I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge.J.R.R. Tolkein
Your most humble and obedient servant has received many requests over the years for explanations about how to setup, adjust, maintain and use Japanese planes. It’s a big subject, enough to fill volumes and volumes, and an important one to woodworkers, but I will try to explain in enough generality that new guys can follow, and in enough detail that professionals may glean something useful.
In this series we will discuss how to adjust a Japanese plane so it works well, how to tune it to increase performance, how to treat the body to reduce warpage and keep it looking good, how to deal with normal wear and tear, how to periodically tap out and dress the ura during sharpening, and of course how to use a Japanese plane.
This last subject is extremely simple but one many amateur users of Japanese planes and most users overseas get wrong. It happens so frequently that I am confident the improvement in Beloved Customer’s personal performance with Japanese planes will improve dramatically from this last subject alone.
The problem with Japanese planes is that, while they are simple tools, they are at the same time more sophisticated than appearances suggests. Dealing with these subtle details without properly understanding them leaves many as confused as a ball of yarn among a dozen big-eyed kittens, so to avoid having too many strands running all over the place, let’s start with the basics, namely how to adjust them. For purposes of this discussion, we will assume our plane is in good fettle to begin with.
Your humble servant will not attempt to teach Gentle Readers all the Japanese terms for every part of the hiraganna plane but will try to use standard English language terms wherever possible instead. 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 am not a government employee or a legal expert, and so see no need to make things more confusing than necessary. I humbly apologize in advance if this approach offends any purists or employees of the IRS.
The standard handplane in Japan, the one intended to create and/or smooth flat surfaces versus rabbet, chamfer or molding planes, just to name a few, is called the Hiraganna. This word is written 平鉋 in Chinese ideograms and pronounced hee/rah/gahn/nah, without emphasis on any part of the word.
The first character 平 means “flat.”
The second character 鉋 is comprised of two standalone characters combined to make a single character, a common practice in the Japanese language. The one on the left side, 金, means gold or metal, while the one on the right, 包 means “to wrap.”
The character for kanna was not invented in Japan but is said to have been used since the Táng period AD618 – 907 in China, although the tool it represented at the time was a scraper of sorts and not a handplane.
Adjusting Japanese Planes
In order to use a plane of any kind, one must remove the blade to sharpen it, and then re-install the blade and adjust its projection from the body’s mouth to produce a wood shaving of the desired thickness.
Like most wooden-bodied planes, one adjusts a Japanese plane by striking it with a hammer or mallet. To drive the blade further into the wooden body (called a “dai” 台 in Japanese) when installing the blade or when increasing the depth of cut, one taps the head of the blade down into the wooden body. Pretty straightforward. But like most things in life, there are both clever and stupid ways to get even simple jobs done. Let’s consider some of the clever ones, shall we?
The wacky ones can be very entertaining, I know, but I think I’ll leave those for the tool abusers on GooberTube.
Hammer or Mallet
You can use either a metallic hammer or a mallet made of wood, plastic or even rawhide to tap the blade or dai during these operations. They all work just fine, but there are long-term consequences to this selection you need to be aware of.
In Japan a steel hammer is traditionally used by carpenters to adjust planes. Without a doubt it’s convenient and effective, but there are some serious downsides to using a steel hammer you may not realize. Those include:
- A steel hammer always mushrooms the blade’s head;
- A steel hammer always dings the blade’s pretty face, and most critically;
- After many strikes, steel hammers will often crack and even split the wooden body (dai).
A deformed and ugly blade may not be a tragedy, but a split body is an expensive and time-wasting catastrophe, especially if you are a professional that needs his planes to keep cutting.
There may be Gentle Readers who will say: “But I’ve seen Japanese craftsmen using steel hammers to adjust their planes, so it can’t be wrong.” The first part of this observation may be true, but the last bit isn’t. The undeniable truth is that steel hammers have created many ugly, dinged, bent, and mushroomed blades, as well cracked and splintered dai, mostly unnecessarily. Some carpenters are especially abusive of their poor planes, sorry to say, but not all Japanese craftsmen are so inured to the suffering of their tools.
C&S Tool’s planes don’t deserve such violent abuse, so we recommend Beloved Customers use a wooden mallet to adjust them. Without exception. A plastic or rawhide mallet with a wooden handle will work just as well.
When you purchase a plane, the blade is already installed in the body, although the cutting edge is usually recessed inside the mouth to protect it. The first step, therefore, is to remove the blade and examine it.
If you live in a low humidity area such as Nevada or Arizona in the USA and purchase a plane from a part of the world with high-humidity at times, such as Japan, it is wise to remove the blade and set the plane aside for a few days to let the body become acclimatized, especially if you plan to use the plane in a space with central heating and cooling which may cause the wooden body to shrink in width
If you plan to store your plane for several years in a dry climate, or in a space with central heating and cooling, we recommend you remove the blade and chipbreakers, oil them, wrap them in aluminum foil, and store the body and blades together but without being installed in the body to prevent the blades from restraining the body’s shrinkage causing it to crack. Just to be safe.
Removing the Blade and Chipbreaker
Both the blade and chipbreaker are removed by tapping the chamfered corner of the block behind the blade with a mallet. It is of course possible to loosen the blades by tapping the flat tail end of the block, but there is a risk of striking the bottom edge and deforming the sole. Best avoided altogether.
The physics work best when the mallet impacts are applied in a direction more or less parallel with the blade.
Your humble servant prefers to make this striking chamfer wide to minimize deformation of the body, but this is a personal preference. If your plane’s body is not chamfered, creating it is is an important first step.
The chipbreaker (uragane) must be removed before the blade, but you need to be careful to prevent two unfortunate things from occurring during this process. The first thing to avoid is the chipbreaker jumping out of the block providing Murphy the opportunity for gleeful mischief.
The second thing to avoid is the blade backing out of the body further/faster than the chipbreaker causing the chipbreaker to ride over the extreme cutting edge dulling it. This point is one newbies often overlook until they wonder why the pretty cutting edge they just sharpened is dinged even before they begin cutting.
How does one keep blade and chipbreaker under control? Your humble servant recommends pressing a forefinger onto the chipbreaker and applying pressure upwards when removing it. Do the same on the face of the blade when its turn comes/ as shown in the photos below.
Once the chipbreaker is loose, remove it and go back to tapping the body to loosen the blade further. Continue to apply light pressure to the blade’s face to better monitor the blade’s movement, and to prevent it from jumping out of the body.
Adjusting the Chipbreaker (Uragane)
The chipbreaker is a recent addition to the Japanese plane. In earlier centuries, they had only a single-blade. Unlike the Western Bailey-pattern planes that incorporate the chipbreaker into the linkage necessary to adjust the blade, hiraganna planes work just fine without the chipbreaker. Indeed the chipbreaker’s only role is to reduce tearout, so when tearout is not a concern, removing the chipbreaker will reduce the force necessary to motivate the plane and may even produce a smoother cut.
The chipbreaker of a new plane often needs to be fitted to the blade and body using files and stones, but that is a subject for a future article, so to keep things simple, we will assume the chipbreaker is in good shape and is happily wedded and bedded to its blade.
Gentle Reader is no doubt wondering how to adjust the chipbreaker with the large head of a mallet. The answer is to use the butt of the handle as shown in the photo below. Just hold the mallet’s handle in a fist with the head upward and bring the handle’s butt down on the the chipbreaker. Easy as falling off a log, as my father would say. The connection between the mallet’s head and handle must be quite solid, of course. These mallets are easily made.
Using this technique, your plane blades will look beautiful, and your dai will give many years of reliable service. And although they only have tiny mouths with just a single, shiny, silver tooth, if you look carefully you will sometimes see their clever little smiles.
To remove or back-out the chipbreaker, one strikes the dai as if loosening the blade, but with a finger on the chipbreaker to keep it from dragging over and perhaps dulling the blade’s cutting edge.
When adjusting the chipbreaker, sometimes the blade will shift position too, so a back and forth adjustment of blade-chipbreaker-blade is sometimes necessary. The tighter the fit of the blade and chipbreaker in the body, the more fiddling is required, so craftsmen such as joiners, sashimonoshi and cabinetmakers that routinely make fine, precise cuts and sharpen frequently tend to prefer thinner blades that fit into the body with less force and are easier to adjust than do carpenters who perform less refined work.
We will delve into this aspect of handplane setup in our journey ass over teakettle down the rabbit hole in a future post.
Adjusting the Blade
In order to take a clean full-width cut, the blade must project from the mouth the appropriate amount, and evenly across its width. In other words, it must not project too far, nor too little, and one corner of the blade must not be projecting more than the opposite corner.
To evaluate the blade’s projection through the plane’s mouth, hold the plane upside down to a light-colored uniform background and look along the plane’s sole. The correct projection will be a thin line of uniform height across the width of the sole. If one side of the blade is projecting more than the opposite side, the blade is either skewed in the body, or it is shaped skewed.
If the blade is skewed, tap the head to the right or left with the mallet. If, however, a few taps fails to make the projection uniform, the blade’s cutting edge must be reshaped.
Please be aware that continued lateral pounding on the blade will not improve the situation and may damage the wooden body.
Most planes allow a little bit of wiggle room for the blade, but sometimes, especially if the body shrinks in width due to reduced ambient humidity, the notches in the side of the mouth may need to be pared slightly deeper, or the blade ground narrower, to provide this right/left wiggle space. Be very careful, however, to avoid paring these grooves more than a thin shaving or two wider because removing wood at the grooves directly and irrevocably weakens the weakest point in the wooden body.
To test the projection of the blade, and ensure skew has been removed, hold a a short, narrow piece of softwood such as pine or cedar in your hand and run it over the cutting edge, first on one side of the blade, then the opposite side, and finally the center, and observe the shavings (if any) produced. They will tell you the truth. Be careful not to shave your fingers unless they have become hairy (ツ).
Even experienced craftsmen betimes become gutted, gobsmacked, and guragura upon discovering their otherwise perfect plane blade has become skewed and is projecting too far on one side to be adjusted for a good cut without resharpening it. Of course, the culprit is almost always pernicious pixies, but a wise Beloved Customer (are there any other kind? Nah!) will be careful to follow Petruchio’s example and tame the skew. And don’t forget to use a hardened stainless steel straightedge to check the blade for square when sharpening.
Striking the Body of the Plane
Your humble servant does not want to seem repetitious, but just so there is no confusion, I feel compelled to review a point or two before we end this discussion.
When backing out or removing the blade, make it a habit to strike the chamfered edge of the dai behind the blade alternating between the right and left sides instead of dead-center.
Also, angle your strikes so they are more or less parallel to the long axis of the blade. With a little practice this will become second nature. The reason for this action is simply that it is both more effective and at the same time helps to keep the dai in one piece.
Please, never strike the flat tail end of the plane’s body, but only the chamfered top edge of behind the blade. Too many people who strike the flat end of the tail get carried away and end up damaging the sole.
If you examine your plane you will notice that there is actually very little wood holding the plane’s body together in the mouth area. Indeed the only continuous wood is at the sides, and it is only as thick as the distance between the bottom of the blade grooves and the exterior sides of the body. Not a lot of meat.
If we strike the body’s tail in the center, the body, being relatively unsupported in this area, must flex creating stresses, sometimes enough to crack, sometimes even enough to split it. This sort of damage is common, but almost entirely avoidable because, if we strike the right and left extremes of chamfered edge behind the blade, stresses will be carried through the stronger sides reducing the chances of cracking and/or splitting the tail. You can feel and even hear the difference if you pay attention.
If you don’t care how your plane looks, and prefer replacing or fixing their wooden bodies instead of using them, by all means disregard this suggestion. You might want to get some extra bubble wrap to keep yourself entertained while the bolt and epoxy repair to your plane’s broken body cures.
Damage to the body or blades of C&S Tool’s planes caused by the incorrect use of metal hammers will void the tool’s warranty.
In the next post in this adventure we will discuss how to modify a Japanese plane’s body to make it easier to use.
And please remember the wise words of the Sage of Possum Lake: “Remember I’m pullin’ for ya–we’re all in this together.”
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