The Value of Handtools

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.

Benjamin Franklin

A wise man once said that every tool with a cord or a battery ends up in the landfill. I don’t know where my electrical woodchucks will end up, but I doubt any will find their way into museums.

The second I open a pretty powertool’s box, its value plummets to the basement never to recover. Was it a good investment? Perhaps it would be if I still made a living with them, but not so much now.

And sure as eggses is eggses, a year or so after opening that darn box a new and improved version of my little electronic piggy will be on the market wearing high-heels, a short skirt, and too much makeup. They tell me that’s progress….

Image result for image of dewalt drill
Bound for the trashbin?

Buying a power tool feels to me like bringing a shiny-eyed puppy with a furiously waggling tale home knowing I will abandon it later. It doesn’t seem right anymore.

And then there’s the financial and environmental aspects. While necessary for many jobs, power tools often cost more to have professionally repaired than to buy a new replacement. What’s with that? And the replacement batteries for those cordless beasties are not only ridiculously overpriced, the chemicals in them are poisonous forever.

Necessary? Perhaps. Long-term value? Not so much.

But handtools are different, IMHO. The quality ones are useful for generations. Many are even beautiful. Perhaps their resale value will not rise, but over time the good ones hold their monetary value. Especially the handmade ones. And I like to believe their intrinsic value will increase many times.

A Minimum set of hand-forged planes for the professional workshop : L to R 65mm jointer (nagadai), 1-80mm finish, 2-70mm finish, 65mm + 60mm arashiko, 55mm shorty. These planes have all seen a lot of use, but their blade’s heads are neither beat to hell, nor are the bodies splintered or stained. Stay tuned for future posts on Stan’s Secrets for Japanese Planes

Ever think about how much money you spend on useful things that give you pleasure? Steak? Coffee? Beer? Donuts (mmm…. donuts)? Vacations? Big-screen TV’s? By comparison, quality tools are cheap, last a long time, are practical, promote healthy activity and productivity, and don’t make us fat, sick, dull, send us into a ditch, or raise our insurance rates.

A chisel may nick me now and then, but I will never fly my plane into a mountain.

~~===(ツ)===~~

And speaking of planes, remember when you were finish planing that piece of pine? The sharp blade; the sole tuned to perfection; the tight mouth. Whispy, translucent shavings boiled out of the plane’s body releasing a sweet evergreen smell and leaving a shimmering surface on the board.

The sound of a sharp blade making shavings and the sweet smell of freshly-planed pine. A simple pleasure of inestimable value.

And do you remember cutting those dovetails in cherry? Your favorite saw followed the layout line without hesitation, stopping the cut at the perfect depth. Something magical about that saw…

The Ne Plus Ultra Saw by Pete Taran. Ooooo, yummy!

And how about your favorite paring chisel? Do you remember what it felt like shaping that mahogany neck, and the sight of the slowly emerging elegant shapes the sharp slender darling cut so effortlessly? Remember how it felt more like a part of your hand than an inanimate thing of metal and wood? Now that’s a blade!

Quality tools give me a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. How bout you?

Sadly, not all is blue bunnies and fairy farts. She Who Must Be Obeyed relentlessly counts the cost but sternly rejects the value of the woodworking tools I love. Her feminine mind can rationalize spending a fortune on cloth and thread and needles and the latest, greatest computer-controlled Swiss-made sewing machine with a 4-dimensional laser-guided unobtanium armature and smoothie blender attachment, but her eye narrows, turns sickly yellow, and dribbles poison at the sight of my latest plane or chisel.

Estrogen poisoning, I fear. Need to get that checked…

Will the things we buy now, use for a span of days, and leave behind when we go to the big woodpile in the sky be valued by our grandkids, or will they be sold to buy video games?

The bones are rolling.

I just know that I cherish my father’s old tools, and they still work pretty darn good.

Cheap at twice the price, says I.

Dad’s Tools

YMHOS

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

36 thoughts on “The Value of Handtools

  1. I love my hand tools, I always tried to buy the best I could afford, be western type or now Japanese type, made a few mistakes and changed my mind a few times over to find out I prefer Japanese made tools!! I worked mainly with hand tools in my shop, but on the job site, on the western mentality job site I use mostly power tools corded and cordless… This week I was making a western red cedar post and rail for a deck, the guy I work with(new to work together last week) was somewhat impress when I fine tuned the fit of the post to the deck and the scarf joint rail cap with my Atsu Tataki Nomi and a block plane(western in this case, but with I had my Japanese one)….
    In my shop like I said I use mainly(use to be 100 percent unplug) hand tools, but I just got last week a used 16″ italian made(Casadei) Jointer planer combo machine, It will be really helpful for initial stock prep and give me more time for using my hand tools where they shine, in the finishing, fitting and detailing of my pieces!!
    I do have some power tools that are lasting really well and have been successfully repaired/rebuilt to “new” condition! but these are not your big box store low price tag power tools, but high end professional tools, that said I know they will inevitably die and be discarded…

    Thank you for that great post!

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  2. David, Thanks for the insight into your work and philosophy. Its hard to beat machines like, jointers, thickness planers, tablesaws, and bandsaws for dimensioning, so I’m not badmouthing them. And powertools like drills, circular saws and routers are needed too. But their fate is written.

    Actually, I prefer Western-style block planes to the Japanese equivalent, which is just a small hiraganna. The wooden block just can’t handle the high-pressures are well as a steel plane, and a softer Western blade receives less damage if it hits a nail or embedded stone. Horses for courses. Merry Christmas!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Quality tools give me a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. How bout you?”

    It’s not so much the quality of the tools for me, they just make the process easier, it’s making something with my hands without any machines or power tools. It’s the satisfaction of a hand cut joint for example that perfectly fits. Quality hand tools help with this, that’s the value in them for me. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the beauty of a hand made tool. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bought a Nora atsunomi but in the end they’re means to an end.

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  4. Nora is the working name of a mysterious blacksmith in Japan. I first heard of him in 2009 when I was looking for replacement mortise chisels. Some pictures of his products can be found on this page https://blog.goo.ne.jp/yoshitoshi39/e/64e6a83fcbfb9ac29de294f10d34362f

    I had three mortise chisels made by Nora. They were expensive. They took a long time. The quality was breathtaking and they cut like Satan’s scalping knife.

    I asked around about this mystery man, and petitioned the gods of Google, but the only reliable information I have found is that he is a swordsmith who forges chisels on the side in the style of Kiyotada and with the guidance of Ichiro Tsuchida. If you love Japanese chisels, can afford Nora’s price, and don’t mind the wait, they are worth having.

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    1. So they are expensive?!? And probably really sought after?!?
      So possibly counterfeit?!?
      How would one know they are the real thing?
      Where can one buy the real thing(you can send me an email if you prefer)

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  5. Yes, pretty expensive. I paid 50000 yen for my Nora 48mm atsunomi, that’s about $456. The nice thing is it won’t lose its value. If anything, it will increase in value due to Nora’s (very) limited output and the quality of his work. Basically, he only makes chisels when he feels like it and I was told he doesn’t feel like it a whole lot. And Stan is correct, it cuts like Satan’s scalping knife. I don’t know what the delivery time for Nora is though because I bought mine from a private collector.

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  6. Tsuchida told me a few months ago the wait time was minimum 1 year, and even then, no promises. I agree with you about the value, Henk. A cherry Nora chisel will appreciate in value, just like a genuine Kiyotada or Ichihiro chisel. I think his filework is better than Kiyotada, and at least equal to ichihiro. Sculpturally beautiful. I wish I could attach a picture to this reply, but I will email it to you and David.

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  7. Hi Stanley I reasently came across your blog and subscribed. It is full of very useful information. I would like to ask your opinion on the Kikuhiromaru brand of chisels made by Nagoyashi-san. I have three WS1 Mukoumachis on order that I am waiting for. I only have Ouchi Japanese chisels for reference though and saw what you wrote about Miki made chisels, so I am hoping that the Kikuhiromarus are going to be superior to the Ouchi. How do Kikuhiromaru compare to the brands that you stock. I do have a Konobu Assab k120 shirabiki and Kuri Kogatana so I do have some experience with the better Japanese smiths work. Thanks best regards James.

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    1. James: I don’t want to comment too much about specific brands because people love their tools and are easily offended. I tried Kikuhiromaru many years ago. They were OK. Just OK. I am told by my customers and acquaintances nowadays that K’s blades are significantly softer now. One case stands out in my mind. This acquaintance (RIP) was a professional furniture maker in Europe and grew up using her father’s Ichihiro chisels. He had trained as a carpenter in Japan, and knows a lot about Japanese tools, so between her father’s experience and using his top-class tools professionally, she knew how a good chisel should perform. She had a set of K’s chisels and was disgusted with them because of their edge retention. She had friends in Japan through her father and was able to procure a replacement set far superior to the Kikuhiromaru brand at less cost. I have heard rumors from the blacksmithing community in their neighborhood that K has changed to using rikizai (pre-laminated metal) entirely and forsaken hand-forging. If true, that alone does not speak well of their likely performance. But I have never inspected K’s facilities or manufacturing processes. While K is a famous company, I don’t consider K competition from the aspect of performance. I suspect they are following the Miki school of marketing and relying on export sales to uninformed amateurs to pad profits.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you very much for your reply Stanley. It is very interesting to hear your thoughts on this. I sincerely hope that they have not started to go down the route of using of using rikizai, it would be a shame if they had. Although that would seem to be at odds with what I have been told, and with how long I have been waiting for them almost two years now, although I believe there was some sort of mix up with the order that added to the delay. It does seems that they are struggling to keep up with demand at the moment though and Nagoyashi-san has sent his apologies a few times about the wait. I have ordered 12,18,and 24mm Mukoumachi nomis and it was a special request as apparently they don’t usually make them that large. I actually went for this brand as they were highly recommended to me. The person that I ordered from also stocks Konobu and Sukemarou. He seems to think that Kikuhiromaru and Sukemarou are about the same performance wise, with Konobu being a little better, with regards to fit and finish.
        I know he has ordered from Nagoyashi-san for many years.
        I am not a professional wood worker though, it’s just a hobby, although I am competent at sharpening, I will have to see what I think to them when they turn up. Thanks again for the information Stanley, James.

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      2. James: The number of blacksmiths that hand-forge jigane to hagane in Japan has diminished dramatically in the last 10 years. In 5 more years you will be able to count them with one hand. Rikizai is now the norm for planes and chisels. It does not help performance, but does cut costs, so if they are charging you hand-forged prices for machine stamped/pressed rikizai tools, you are paying too much.

        Never heard of a blacksmith called “Sukemarou.” Even Sukemaru tells me has never heard of him. There is a guy that goes by the name Marosuke.

        You mentioned someone called If Nagayoshi-san a couple of times. Never heard of him, but the owner of Kikuhiromaru is Kazuyoshi Nagaoke.

        Anyway, if someone is telling you Sukemaru (Usui-san of Yoita) makes mukomachi nomi, then either you are misunderstanding or he is pulling your leg. I just spoke with Usui-san and he confirmed that he doesn’t make them. I have been asking him to make them for me for years now, but Sukemaru stopped during the time of his father. So it must be “Sukemarou” he is talking about, whoever that is.

        And if someone suggested to me that Kikuhiromaru chisels were about the same in performance to Sukemaru, I would distrust everything they said from that point further. Inconceivable. Don’t know about “Sukemarou.”

        No doubt, Konobu will have better finish and superior filework to both Sukemaru and Kikuhiromaru. Not surprising since neither maker does hand filework, while that is Konobu’s specialty.

        15mm is usually the upper size limit for mukomachi chisels. An 18mm mukomachi is possible, I suppose, but a 24mm mukomachi would be a huge monster. I have never seen or heard of one. It would be not only be heavy and clumsy, but very difficult to use in the cut if designed in accordance with standard mukomachi doctrine. Are you sure it’s not a kaukuuchi-style atsunomi?

        Good luck getting sound information. Sounds like you are going to need it. Merry Christmas!

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      3. Hi Stanley. It was my spelling mistake I was referring to Sukemaru (Usui San) that he also sells as well as Kikuhiromaru. But it is Kikuhiromaru that is making the Mukoumachi nomis for me.
        As to why he refers to Kazuyoshi Nagaoke as Nagoyashi-san I have no idea I am assuming it’s the same guy. Have a good Christmas Stan. James.

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      4. James: That makes things clear. Sukemaru would not appreciate being compared as equal to Kikuhiromaru in performance. Perhaps it goes back to the old problem of shop owners comparing and contrasting chisels they have never used, and don’t even know how to use. I have not used Kikuhiromaru chisels for decades so can’t say for sure, but I have used Sukemaru chisels a lot recently, and comparing them to the old Kikuhiromaru chisel I once owned would be like comparing the “moon to a mud turtle,” as they say in Japan.

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    1. David: Most people that use Japanese chisels professionally long enough, assuming their sharpening skills are up to the task, will eventually feel the irresistible itch to try a chisel by a famous blacksmith such as Kiyotada, Ichihiiro, and nowadays Nora. I don’t think this is just a woodworker thing, but it has been a distinct tendency among the users of sharp tools in Japan for centuries. There is the famous story of the samurai who sold his daughter in order to buy a sword by a famous swordsmith named Kanewaka (it was legal to sell wives and daughters in Japan back then). Kanewaka made a hell of blade, as I know from hands-on experience.

      I stumbled into Kiyotada without knowing he was famous, long before the Kezuroukai and Japanese mass media made rock stars out of a few select blacksmiths. But after purchasing and using just one of his atsunomi, which was expensive even then, I could never go back. Not because of his fame, since he was not famous back then except among the very best of Japan’s woodworkers, but because of their shockingly superior performance. From that point on I saved my pennies and bought his tools exclusively. Later, I was introduced to Yamazaki san (Ichihiro) at a New Years drinking party in a small tool store in Tokyo, and heard the praise heaped on him by famous temple carpenters and even his competitors attending the party in that tiny cramped room. I had to buy some of his tools. They were twice as expensive as Kiyotada’s chisels, but shockingly beautiful. Kiyotada and Ichihiro were both members of the the Tokyo Blacksmith guild and worked closely together to improve their techniques (which the blacksmiths that make C&S Tools chisels learned from via Professor Iwasaki). Not surprisingly, the cutting performance of Ichihiro’s blades is very close to that of Kiyotada’s. My point is that a professional who has the skills to appreciate the very best blades, and does work that can justify their performance, will eventually want to try the very best. Just my experience.

      I already own too many chisels by Kiyotada and Ichihiro. I don’t need more. I already own three Nora chisels, and don’t intend to buy more at my age, but if I did not already own a Nora chisel, I would get one. Ten years ago when I ordered mine, he was unknown. Even now, he is not well known by any measure. In 20 years? He doesn’t produce in volume so he may never be as famous as Kiyotada or Ichihiro, but I predict the collectors will pay a premium for everything they can get their mitts on.

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  8. I feel I need to clear something up about the use of rikizai and specifically Kikuhiromaru even though I’m not a fan of the brand. Kikuhiromaru invented rikizai together with the University of Sanjo. The aim wasn’t to cut costs, although that’s a nice side effect, but to improve performance. Their patented process allows them to forge weld the hagane to the jigane with hot rollers at a low temperature that they can precisely control. As we all know the prevention of carbon loss is very important and their precise rikizai process does just that. Their set up also wraps the hagane neatly up the sides which is why their lamination is so consistent. It’s actually a very innovative approach. After the hot roller forge welding they refine the steel the traditional way. Like I said, not a fan of the brand because I like my blades harder, but I see no reason to knock an new way of doing thing just because it’s not traditional.

    PS: Kikuhiromaru has no presence in all of Europe. There’s not a single store here that sells the brand. The same applies to the US and Canada. They don’t rely on export sales at all. I know for a fact that 90% or more of everything they produce is sold domestically and the bulk of that is sold to pros in Japan.

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    1. Henk: Not for the first time we are going to disagree. Rikizai was first developed in 1919 in Harima, basically Miki City, for making sickles. The steel component at that time was imported.

      I would not be surprised if Niigata prefecture’s universities and various manufacturers subsequently had a hand in further developing it for making farm implements and kitchen knives, as Fuji Cutlery claims, and maybe even chisels and planes in that area, but it was invented by neither Niigata University nor Kikuhiromaru. Nagaoke san has a lot of nerve making such a claim if he really did. BTW, the Universities in Hyogo prefecture make the exact same claim. As do the universities in Kouchi Prefecture. There are several companies that claim to have invented rikizai outright, including Niigata Prefecture’s largest knife company, Fuji Cutlery. https://www.fuji-cut.co.jp/ Welcome to false advertising in Japan.

      There is no longer a big market for sickles, but a huge market for kitchen knives, for which rikizai is perfectly suited. It has not been used for chisels and planes that long. 30 years? Rikizai has a negative stigma in Japan where “free forging” 自由鍛造 has a history of excellence, but the low price is undeniable. I understand from friends in the industry that rikizai made from good steel (e.g. Aogami instead of SK) can be forged to create a very good crystalline structure. It involves dies, stamping machines and multiple heats. A few makers do this. Most don’t. Why bother when a single relatively low-pressure press after a single heat will create a great-looking blade with the excellent lamination line and clean wrap you mentioned? Be it chef’s knife or chisel, most people can’t tell the difference, especially if the hardness is kept lower.

      Rikizai is a 50 times more profitable than traditional free forging. Who would leave that kind of money on the table? And how far would they exaggerate the truth to justify their choosing profits over performance if the consumer couldn’t tell the difference? But you and I can tell the difference, Henk. So could our mutual friend with the beautiful voice.

      Kikuhiromaru chisels are sold in the USA and Australia. You can even buy them online. I personally know many people in the US that own Kikuhiromaru chisels and loved them, for a while at least. They didn’t buy them in Japan. I don’t know about sourcing them in Europe. The only tool store in Europe I know is Dieter Schmid, and I was told by a mutual friend that he sells Tasai products like crazy. Remember Tasai? I suspect it would take a lot of work to speak with every tool importer on the continent, so I won’t go so far as to say they are not available there.

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  9. What I do know for sure is Kikuhiromaru holds a patent that has to do with rikizai. Maybe it’s the way they wrap the hagane up the sides by machine way. But whoever invented it, I have no problem with outfits using it if can further the quality and lower the cost at the same time.

    Yes, she could easily tell the difference between a good blade for professionals and the commercial stuff. Was she also the one who told you about Dieter Schmidt and Tasai? I know they sell a lot of them. Some Kunikei as well.

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  10. Henk: Thanks for the insight. I learned something new today. Yes, it was J who told me about DS and Tasai. She said she knew the owner well and heard it from him directly. She was aghast too.

    I saw a counterfeit Tasai kotenomi yesterday. I knew it was counterfeit for two reasons. First, because it was very poorly filed. If Tasai is anything, he is a master with a file and makes beautiful tools. Second, the owner of this tool said it was hard and cut very well. That is not like Tasai in general (ツ)。。。。

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  11. I know a knife blacksmith in Japan who lives 500m from the Kikuhiromaru factory. His grandfather was a very good friend of the previous owner and he knows Nagaoke well. I went through some old e-mails where he talks about the patent and Kikuhiromaru never claimed to have invented rikizai. My mistake. The patent pertains specifically to the temperature control method which they developed with the uni of Sanjo.

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    1. Wow. Love the conversation, very interesting.

      You can see how hard it can be for someone like me to get good information. What with language barriers, cultural barriers, vested interests, even good intentions.

      Keep the stories coming!

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      1. It’s hard to separate the good from the bad unless you live in Japan or, like me, were friends with someone in Japan who helped you.

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  12. Indeed. And even if you live in Japan, it takes decades of time, language skills, an understanding of the culture, opportunity, and skill in working with the tools to properly evaluate them. We have both been blessed, Henk. I wish I could build a boat like you!

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    1. Thanks for the compliment, Stan.

      I think the biggest problem is all the two faced tool mongers. One face for the Japanese customers and another for the foreign customers. I remember a long time ago when I was looking at some kannas on a website, it was a dual language site and when I clicked on English the price magically went up almost $200. A lot of sellers have no problem with screwing over foreigners.

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