Better a bald head than no head at all.Seamus MacManus
In the previous post in this series about Japanese hammers we examined a feature found in all modern hammer heads: the essential, unblinking, unseeing eye. In this post we will touch on the style of heads recommend for using with Japanese chisels. We discussed this subject in this post as well.
Gennou Head Shapes
The most common head shapes commonly available in Japan nowadays are: ryoguchi, daruma, funate, yamakichi and various hybrids thereof.
Ryouguch is the most common style of head, at least in Eastern Japan. It has two faces: A flat one for striking chisels and nails, and a slightly domed opposing face for kigoroshi and setting nails below the surface of boards.
While a simple design, this style of head has a relatively high moment of inertia, making it is more stable than other styles and therefore less likely to twist out of alignment during the swing, or twitch upon impact, a positive thing if you are a card-carrying member of NBA (Nail Benders Anonymous). (ツ)
Face designs in this style vary widely including round, oval, square, rectangular (usually with corners removed for a more octagonal shape) true octagonal, and the “Ichimonji” style with roundish sides and a flat top and bottom. We prefer the rectangular shape with cut corners best, but one style is no better than another. We don’t recommend, however, faces with 90 degree corners as the corners are counter-productive during kigoroshi operations and are structurally weaker.
If you are worried about pulling nails, we encourage you to use a nail bar to reduce the number of broken hammer handles wandering the world sad and lonely as a cloud.
The Daruma (pronounced dah/rhu/mah) gennou head takes its name from a famous Buddhist priest of oval stature who lost both arms and legs through excessive meditation, a blessed state doubtless achieved by many of our enlightened Beloved Customers (spiritual enlightenment that is, not quadriplegia). This gennou head is a stubbier version of the ryouguchi gennou, and always has a round face.
It’s more popular outside of Japan than domestically, for reasons your most humble servant fails to understand. From a physics viewpoint, at a given weight and because of its lower moment of inertia, it is less stable than other styles of gennou, but because it has a bigger face, and is intended to be used at constantly differing angles such that stability is less critical, this style is preferred by carvers. Joiners like it too for cutting repetitive mortise and tenon joints, but it is not favored by most other trades and may invite remarks at jobsites from other workers about the owner being unable to find his derriere with a mirror on a stick and a GPS. That said, your humble servant frequently uses daruma heads for cutting precise mortise joints. Now wait a minute…. where did I set down that darn GPS widget…?
An 80monme/ 300gm/ 11oz daruma head with an rock maple handle.
The funate gennou is closer in appearance to Western hammers with a skinnier neck behind the striking face, but without the split-tail “piano chisel” a foreman from my misspent youth named Jack Frost called the claw on his 28oz waffle-face framing hammer. It is more commonly seen in the Western Japan than Eastern Japan where I learned Japanese woodworking.
This gennou is useful for finish work involving nails and for tapping-out plane blades, but less useful for wacking chisels.
Yamakichi was the name of a gennou blacksmith working in Fukuoka on Kyushu Island that originated this style of head and gave it his name. Kosaburo introduced this style to Tokyo in response to customer demand and with Yamakichi’s permission, we are told, improving the design somewhat.
This style is a heavy-duty stubbier version of the funate with a slightly domed face and a kinda sorta pointy tail, perhaps better suited to driving/setting nails than the ryouguchi head, but certainly better for striking chisels than the funate style.
Better with nails than the ryouguchi style, this head makes an excellent all-round hammer for working in the field, and can even handle tapping-out and kigoroshi tasks.
The design has a unique and interesting appearance which reminds this humble scribbler of a 1956 Ford F100 truck in that, while neither sleek nor smooth, it has a sculptural quality not seen in the other styles that “grows on you.” It feels good in the hand.
There are other in-between head shapes, but these are the four basic styles generally available for woodworking today.
The subject of gennou head weight was examined at some length in a previous post.
Regardless of the type of gennou head you select, weight is a critical factor that will depend on what you plan to hit, your height above the thing you are hitting, how hard you need to hit it, and how precisely you need to hit it. Your own practical experience is the best basis for selecting the genno weight for a particular job, but some guidelines can be suggested.
To begin, the traditional measure used for gennou in Japan is the “monme,” with 100 monme equaling 375 grams or 13.2 ounces (1 ounce = 28.35 grams).
The standard middle-of-the-road weight for gennou used by carpenters in Japan ranges from around 100monme (375grams/ 13.2 ounces) to 120monme (16oz). The most common hammer used for finish carpentry in the United States weighs 16oz. So if you are going to buy your first gennou, and you intend to use it for general finish carpentry or furniture making, a 100 or 120 monme head is a good place to start.
For finer work, an 50-80 monme (7~11 oz) hammer head is a good choice. If you intend to make furniture or joinery, one in this weight range is a must-have.
For cutting deep mortises in heavy timbers with large chisels, as in timber framing or boat work, a 200monme (26oz) hammer is frequently used, but 250 (33oz) and even 300monme (40oz) heads are available. I own and use them when necessary. Some factors to consider when selecting a heavy gennou are that with greater weight comes greater impact force, and greater penetration, but heavier gennou are more tiring to swing and harder to control precisely.
Other factors to consider are the weight of chisels to be used and the width of their blades, since a heavier chisel with a wider blade requires more force to cut to a given depth. Only experience can tell Gentle Reader what weight will work best in a given situation. Just be aware that, unlike athletic socks and gubmint health care, there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all.
We hope this article has answered some of Gentle Reader’s questions on the subject of selecting a gennou head. If you have additional questions or need clarification, please use the “Leave a Reply” form below.
In the next article in our ongoing quest for spiritual enlightenment and metaphysical stability we will discuss the differences between mass-produced and hand-forged gennou heads. We will also consider the necessary attributes of woods suitable for making handles along with more design details in future posts, I promise. Until then, I have the honor to remain,
The following link is to a folder containing pricelists and photos of most of our products. If you have questions or would like to learn more, please use the form located immediately below titled “Contact Us.”
Please share your insights and comments with everyone by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, facist facebook, thuggish Twitter, or a US Congressman’s Chinese girlfriend and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my toes all grow black, stinky mushrooms if I lie.