The Marking Knife

A spearpoint marking knife

“Make sure that you always have the right tools for the job. It’s no use trying to eat a steak with a teaspoon and a straw.” 

Anthony T. Hincks

There are many varieties of marking knives used for woodworking around the world. In this article your humble servant would like to discuss the Japanese version.

We will begin with some definitions, followed by an explanation of the design details and structure of the tool. We will save the best for last by describing two subtle but effective professional modifications to improve the tool’s performance and the results produced.

Definitions

The Japanese marking knife is called a “shiragaki” or sometimes “shirabiki.” The characters used vary, but can mean “white pull” (白引き), which makes some sense, or “white persimmon” (白柿), which makes little sense, so I suppose the persimmon character is used as a phonetic substitute for “kaki” (書き) which means to write. I choose to write the word as 白書 so the Kanji translate directly to “white writing.” That makes more sense to me.

Such confusing substitutions are all too common in the Japanese language in the case of words with purely phonetic origins. The fact is that, much like psychologists, lawyers, and priests, the Japanese people enjoy confusing terminology. It’s an ancient habit that probably won’t change soon. I say this as someone that has been reading, writing and speaking the Japanese language at graduate school level for 45 years, been a resident of, attended school and worked in Japan for 30 years, and been married to a Japanese woman and had Japanese relatives for 43 years. I can get into serious trouble in the Japanese language.

Now that we are done with the Japanese language lesson, I will simply call this tool a “marking knife.”

The marking knife is used to cut thin, precise layout lines in a board’s surface, most often but not always at a 90 ° angle to the direction of the wood grain.

Every woodworking tradition I am aware of includes the marking knife, and regardless of their preferred style, anyone serious about woodworking will own at least one, and know how to use it.

Advantages

The marking knife has some advantages over other methods of marking a line more-or-less perpendicular to the direction of the wood grain. Here are a few:

  1. The line it makes can be as thin as the edge of nothing, achieving precision unapproachable by pencils, pens, scribes, sumisashi, inklines, chalklines, laser-sights, or even wishful thinking for layout in wood in the case of lines at more-or-less 90˚ to the direction of the grain. The line it makes, however, is not as easy to see as an ink or even pencil line, so it is not always useful for rough layout work;
  2. The line cut by a marking knife penetrates the wood’s surface providing a physical place into which the woodworker can index the edge of his chisel, or nicker of his plow plane or rabbet plane, or the teeth of his saw, or points of his divider quickly, precisely and confidently without relying heavily on Mark-1 Eyeball, improving the efficiency and quality of both his layout and fabrication efforts. The time savings, improvement in accuracy, and reduction of eye strain the indexing benefits marking knife lines provide are huge.
  3. When making layout lines on perpendicular faces of a member, such as a table apron, for instance, after making one line on the reference face, the remaining three lines can be indexed and extended from each other with a marking knife, confirming the accuracy of the member’s dimensions and ensuring the tenon shoulders will be sawed accurately creating an excellent tenon, assuming the craftsman knows how to use a saw properly, of course.
  4. The line cut by a marking knife severs the fibers near the board’s surface helping to prevent fibers from being torn out of the wood avoiding a ragged cut with saw, chisel or router.

Are you convinced yet?

Design & Materials

Shirabiki Ura by Konobu

There are many styles of marking knives used around the world, and your humble servant has tried most of them at one time or another, but none that I am aware of are functionally superior to the Japanese version.

Lacking a pretty, turned handle and looking more like a blackened steel popsicle stick than a finished tool, the Japanese marking knife appears unfinished, even barbaric. But despite its stark appearance, it’s a sophisticated design that employs superior metallurgical and blacksmithing techniques.

Like many Japanese woodworking tools, the professional-grade marking knife is made with a layer of hard high-carbon steel forming the cutting edge, forge-welded to a softer layer of low-carbon steel which forms the body of the tool. They are always flat, generally thin, and not especially wide tools. Perhaps 1/2 the length of one side is ground flat and bright and includes a hollow-ground depression called the “ura,” while the other side is plain and includes the cutting edge’s bevel.

Some marking knives, such as the photo at the top of this article, have a spear point or “kensaki” (剣先)meaning “sword point” which is convenient because the same knife can be used either left-handed or right-handed. Some people prefer this style, but in my experience it has limited usefulness. To each his own.

The demands on the marking knife in terms of sharpness, durability, and edge-holding capability are not as high as for chisel and plane blades. The better-quality ones are hand-forged of high-carbon steel and quality jigane, properly shaped and filed, and carefully heat-treated.

Because of their thinness, marking knives tend to warp badly during heat treat, and consequently demand either a blacksmith with solid skills or the use of high-alloy steels that warp little. Even experienced blacksmiths end up with a few rejects due to cracking and excess warpage, which perhaps explains the relatively high cost of handmade ones. It has mostly been a tool made by specialist blacksmiths.

For this reason, while I normally insist on White Label steel for cutting tools, Blue Label steel is entirely acceptable.

The Ura

I mentioned the “ura” above, but let’s examine it a bit more. Ura is a Japanese word written using the Chinese character  浦. It means a bay or inlet from a lake or ocean, usually without lots of rocks, and often with a sandy or gravelly shore. You can imagine why this word was employed to describe the hollow-ground depression in many Japanese woodworking blades.

In North America, similar curved surfaces and depressions were once called “swamps” even though they were made in metal. This term is obsolete nowadays.

The ura is what makes the Japanese marking knife superior to its Western counterparts for two reasons. The first reason is that the ura makes it easier to keep the hard layer of steel at the reference side flat. Second, in light of the hardness of the cutting edge layer, the ura makes it easier to sharpen the cutting edge.

Without the ura, the hard steel would be time consuming to sharpen and would tend to become rounded instead of remaining a flat reference face to index against a steel square or straightedge. It’s a subtle and clever design more sophisticated than its simple appearance suggests.

In use, the flat ura side is pressed lightly against the leg of a steel square with the point cutting lightly into the wood and the heel floating above. The blade is then pulled toward the user to cut the straight layout line.

Lubrication

I recommend Beloved Customer use an oilpot to lubricate your marking knife’s blade to reduce friction and wear between the blade and the square, as well as friction between the cutting point and the wood. Not only will  your square last longer, but your layout lines will be more accurate. Don’t believe me? Give it a try.

Recommended Modifications

Marking knives are simple tools for a simple job, but there are a couple of subtle modifications some advanced Japanese craftsmen, especially joiners, make to their marking knifes Beloved Customer may want to consider.

1. Habiki

The first improvement is intended to minimize one downside of the marking knife, namely its habit of shaving metal from the square or straightedge used to guide it. In Japanese this modification is called ” habiki “ 刃引き which translates directly to “ blade pulling, ” as in pulling the blade’s cutting edge over a stone to intentionally dull it. It is a term borrowed from the sword world.

The steps to accomplish this modification are as follows:

  1. First, sharpen the blade;
  2. Then, stand the blade vertically on its cutting edge on the face of a medium grit waterstone or oilstone with the last 2~3 millimeters of the blade, measured from the tip, hanging off the stone’s side so the tip does not contact the stone;
  3. Finally, drag the blade towards you creating a flat on the cutting edge, while leaving 2~3mm of the blade’s tip sharp. Voila.

The dulled portion of the cutting edge will now be less likely to shave your square or straightedge, while the sharp tip will cut the wood and make a pretty, accurate layout line, assuming you do your job, of course.

I know that sharpening a good blade and then intentionally dulling part of the cutting edge sounds gaga, but it works, so gather up your courage and give it a try before allowing your inner-troll to overturn the dining room table. I know you’ll like the results and your square will thank you.

2. Tip Bevel

The second modification I recommend is to grind an angled flat 15~18mm long  on the top edge of the blade’s side angled away from the ura, ending at the cutting edge’s point. The goal is to create a very sharp “clipped” point.

This angled flat has three purposes: First, it removes metal that would otherwise get in the way of your clearly seeing the knife’s cutting tip. This is important because often a knife must be indexed off a tiny divider point’s mark or a previous layout line, for instance when marking the shoulders of a tenon on four sides of a stick of wood. With the sharp point in clear view, this indexing can be accomplished quicker and with fewer errors. You will be surprised at the improvement.

The second purpose is to reduce the friction between blade and wood when cutting a layout line, thereby improving control like racing tires on a fast car.

And third, it provides a convenient place to rest your fingertip to control the knife.

If you imagine this modification can’t make much of a difference, then your lack of experience is showing. Better zip that up, fella.

In the case of those with the skills to tell the difference, these two simple and subtle modifications will make a big difference in the performance of their marking knife.

The Square

I know there are those prefer to use a wooden square for layout work, and others who like brass ones. Both work just fine with a marking knife until they don’t. You would be wise to consider using a hardened steel square, or better yet, a precision hardened stainless steel square with your Japanese marking knife; They simply last longer and stay straighter.

There are hardened carbon steel and hardened stainless steel combination squares and die maker squares on the market, but I think they are too bulky and too costly for making simple 90° layout lines on wood.

Matsui Precision produces a series of excellent hardened stainless steel squares that are well worth the cost and popular in Japan. I have been using them for years. Send me a note if you are interested.

The Japanese marking knife is a great tool. Once you use one, especially after making the modifications described herein, you will wonder how you ever got any layout work done at all.

YMHOS

My old marking knife was hard on the eyes and fingers, but now I know how to fix it!

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