Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip

Ok boiz and gurlz, ready to get to work?!

When the show starts, I am in my SpongeBob stance, and I walk like SpongeBob, and the first step that I take, I am SpongeBob.

Ethan Slater

In this post in our series about sharpening Japanese woodworking blades, your humble servant will propose some useful stances and grips to employ when sharpening. I hope we can do a better job than Mr. Squarepants, at least.


There are several practical stances for sharpening, including standing, sitting on a bench or in a chair, squatting, kneeling on the floor, or sitting on the floor. With practice, all these stances can be made to work well.

When starting out, however, I think most people benefit from using a standing position with the stones placed on a workbench or table, or on a board spanning a sink. 

Whichever stance you choose, locate and be conscious of your center of gravity, (usually just below your belly button), and try to keep it at the same elevation above the floor while moving the blade forward and back. 

Flex your knee joints, and loosen your elbow joints and wrists, because locking up your wrists and elbows will make it impossible to avoid rocking the blade. This is important: You must actively concentrate on allowing your wrists to rotate so as to keep the blade’s bevel flat on the stone’s face, because it won’t happen by accident, or because Jesus loves you.

In the case of a normal resharpening job, instead of a major repair, remember the goal that craftsmen have endlessly sought for thousands of years: to abrade and polish the last few microns of steel at the extreme cutting edge, using the flat bevel as an alignment jig.

But don’t let yourself get lost in the weeds; Focus on abrading and polishing the entire bevel. If you do so, the last few microns, which the human eye can’t see, will be in good shape.

Focus the majority of your finger’s pressure on the extreme cutting edge, and less on the rear of the bevel, but without lifting the rear of the bevel off the stone. In the case of Japanese blades, the rear of the bevel is all soft jigane iron and will take care of itself. Yes, it is a balancing act. Yes, it takes focus. Yes, you will make mistakes, overbalance, gouge the stone and mess up the cutting edge a time or two. Everyone since the day the first caveman tried to grind his stone axe on another stone has made that mistake, so don’t worry about it. Remember, you fell off your bicycle the first few tries, scraped your knees and elbows, survived, and now ride like the wind! Yiiiiiihah!

Get a Grip

The way you hold your plane or chisel blade during sharpening will greatly influence the quality of the end product and the stress placed on your hands during the process, so it is worth paying attention to.

There are as many was to hold a plane or chisel blade when sharpening as Baskin Robbins has ice cream flavors. And like ice cream, none are right or wrong, except Burgundy Cherry, which of course is superior to all others (ツ)。 In the interest of brevity, we will only look at three grip methods. If you are not using them now, I suggest you give each a try over a couple of sharpening sessions to see if they are an improvement or not. Feel free to adapt these or develop your own from scratch once you understand the key points.

The Gorilla Grip

First, let’s examine what I call the “Gorilla Grip.” With the plane blade resting ura facing up, the blade’s long axis pointing at 11:00, and the cutting edge furthest away from you, grip the blade’s sides with your right-hand’s thumb on the left side, ring finger and pinkie on the right, the tip of the middle finger resting on the right corner directly behind the cutting edge, and index finger extended alongside the middle finger. Then lift the blade and roll your ring and pinkie under it.

Rest the tip of the ring finger of your left hand on the left corner directly behind the cutting edge, with your middle finger and index fingers extended and their tips resting adjacent.

Extend your left palm over your right thumb’s last joint, and wrap your left thumb under the blade. You are now ready to rock-n-roll, without the rocking and rolling motion

The advantage to this grip is that it is very strong, ergo “ gorilla.” The downside is the blade tends to end up skewed on the stone because the right wrist must be twisted to keep the blade straight. Also, because the wrist joints are at very different angles with respect to the blade, and it is easy to apply a lot of force, extra care is necessary to keep the wrists firm but loose and rotating in harmony.

Notice how thumbs are poised to fit under the blade’s head
Four fingers pressing down on the blade’s ura as close to the cutting edge as reasonably possible.
Finger position on a chisel. The left hand thumb passes under the blade’s neck supporting it vertically, while the pad presses against the neck’s right side. The right hand thumb passes over the top of the neck, restraining the tool vertically, and presses against the neck’s left side firmly securing the neck between both thumbs. More fingers can press down on the ura in the case of wider blades. Conversely, only one finger can press on narrow blades.

The Three-finger Grip

The other grip is one I call “three-finger,”(指三本) after the most proper way of bowing in Japan when seated directly on the floor (preferably tatami mat) in the “seiza” posture with legs folded underneath the body, both hands touching side by side with the pads of three fingers of each hand extended and touching the floor in front of the knees, and the thumbs and pinkies tucked out of sight. Very proper, and elegant especially for ladies.

In the case of the three-fingers grip, the blade is oriented directly in front of and on the body’s centerline with cutting edge furthest away. The hands hold the blade in a more symmetrical fashion than the gorilla grip, with the middle and index fingers pressing down on the blade’s corners closest the cutting edge (depending on the space available), with the thumbs curled under the blade’s head (end opposite the cutting edge), and either the ring fingers or pinkies touching the blade’s sides to assist in lifting it.

The advantages to this grip are less tendency to skew the blade, looser wrists, and better control of bevel angle. The disadvantage is slightly less power because it is harder to get the shoulders over the blade. This is the burgundy cherry version, in your humble servant’s opinion.

The Three-finger Monkey Grip

A hybrid of these two methods is one I call the “three-fingered monkey.” Place the right-hand thumb alongside the blade’s left side, instead of under the head forming a combination of the gorilla grip and three-finger grip. This method provides a little more power than the three-finger grip, and less skew than the gorilla grip.

Is one of these grips best? It’s like riding a bike: None are wrong, but some work better than others.

 In all three of these grips, most of the pressure will tend to focus at the blade’s corners which can create uneven wear on the ura. While this may be unavoidable, especially in the case of narrow blades, try to focus the majority of pressure on the centerline of the cutting edge. It seems insignificant, but if left uncorrected, the resulting unbalanced pressure will cause the blade to wear quicker at the corners and become curved. Yes the blade is iron and steel and does not flex much, but it is a verifiable fact that the points where your fingers apply pressure will be abraded quicker.

There is a saying in Japan which is quite appropriate when talking about sharpening that says “Dripping water wears away stone.” In this case, just a little differential pressure from your fingertips will shape the blade over many weeks and many passes over the stone, wearing away both stone and steel in useful ways or not. Please remain aware of this potential.

Chisel Grip

The grip I use on chisels is very similar to the grip for planes, and varies with width. 

The long handle makes chisels tail heavy and a bit more difficult to manage so it is often useful to select a grip style that is absolutely stable using just a single hand.

Most solutions involve holding the chisel in the palm secured by middle finger, ring finger, and pinkie, with the index finger extended and centered right behind the cutting edge.

The index and middle fingers of the other hand can also be pressed near the edge and the thumb wrapped underneath the handle.

Polishing the Ura

Polishing a 70mm plane blade’s ura.

When polishing the ura of a blade, be it plane or chisel, make sure the stone is flat. If it isn’t, you will regret it later without realizing why.

Let’s look at a plane blade first. Notice in the photo above how my right hand is curled under the blade’s head supporting it while my thumb presses down on the bevel close to the cutting edge, a grip that makes it easy to apply a lot of pressure precisely while maintaining control of the blade.

Two fingertips of my left hand are pressing down on the bevel for a total of three pressure points. The thumb can press down as light or hard as you feel is necessary, but it typically applies the highest amount of pressure. It’s important the left hand fingertips apply equal downward pressure to avoid creating uneven wear (unless one corner of the blade specifically needs more pressure applied).

Try to remove nearly all the weight of the blade’s head from the stone so that all but a tiny amount of applied pressure is focused on the “itoura” cutting land at the blade’s extreme cutting edge. No good can come of wearing a trench into the ura’s side lands.

Move the blade in two directions at the same time: Mostly to and fro in line with the cutting edge; but also on and off the stone’s edge perpendicular to the cutting edge. This will help avoid wearing a trench in the side lands and produce a stronger cutting edge (IMO).

Keep the stone flat and reverse it frequently to ensure even wear and less wasted stone.

Concentrate your senses and develop hand-soul coordination : You are a leaf on the wind; Watch how you soar (Hoban “Wash” Washburne in Serenity). I hope you have better luck than Wash did…

In the case of chisels, I hold the handle in the palm of my right hand and place thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the neck/shoulders pinching it between them. I place the tips of the fingers of my left hand on the bevel, and move right and left hand together. And as in the case of plane blades, I move the blade both forward and backwards and left to right at the same time.

Give it a try. What do you have to loose?

In the next post in this series on sharpening, we will look at which direction to sharpen in. Few give this matter any thought, but most should.


I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how I soar.

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Previous Posts in the Sharpening Series

Timber Frame Water Mill Reconstruction Project, UK Part 1

Written by Guest Author, Gavin Sollars, Timber Frame Carpenter, UK

The village is the token and pride of England; there are usually found in it vestiges of earlier life – cottages, manor-houses, farm-houses, with buildings of more or less historic interest; and who should understand them, their origin, their peculiarity of structure, better than the local carpenter?

Walter Rose, The Village Carpenter 
The reconstruction job site as seen from across the River Test. Notice the green netting installed to prevent things from falling into the environmentally-sensitive river.


I became acquainted with Stan early in 2019 when I decided to look at buying an Ootsuki Nomi. During my search I became skeptical of many of the Japanese tools that are widely available to the European market and, after a lot of research, I came across Stan’s contact details and sent him an email. Stan took a great deal of time to discuss with me what really motivated my purchase, the kinds of things I should take into consideration when looking at Japanese tools and went into detail about the intricacies of Japanese craftsmanship. The information he freely provided was invaluable, and with his help I feel I made a very good choice, and now have a tool that will serve me for my entire career.

I recently updated Stan with some pictures of buildings I had worked on and he asked if I would be willing to share them with the readers of his blog. The overall aim of these ramblings is to describe to you (who Stan calls his “Gentle Readers”) the general outlines of the reconstruction of an 18th century traditionally-jointed timber frame structure in a beautiful area of the English countryside in the summer of 2019. I hope that this article will give you an understanding of the work that was undertaken and also the enthusiasm I have for this archaic variety of building craft and carpentry as a whole. 

Project Background

Timber framing in the UK has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last 30 or so years, with quite a number of small to medium sized specialists in the craft building new ‘post and beam’ style buildings that emulate the traditional frames of the past. These companies are mixing time-honoured design details and timber framing techniques with more modern methods of production: chiefly circular saws and portable chain mortisers to rough out the work. This deep understanding and appreciation of historic building vernacular made my employer (The Green Oak Carpentry Co.) well placed to undertake the reconstruction of this Project.

The Mill prior to 2018 fire

The company was awarded the contract to reconstruct the building as close to the original as possible.

The Project is situated to the North of the Test Valley in Hampshire County in Southern England on the banks of the beautiful River Test, famous for trout fly fishing and “gin-clear waters.” The original waterwheel powered a grain mill. It was later converted to paper production, and even later housed a generator serving the nearby Manor House. Unfortunately, the original structure was completely destroyed by fire in early 2018.

At 21 metres (68.8’) long and 5.7 metres (18.7’) wide, the main structure is situated on a small island created by a man-made diversion in the River Test. The river flows from the north and is then diverted via a sluice gate to the right. The river then widens into a pool and bubbles quickly along the west side of the building. The diversion along the east flank drives the turbine, and passes underneath a wing that links the main structure back to the existing dwelling and also houses the turbine and mill workings. 

Historical & Structural Considerations

The original building was “listed” with the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England confirming the historical importance of the building on the one hand while placing restrictions on how any work to the building can be performed on the other. What remained of the original building after the fire was still subject to the Commission’s rules and regulations, of course. It once featured shorter posts sitting on top of a brick wall from approximately first floor height. In the wake of the fire the surviving outer brick walls were deemed too structurally unsound to bear a load – however, due to the walls being “protected” under UK law, they had to be preserved. To get around this issue we installed two outer plates running around the perimeter of the building with the lower of the two (D – below drawing) supported on metal brackets (C) connected to the back of the timber Jowl posts (B) by lag bolts. The full weight of these two plates, as well as the softwood stud wall with conventional insulation and weatherboarding is carried by these brackets transferring the load to the jowl posts (B).

A detail drawing (drawn by myself) of the steel bracket, showing how load was removed from the fragile existing wall. The drawing also explains the interplay between our frame and the other elements in the building.

Design & Construction Details

Framing work started in July 2019 with a team of eight carpenters framing the bulk of the structure over a period of five weeks in workshops off-site. A team of four transported the fabricated components of the timber frame to the jobsite, assembled and raised the frame, framed the hips and valleys, then fitted the common rafters and cut and assembled the jack rafters.   

Constructed entirely from European green oak, the structural frame is very utilitarian by design and lacks the aesthetic details like the curved braces typical in many historic timber structures in the UK. Nonetheless, it has some nice detailing that might not be obvious at first glance. 

The main posts (wooden structural columns) are mostly jowl posts (aka “gunstock posts”) that flare at the top with tenons that fit into both the top plate (beam running along the top of and connecting the exterior posts) the column and tie beam. Historically, jowl posts were cut from the flaring grain of the base of a tree. These butts were often quartered and each post placed in the building adjacent to its sibling. I believe that this is a similarity historic English carpentry shares with its Japanese counterpart.

Here you can see the cross frame construction 

The dominant style of cross frame (or bent in North America) features a bridging beam (the large beam that spans the first floor and carries the common joists), a tie beam which spans the top plates. This beam stops the wall frames from spreading under the load from the roof. And then a simple truss design consisting of two vertical studs and an upper collar with short stub ties jointed horizontally between the principle rafters and studs. The purlins (the members that run the length of the roof) are ‘clasped’ between the stub tie and the principal rafter.  

The main roof frame is comprised of bridled common rafter pairs, a pre-Georgian (prior to 1714) hip gable at one end and a standard gable at the other. A pre-Georgian hip is the English name for a hip rafter that is usually square in section and canted so that one edge is in the plane of either the gable or the main roof. Hip roofs were historically framed in this way until carpentry methods changed and more of a ‘hip board’ set plumb with jacks pitched onto the sides became the preferred method of hip framing. 

The pre-Georgian hip gable. The effect of canting the hip rafter in this way means that the jack rafters pitched from the two walls have a side cut angle on top and a square cut on the edge, but the jack rafters on the gables have a more complex (and comically named!) ‘nuns crutch’ or ‘lip cut’.

The adjoining wing has a wider span and a higher apex to the main building, and the roof meets the main roof in a valley. These valleys are similarly canted into the plane of the roof like the hips. In the same way the hips produce two different jack rafter cuts so does the valley. You’ll notice that on the main building there is a square jack cut and on the linking building the jacks have a compound cut onto the valley rafter. After running into the valleys, two small hip rafters pick up the opposite slope of the main roof. All of these angles were found using the framing square. 

The junction between the wing and the main building looking back down the east wall.

The main building is split into two clear halves; one which is vaulted floor to ceiling, and the other which has two floors of joists.      

Green Oak Timbers

What sets this type of carpentry apart from other woodworking is its use of timbers that are rough-sawn and often of irregular dimensions, requiring an understanding of how to deal with imperfections. For example, timbers are often significantly out of square, and dimensions only approximate: according to the European standard allowable tolerances are +9mm ~ -3mm in section. 5mm of deflection per metre is also allowed. These significant irregularities complicate the carpenter’s job.

Moisture contents can be in excess of 60% in fresher felled stock and during the summer months the warmer weather can cause problems with drying and shrinkage – we often keep our stacks covered with hessian cloth in an effort to shade the timbers and reduce warpage and cracking. 

Timber framing using this challenging material teaches a carpenter much about the nature of wood as a living thing, the characteristics of the timbers, how they are likely to behave and what can be asked of them.  

The Layout Process

Carpenters have developed various layout systems over many centuries to overcome the difficulties of working with irregular timbers. In my company we use lofting, for example. According to this method, we draw out entire layups on the floor and align the outside edges of each member to these lines with any sectional irregularities placed on the inside of the building, whilst any crowning (deflection or bowing) is oriented upwards and outwards.

Once the layout is drawn full-scale on the lofting floor, the timbers are placed on blocks in alignment with their corresponding grid lines on the floor. The various members are then laid one over the other so carpenters can accurately mark out lengths and scribe the shoulders of the joints using levels and plumb bobs. 

The plumb bob is an ancient tool that you are doubtless familiar with – its importance in carpentry cannot be overstated. Plumb bob scribing, or ‘scribe rule’ layout, is a difficult thing to describe without actually seeing it done. What it boils down to is using a perfect reference in a less than perfect situation. By sighting down the plane of the timber by eye and comparing it at the same time with a plumb line a carpenter can gauge to what degree that face is out of plumb and then accurately replicate that plane on the shoulder of the intersecting timber. The shoulders of tenons and widths of mortices are carefully marked using this technique.

Once a frame is cut and fitted back together, a plumb bob can be used to accurately transfer and mark additional details up from the floor. In the case of this watermill I used a plumb bob to mark the theoretical positions of the purlin housings on each truss. The result was that, regardless of the amount of deflection or variation in thickness of each principal rafter, the purlin housing was maintained in a consistent level position down the entire length of the building.

A plumb bob being used to mark the principal rafter to tie beam joint. On the floor you can see the layout lines. We mark out each individual frame in a building full size on the floor with chalk lines, and then set up the timbers to those lines. This plumb bob belonged to my great grandfather who was also a carpenter. 

Frames are generally made up of wall frames (running the length of a building) and cross frames (spanning a building). Many of the timbers are therefore used repeatedly in multiple layups. In the case of main posts they are first framed into the exterior walls of a building. Once the walls are completed they are framed in the ‘cross frame layups’. To ensure that the posts return to the right height and rotation that they were in during their previous layups, we use scratched datums (often a set distance from the top of top plate) and rotation marks that allow us to wedge the timber to return it to plumb or level. 

Ensuring that a designated point on each timber is plumb and level is essential, particularly for those in multiple layups. It guarantees that a timber has been returned to the correct plane each time it is fitted up so that when it is stood up and connected to multiple beams, the rotation of each individual shoulder scribe is correct.   

Once the bulk of the main structure is framed we laid-up floor joist and ‘cogged’ the tie beams into the top plates. Traditionally tie beams were dovetailed into the plates but because the shrinkage of dovetails (green oak, remember) tends to cause the building to spread, it is now more common to see a simple cog used. A cog also slightly outperforms a dovetail in green timber when under tension.

Assembly and Erection at the Job Site

The building enclosed two concrete pads differing in elevation by about 200mm (8”). The base of each post therefore was designed to accommodate this change maintaining the design elevation of the building. This and other variables made laying-out of the building one of the most challenging I have ever been involved in.

This photo shows the “jowl posts” and the boom of the spider crane as assembly work is underway.

The only access to the site was a track through a field at the rear of the building and a small trackway and bridge over the river too narrow for a mobile crane to cross. The solution we employed was to bring in and set up a small spider crane in various places inside the building. The limitations of this machine required us to be very methodical about the assembly sequencing to ensure we didn’t obstruct subsequent lifts. 

Space was at a premium. Without a large area to unload the piles of timber, we had to unload the timbers and other materials in the field behind the property and then use a remote-controlled tracked carrier to ferry timber across the narrow access bridge.  

And, to throw one more element into the mix, the river is an extremely well-protected ‘Site of Specific Scientific Interest’, meaning we had to be very careful when cutting roof members to prevent sawdust from drifting into the water course. The scaffolders installed netting around the entire perimeter to prevent anything from falling from the scaffold. We also did the majority of our cutting away from the edge of the scaffold on a plywood deck we laid on the joists.

As the building began to take shape its scale became more apparent. At nearly nine meters high, it’s an impressive structure. 

Lessons Learned

I took away a lot of lessons from this building project such as managing levels on-site, and the importance of every trade singing off the same song sheet, as it were.

We had issues with the initial layout of the structure as it became clear that the structural steel that effectively served as the starting point for everything above it had not been installed at the correct elevation. The work was delayed while we sorted out this problem.

I also learned valuable lessons about effective joint placement. Because of the space constraints mentioned above, we were forced to erect the structure by lifting and placing each cross frame and then linking it back with its purlins. However, because the scarf joint landed on the wrong side of each truss, every time we craned a purlin into position, it was left temporarily unsupported at one end. These decisions were admittedly made early on before any proper site visits were made. A proper method statement was in place, of course, but the experience taught me that starting with the end in mind is important when planning.

I hope that you, Gentle Reader, gained some insight into the work that I am involved with and found it an interesting read. If you would like further information about historic timber framing in the UK, I recommend a small book titled Discovering Timber Framed Buildings by Richard Harris. 

– Gavin Sollars

Gavin Sollars hard at work

Thank you for your reading this article. It is rare to find a craftsman like Gavin with the skills and inclination to write about his work and a willingness to share it freely with others. Gavin did not write this to promote his company, but if you like this sort of thing as much as we do, please visit his company’s website and sign up for their newsletter.

In the next post in this series Gavin will outline the construction of the roof frame. Please stay tuned.


If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Stick a needle in my eye.

Other Posts in Timber Frame Water Mill Reconstruction Project Series

Part 2 – Framing the Roof

Hammers to Use With Chisels Part 1 – Hammer Varieties

A modern-style 750gm gennou head hand-forged by Kosaburo, hung with a black persimmon handle. I purchased this high-quality head over 33 years ago. An heirloom tool and a good buddy.

Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.


This is the first article in a six-part series that condenses the advice your humble servant has given to our Beloved Customers over the years regarding the hammers they should use with our chisels. While some of this information is relevant to our warranty, all of it is relevant to how well our chisels will perform and the pleasure Beloved Customers will enjoy using them.

In this first part we will focus on the varieties of hammers we recommend. Subsequent articles in this series will focus on appropriate hammer weights and faces, how to use a chisel efficiently, the “chisel cha-cha,” the importance of rhythm, as well as a discussion about health and hammers. There may even be a song or two to hum along with. Helluvalot better than a performance of Cats, and cheaper too!

In the future we will present several different series, one with more details about hammer heads, and another explaining why and describing how to make a handle for a Japanese gennou hammer (or any hammer for that matter), with scaled reference drawings. We will of course provide the entire contents of these articles in a single wiggling bundle to our Beloved Customers that purchase one of our gennou heads. Yes, there are more perks to being a Beloved Customer than simple toe-curling joy (ツ)。It’s a cunning plan, you see.

Hammer Materials

30mm Atsunomi by Kiyotada

We sell tatakinomi chisels such as oiirenomi, mukomachinomi (mortise chisels), or atsunomi all designed to be motivated by the most efficient method available, namely a steel hammer swung by human hand and arm. I won’t debate the pros/cons of steel hammers versus wooden mallets versus plastic mallets versus brass hammers versus unobtanium-platinum alloy hammers in this post because the physics are as obvious as a lemur in a lingerie shop (they’re a bit hairy, they jump and climb all over the displays and the bra straps all slip off their shoulders, but not in a seductive manner!) beyond noting that a hardened steel hammer imparts more energy to a chisel in a more easily focused and controllable manner than any other type of beater considering the economics of both initial cost and repair/replacement cost. Some may disagree; A mind is a terrible thing to taste.

The advantages of the steel hammer are quite obvious, even without doing energy calculations, but are there any disadvantages? Mochiron (Japanese for “of course”).

Steel hammers can concentrate so much energy on a tool handle so efficiently and so quickly that they routinely destroy the handles of the sharpened screwdrivers sold as chisels nowadays in Western countries due to a faulty design detail. It’s this silly design flaw most modern Western chisels share that motivates many to use softer, fatter, energy wasting mallets made of wood, plastic or rawhide. So sad. 

An obvious solution is to use a steel hammer of a reasonable weight along with intelligent technique to effectively keep the energy imparted to the chisel within acceptable limits. But this may not be enough if the chisel design is weak.

Ooh ooh! I got’n idea. Why not design and manufacture a chisel that a steel hammer won’t destroy as a matter of course? Wow! Such an innovation would be right up there with the rumors I’ve heard of buggies that move without horses. Imagine that…

Fortunately, the tataki nomi chisels we sell are professional tools designed to be struck by steel hammers so they need not be coddled. They have a mild steel kuchigane (coned ferrule) fitted where the handle meets the blade, and a mild-steel hoop, or crown seated at the butt end of the handle. When properly fitted to a dense, straight-grained Japanese oak handle, this steel furniture does a great job of protecting the handle from splitting or breaking.

However, along with the handle, these parts do need to be setup properly to ensure they continue to protect the handle for a long time. We have provided clear instructions for how to perform this setup job here.

So, please use a hardened steel hammer with our chisels.

But there is more to hammers than just materials, so let’s continue onto the next subject.

Japanese Hammer Types

A Kosaburo head with a brand-new nuclear-flash colored Osage Orange handle

The traditional hammer used in Eastern Japan for striking chisels and general carpentry work is called a “gennou” pronounced “ghen-noh.”

Janus Coin

The gennou common to Eastern Japan is a simple symmetrical cylinder of one sort or another with a flat face on one end and a domed face on the other, often called the “ryoguchi gennou,” or the “Janus Hammer” by those with a classical education. No claws, no pointy tail. The flat face is used for striking chisels and pounding nails. The domed face is used for something called “kigoroshi” and for the last stroke when setting nails. It’s a handy tool and more stable in the swing than a claw hammer. It’s a matter of physics.

Japanese carpenters use a specialized nail bar for pulling nails effectively increasing the lifespan of their hammer handles, so claws are not necessary.

3 gennou heads. The far left head is a simple economy head. The center head is a higher-grade head slightly flared towards the ends. The far right head is an entirely hand-forged classical “swollen eye” tool by Kosaburo.

The Yamakichi style gennou head (see photo below) is another variety popular primarily in Western Japan. The tail is not pointy but rather a small square face that is useful for starting small nails and for “ tapping out” plane blades. The face typically has a slight curvature which is helpful for setting nails, but not enough to damage a chisel. The moment of inertia is less than the symmetrical gennou head so it is not as stable in the swing, but it is still a fine head.

A “Yamakichi” style head by Hiroki with a mellowed Osage Orange handle

The pictures below are of a gennou head called “Funate,” which translates to “boat hand.” I have heard it originated with ship carpenters, but am uncertain. The tail end is a small square as you can see from the photo, and is handy for setting nails. It makes a great finish hammer, but as a hammer for striking gennou it never appealed to me. But there are plenty of craftsmen that love this hammer.

a Funate gennou with a bubinga handle

Any of these hammers will do the job: it’s all personal preference.

Western Hammer Types

The purpose of this article is is not to suggest that Beloved Customers must use a Japanese gennou hammer when beating on our chisels. In fact, nearly any variety of quality steel hammer can be easily modified to do the job more-or-less satisfactorily, including claw hammers, engineer’s hammers, or even ball peen hammers, so it isn’t necessary to buy a special hammer.

Please note that the closer the hammer’s center of mass is aligned with the center of the striking face, and the greater the hammer’s moment of inertia, the better. A cylindrical head is the closest to ideal from a physics viewpoint.

We’ll talk about the relevant physics of hammers in future posts for Gentle Readers that enjoy math.

In the next post in this series we will examine the type of face a hammer used to strike our chisels should have. Please come back and bring your lingerie-loving lemur friends. A Brazilian body wax is not required.


Do you have something slinky with red lace?

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Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-Bevel Blues

It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand – Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475-1564

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In the previous post in this series about sharpening Japanese tools, we looked at philosophical points such as making tools a long-term investment, as well as the upsides, downsides and causes of the beastly bulging bevel. In this post, your humble servant would like to touch on a subject that will make thoughtful people think and befuddled folks lucid: The Double Bevel.

The Double-Bevel

Some people advocate creating double-bevels (primary and secondary bevels), or what is sometimes called “micro-bevels” on plane and chisel blades. Multiple bevels have three useful applications in your most humble and obedient servant’s opinion:

  1. The first useful application is to repair a tool’s blade in the field when there is not enough time to do a proper sharpening job. If a blade dulls or chips in the course of a job, we can quickly add a secondary bevel at a steeper angle to the blade’s primary bevel in a few seconds and get right back to work, but never forget there will be a price to pay later over many sharpening sessions to restore the proper bevel, so it is only a temporary solution at best, and certainly not a useful long-term solution;
  2. The second application is to quickly adjust a plane blade’s angle to reduce tearout immediately when proper sharpening is not possible. Once again, a lot of remedial sharpening becomes necessary afterwards. This application is usually restricted to the primary bevel, but we will look at a more esoteric and risky application below.
  3. The third application is to efficiently restore a blade’s bevel to the correct angle in the case where pixies or our inattention has made the blade angle too shallow.

Case 3 above often goes like this: A blade that had cut well suddenly starts dulling quickly, maybe even chipping. Whiskey tango foxtrot!?!

When this happens, our Beloved Customers, being of exceptionally high intelligence, use the bevel angle gauge described in Part 11 of this series to check the bevel angle. They may discover the bevel angle has become too shallow for the wood it is being asked to cut.

Image result for lie-nielsen honing jig photo

We could increase the bevel angle by welding metal to the bevel and regrinding it, but such barbaric behavior would ruin the blade, so the most expedient way to correct the bevel is to add a steeper secondary bevel at the desired angle. We can grind this new bevel by hand, or by using a honing jig like the Lie-Nielson widget. I find I can apply more downward pressure using this jig to get the job done sooner and more precisely.

Honing jigs are undeniably useful, but they too often become an impediment to learning professional sharpening skills, and they are more time-consuming to use than freehand sharpening. Jigs can certainly make the sneaky snake of multiple bevels workable, but please don’t ignore the inescapable fact that if one uses a jig properly, over multiple sharpening sessions the result will be… let me think about it…. wait a second while I make a little sketch here…. oh yea, a flat bevel. Hmmm….

Hey, I’ve got a crazy idea: When performing routine sharpening (not the 3 cases listed above), instead of taking shortcuts and adding micro-bevels which turn into secondary bevels and maybe even bulging bevels, why not start with a flat bevel and keep it flat? And then just maybe we could take advantage of the natural indexing properties of that flat bevel to sharpen freehand and save a lot of time NOT polishing skinny secondary bevels or fat bulging bevels? You know what, it just might work!

A honing jig is very helpful for making big angle corrections. I own several, but the Lie-Nielson model is my favorite: I use it every third blue moon. If you decide to use one, however, reserve it for emergency or drastic measures. Don’t let it become training wheels, kiddies.

The Nano-bevel

In this and previous posts we discussed bulging bevels, which are convex bevels on plane or chisel blades; secondary bevels and double bevels, which are additional bevels; and micro-bevels, which are a tiny secondary bevel. But there is another type of secondary bevel a clever Beloved Customer called a “nano-bevel.” I like this term and so will use it, but I caution you that, like all secondary bevels, you should employ this bevel judiciously.

We will go into freehand sharpening techniques in greater detail in future posts, but to avoid confusion when discussing the nano-bevel, we need to touch on some of those techniques now.

You may have noticed that, when sharpening freehand on every stone but the finish stone, most, but not all people do a better job by applying downward pressure on the blade only on either the push stroke away from their body or the pull stroke back towards their body, but not in both directions. This is because placing downward pressure in both directions tends to make the blade rock resulting in a less-than-flat bevel, or Saints preserve us, the barbaric bulging bevel. As you can imagine, if this rocking motion gets out of hand on the rougher stones the bevel angle can get out of control quickly.

However, on the finish stone, it is most efficient to apply light downward pressure in both directions. The advantage is that a teeny tiny bit of unintentional rocking helps to ensure the last few microns of the blade’s cutting edge are thoroughly polished. And because the abrasive power of a finish stone is so small, there is no danger the bevel will become rounded, at least if you don’t get carried away. From the wood-shaving’s eye view, this creates a tiny bevel at the last few microns of the cutting edge. This is one example of a “nano-bevel.” Stropping produces the same result on a larger scale. There is also another type of nano-bevel for emergency use.

When using a finish plane on wood with twisty grain you have no doubt experienced frustrating tearout. The usual litany of solutions is to reduce the blade’s projection for finer depth of cut, skew the plane, oil and adjust the chipbreaker, resharpen the blade, adjust the plane’s sole and mouth, or even slightly dampen the wood with a planing fluid such as water, whiskey, or unicorn wee wee. All these methods can help.

Planing Fluid

Planing fluid is the term I use for moisture applied to the surface of the wood to reduce tearout when planing by either hand or machine.

The good Lord designed trees to move water from the ground into the sky, so wood loves water. When a tree is cut down it immediately begins to loose cell water making the wood lighter in weight and much harder and stiffer structurally. But it still loves water.

If we apply a little moisture to the surface of a board the wood’s fibers become slightly softer, more flexible and less likely to develop tearout when planed, at least temporarily. The moisture is usually applied with a damp rag. Not too much, now!

Regarding the moisture source, water works well and is priced right, but it may dry slowly and produce inconvenient side effects. Unicorn products are dreadfully expensive nowadays, even on Amazon, so I prefer a smooth, inexpensive, industrial-grade busthead. Please ask Ken Hatch for a demonstration and recommendations for a good planing fluid next time he invites you over to his house for his world-famous tacos.

Please note that I don’t drink any planing fluid other than water. Of course unicorn wee wee is more addictive than OxyContin and drives mortals quite mad. And alcohol is yeast pee pee and deadly, but I prefer whiskey for a number of reasons.

Whiskey has a good water/alcohol ratio that wets the wood about the right amount and then evaporates cleanly. Too wet and it penetrates too deeply and can discolor the wood. Too dry and it evaporates too quickly.

I used Isopropyl alcohol when living in the US where it is dirt cheap, but it is considered a pharmaceutical in Japan and so is very expensive. As with other alcohol products not intended for internal consumption, it contains actual poisonous additives demanded by greedy governments for the sole purpose of maximizing tax revenues. I don’t need those poisons touching my tools or my skin. Cheap whiskey, however, doesn’t contain poisons (other than alcohol, of course), it’s cheaper and smells better.

Emergency Nano-bevel Modification

Another classic solution to reduce tearout of course is to use a plane with a steeper blade bedding angle, but what to do if you don’t have a high-angle plane handy?

A traditional, jobsite-expedient solution used by Japanese woodworkers is to create a nano-bevel on the ura side of the blade. This is accomplished during sharpening while polishing the ura on the finishing stone by lifting the head of the blade just a itsy bitsy teeny weeny nat’s buttfuzz thickness during the final stroke, pulling the blade towards you, of course, creating a “nano-bevel” on the last few microns of the cutting edge at the ura, effectively changing the approach angle of the blade.

Be forewarned that this is only for emergency use, and that if you overdo it, or do it too often, the nano-bevel will become a microbevel in a bad location, your blade will be damaged, efficient sharpening will become impossible, the chipbreaker will cease to function, and the gods of handsaws may curse you so all your hair falls out and your dog will barf on your shoes! Or is it your dog’s hair will fall out and you will barf? I forget.

Now where did I put that jar of planing fluid….?


A wise man will seek to avoid shortcuts that save a bit of time short-term only to waste more of his time and money long-term. If you simply make the effort to invest in basic sharpening skills, pay attention, and keep the bevel flat, time, steel, and stone-wasting monkeyshines such as double bevels will be unnecessary.

We have talked about the cutting edge’s proper shape. Beginning with the next post in this series, we will examine how to use sharpening stones to make it that way. 


Well dudes and dudettes, I’m done sharpening using my most excellent honing jig for now and am off to the beach! Don’t wait up.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may my blade bevels multiply exponentially.

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Protecting Natural Sharpening Stones

Groucho Mark

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

Groucho Marx

Natural sharpening stones are wonderful things. At least the good ones are. Finding one that works well with our blades and sharpening style is a thrilling experience and a source of long-term joy. Such an excellent stone can be hard to find and will often be expensive, but whether dirt cheap or worth rubies, it will be delicate and need protection.

In a previous article we looked at how to select a natural Japanese sharpening stone: Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

In this article we will examine some methods to ensure your natural sharpening stone provides you long reliable service. Your humble servant suggests you read this article aloud to your favorite stone to gauge its reaction. If you pay close attention, you may even see it wiggle just a tiny bit with gleeful anticipation, especially when you get to the parts about calligraphy, color selection, and skirts. Stones can be very fashion conscious, you know.

The Weaknesses of Natural Stones

The first thing to keep in mind is that Japanese natural stones are pieces of sedimentary layers that formed on the bottom of the ocean, essentially red-hot dust violently spewed high into the atmosphere by volcanoes, sifted and sorted by wind and waves and distance, and laid down on the seabed like pages in a book. They have defects even if you can’t see them. They naturally have top and bottom surfaces as well as side/end surfaces where the layers are exposed. Water tends to soak in-between these layers exposed at side and end surfaces sometimes causing the layers to separate and even crack in heartbreaking fashion.

Combined with the relative softness of the mineral particles, this structure makes most Japanese natural sharpening stones fragile.

The Stone Base: Objectives and Materials

So what can we do to avoid and/or mitigate these risks to our precious stones to ensure they are happy and will last a long time?

My first Ipe stone base. You can see the grooves on the surface cut for decking purposes.

The most important thing you can do to protect your stone is to make a durable base, and to attach your stone firmly to it. The base provides several benefits:

  1. Seals the stone’s underside from water penetration, reducing the potential for separation and cracking;
  2. Provides structural support reducing the risk of cracking, especially as the stone becomes thinner;
  3. Makes the stone easier to handle, reduces the chances of dropping it, and protects it to some degree from bangs, dings and chipping;
  4. Makes the stone more stable in use.

There are several options for materials from which to make a base. Probably the best material on paper is high-chromium stainless steel. I have never made a metal base but some friends have.

Wood is the classic choice, but it has some downsides. For instance, it can warp, crack, rot and bugs might turn it into both home and dinner. So if you select wood be sure to choose a suitable species and develop a base design that sidesteps these shortcomings.

Most people, including me, choose to make their stone bases from wood. Most woods will work. I enjoy experimenting, so at various times I have made and used stone bases made from White Oak, Hinoki, Alaskan Cedar, Honduras Mahogany, Teak, and Ipe. Alaskan Cedar is an excellent wood for this purpose, but the best wood so far has been Ipe. It’s amazing: dense, but tough; It absorbs very little water and won’t crack or rot; Once stable, it doesn’t warp. At all. Bugs hate it. I love it.

Roppongi Hills Mori Tower Building, Tokyo

So how did I learn about Ipe? An architect specified Ipe to deck an exterior engawa at a balcony on a commercial project I managed some years back, so I decided I had better investigate this material on the Client’s behalf. What I found in various installations in Tokyo and Yokohama was eye opening. A good example is the Ipe decking installed at Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo. This building was completed in 2003. I worked out of a Client’s offices in this building off and on for 5 years.

The exterior wooden deck at RH is exposed to more nasty weather conditions than a postman, not to mention heavy foot traffic, but although it has turned grey, it has not split, warped, or rotted. The screws are still tight, and the surface shows very little wear despite several thousand people walking across it each day. Tough stuff.

The Viewing Deck at the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo. The deck around the perimeter is planked with Ipe wood. The photo below is a closeup of this durable material, installed in 2002. The building is 238 meters (781 ft) tall with a floor space area of 379,408 square meters (4,083,910 sq ft) in the tower portion, making it one of the largest buildings in the world.

So around 2010 when I bought my last replacement stone, I bummed a couple of decking cutoffs a local lumberyard had been using as stickers directly on the ground for years. The wood was wet and muddy, but still in good shape. I laminated them together to make the base pictured above. It has been better than any I made before that time.

A few years ago, I did another building with an exterior Ipe deck. The decking subcontractor had mixed in two very dark, almost black pieces of Ipe. At first glance I thought they were ebony. I had the subcontractor replace them for aesthetic reasons. Instead of throwing the boards away (they were already cut to irregular lengths), I scrounged them and made a second base for my favorite natural stone. Once again, excellent performance. Testing is complete.

The Stone Base: Design and Fabrication

Before you start cutting wood for your base, first flatten the bottom of your stone. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but you want at least 75% contact. A carborundum stone or diamond plate will work fine, but a cheaper and easier option is to rub the underside of the stone on a section of concrete sidewalk wet with running water from a garden hose. Be careful to choose a place with low foot traffic because the concrete can become polished and quite slippery as a result.

Depending on the shape of the stone, you may want to grind off rough spots and projections on the sides and ends too. Be careful when you do this to prevent spalling and other damage.

If the stone has visible cracks, let the stone dry in a warm dry location for a few days, then apply masking tape to both sides of the crack, and carefully soak a few drops of super glue deep inside. Hopefully this will prevent the crack from promulgating further.

Now that you have the stone’s final dimensions, make the base. Whatever wood you choose, select quartersawn pieces if possible for maximum stability against warpage, or laminate the base if not. Regarding dimensions, it needs to be thick enough to resist flexing much when pressure is applied during sharpening, and long enough to remain stable when pushed back and forth. Shape the ends so water runs off.

You can make it as attractive or as utilitarian as you like, but avoid creating too many nooks and crannies for stone mud to collect in. The base pictured above retains the beaded profile cut into the wood’s upper surface to drain water from a deck, and it does drain water away from the stone effectively, but mud tends to collect in between the grooves. Not a fatal flaw, but it takes a few extra seconds with a brush to clean.

Be sure to chamfer or round-over all the edges and corners

Place the stone in the exact position on the base you want it to remain forever and mark the stone’s perimeter on the base.

Sand the wood directly underneath where the stone will rest. Don’t sand with the grain, but diagonally to create a cross-hatched rough surface. Completely remove any dust and wipe well with acetone or lacquer thinner.

Apply masking tape to the wood base at the outside of the stone’s outline.

Place the stone right side up on a flat surface and wrap, bend and fold a single strip of thin cardboard or manila file folder paper tightly around the stone’s sides and ends and secure it in place with masking tape to form both a skirt that seals tightly against the surface, and a reservoir to contain the epoxy used to glue the stone to the base.

Mix up some 2-part epoxy, enough the fill the reservoir at the stone’s underside plus a little extra. You want the epoxy to be thick, not runny. Any epoxy that will allow plenty of working time will do.

Force a little epoxy deep into the wood grain and sandpaper scratches with a small spatula or wood stick. Next apply the same epoxy to the bottom of the stone with your little spatula, and forcefully drive it into the nooks and crannies.

Pour the remaining epoxy into the reservoir you created at the bottom of the stone all the way to the brim.

Without letting the epoxy harden or flow out, flip the stone over and set it in the prepared position on the base in precise alignment with the masking tape outline you created earlier. Wiggle the stone a little to work any air bubbles out, and push the stone down hard until you sense it is contacting the wood.

Once the epoxy starts to set and become rubbery, but before it hardens, run a razor knife carefully around the stone’s perimeter cutting just a tiny bit into the wooden base, and then peel up and remove the masking tape and any epoxy squeeze-out. Be warned: this will be an armor-plated, DMV-style nightmare to cleanup later if you wait until the epoxy sets hard.

After the epoxy sets, finish the base with whatever material appeals to you. I soak mine in polyurethane thinned 100% and wet sand several times. I then wipe off any PU that remains on the surface. I guarantee you that any finish material you apply that remains on the wood’s surface will fail and look nasty after a few years of use.

I also like to apply a thin coat of Titebond Type III glue to the underside of the feet and base just for good measure. Does it make a difference? I dunno, but I’m a belt, suspenders, and full-harness kinda guy.

My second Ipe stone base. Naturally black as ebony and almost as heavy. I wanted an unusual but subtle shape, one that could not be produced by power tools, so I made the far ends straight, transitioning into a radius at the base’s top surface. This stone is an irregular shape but it does wonderful things to steel. I’m sharpening a Keisaburo 70mm blade using all the stone’s surfaces.

The Stone: Protecting and Reinforcing the Sides

It’s important to limit water from soaking into the stone’s sides along the sedimentary layers to prevent separation. In Japan it’s SOP to paint the sides with natural urushi lacquer, a toxic tree-sap that loves water and doesn’t easily chip. This material may be difficult to obtain outside of Japan or China, I fear.

Another option is an extremely high-solids (aka “goopy”) natural urethane paint made from cashew tree sap called “Cashew.” The material is used extensively in Japan as a replacement for nature urushi lacquer because it is less expensive, much easier to use, and more resistant to UV ray degradation. It’s made in Thailand and sold in Japan, but it may be difficult to obtain outside Japan. Or you can just use a commercial high-solids urethane.

To use Cashew or polyurethane, clean the stone and let it dry thoroughly. I mean really super dry.

Thin the Cashew or PU 10:1 with the special thinner Cashew sells, or high-quality professional-grade mineral spirits. The crap sold at Home Despot sucks.

Apply a coat of this thin finish with a brush and let it dry. It should dry quickly. Repeat at least 5 times. The mixture will soak into the stone to form a tight bond, seal cracks and pores, and serve as a primer for subsequent coats.

Whatever finish you use, it is best to apply the manufacturer’s recommended primer, or at least a thinned initial coat of the same finish to the stone’s sides and ends so it will penetrate thoroughly into the cracks and crevices further reinforcing the stone. Subsequent coats should adhere well to this primer coat if applied before it cures entirely.

Any color will work. I have a habit of painting any tools I might take to a demonstration or jobsite orange. It seems to stunt darwinian leg growth. Besides, orange was the color of the first GC I worked for back in Las Vegas many moons ago and it brings back pleasant memories. They painted everything orange.

One other thing some people do to reinforce their stones is to apply a strip or two of washi paper (traditional Japanese paper made from mullberry tree fibers) to the sides and ends using urushi lacquer, or whatever material they used for the stone. Despite being paper, washi is made from continuous fibers and is surprisingly strong.

Some people go so far as to use washi with printed images or calligraphy on it, and apply a clear coat of Cashew over the top so the printing is visible. I have never done this before, but it does look interesting.

Here is a link to a blog by an artist named Mr. Kobayashi about his sharpening tools with some photos of pretty stone bases. It is written in Japanese, but the pictures are informative. Not sure how well Google Translate would work.

The Stone: Storing & Transporting

Finally, I recommend you wrap your natural stone and its base in clean cloth or newspaper immediately after each sharpening session, while it is still wet, to protect it from dust and dings. After it has dried, store it in a box with a lid. A wooden box is nice, but a plastic one is more practical.

Here’s a link to a video about making a simple traditional Japanese tool box from softwood. If you haven’t made one of these before, they can be fun and quite useful. They don’t see much use on jobsites nowadays because the plastic ones are more durable and much better suited to loading onto construction vehicles.

The high-impact plastic box pictured below is one I use for my sharpening stones. Manufactured by Reese in Japan, it has “Tool Box” heat stenciled into the side. Tougher than boiled owl and stackable, these containers will keep the contents dry no matter how hard it rains so long as the water level stays below the lower lip of the lid. Spring clips at each end do a great job of keeping the lid closed and attached even if the box tumbles off the back of a moving truck onto the road. The road rash will be bad, but the tools will stay inside. The problem is the truck following too closely behind…. Don’t ask me how I know. (ಥ_ಥ)

A Reese brand toolbox. Made of high-impact plastic, these boxes are tough as boiled owl. Rainwater can’t get in, but water vapor can get out. And because they have a standardized footprint, they are stackable so they ride well in the bed of construction vehicles. Just make sure they are strapped down (ツ). This type of portable toolbox has almost entirely replaced the traditional wooden carpenter’s box for practical reasons.


If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or conveniently and profitably “misplace” your information.