The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 14 – The Kote Nomi (鏝鑿Trowel Chisel)

You cannot mandate productivity, you must provide the tools to let people become their best.

Steve Jobs

This post will be a little different from my normal post for several reasons. First, because although I love this tool, I can’t procure them anymore, so it is more of a show and tell. And second, because I have a couple of stories to tell about the blacksmith that made it, and the store that sold it to me.

The Kotenomi

The kote nomi is written 鏝鑿 in Chinese characters meaning ” trowel chisel.” It is not an elegant name, but is accurately descriptive. It is essentially the same as the Western ” cranked-neck chisel. ” It is used to pare grooves, dadoes, sliding dovetails, rabbits and mortises, anywhere the handle of a regular paring chisel would get in the way.

The sides have a steeper bevel than regular chisels, much like a shinogi usunomi, to help it get into tight places and cut right up against the sides of sliding dovetail groves, dadoes, etc..

These are not easy chisels to sharpen because of both the offset, and the tendency for the neck to get in the way.

This is one of those chisels that you may not need often, but when you do need it, you need it badly.

Kiyotada kotenomi
Kiyotada kotenomi

The shape of the Kiyotada kotenomi in the 3 photographs above is graceful, elegant and minimalist. The filework is very nice. The black oxide skin is consistent, indicative of a perfect heat treat. The blade, made of Shirogami No.1 steel (aka “White Steel 1”) is, unsurpassed by anything I have experienced. It is one of those rare tools that clears the mind as it cuts wood.

Background

The kotenomi in the pictures above have an interesting back story. It was forged by a famous and exceptionally skillful blacksmith named Kosaburo Shimamura (島村幸三郎)using the brand ”Kiyotada” (清忠). It is not the standard Japanese kotenomi in terms of design, appearance or performance, but is based on those forged by an even more famous blacksmith named Hiroshi Kato (加藤廣1874-1957) under the name of Chiyozuru Korehide (千代鶴貞秀), one of Japan’s greatest tool designers and blacksmiths. Much of his work is seen as great works of art in Japan.

As Mr. Ichiro Tsuchida told the story to me, he lent one or more of his collection of Chiyozuru Korehide kotenomi to Mr. Shimamura and asked him to forge some just like it to sell in his tool store Sangenjaya in Tokyo. After much trial and error, Mr Shimamura succeeded in approximating the Chiyozuru design in the chisels shown here.

As you can see from the pictures, the blade’s sides are sloped inwards from ura to face, a detail that provides clearance when cutting sliding dovetails, a joint this tool excels at making.

I use it, as well as my other Kiyotada kotenomi, for making dadoes, rabbets, and inletting swamped rifle barrels in reproduction flintlock barrels (sadly, I can’t pursue that activity here in Japan).

As you can see from the photo below, standard kotenomi are very clunky in appearance and crudely finished compared to Shimamura’s chisel, with a more abrupt, angular transition between neck and blade, whereas the handle in the Kiyotada design approaches the neck at more of an angle, a detail that stiffens the neck, reduces the bending moment on the neck/blade junction, and helps force flow into the blade more smoothly.

The standard model works just fine, but a comparison of their the appearance and tactile qualities would be like a Lear jet and Cessna 172: both vehicles will get you there, but the speed, comfort and style will vary.

Standard kotenomi chisel (face view)
Standard kotenomi chisel (shoulder view)

The Kiyotada Brandname

A bit if trivia some may find interesting. The Kiyotada brandname was registered by, and remains the property of, a tool store in Tokyo called ” Suiheiya” (水平屋).

Suiheiya means ”level store,” probably named for the bubble-level tool imported from the West and which is so critical to construction and other trades. This store is old and was once the largest tool retailer in Japan. Last time I visited it was still large and packed to the concrete rafters with planes and chisels.

I first visited Suiheiya when I was a student in Tokyo in the ‘80’s when the premises was a 2-story wooden structure probably built right after the end of WWII. The proprietor was an old sourpuss who had no patience with foreigners and treated me like a shoplifter-in-training with a turd perched on my head. For some reason I can’t put my finger on I didn’t visit the store frequently, but I did buy this and other tools from him.

But I digress. Shimamura San made chisels and knives for Suiheiya his entire career and marked those tools with Suiheiya’s own Kiyotada brand. I suppose it would have seemed silly, or at least confusing, to mark a chisel or knife with a brand that could only be read as ”bubble level.”

I’m unsure how it happened, but as his products became more famous Shimamura-san made chisels for other retailers using the same Kiyotada brand. I was told by the owner of Suiheiya that Shimamura-san used the Kiyotada brand for all his products with Suiheiya’s permission.

By the way, although Shimamura-san has gone to the big lumber yard in the sky, Suiheiya continues to sell planes and chisels with the Kiyotada brand, although they are not made by Shimamura-san, who is busy with more important matters nowadays.

Sadly, my blacksmiths won’t make kotenomi for me anymore. I tend to be picky about quality, and with Kiyotada’s kotenomi as the standard, you can see why customer satisfaction in my case is difficult.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

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

7 thoughts on “The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 14 – The Kote Nomi (鏝鑿Trowel Chisel)

  1. WOW, that Kote nomi is so elegant and pleasant to the eye! Really nice details, fit and finish! Beautiful lines!! I sent a few pictures of it to some friend that might know where I could find one… Or maybe you know where I could find one?

    Cheers
    David

    Like

    1. David:

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I have four more I had Kiyotada make for me back in the day, but I did not include pictures. I will try to add them later so check the post in a few days.

      You might be able to find one on a auction site like yahoo Auction Japan or Mericari, but I don’t recall ever seeing one. There were never that many in existence.

      Stan

      Like

      1. I guess I won’t hold my breath on finding one! But they are really nice!! I’m sure there are other smith that do great work like that, things that are really nice in attention to details, but not the bling you get from fancy wood or damas steel, but just “simple” beauty, just like a finely crafted knife, or even better a nicely made hunting rifle with a nice wooden stock, open sight on a perfectly polished blued action and barrel, things made by people that care, but are not showoff…. If that make sense!!
        Thank you again!
        David

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s