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