays, this very low-carbon steel, also known as “ wrought iron” is not produced in any volume for several reasons. First, demand is just too low to make it worthwhile to manufacture. Hand-forged ornamental iron is the only commercial usage besides Japanese tools, truly microscopic markets.

The second reason is that steel manufacturing processes have changed drastically in the last 100 years. For instance, it used to be that steel began as iron ore, basically rocks and dirt, which was melted and refined into low-carbon wrought iron, so wrought iron was an intermediate product of steel production. Indeed, this low-carbon product was much less expensive to produce than high-carbon steel and so was used for everything from the boilers, bridges, trains, ships and anchor chains mentioned above to axes, chisels, farming implements, machinery, what’s called “miscellaneous metals” in the construction industry, and of course plane blades. There are still a few surviving structures that were made using this archaic material.

Nowadays, things are very different. Carbon is incorporated into the steel early in the manufacturing process, so low-carbon wrought iron never becomes an intermediate product.

Also, scrap metal has become critical to steel manufacturing processes nowadays. Remember what happened to steel prices worldwide when China was buying up huge volumes of scrap metal worldwide for its Olympic infrastructure building projects?

I think we can agree that this energy-efficient cost-reducing recycling of natural materials, one that was hardly an option 150 years ago, is a very good thing. But it does have a tiny downside, namely that most commercially-available scrap metal available in any useful volume today has been through the modern steel-manufacturing process many times and already contains not only high levels of carbon, relatively speaking, but alloys such as chrome, molybdenum, and nickel from previous melting pots. Indeed, undesirable chemicals such as phosphorus, sulfur and silica tend to be high in general junkyard scrap metal. On the other hand, keeping these unintended alloys and impurities under control is a serious challenge for manufacturers of tool steel.

In summary, wrought iron simply isn’t made anymore, and it is not a sustainable, profitable product.

Japanese blacksmiths making high-quality plane blades nowadays mostly use wrought iron recycled from old anchor chains, old iron bridges, or other recycled iron structural components. If you see a hole in a plane blade, like the extra-wide plane blade pictured at the top, it once housed a rivet. Yes, structural steel was once connected with hot rivets instead of bolts. Hi-tensile modern bolts are better.

Plane Blades

A plane blade by Ogata-san in his “Nami no Hana” series using Swedish Asaab K-120 steel. Notice not only the fissures and defects, but also the striations and grain typical of soft, tired “wrought iron.”

Mr. Takeo Nakano (see his photo below) makes my plane blades. He is a kind, quite man with the outward appearance of a sedentary grandfather, but when using hammer and tongs at his forge within his dark smithy, his posture and visage reminds me of an intense Vulcan reinforcing the gates of Hades.

Like nearly all the plane blacksmiths in Niigata, he uses scrap iron obtained in a single lot many years ago from an iron bridge that was dismantled in Yokohama Japan.

Mr. Nakano at home

I am told that most of the jigane used for plane blades in Hyogo Prefecture is old recycled anchor chains.

The fissured and cracked jigane of a a 70mm plane blade by Usui Kengo, another Niigata blacksmith (RIP). Notice the rod which retains the chipbreaker is non-existent, replaced by two short stubs. An elegant detail in this plane body by Ito-san (Soh 宗).
The back of the same Usui plane blade. Notice the cracks and inclusions in this excellent jigane exposed at the polished bevel. Very wabi-sabi. This jigane was once part of an iron bridge in the city of Yokohama, Japan.

In the case of plane blades, structural strength is not critical, so laminating a thin layer of high-carbon steel to form the cutting edge to a soft iron body is adequate. Indeed, the thicker the hard steel layer, the more time and effort it takes to sharpen the blade, so in a high-quality blade the thicknesses of the high-carbon steel layer and the soft jigane body will be carefully balanced to ensure the blade’s bevel rides the sharpening stones nicely and can be quickly abraded.

Plane blade blacksmiths use the same strip jigane used for chisels for making less-expensive plane blades.

Chisel Blades

In the case of chisels, while ease of sharpening is still important, the body and neck must be harder/stiffer to prevent them from bending, so a different, stiffer variety of jigane with a higher carbon content and fewer defects is used, and the steel layer is typically made thicker.

The jigane used by my chisel blacksmiths is a commercial product not produced anymore (thank goodness they have stockpiles) called “gokunantetsu” 極軟鉄 which translates directly to “extremely soft iron.” With a carbon content of 0.04~0.07%, a better description would be “very low carbon steel.” When heated and quenched, it doesn’t harden much.

The adventure will continue in the next exciting episode where we will bring it all together into a blade. Don’t forget to have popcorn and jujubes ready.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form immediately below.

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 13 – The Shinogi Usunomi 鎬薄鑿 Paring Chisel

“All times are good for those who know how to work and have the tools to do so.”

Carlos Slim

The shinogi usunomi is another variety of paring chisel in the tsukinomi family.

Kiyotada Shinogi usunomi

We examined the word ” shinogi” in a previous post. https://covingtonandsons.com/2019/06/01/the-varieties-of-japanese-chisels-part-3-the-shinogi-oiirenomi/

It means ”ridge” as in the ridge of a mountain, or a building’s roof, or the back of some Japanese swords. Shinogi-style chisels have two wide bevels on their face that meet at the bkade’s centerline creating a ridge. Sometimes there is a narrow flat at the top of the ridge, depending on the blacksmith’s style and customer request.

If the atsunomi is the draught horse, the oiirenomis are the quarter horse, and the usunomi is the falcon of the chisel world ( the one in my slightly addled head, that is), then the shinogi usunomi is a Goshawk, severe in appearance, fierce, strong, fast, and skilled at maneuvering nimbly in tight situations.

Shinogi usunomi have these same two bevels and center ridge as the shinogi oiirenomi. The side edges tend to be thinner than standard usunomi, and with less material in the way, they are often just the ticket for paring into right corners. And because the ridge is higher than the standard usunomi is thick, they tend to be a bit more rigid.

And of course, since it is an usunomi (meaning “thin chisel”) it has a relatively longer and more slender neck and handle, and no crown.

A pox on anyone that would strike one of these beauties with a mallet or hammer.

One downside to this design is that the ridge down the face, which increases the overall thickness of this chisel, may make it difficult to pare down into skinny mortises. Another potential downside, but not one that bothers me, is that the ridge is not as comfortable to press on with your fingers when paring. I find this ridge gives my fingers a better sense of the blade’s precise location in my hand and in the cut. This is all personal preference that can only be evaluated through experience using both varieties of usunomi.

You may be able to tell from my choice of words that I am fond of shinogi usunomi. Indeed, I admit to prefering them. I like how they look. I like how they feel. I like sharpening them. I like how they cut. I like how the extra clearance on the side lets me see what I am paring. Subjective? Of course. And I admit they can’t do all jobs. The standard usunomi is probably a better general-use paring chisel.

The shinogi usunomi is a serious tool for serious work that looks good while doing it.

YMHOS

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YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the question form located immediately below.