Japanese Handplanes – Part 1: East Vs. West

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.

Bilbo Baggins
C&S Tools Sukezane brand 70mm finish plane. Shirogami No.1 steel blade hand-forged by Nakano Takeo, body by Inomoto.

Your humble servant has received many inquiries over the years from Honorable Friends and Beloved Customers (may the hair on their toes never fall out!) about how to setup, maintain and use Japanese planes to which I have gladly responded when the request for information was made politely.

The Japanese hiraganna handplane is an elegant tool with a simple yet deceptively sophisticated design. It is not a difficult tool to master once one understands its unique design principles and learns a few basic techniques easily taught in person, but it can be frustrating to master using only written guidance.

But I believe the time has come to begin this journey. I pray Beloved Customers will have the courage to accompany me down this road that goes ever on and on until we reach the lighted inn. When we arrive, the first round of root beer will be on me!

Let’s begin the journey by examining some relevant terminology. Don’t forget your handkerchief!

Terminology

The Japanese Yariganna in-use. Prior to the advent of the handplane to the islands of Japan, an approximation of this tool was used for finish-planing the surfaces of wood following the adze. It creates a unique and practical surface texture.

In this and subsequent posts in this series your humble servant will not attempt to educate Gentle Readers in all the Japanese language terms for every part of the plane, nor will I use Japanese conventions for describing handplanes, since that would be about as useful as a hog in a candy shop. Instead I will use standard English language terms wherever possible. There is an illustration below that shows the various components and features along with Japanese language labels for those interested.

Indeed, since the plane is a relatively recent tool in the Japanese woodworker’s toolbox, and has a much longer archeological history in the West, it seems silly to use more Japanese words than absolutely necessary to describe something that did not originate in Japan, and can easily be described in English. I will, however, venture to describe some of the more common general terms specific to the Japanese handplane.

I am neither a lawyer nor a government employee and so see no need to make things more confusing than necessary. I humbly apologize in advance if this approach offends any purists who enjoy being confused.

The standard handplane in Japan, and the one used for creating and/or smoothing flat surfaces (versus rabbet, chamfer or molding planes) is called the “hiraganna,” pronounced hee/rah/gahn/nah, and written using the Chinese ideograms 平鉋 , without emphasis on any part of the word.

The first character 平 is pronounced, in this case, “hira” (there are at least 6 standard pronunciations for this character in Japanese) and means “flat.” makes sense, right?

The second character 鉋 , written “kanna” in the Latin alphabet and pronounced “kan/nah,” means “plane” (as in “handplane”). This character is comprised of two standalone characters combined to make a single character, a common practice in the Chinese and Japanese languages. The one on the left side, 金, means gold or metal, while the one on the right, 包 means “to wrap.” Kinda sorta makes sense. Almost hardly.

The character for kanna was not invented in Japan but is said to have been used in China since the Táng period AD618 – 907, although the tool it represented at the time was a multi-blade scraper of sorts and not a handplane.

Comparison Between Western and Japanese Wooden-bodied Bench Planes

If your humble servant may be permitted a brief digression on a personal subject, I would like to clarify a point of some small relevance to this explanation of the Japanese handplane.

I have at times been called a Japanophile, and although I confess to being fond of the mountainous islands and the wonderful people of Japan, the years I have spent living in Japan, and my ability to read, write and speak the language were not born of some starry-eyed infatuation with or even simple admiration of Japan, but by more practical matters of service obligations, educational pursuits and my work in the construction industry.

My point is that I prefer Japanese tools and techniques when I think they are superior, and by the same token prefer Western (or at least American) tools and techniques when I believe they are superior. Consequently, I like to flatter myself that I can provide a relatively unbiased viewpoint, one which will come into clearer focus near the end of this article.

Of course, those who prefer Western tools and techniques above all others will say I am biased towards the Japanese way, while those who prefer Japanese tools and techniques above all others will insist I am biased toward Western tools and techniques. There is no way to win such an argument, so Gentle Readers must judge for themselves. Anyway, back to the subject at hand.

A detailed treatise comparing wooden-bodied Japanese handplanes to steel-bodied Western handplanes would be an extravagant waste of Beloved Customer’s precious time, so I will resist the temptation.

But I would be remiss to not point out that Bailey-pattern steel-body handplanes do have a few serious advantages over wooden-bodied planes in general, while wooden-bodied planes in general and Japanese hiraganna planes in particular have several serious advantages over modern Bailey-pattern planes the thoughtful woodworker should understand.

Some of the advantages of modern steel-bodied Baily-pattern planes over all wooden-bodied planes include the following:

  1. The steel plane’s body is unaffected by seasonal humidity changes and therefore warps less and requires less fettling. This is a huge advantage;
  2. The steel plane’s sole is harder and wears slower than a wooden sole, and therefore requires less fettling. Also, since the sole wears slower, the mouth does not easily become wider, and seldom if ever needs to have a new mouth inlet. This is another huge advantage.

Both of these advantages can have a humongous impact on the effectiveness and productivity of the tool over the years.

Some of the advantages of Japanese wooden-bodied planes over steel-bodied planes include the following:

  1. The wooden body is lighter and not as easily damaged as a traditional cast-iron steel-bodied plane’s body which will bend and/or fracture if dropped onto a hard surface (the ductile cast iron used in some high-end planes nowadays is a significant improvement in this regard). Fracturing has been the bane of steel-bodied planes since the beginning. This is a huge advantage;
  2. The plane’s Owner can make a replacement wooden body, exactly as he prefers it to be, quickly and inexpensively;
  3. The wooden sole is softer than a steel sole and therefore is not only less likely to scratch the surface being planed, but will tend to burnish it instead;
  4. The wooden sole is easier to true, fettle, and even modify;
  5. The wooden body is lighter in weight and therefore both less tiring to use and easier to transport;
  6. Japanese handplanes have lower profiles so they take up less volume, and are easier to store and transport;
  7. Japanese handplanes have few if any screws and no levers so adjustment is simpler, more intuitive, and entirely dispenses with the clumsy, often sloppy mechanical linkage common to Bailey-pattern steel-bodied planes;
  8. And finally, the biggest advantage of the Japanese handplane is, (drumroll please), the blade, if hand-forged from high-quality steel and properly heat-treated, will become much sharper, stay sharper longer and will be easier to sharpen than the blades of modern steel-bodied Bailey-pattern handplanes. No contest. Your humble servant believes the blade’s performance is the most important aspect of a handplane, after all, it is a cutting tool, not a paperweight (although I admit to having a pretty little LN No.1 benchplane in white bronze I use as a paperweight. My associates here in Japan can’t figure out what it is so I tell them it is for shaving kiwi fruit (ツ)).

Allow me to expound a little further on the advantages of the Japanese handplane:

Blade Performance:

A beautifully-polished kanna blade with what appears to be excellent grey jigane and a milky-silver hagane cutting edge. It takes your humble servant’s breathe away.

The Japanese planes we carry have hand-forged forge-laminated blades made from specialized high-carbon tool steel to meet the performance expectations of professional woodworkers in Japan. The crystalline structure of this steel once made into a blade by our blacksmiths is fine-grained and uniform. Blades are exceptionally hard at 65~66Rc, and remain sharp a long time while being easily sharpened.

There was a time in centuries past when Western blades were of near equal quality, but no longer. Sadly, the blades of most Bailey-pattern planes manufactured nowadays are made of high-alloy steels for which quality control can be easily automated, but which were never intended for handplane blades. These steels are undeniably tough, won’t become very sharp initially, quickly dull, and are, relatively speaking, an “evil screaming bitch” to sharpen (pardon the excessively-technical jargon).

Blade Appearance:

While it used to be that Western wooden-bodied planes had interesting maker’s marks stamped in their blades, such is no longer the case. Japanese planes, on the other hand, make a point of having decorative engraving, stampings and surface treatments applied to their blades for a significantly more interesting presentation of the blacksmith’s art than the plain, boring sanded steel of modern Western planes.

A plane by Usui Kengo with a nekkiri yabane (cut arrow feather) ground and stunningly artful calligraphy handcut into the face.

Reliable Blade Retention:

The blade of Japanese handplanes is wedged tightly into two grooves in the side of the body preventing shifting and rotation, and providing reliable settings. Most modern Western handplanes rely on a relatively complicated and less-secure blade retention and adjustment mechanism.

Simplicity:

The standard Japanese hiraganna plane has at most 4 components: The body, blade, chipbreaker (uragane), and chipbreaker rod. Planes with adjustable mouths will have more parts, but those are not standard planes. Western planes often, but not always, have at least 21 and sometimes more components. Screwdrivers and wrenches are not necessary for adjusting or disassembly of Japanese handplanes.

And all the parts in Bailey-pattern handplanes have built-in slop which grows worse with use and often makes adjustment irritating and sometimes even unreliable.

The Japanese hiraganna does not have a separate wedge or a mechanical assembly securing the blade in-place. Instead, the blade itself is wedge-shaped, narrowing in thickness from the head to the cutting edge, and fits tightly into two grooves, one cut into each sidewall of the mouth opening, for a secure fit, an elegant, simple and utterly reliable design.

The various component parts of a Japanese Hiraganna. There are only 4.

Lower Profile and Reduced Weight:

Japanese hiraganna have thinner bodies and a lower profile than Western Bailey-pattern planes and even Western wooden-bodied planes. Accordingly, they weigh less and take up less space in the toolbox.

While there are times when your humble servant appreciates the extra momentum a heavier steel body affords when making deep cuts, those instances are limited to specific applications. The rest of the time the extra mass is like most bloated and corrupt government agencies: a pointless burden.

In all other applications, the lighter weight of the wooden-bodied Japanese hiraganna plane is a blessing.

Smoother Surface

Where wooden-bodied plans of all types excel is the superior finish they leave on the wood they are used to plane. That is not to say steel-bodied planes cannot create a perfectly smooth surface, but it is the nature of steel to develop dings and burrs in-use that can leave scratches in the wood they are planing. And while a wooden sole will burnish a wooden surface, the best steel can do is rub it.

Western Steel-bodied Handplanes: The Right Tool for the Right Job 適材適所

There is a saying in Japan I am told comes from the boat-building tradition where many types of wood are used for the various components in a quality vessel, and it goes something like this: Tekizai tekisho 適材適所 meaning: “The right wood for the right place.”

Your humble servant is a pragmatic son of a gun, and a firm believer in using the best tool available to achieve the best results possible. Accordingly, it would be exceedingly foolish to insist that Japanese handplanes are always the best tool for every planing job. Indeed, I have used a combination of both Bailey-pattern steel-bodied handplanes and Japanese-style handplanes for many decades, selecting the best tool for the specific job at-hand. So what steel-bodied planes do I believe excel?

Scrub Plane

I have found the Stanley No.40 furring plane and especially its more modern equivalent the Lie-Nielson 40 1/2 scrub plane to be superior for removing material when dimensioning lumber (making it thinner and flatter).

This is an extremely simple plane with a narrow, thick blade 1.450″ x 3/16″ ground to a large curvature and a big mouth designed to hog lots of wood. The handles make it easier to leverage body weight into the cuts.

In the case of the LN model, the blade is A2 steel, a material developed originally for dies, not plane blades, a tool steel that will never become especially sharp, and which dulls quickly, but once it has dulled to a certain point simply keeps on cutting, seemingly forever. And while the blade may become dented and dinged, it will not easily chip, perfect for the rough work of dimensioning dirty and stone-infested rough-sawn lumber.

The ductile iron sole will be of course be scratched by dirt and stones hidden in the wood, but who cares? Better a steel scrub plane than the white oak of my Japanese planes. I consider Lie-Nielson 40 1/2 to be an essential plane in my toolchest.

Block Plane

The steel-bodied Western block plane is also an essential tool IMHO. There are of course Japanese planes with similar dimensions, of lighter weight and with better blades, but they all have one weak point, namely the area right in front of the mouth becomes scratched and wears too quickly. Block planes are often used to trim and clean edges which apply a high point load on the mouth. The fix used in Japan is to inlet a brass plate at the mouth. But if metal is the answer, why not make it metal from the beginning?

Also, I use my block planes for finish carpentry and installations which involves working around hidden finish nails, little pieces of steel that damage wooden bodies and hard blades, but which a steel block plane shrugs off.

I own several block planes, being fond of experimenting with tools, but have found the Lie-Nielson No. 60-1/2 rabbet block plane with nicker to be the one most useful for me.

Jointer Plane

Another Bailey-pattern steel-bodied plane I consider to be excellent is the jointer plane. I once had an old Stanley No.7 jointer plane I bought at a flea market, but it fell from the back of my 1966 VW van many moons ago and suffered the fate common to old grey cast-iron planes, breaking both the body and my heart in half. I bought the Lie-Nielson version many years later and have been pleased with it’s perfomance (my expectations were never very high).

It is a monster at 22″ long and weighing 8-1/4 lbs. I hate the heck out of the A2 steel blade. To make things worse, the sole was warped when I bought it new, so I had to spend hours flattening it on sandpaper and glass. Why do I like it? The cast ductile iron sole is tough and never warps. The extra length makes it especially stable for cuts ending or starting off the piece of wood I am planing. When I have a large surface such as a table to flatten, my No.7 may not cut like a dream or be easy to use, but it always makes the job go quicker.

Conclusion

In this post we have briefly touched on the history, terminology, advantages and disadvantages of the Japanese hiraganna plane. We have also compared it to Western planes, and concluded with several examples of Western handplanes your humble servant believes to be superior to their Japanese counterpart.

I hope you will agree that the Japanese handplane is a tool worth mastering if only because of the excellent work it can help you execute. Besides, they’re a lot of fun.

In the next post in this story of supernatural intrigue and inter-dimensional romance we will discuss how to properly adjust a Japanese hiraganna plane without hurting its feelings.

YMHOS

Look at them,’ mother Troll said. ‘Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon’ John Albert Bauer (1882–1918)

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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 jointer plane break in half and bust my toes.

Other Posts in the Japanese Handplane Series:

8 thoughts on “Japanese Handplanes – Part 1: East Vs. West

  1. Regarding your distaste for A2 blades, there are available blue paper steel laminated plane blades that fit in western planes with no modification required, I use one such blade in the plane I use for shooting. Alternatively one could look for the older “Clifton” blades, which were hammer forged from simple high carbon steel, and even had a handsome mark stamped into the head of the blade, though they are now very difficult to acquire.

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  2. And a great many points you have made are why (mostly) the planes I use on the job site are metal. If I am sure there is no potential for destroying the wooden bodied planes I have on occasion to use outside the workshop then my wooden smoother and ‘block plane’ equivalent may make an appearance. Alas, the work I have currently requires not the fine finish for such methods.

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    1. Gav: For commercial construction, cabinets, remodeling and installations, I share your policy. But there are some field jobs, such as doors and some built-in millwork that hate sandpaper and cry for a fine plane finish.

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      1. In complete agreement with you there Stan. I find especially with retaining detail and for a clear finish there is a distinct advantage and I can do without sanding dust where possible. To clarify with current job- refinishing a jarrah deck. No fine work and no planes. At least two types of claggy poly/oil mix have been applied and a floor or belt sander randomly run diagonally across the boards, which being outside are cupped, partly from the climate and partly from the existing finish. With exposed stainless screw heads popping up at random due to uneven driving and countersinking it’s a dream! Powered sanding and extraction rule the day at the moment I’m afraid. Trimming doors and windows to fit slightly out of square or even bowed jambs with a hand plane really does result in a better finish and fit. I had to rehang some installed windows recently, fitted by a window company, which didn’t have sufficient clearance and were planed unevenly. The level of control with a powered plane to finish off just isn’t there and the machine marks didn’t help. Even the hinge rebates, routered with a trim router didn’t have the benefit of chisel work to clean out the corners and the rebate wasn’t even consistent. These weren’t high end windows and they were being painted but when the painter points out to the owner that the windows won’t operate once painted and the season shifts and it will jamb further it doesn’t give you much faith in the company which may be why I was asked to rehang them. There was one exception, they took to much off along one stile. Can’t plane that back.

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  3. Stan, really excited to see you’ve finally begun covering this topic. Your sharpening guide took me from clueless to getting sharp edges a few months ago and is without a doubt what I recommend to anyone who asks. I had hoped to find the same for kanna when I began learning about them. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series, I really appreciate you taking the time to share knowledge with the rest of us! 😀

    I may have accidentally sent this as a message first, oops!

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  4. I’ve not used a hiraganna
    for hours and days on end, but when I was younger and lacking power tools I did use some western planes that way–a Bailey #7 and #4. My back and triceps complained about mistreatment.

    Later when I bought and began using a hiraganna, even though it felt awkward initially, it seemed like the body mechanics might be more favorable. Pulling a plane instead of pushing might use larger muscles and more of them I think.

    I do have a nameless vintage wood scrub plane that I like a lot. The tote is comfortable and with a bit of wax on the sole it zings right along. My Record 60-1/2 block plane with a Lee Valley pm-v11 blade is capable of decent work and isn’t too precious for a typical jobsite. So far that seems to be the best performing modern Western blade steel I’ve encountered.

    Anyway thanks, I appreciate what I learn here.

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  5. I too am looking forward to this series, and that it will be in English! 🙂 Thank you again Stan, always love reading what you have to share.

    Jonathan

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