The best steel doesn’t always shine the brightest.Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself
In this the third article in our series about the Japanese hiraganna handplane your most humble and obedient servant will review some of the design details of iron and steel plane blade. Why? Because to become proficient at using and maintaining the Japanese handplane, one must understand it more than just superficially, indeed, a healthy and mutually respectful relationship should be Beloved Customer’s goal.
In addition, I will be so bold as to briefly present 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 Kato Hiroshi (加藤 廣 1874～1957), who used the nom de forge of Chiyozuru Korehide, (千代鶴是秀 ). The Chiyozuru name has been copyrighted and is still in use to this day, although the current holders of the rights to the name are unworthy to even pour Mr. Kato a beer, if Mr. Kato was still a drinking man.
Chiyozuru-san forged this blade at the request of a famous Tokyo carpenter named Nomura Sadao. The engraving on the back states the blade (and matching chipbreaker) was made by him for Nomura Sadao and was completed on June 4, 1951. I’m told Chiyozuru-san charged Nomura-san ¥10,000, a huge amount back in the day.
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 intended 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 thereby preventing wood shavings from becoming jammed between the groove and blade leaving unsightly marks 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 as it was explained to me by Tsuchida Noboru-san, it was not actually invented by either Chiyozuru-san or Nomura-san, but a design Nomura-san first observed at a technical school for cabinetmakers. He then made a wooden full-scale model and asked Chiyozuru-san 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 disasters, some man-made and others natural, with earthquakes and city-destroying fires being especially common. To protect this important blade from becoming lost to posterity, as were so many valuable things during the war, upon his retirement Nomura-san 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 Nomura-san’s reassignment to the big lumberyard in the sky, his heirs formally donated the blade to the same museum where it remains to this day.
The four Chinese characters engraved into the face of the blade read, from top down, 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 it 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 “to get ready,” from Middle English fetlen to shape, prepare; perhaps akin to Old English fetian to fetch.
Your humble servant commonly uses the word fettle as a verb, mostly for truing or adjusting a plane or other tool.
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 frequently 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 plane blade is subtle and its execution elegant. I am confident Beloved Customers willing to ignore ridiculous internet rumor along with the squeals, grunts and farts emanating from the orc-infested woodworking forums, and forego magic mushrooms for a time will quickly understand. So without further ado, let’s turn on the pumps and get our mops moving.
The plane’s 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 surface of the blade called the “flat” in the case of Western planes. In the case of plane blades, it is located on the surface your humble servant calls the “face,” which is oriented upwards facing the user 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 article 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 retained in its wooden body by the pinching action on the top and bottom surfaces of the blade (not pressure on the edges) inside 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 agree?
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/blade, 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’s mouth must be sufficient to hold the blade in-place without relying on pressure on the blade’s back. If you know anyone who disagrees with this statement, rest assured the brown stuff dribbling out of their ears is not chocolate mousse.
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, elegance, and a cutting wit, but despite fitting into a truly tiny mouth it simply will not chatter. After all, it’s chisels and squares that love to gossip.
While a tiny 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 found.
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 sticking proud of the body, 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 either 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 around the centerline of the blade’s length. The depth of this hollow should be more-or-less uniform over the blade’s length.
One purpose of this detail is of course 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 in the Krenovian style 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 matched wooden body 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.
Common Sense and Plane Philosophy
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.
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 to allow for the end-user is expected to adjust it to his preferences.. 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, architectural carpenters tend to prefer thicker blades that fit very tightly into the body because such planes 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 typically 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 the only practical solution in a “ride it like you stole it” handplane, 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.
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 suspect a similar lack of expert supervision is why so many Western woodworkers who give Japanese planes a try fail to ever get satisfactory performance out of them and become frustrated, eventually selling them on PeeBay.
While your humble servant is eager to provide Beloved Customers all practical support and encouragement, the guidance I 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 mysterious meaning.
And we discussed regional differences in tool design. You can’t make this stuff up, ladies and germs.
In the next adventure in this series we will turn our attention to the body of the Japanese handplane, the softer, gentler, wooden component of the tool, the one with the tiny mouth that directs and controls the work of cutting.
And I promise we will make some sawdust.
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