The best steel doesn’t always shine the brightest.Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself
In this the third post in our series about the Japanese hiraganna handplane we will focus on iron and steel and discuss some unique characteristics and even some philosophical aspects of the hiraganna blade. Why? Because to become proficient at using and maintaining a tool, one must understand it more than just superficially.
In addition, we will briefly examine the story of a single plane blade made for a famous carpenter by a famous blacksmith.
The Shin Un Mu Blade 神雲夢の刃
The plane blade pictured at the top of this article was forged 6 years after the end of World War II by a famous Tokyo blacksmith named Chiyozuru Korehide for a famous Tokyo carpenter named Mr. Nomura Sadao. The engraving on the back by Chiyozura states the blade (and matching chipbreaker) was made by him for Nomura Sadao and completed on June 4, 1951. Chiyozuru charged Mr. Nomura ¥10,000.
You will notice that it looks different from most plane blades in that it lacks the beveled “ears” at the right and left corners of the blade’s cutting edge commonly seen in Japanese plane blades.
The beveled corners absent from this blade are necessary with ordinary blades to prevent the cutting edge from extending into the grooves on each side of the blade opening used to retain the wedge-shaped blade in-place. Without the bevels, shavings become jammed between the groove and blade leaving unsightly and inefficient marks and tracks on the surface of the wood being planed. More on this below.
The blade in question, however, has rabbets cut into the jigane at the left and right edges of the blade so the ura area is thicker than the sides which fit into the retaining grooves, and the cutting edge, therefore, does not intrude into the grooves, making beveled ears unnecessary. This is a very logical solution, although it was not actually invented by either Chiyozuru or Mr. Nomura. Apparently, Mr. Nomura first saw the design at a school. He then made a wooden full-scale model and asked Chiyozuru to forge it for him.
While it is an elegant solution to a real performance issue, it is much more difficult to make this style of blade than the conventional one, and so never became popular.
On the subject of materials, Chiyozuru is well known for preferring to use imported steel, mostly from England, instead of traditional domestic Tamahagane steel. Although the source of the soft jigane is uncertain, there can be no doubt the steel lamination is made of British high-carbon steel.
Gentle Readers are no doubt aware that Japan has always been a land of many man-made and natural disasters, earthquakes and widespread fires being especially common. To protect this important blade from being lost to posterity, as were so many valuable things during the war, upon his retirement Mr. Nomura entrusted the blade to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum located in Kobe, Japan.
Ironically, a large earthquake struck Kobe on January 17, 1995 killing over 6,400 people and tearing the city a new one. Fortunately, while the museum’s exhibits were jumbled up, this blade was not damaged.
Upon the relocation of Mr. Nomura to the big lumberyard in the sky, his heirs formally donated the blade to the museum where it remains to this day.
The blade has four Chinese characters engraved into its face, the meaning of which is a bit of a mystery. From top to bottom they read 神雲夢, pronounced “Shin, Un, Mu” which translates directly into English as “God, Cloud, Dream.” No doubt there is some deep poetic meaning being expressed through these three characters, but the intended meaning is far above the poor understanding of your humble barely-literate servant.
Interpretations from Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers are welcome.
Definition of Fettle
While we are on the subject of literacy, I would like to clarify the meaning of a word pertaining to working on tools, and especially planes.
Gentle readers have no doubt heard the word “fettle” used in the phrase “fine fettle,” usually referring to someone being in good health or physical condition. But it has other, older meanings.
In the British dialect, it means to “set in order,” or “get ready,” from Middle English fetlen to shape, prepare; perhaps akin to Old English fetian to fetch.
Your humble servant uses fettle as a verb, mostly when truing a plane or other tool, but also for adjusting it.
Never let it be said that the Gentle Readers of the C&S Tools blog are less than exquisitely erudite and edumacated.
Misunderstandings abound and deep, pungent rivers of BS often burst their banks when the details of the Japanese hiraganna plane’s blade are discussed; Buckets, mops and even garbage pumps are necessary to clean up the mess. I despair: What to do, what to do?
While it appears to be a simple, crude, even haphazard component to the uninformed, the design of a well-made blade is subtle and its execution elegant. I am confident Beloved Customers willing to forego both the temptations of ridiculous rumor and magic mushrooms for a time will quickly understand. So without further ado, let’s turn on the pumps and get our mops moving.
The blade is made by forge-weld laminating a piece of hard high-carbon steel to a larger piece of softer low/no carbon steel/iron. These details are discussed in more detail in the two posts linked to below. It is important to understand these details if Beloved Customer intends to become skillful in using and maintaining Japanese planes.
The blades of quality Japanese chisels and planes have a hollow-ground area on the blade. In the case of plane blades, it is located on the surface your humble servant calls the “face,” which is oriented upwards when installed in the body. An accurate understanding of this structural detail is essential to using and maintaining the Japanese handplane. We discussed this detail in a previous post linked to below. Please review this post if you haven’t done so previously.
We discussed how to perform periodical maintenance on the ura in an earlier post. Oh joy!
The blade of the Japanese handplane is held firmly in-place in its wooden body by the pinching action on the top and bottom surfaces of the blade (not on the edges) in the tapered grooves cut into each side of the mouth opening. This arrangement eliminates the dedicated wedges, usually made of wood, used since at least Roman times to retain the blades of Western planes. It also makes irrelevant the widgets and linkages common to modern planes such as the Bailey-pattern, considered by many to be the pinnacle of plane design in the West. Simple is best, don’t you think?
A common misunderstanding about Japanese planes is that pressure between the wooden body and the back of the blade is necessary to both lock the blade into the body and to eliminate chatter resulting from blade vibration. In response, your humble servant can only turn up the speed dial on the garbage pump and say “poppycock!”
Except in the case of a poor quality body, or one damaged through improper setup and maintenance, the pinching forces, and resulting friction, acting on the front and back of the narrow portion of the blade inserted into the two grooves in the body must be sufficient to hold the blade in-place without any pressure on the blade’s back.
And unlike the potato chip-thin blades common to many Western planes, the quality Japanese plane blade of the sort we carry with its relatively thick, laminated construction may have a few female characteristics, such as beauty and elegance, but despite fitting into a truly tiny mouth it simply will not chatter (as you know, it’s chisels and squares that love to gossip).
While a small amount of uniform contact and pressure between the bed in the wooden body and the back of the blade is desirable to steady the blade in-use, many fit their blades (or perhaps “neglect to properly fit their blades” would be a more accurate description) to develop high pressure between blade and bed, making it difficult to adjust the blade and distorting the body unnecessarily. In extreme cases, this pressure can even push out the sole, preventing the plane from working entirely, a situation that has shaken many a poor woodworker to the core! Pixie involvement cannot be dismissed. If your plane is misbehaving, this bulging sole phenomenon is something you would be wise to check for and remedy if appropriate.
We will discuss this subject more in future posts.
A casual observation reveals that the blade is tapered in thickness along its length, being thickest at the head, and thinnest at the cutting edge bevel. The purpose of this taper is simply to wedge the blade into the grooves in the body. Please note that this wedging action does tend to cause the body to deflect to some degree, something which must be taken into account when fettling the sole, a subject we will discuss in a future post in this series.
The blade is also tapered in its width, being widest at the head and narrowest at the cutting bevel.
Ideally the side edges of the blade are in intimate contact with the grooves only where they exit at the top surface of the body, but should normally have no contact in the grooves elsewhere, making it possible to adjust the blade’s projection through the mouth to a uniform distance by gently tapping its head right or left a small amount.
Finally, please observe that the back (vs. the ura) of a quality blade is not flat, but is slightly hollow-ground centered around the centerline of the blade’s length. The amount of this hollow should be more-or-less uniform over the blade’s length.
One purpose of this detail is to lighten the blade’s weight, but more importantly it helps keep the blade from twisting out of alignment in-use. If you have ever made a wooden plane body to fit a blade with a flat back, you may have experienced the irritating tendency of the blade to twist out of alignment under heavy planing forces. This is typically not a concern with the Japanese design because of the curved back detail, so long as the body’s bed is well-fitted to the blade.
Since each blade and its wooden block are a little different, and not yet in perfect accord when new, fitting the body to the blade is one of the first things one must do to a new plane. This fettling operation will be the subject of a future post.
Traditionally, everywhere planes were used around the world, a craftsman would commission or purchase the metal parts for his plane and cut the wooden body himself.
In recent history in Japan professional plane body makers called “daiuchi shokunin” 台打ち職人, which translates directly to “plane-body beater” (I kid you not) have become common. These craftsmen fit blade to body making a nearly complete retail product. The end-user, however, is still expected to adjust the fit to his preferences.
Many of these ostensibly completed planes are sold in a “sugu tsukai” 直ぐ使い condition, meaning “ready-to-use.” As witness of this, such planes usually have a wood shaving resting in their mouths when sold. However, the fit between blade and body is intentionally too tight. This is where philosophy comes into play.
There are regional preferences in Japan when it comes to tools, including sickles, saws, axes, adzes, chisels and of course plane blades. In far Eastern Japan, especially the Tohoku area and Hokkaido, thicker, heavier plane blades are preferred, whereas in Tokyo and Western Japan, thinner blades are traditional.
But while discussions of these differences make the hearts of historians go pitter patter, they are irrelevant to persons living outside Japan, so we will ignore them for now.
But there are two general, practical approaches to blade size and fit of which Beloved Customers should be aware. Namely, carpenters tend to like stiff, thick blades that fit very tightly into the body because they tend to retain their settings better in the rough conditions of a construction jobsite. The downside to the thick blade is that it’s heavier, it takes longer to sharpen, and it’s more difficult to make fine adjustments to.
Craftsmen that do finer, more precise work such as joiners, sashimonoshi, furniture makers and cabinet/tansu makers prefer thinner blades that are quicker to sharpen and easier to frequently adjust to make fine, precise cuts.
We have Mr. Nakano forge the blades for our planes more in the Tokyo style: thicker than some but thinner than most.
Not knowing who will purchase the plane, unless directed otherwise most daiuchi shokunin cut tight-fitting bodies more suited to the carpenter, and assume the user will adjust the blade/body fit to their preference. This is a great idea, and probably the only practical solution, but the reality is that too often the pressure on the back of the blade is so high it ends up creating problems for the user unless corrected.
Too many inexperienced users of Japanese planes, especially amateurs located overseas, learn how to use Japanese planes without knowledgeable supervisors or fellow workers near at hand to notice their mistakes, wack them upside the head, and tell them how to correct their errors (welcome to the gentle world of the Japanese craftsman), and consequently never really figure out how to setup, fettle and maintain Japanese handplanes. I think this is one reason why so many Western woodworkers who give Japanese planes a try fail to ever get satisfactory performance out of their planes and eventually become frustrated.
While your humble servant is eager to provide Beloved Customers all practical support and encouragement, the guidance he can provide is limited by distance, the written word, and the undeniable fact that he is a gentleman of great refinement and exquisite sensitivity (She Who Must Be Obeyed has been known to disagree, but what does she know?).
Therefore, upon making a significant mistake, Beloved Customers must instead call themselves rude names and slap their own heads to aid learning retention. May I suggest “Blockhead” as an appropriate self-imprecation in the case of planes? (ツ)
In this post we considered some of the unique design features of the Japanese hiraganna handplane’s uncompromising and bitterly sharp iron and steel blade.
We even examined a historically-important, unusual, and exceptionally beautiful blade made by a famous blacksmith for a famous craftsman with curious engraving of unfathomable meaning. You can’t make this stuff up.
In the next adventure we will turn our attention to the body of the Japanese handplane, the softer, gentler, wooden component with the mouth that directs and controls the work of cutting.
And I promise we will make some sawdust.
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