“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings”
The story of C&S Tools is not one of a business looking for products to sell, or of a manufacturer looking for buyers, but of craftsmen looking for better tools.
I have lived and worked in Japan for many years, and learned about Japanese woodworking and Japanese tools from serious professional craftsmen called “shokunin.” They included primarily carpenters and joiners, gentlemen that were obsessed with the performance of their tools. They influenced me to seek out the best handmade woodworking tools available, including chisels, planes and saws because better tools help one work more productively while making the job more pleasant. I am still absolutely convinced that is true.
I bought many different brands of tools back in the 8o’s and tested them. I asked craftsmen who’s skill and work impressed me what brands of chisels and planes and saws they used. After years of trying various brands, in the end, I concluded that Kiyotada and Ichihiro made the best chisels and Yokozaka Masato made the best plane blades available at the time. Over the next ten years, I disposed of my other chisels and planes and built up sets of chisels and planes by these blacksmiths.
My work has required me to move many times. In 2009 I was transferred back to Tokyo from Southern California, but the moving company mistakenly placed all of my chisels and planes in storage in the US instead of shipping them to Tokyo, so for several years I did not have access to them.
I no longer use my tools to feed the family, but still enjoy woodworking as both hobby and therapy to help maintain my sanity, so life in Tokyo without my tools was lacking something important. I tried to purchase a few of my favorite tools by Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka but found they were no longer available, and because of the Kezuroukai effect, even used ones had doubled in price. Only Yokozaka-san was still alive, but once again, the Kezuroukai effect resulted in long waiting lists and inflated prices for his planes. I eventually purchased a 10pc set of oiirenomi chisels from a retailer I trusted under the brandname Kiyohisa because, while the retailer warned that Kiyohisa’s products were nowhere near as good as Kiyotada or Ichihiro, he insisted that the Kiyohisa brand was as good as it gets anymore. They were fairly expensive.
Sadly, the Kiyohisa chisels were not only inferior to Kiyotada’s products, but of poor quality even when compared to cheapo tools, with some blades chipping unduly, others rolling their edges, and still others with poorly-performing differentially-hardened cutting edges. Absolutely hopeless. I took them back to the retailer and demanded a refund, but he responded that Kiyohisa products did not have a warranty. I since learned that this blacksmith does not warrant any of this products. As you can imagine I lost faith in that retailer’s opinion and the products they sell. You can probably imagine my opinion of Kiyohisa too, so I won’t inflict you with the rant.
At this point I started buying many different famous brandname chisels and tested them to destruction. The standard against which I compared them all was the excellent Kiyotada products forged by Shimamura Kosaburo, a blacksmith who was at one time lauded by metallurgists as being the best chisel blacksmith in Japan. I have yet to find a better chisel, but I tried. The testing criteria were initial sharpness, durability (resistance to cracking and chipping) and edge retention ability.
The testing process I employed was to sharpen each 24mm chisel’s blade to 10,000 grit, and cut mortises with it in a Japanese hardwood called Keyaki (zelkova wood). I would abuse each chisel to determine how tough it was, and examine the edge after cutting each mortise. If the edge rolled or dented (and many did), then I knew it was too soft and rejected it. But if it chipped, broke, or performed well, I took it to the next step where I re-sharpened it and continued to cut mortises until the edge chipped or dulled. I rejected those chisels that readily chipped or quickly dulled. Most of the newly-produced chisels sold under famous brand names, and all the chisels produced in Miki, which were too soft, failed these comparative tests utterly.
It was an expensive process but I learned an important lesson, namely, that brandname has nothing to do with quality or performance; The true source of quality and performance in edged tools is rather the blacksmith himself, his experience, skill, and rock-solid dedication to quality. Sadly, this common-sense logic is not applicable to mass-produced products. The key point is that most “brandnames” are sold by wholesalers and retailers to “markets” that have no direct voice, whereas blacksmiths sell to “customers” that give them direct feedback. Accordingly, the quality and performance of a blacksmith’s products directly impact his personal reputation and self-respect, as illustrated by the example mentioned above, whereas most wholesalers and retailers have little at stake.
If a tool wholesaler’s primary market is amateurs located in far-flung countries outside of Japan, then appearance and a reputation of his brandnames, inflated by marketing, have much greater influence on his profits than blade quality. Indeed, few amateurs in any country know how to properly use and maintain professional-grade chisels. Even in Japan, amateurs carelessly damage blades blaming their failure on the blacksmith and making it a warranty problem for the wholesaler and retailer. Therefore, when marketing exclusively to inexperienced amateurs either domestically or internationally, the wholesaler’s surest path to profitability is to sell mass-produced blades that are softer and more resistant to damage than blades intended exclusively for professional woodworkers. Blades sold primarily to amateurs overseas do not need to be hand-forged from the best materials but can be mass-produced using less-expensive steel at lower cost resulting in higher profits. That is the Miki way of doing business, very much in the style of MacDonalds. Do you like kangaroo meat?
I had learned an expensive lesson, and so putting it to good use, I next went looking for real live blacksmiths instead of famous names. I focused on traditional blacksmiths unaffiliated with the large wholesalers, working in small smithies who continued to produce chisels and planes for professionals using traditional blacksmithing techniques, and did not stoop to mass-production. I had set myself a time consuming challenge that couldn’t be accomplished using the internet or telephone alone. I bought more chisels and damaged more blades. I spent weekends on trains going all over Japan visiting woodworkers and blacksmiths, inspecting forges, and checking QC techniques and steel stockpiles. At last I found 3 chisel blacksmiths and one plane blacksmith that consistently produced only the professional-grade tools I wanted with real-world performance approaching that of Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka.
I should add that Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka’s tools were expensive even when they were alive and producing daily. But since the tools I was seeking were to be secondary, perhaps temporary tools, I was willing to sacrifice appearance for lower cost on condition that the tools satisfied my performance goals. The blacksmiths I found did not make the prettiest blades, but they all cut like crazy and kept cutting a long time without dulling or chipping.
During this process I was in communication with professional woodworker friends in the US that know how to use and maintain Japanese planes and chisels. I told them of my adventures and even sent them some of the tools I found to try. After testing the tools they too wanted some. Word of mouth spread and one thing lead to another.
I have a day job, so C&S Tools is not focused on maximizing profits. We sell our tools for the standard retail price in Japan plus PayPal fees of 4.1%, without a gaijin or export markup. It’s more of an excuse for me to spend time with the Japanese blacksmiths and other honest craftsmen I respect.
Unfortunately, our blacksmiths are not getting younger. All are in their late 70’s and 80’s. Production will not continue much longer, so if you are looking for professional-grade chisels and planes at a reasonable price, as I was, then don’t wait too long. No one knows when the “grey rain-curtain of this world will roll back and all will turn to silver glass,” as the old wizard put it.
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant, Stan Covington
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