It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my handMichelangelo 1475-1564
This is the first in a five-part series about the Mortise Chisel, especially the Japanese version.
Also called the “Joiner’s Chisel” in Japan, this is a specialized chisel used by specialist craftsmen to cut precise, smallish joints when making furniture, cabinetry and joinery. Carpenters don’t use it, and few have even seen one.
In this post we will briefly examine a tiny bit of the terribly long history of the mortise and tenon joint, and give a description of this specialized chisel.
In future posts we will look at how to evaluate, adjust and even how to use the Japanese Mortise Chisel. We will also touch on bevel angles and blade hardness problems.
We will discuss what to look for in a good mortise chisel and how to examine it with an eye to increasing its performance. This is something most users of chisels never consider, but it can make a big difference in the case of mortise chisels. Indeed, I daresay most Gentle Readers will mutter the equivalent of “Splish us and splash us” when they read it.
Of course we will also discuss how to effectively correct irregularities in our mortise chisel that negatively impact performance, irregularities most people never notice.
After it is fixed (they almost always have some problems) we will take our racing chisel out for a few laps, but prior to that we will consider how to effectively use this specialized tool. Too few receive proper training nowadays in chisel work, but here are C&S Tools we feel it our duty to help our Beloved Customers improve their skills.
We will conclude this series by taking the “Old Master’s Test,” just to make sure both our mortise chisel and our skills are improving.
While focused on the Japanese mortise chisel, the principles and improvements discussed are applicable to any chisel used to cut mortises.
While all Gentle Readers with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands that love wood are welcome to share this hard-earned knowledge, it is intended primarily for our Beloved Customers, especially those who use chisels professionally to keep body and soul in close proximity.
Your humble servant drafted this series of posts years ago, and has shared bits of it with Beloved Customers from time to time when requested, but the information has not always been well-received for a number of reasons.
There is an old Japanese saying, one which probably originated in China, written 「馬の耳に念仏」and pronounced “Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu,” which translates to “Prayers in a horse’s ear.” Why are Buddhist prayers relevant you ask? Good question. You see, some of the principles I will present in this series directly contradict doctrine taught by some of the woodworking Gurus in the West. Like vespers to a beast of burden, wisdom is wasted on the willfully, woefully ignorant (wow, that almost sounds like iambic pentameter!).
But our Beloved Customers are neither horses nor asses nor politicians but shockingly intelligent human beings to whom your humble servant is convinced the time has come to expound the gospel of the mortise chisel. Perhaps it will be canonized some day (ツ)
This series of posts is equivalent to a graduate school course in chisels, something like “Mortise Chisels 701.” And just like a course in advanced differential equations, most Gentle Readers will never need it. But never let it be said that your humble servant didn’t do his best to improve both the skills and the tools of our Beloved Customers.
Some History of the Mortise & Tenon Joint
Mortise chisels are used for cutting rectangular holes in wood usually intended to accept tenons to form a structural connection called the “mortise and tenon joint” between pieces of wood.
No one knows how long humans have been using the mortise and tenon joint, but it has certainly been longer than nails, and many thousands of years longer than screws, although modern humans with their lithium battery-powered, made in China, landfill-bound, multicolored plastic and rubber screwdrivers may find it difficult to imagine. So let’s begin the journey by examining just two well-documented extant physical examples that may provide motivation for using this enduring joint.
The oldest known wooden structure is a neolithic well liner discovered near Leipzig Germany, constructed from oak timbers shaped by stone adze and joined at the corners with half-lap joints and pinned tusk-tenons at through mortises. Tests indicate the trees the timbers were split from were felled between the years 5206 and 5098 BC, making the assembly at least 7200 years old.
Next, let’s look at a less soggy but more recent, complicated and elegant example.
The oldest existing wooden building in the world is a Buddhist Temple named Horyuji located in Nara Japan. Originally constructed around 600 A.D. and rebuilt around 700 A.D. after a fire, this huge 1300 year-old temple and pagoda complex was reconstructed using hundreds of thousands of mortise and tenon joints, testifying to the longevity of wooden structural systems and the value of this universal connection technique.
Horyuji is far more than just a temple to Buddhism, it is a temple to woodworking. If you haven’t yet visited it, you’re truly missing something.
I mention these two examples to illustrate the universality, strength, and durability of the mortise and tenon joint. Anyone serious about woodworking must master this most ancient and essential connection.
Japanese Mortise Chisels
In the Japanese language mortise chisels are called “mukomachi nomi” (向待鑿), with “nomi” meaning “chisel.” Don’t ask me the origin of the rest of the word because I don’t have a clue, and have heard few plausible explanations. There is another post linked to here that contains more information about this chisel.
I will use the term mortise chisel in this article to refer to mukomachi nomi.
For our Gentle Readers interested in the Japanese language, there are several combinations of Chinese characters used to write mukomachi, none of which make much sense or seem related in any way to either tools or woodworking. The most common characters used are “向待” with the first character meaning “there” or “direction,” and the second character meaning “wait.” Combined, they seem to mean “Waiting over there,” or something like that.
I assume the name was originally phonetic and somebody decided to use these kanji because their pronunciation matched the phonetic name. This sort of linguistic contortion is seen frequently in Japan, and has been a source of confusion for all and sundry for many centuries. I blame it on elitist Buddhist priests going back and forth between Japan and China over the centuries, but it is typical of the Japanese people in general and priests in particular to take a perverse pleasure in intentionally making and using terms others can’t figure out.
This confusing practice is not unique to bald priests. When I was an engineering student, I recall the professors insisting we never attempt to simplify or too clearly explain the technical jargon of the trade to non-professionals because it was essential to job security for them to never quite understand it.
If you are familiar with Japanese architecture, you have seen the wooden lattice work that defines it in doors, windows, dividers, shoji, fusuma, koshido, glass doors, ceilings, and even fences, all items made by “tategushi” or “joiners” in Japan. Each piece of any lattice needs two tenons and two matching mortises to stay in-place, so a single piece of traditional Japanese joinery may have literally hundreds of small, very precise mortises, indeed thousands in the more complicated pieces. The Japanese mortise chisel was developed specifically at the request of joiners for this type of work. Therefore, it is also known as the “Tategu Nomi” which translates to “joinery chisel.” Few carpenters use this chisel.
Japanese mortise chisels are similar to other Japanese chisels in having a laminated steel structure with a hollow-ground ura (flat), an integral tang, wooden handle, and steel ferrule and hoop. Unlike most other chisels it has a rectangular cross-section with sides usually oriented 90˚square to the hollow-ground ura, and either flat or just slightly hollow-ground to better keep the blade aligned in the cut and to dimension and smooth the mortise’s walls.
Western mortise chisels do not typically share this detail, although unusually intelligent and observant Western woodworkers of course modify their chisels to gain similar benefits.
If speed and precision are important to you, then the sides of the chisel being oriented at 90° to the ura absolutely provide a serious advantage when cutting most mortises because the sides, and especially the two sharpish corners where these three planes meet, will effectively shave and precisely dimension the mortise’s side walls as the mortise is being cut without the need to pare them later.
Unlike most mortise joints cut with oiirenomi or atsunomi, so long as the mortise is the same width as the mortise chisel, and the user has the ability to maintain the chisel at the right angle while striking it with a hammer, the width of mortises cut with this chisel are usually quite precise and seldom if ever need be cleaned with a paring chisel. This functionality means that you can cut mortises, and especially small ones, both precisely and quickly with great confidence. It’s not called the “joiner’s chisel” for nothing.
The mukomachi chisel does not work as well in wider widths because of the increased friction between the chisel’s sides and the mortise’s walls. For joints wider than 15mm, please use a trued oiirenomi or atsunomi. And don’t forget to use your oilpot.
In the next class in our graduate course on the care and feeding of the wild mortise chisel, we will examine the various details to look for in an effective mukomachi nomi. Most of these details are applicable in the case of other chisels such as oiirenomi and atsunomi too, indeed any chisel intended to be used to cut mortises including Western mortise chisels.
But wait a minute! Before ya’ll run out of the classroom like a caravan of crazy stoats chasing a pixie, please pick up your homework assignments from the table by the exit doors. And please, don’t leave your empties behind on the floor. Paper coffee cups are one thing, but aluminum beer cans attract out-of-work divorce lawyers and other such desperate vermin.
See you next time.
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