The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel – Part 2

By concentrating on precision, one arrives at technique, but by concentrating on technique one does not arrive at precision.

Bruno Walter

As mentioned in the previous post in this series, in Japan the mortise chisel is called the “Joiner’s Chisel,” because it is specifically designed for precisely and quickly cutting the many small mortises craftsmen in the joiners trade use in making doors, windows, shoji, screens, furniture and cabinetry.

Why must it cut mortises quickly? Simply because a few seconds of time wasted on each one of many mortises cut during the workday by an uncooperative chisel will quickly add up to hours of lost productivity.

Why must it cut mortises precisely? Simply because defects hidden inside mortises with poor internal tolerances tend to accumulate and too often turn what would otherwise be a well-made piece of furniture or joinery into a rickety old Chinese lawnchair.

In this post we will discuss what to look for in a mortise chisel, and how to correct some typical problems. Most of the concepts discussed in this post are applicable to oiirenomi and atsunomi used for cutting mortises as well, although such chisels lack the same shape advantages.

Klipstein’s Law of Thermodynamics

Just in case Gentle Reader didn’t notice, your humble servant has strong opinions about mortise chisels, partly because I was trained by no-nonsense professionals to cut hundreds of mortises in a single sitting, and partly because bitter experience has taught me the truth that sloppy mortises result in both sloppy products and crushing headaches. Nothing like a bunch of tiny errors when making a series of latticework doors to painfully confirm the validity of Klipstein’s Law of Thermodynamics: “Tolerances inevitably accumulate unidirectionally toward maximum difficulty to assemble.”

Because of this hard-earned experience we have given our blacksmiths specific dimensional tolerance criteria for the mortise chisels they make for us. I can’t always clearly hear what they are muttering in response to my pointed insistence, but it sounds something like “frikin prissy pink princess expects too much of a damned chisel.” Your most humble and obedient servant, however, is much too dignified and polite to respond in so many words, but at such times I think they are stubborn old farts that have never used a mortise chisel. In any case, those who use our mortise chisels benefit from the princess impulse in us.

What to Look For

Mortise chisels are used routinely by only the most skilled craftsmen. Despite their simple appearance, mortise chisels are required to cut to tighter tolerances than other type of chisel, but because they are handmade in the traditional manner without the use of CNC machinery, and because perfection is unattainable in mortal endeavors, they are seldom perfect when new, so Beloved Customer should plan on tuning your mortise chisels before doing serious high-volume work. Indeed, it has long been standard practice among Japanese joiners to modify their chisels and planes to their preferences, and correcting the dimensional imperfections of mortise chisels is at the top of the list, not because they tend to have more imperfections than other chisels, but because more precise work is expected of them.

If you recall some of the mortises you have cut before now you may have noticed that despite your best efforts and forehead-splitting concentration, the sides ended up out-of-square with the workpiece’s top surface, or the side walls were raggedly gouged, or even undercut. These defects are not unusual, and may be due to pernicious pixies, your technique, or perhaps a combination of both, but my money’s on the chisel being the culprit.

Please examine your mortise chisel. If it does not meet the ideal standards in the list below (and it won’t), you should make corrections. You’ll be glad you did. There is a link to a document below that illustrates the ideal mortise chisel as well as some typical problems that may prove useful.

  1. The plane formed by the flat lands surrounding the hollow-ground ura depression should be truly flat and without twist over its entire length from cutting edge to shoulder. 
  2. The blade’s width should be consistent over its entire length. Alternately, it is acceptable if the blade’s width becomes just slightly and gradually narrower moving from cutting edge to neck. But not too much. On the other hand, a blade that widens towards the neck is an abomination to be avoided like the spotty-bottom footpads at the California Franchise Tax Board.
  3. The blade’s sides should be flat, planar, free of twist, square to the ura, and square to the blade’s top face. Accordingly, a cross-section taken anywhere across the width of the blade should be rectangular anywhere along its length, with all corners 90°. Picky details, but they can make a big difference in the quality if the finished mortise.
  4. The top face (surface where the brand is stamped) need not be straight, but it must be square to the sides at all points along the blade’s length. 

Make no mistake, this is a tall order in a hand-forged tool that has never seen a milling machine, planer, or CNC grinder. Few handmade mortise chisels can meet these standards when new, but these details can make all the difference.

Let’s begin the examination part of this job. You will need a 6~12″ straightedge, a small precision square like the Matsui Precision products we carry, and a vernier caliper.

Record Your Observations

Too often the number of dimensional irregularities that require attention are complicated enough to create confusion. This can result in even experienced people making one irregularity worse, or even generating new problems, while attempting to resolve the initial irregularity, like inadvertently creating more knots while trying to untangle a snarled mess of string.

To avoid confusion, I recommend  you make a simple orthogonal hand sketch of your chisel to record irregularities. This sketch should show at least four views of the blade including left and right sides, its face (opposite the hollow-ground ura), and an end view looking towards the cutting edge’s bevel. You may also need to make a few cross-section sketches

Record the results of your examination as annotations and red lines on these sketches to help you plan and execute the work of correcting any problems you may find. There are always a few, and you will need to keep track of each one, and its relationship with the others.

Examine and True the Ura

The first step is to check the ura, the polished lands (flat surfaces) surrounding the hollow-ground depression on the chisel’s back. These must be flat and in the same plane (coplanar). This detail is very important.

A straightedge is good enough for a quick examination, but a more reliable method is to use a granite surface plate. A less expensive and handier option is a simple piece of ⅜” or thicker float glass. 

To use a glass surface plate, apply marking pen ink or Dykem to the ura’s lands. Smear a tiny amount of finishing stone mud around on the glass plate. With the entire blade resting on the plate, and finger pressure straight down in the middle of the blade’s face, move it in a oval pattern through the sharpening stone mud. The ink or Dykem at the high spots will be rubbed off, but will remain at the low spots. This will show you where and how much material must be removed to flatten the ura’s lands

Then, true the ura using a diamond plate, diamond stone, sharpening stones, and/or the glass surface plate. This step is not so important in the case of other types of chisels, but a mortise chisel must have a reasonably flat ura. Without a planar ura, the rest of your examination may be inaccurate. The article at this LINK contains a more detailed discussion with pretty pictures.

Do this work carefully. If you heavy-handedly remove too much steel, the useful life of the chisel may be dramatically reduced. This is a one-time operation in the life of most chisels.

Examine the Blade’s Width and Taper

Next, check the width of your mortise chisel measured across the ura using a vernier caliper or micrometer or other reliable gauge. Relative width is what you need to check, not absolute inches or millimeters, unless you expect your chisel to cut precisely-dimensioned mortises, something that is seldom necessary in the real world.

Measure the blade’s width at five or six locations along the cutting edge, in the middle, and near the neck before it narrows. Make a sketch of the blade and annotate these dimensions on it

Use the glass surface plate at this time to check the sides for flatness. The black oxide surface skin will be worn away by the sharpening stone mud marking the high points, but don’t let the change in cosmetic appearance bother you.

Ideally, the blade will be the same width its full length. However, it is usually acceptable if the blade is slightly wider at the cutting edge than near the shoulder. But if it is wider at the shoulder than the cutting end, it will bind in the cut, tend to split the mortise, and the finished mortise will be skiwampus. This must be remedied by grinding the blade on diamond plates and polishing on sharpening stones.

But don’t do anything yet since there are more details you need to examine first. Just make a note on your little sketch.

Examine the Blade’s Sides

Straight Sides

Use a good straight-edge to check both sides of the blade’s sides. They must be straight. If they curve in or out it will be difficult to convince it to cut a clean straight mortise. If the blade is banana-shaped, it can’t cut a straight mortise anymore than a politician can tell the truth while his heart beats (it’s rumored that many have hearts).

If the blade’s sides are not straight, they must be corrected by carefully grinding and polishing them. But hold your horses there Hoss, don’t do anything drastic yet, just make a note on your little drawing: there’s still more to check first.

Flat Sides

Next check the sides of the blade across their width. They must be either flat (best) or hollow ground (acceptable). If they bulge outwards the blade will bind and can never cut a clean precise mortise, so corrections are absolutely necessary. 

Mark any irregularities on your sketch.

Right Angled Sides

The sides of the blade should be at right angles (90°) to the ura lands. If not, the chisel will skew left or right during each cut, a common problem with most chisels. Gentle Reader has no doubt experienced this.

Slightly less than 90˚ may be acceptable (but less than ideal) if both sides are the same angle. If, however, one side is 90˚, for instance, and the opposite side measures 80˚, well that is not good and may require correction.

For now, just mark any irregularities on your sketch.

Examine the Blade’s Face

Next, examine the chisel’s face (the surface with the brand). 

This surface need not be straight along its length. It doesn’t even need to be flat across its width, but can even be be hollow or bulging to a minor degree without causing trouble. But you do need to pay attention to two key details. 

First, if it is hollow or bulging, the curvature of the bulge or hollow across the blade’s width must be uniform. If not, you should grind it flat. 

The second thing to check for is that a line between and touching the corners where the surface of the face meets the blade’s sides must be parallel with the ura. In other words, if you draw a line 90˚ across the width of the face, that line should be parallel with the ura. If it isn’t corrections are necessary.

Why does the relationship of these two surfaces with each other matter? Two reasons. First, if they are not properly aligned, and assuming the ura is flat, it means the blade is thicker in cross-section at either the right side or left side. There is a strong tendency for the bevel and to become skewed during sharpening, with the result that the cutting edge is not square to the center line of the blade’s long axis.

Of course a skewed cutting edge will push the blade to the right or left in the cut, and cannot cut a flat bottom, a serious defect in advanced mortise and tenon work. This deformity can be compensated for with careful attention during sharpening, but you should not have to work so hard. Better to correct the problem now and get it over with once and for all, I promise.

The second and most important reason is that the skewed bevel will cause the blade to dive to the right or left when cutting a mortise ruining precision and gouging the mortise’s walls. This is different from the problem noted in the previous paragraph, although it may seem to be the same. It’s a serious defect in a mortise chisel, one that causes the most self-doubt among craftsmen.

Even the very best blacksmiths frequently fail to give this surface proper attention You are hereby warned: Do not underestimate the importance your chisel’s face.

Examine the Blade’s Corners

Finally, examine the two lines formed by the 90° intersection of the sides and the ura. Are they clean and sharp, or are they ragged, radiused or chamfered? These corner edges serve an important function in dimensioning and shaving the mortise’s side walls. They must be clean and almost acute enough to cut your fingers, but please don’t.

If they are not right, you can correct this now or a little bit at a time during subsequent sharpening sessions. The important thing is to be aware of any defects so you can make corrections, so make a note on your little sketch.

The Plan

You should now have a sketch describing those areas that need to be corrected. Use it to make a plan. A rough sketch showing how a mortise should should be and common problems is linked to below.

Beloved Customer should keep two important factors in mind in mind when planning and executing corrections to mortise chisels.

First, you should strive to achieve the corrections with the minimum expenditure of time, effort and stone/diamond plate, and while wasting the minimum amount of steel. I am not saying work hard or work fast, but rather to work efficiently.

Second, you should work carefully to avoid creating new problems while attempting to fix existing ones. This is why you need a plan, one that will vary a little with each chisel, to guide you in working efficiently and carefully. Remember, double work takes more than twice the effort, and often wastes lots of expensive steel.

I suggest you write your plan down.

I also recommend you keep the following points in-mind when considering your plan and its execution.

  1. As mentioned above, the first step is to true the ura so it is planar. It need not be perfect at first; Close is good.
  2. After the ura is more-or less planar, grind the right and left side, whichever is in better shape, straight along its length, flat (or sightly hollow) across its width, and perpendicular to the planar ura using diamond plates. Electrical grinders and sanders can be used, but there is a real risk of ruining the temper if you allow the steel to get hotter than is comfortable to touch, so great caution is necessary. This means working slow and using lots of water.
  3. When one side is done, grind the opposite side straight along its length, flat (or sightly hollow) across its width, and perpendicular to the planar ura using diamond plates (if necessary). It will be at the same angle with the respect to the ura as the opposite side, of course. Here is where more caution is necessary: pay close attention when grinding this side to make it parallel with the opposite side. Worst case, the blade width measured across the ura can be slightly wider at the cutting edge than the neck, but uniform width is best. On the other hand, a blade narrower at the cutting edge than near the shoulders is useless for cutting mortises and must be corrected.
  4. Finally, grind the face of the blade (the upper surface with the brand) so that any point along its length is parallel with the ura. It need not be straight or even perfectly flat over its entire length, just parallel with the ura to guide the chisel straight in the cut.

At the conclusion of the steps described in this article, your mortise chisel should now have an ura with all the lands surrounding the hollow-ground swamp forming a single flat plane. You should also have a nice little sketch describing all your chisel’s imperfections and a plan for making corrections.

In the next article in our joyous journey ass over teakettle down this rabbit hole of obscure woodworking tools, I will describe my observations about a particular mortise chisel, the plan for adjusting that chisel, and show the execution of that plan. Indeed, I have a box of chisels that are simply wiggling and squeeking with frantic anticipation to be first!

YMHOS

P.S.: After many months, we now have mortise chisels in-stock again. They won’t last long. Prices and availability can be checked at this LINK

A formal procession of frogs mocking the feudal lords of medieval Japan. I bet you haven’t seen many frogs walking around with swords. Such work was a rare opportunity for artists and the common people to mock the rich and powerful nobles that ruled the many little nations of the Japanese islands at the time with a steel and despotic fist.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

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 mortise chisels all turn to glass.


Other Articles in “The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel” Series

The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel – Part 1

Sukezane brand 9mm mortise chisel (mukomachinomi) side view

It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand

Michelangelo 1475-1564

This is the first in a five-part series about the Mortise Chisel, especially the Japanese version.

Also called the “Joiner’s Chisel” in Japan, this is a specialized chisel used by specialist craftsmen to cut precise, smallish joints when making furniture, cabinetry and joinery. Carpenters don’t use it, and few have in that august trade have even seen one.

In this post your humble servant will introduce a tiny bit of the terribly long history of the mortise and tenon joint, and give a description of this specialized chisel.

In future posts we will look at how to evaluate, adjust and even how to use the Mortise Chisel in general and the Japanese Mortise Chisel in particular. We will also touch on bevel angles and blade hardness problems.

We will discuss what to look for in a good mortise chisel and how to examine it with an eye to increasing its performance. This is something most users of chisels never consider, but it can make a big difference in the case of mortise chisels. Indeed, I daresay most Gentle Readers will mutter the equivalent of “Bless us and splash us” when they read it.

Of course we will also discuss how to effectively correct irregularities in our mortise chisel that negatively impact performance, irregularities most people never notice.

After our Mortise Chisel is properly fettled (they almost always have some problems) we will take our racing chisel out for a few laps, but prior to that we will consider how to effectively use this specialized tool. Too few receive proper training nowadays in chisel work, but here are C&S Tools we feel it our duty to help our Beloved Customers improve their skills.

We will conclude this series by taking the “Old Master’s Test,” just to make sure both our Mortise Chisel and our skills are improving.

While focused on the Japanese Mortise Chisel, the principles and improvements discussed in this series of articles are applicable to any chisel used to cut mortises.

While all Gentle Readers with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands that love wood are welcome to share this hard-earned knowledge, it is intended primarily for our Beloved Customers, especially those who use chisels professionally to keep body and soul in close proximity.

Some Background

Your humble servant drafted this series of posts years ago, and has shared bits of it with Beloved Customers from time to time when requested, but the information has not always been well-received for a number of reasons.

There is an old Japanese saying, one which probably originated in China, written 「馬の耳に念仏」and pronounced “Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu,” which translates to “Prayers in a horse’s ear.” Why are Buddhist prayers relevant you ask? Good question. You see, some of the principles I will present in this series directly contradict doctrine taught by some of the Holy Woodworking Gurus in the West. Like vespers to a beast of burden, wisdom is wasted on the willfully, woefully ignorant (wow, that almost sounds like iambic pentameter!).

But our Beloved Customers are neither horses nor asses nor politicians but shockingly intelligent human beings to whom your humble servant is convinced the time has come to expound the gospel of the Mortise Chisel as it was taught to me by Masters who have since abandoned this impure world for more ethereal realms.

This series of posts is equivalent to a graduate school course in chisels, something like “Mortise Chisels 701.” And just like a course in advanced differential equations, most Gentle Readers will never need it. But never let it be said that your humble servant didn’t do his best to improve both the skills and the tools of our Beloved Customers.

Some History of the Mortise & Tenon Joint

Mortise chisels are used for cutting rectangular holes in wood usually intended to accept tenons to form a structural connection called the “mortise and tenon joint” between pieces of wood.

No one knows how long humans have been using the mortise and tenon joint, but it has certainly been longer than nails, and many thousands of years longer than screws, although modern humans with their lithium battery-powered, made in China, landfill-bound, multicolored plastic and rubber screwdrivers may find it difficult to imagine. So let’s begin the journey by briefly examining just two well-documented extant physical examples that may provide motivation for using this enduring joint.

The oldest known wooden structure is a neolithic well liner discovered near Leipzig Germany, constructed from oak timbers shaped by stone adze and joined at the corners with half-lap joints and pinned tusk-tenons at through mortises. Tests indicate the trees the timbers were split from were felled between the years 5206 and 5098 BC, making the assembly at least 7200 years old.

Next, let’s look at a less soggy but more recent, complicated and elegant example.

The oldest existing wooden building in the world is a Buddhist Temple named Horyuji located in Nara Japan. Originally constructed around 600 A.D. and rebuilt around 700 A.D. after a fire, this huge 1300 year-old temple and pagoda complex was reconstructed using hundreds of thousands of hand-cut mortise and tenon joints, testifying to the longevity of wooden structural systems and the value of this universal connection technique.

Horyuji  is far more than just a temple to Buddhism, it is a temple to woodworking. If you haven’t yet visited it, you’re truly missing something. 

I mention these two examples to illustrate the universality, strength, and durability of the mortise and tenon joint. Anyone serious about woodworking must master this most ancient and essential connection.

The mortise chisel is the best handtool for the job of cutting mortises less than 15mm in width. For wider mortises, well-fettled oiirenomi or atsunomi are more efficient.

Japanese Mortise Chisels

12mm mortise chisel (mukomachinomi) Face View
12mm mortise chisel (mukomachinomi) Side View
12mm mortise chisel (mukomachinomi). Please notice the rectangular cross-section precise right angles, and straight, clean sides. This is the most precise of the Japanese chisels.

In the Japanese language mortise chisels are called “mukomachi nomi” (向待鑿), with “nomi” meaning “chisel.” Don’t ask me the origin of the rest of the word because I don’t have a clue, and have heard few plausible explanations. There is another post linked to here that contains more information about this chisel.

I will use the term mortise chisel in this article to refer to mukomachi nomi.

For our Gentle Readers interested in the Japanese language, there are several combinations of Chinese characters used to write mukomachi, none of which make much sense or seem related in any way to either tools or woodworking. The most common characters used are “向待” with the first character meaning “there” or “direction,” and the second character meaning “wait.” Combined, they seem to mean “Waiting over there,” or something like that.

I assume the name was originally phonetic and somebody decided to use these kanji because their pronunciation matched the phonetic name. This sort of linguistic contortion is seen frequently in Japan, and has been a source of confusion for all and sundry for many centuries. I blame it on elitist Buddhist priests going back and forth between Japan and China over the centuries, but it is typical of the Japanese people in general and priests in particular to take a perverse pleasure in intentionally making and using terms others can’t figure out.

This confusing practice is not unique to bald priests. When I was an engineering student, I recall the professors insisting we never attempt to simplify or too clearly explain the technical jargon of the trade to non-professionals because it was essential to job security for them to never quite understand it.

If you are familiar with Japanese architecture, you have seen the wooden lattice work that defines it in doors, windows, dividers, shoji, fusuma, koshido, glass doors, ceilings, and even fences, all items made by “tategushi” or “joiners” in Japan. Each piece of any lattice needs two tenons and two matching mortises to stay in-place, so a single piece of traditional Japanese joinery may have literally hundreds of small, very precise mortises, indeed thousands in the more complicated pieces. The Japanese mortise chisel was developed specifically at the request of joiners for this type of work. Therefore, it is also known as the “Tategu Nomi” which translates to “joinery chisel.” Few carpenters use this chisel.

Nora Brand 6mm Mortise Chisel (Mukomachinomi) Side View. Although it appears to be a simple, unsophisticated tool, nothing could be further from the truth. Based on the Kiyotada pattern, this is an especially beautiful example to those with eyes to see.
Nora Brand 6mm Mortise Chisel (Mukomachinomi) Ura View
Nora Brand 6mm Mortise Chisel (Mukomachinomi) Shoulder View. Exceptional shaping and filework .

Japanese mortise chisels are similar to other Japanese chisels in having a laminated steel structure with a hollow-ground ura (flat), an integral tang, wooden handle, and steel ferrule and hoop. Unlike most other chisels it has a rectangular cross-section with sides usually oriented 90˚square to the hollow-ground ura, and either flat or just slightly hollow-ground to better keep the blade aligned in the cut and to dimension and smooth the mortise’s walls.

Western mortise chisels do not typically share this detail, although unusually intelligent and observant Western woodworkers of course modify their chisels to gain similar benefits.

If speed and precision are important to you, then the sides of the chisel being oriented at 90° to the ura absolutely provide a serious advantage when cutting most mortises because the sides, and especially the two sharpish corners where these three planes meet, will effectively shave and precisely dimension the mortise’s side walls as the mortise is being cut without the need to pare them later.

Unlike most mortise joints cut with oiirenomi or atsunomi, so long as the mortise is the same width as the mortise chisel, and the user has the ability to maintain the chisel at the right angle while striking it with a hammer, the width of mortises cut with this chisel are usually quite precise and seldom if ever need be cleaned with a paring chisel. This functionality means that you can cut mortises, and especially small ones, both precisely and quickly with great confidence. It’s not called the “joiner’s chisel” for nothing.

The mukomachi chisel does not work as well in wider widths because of the increased friction between the chisel’s sides and the mortise’s walls. For joints wider than 15mm, please use a trued oiirenomi or atsunomi. And don’t forget to use your oilpot.

In the next class in our graduate course on the care and feeding of the wild mortise chisel, we will examine the various details to look for in an effective mukomachi nomi. Most of these details are applicable in the case of other chisels such as oiirenomi and atsunomi too, indeed any chisel intended to be used to cut mortises including Western mortise chisels.

But wait a minute! Before ya’ll run out of the classroom like a caravan of crazy stoats chasing a pixie, please pick up your homework assignments from the table by the exit doors. And please, don’t leave your empties behind on the floor. Paper coffee cups are one thing, but diascarded aluminum beer cans attract out-of-work divorce lawyers and other such desperate vermin.

See you next time.

YMHOS

Your most humble and obedient servant’s set of well-used mortise chisels. The 8 older pieces on the right are by Kiyotada (1.5mm~15mm). The two 2 newer chisels on the far left are by Nora. Over the years I have used these tools both professionally and as a hobbyist more than any other of my chisels, as you can perhaps tell from the differing blade and handle lengths which have become shorter with use. A stoic tool, they gossip among themselves less than most other chisels. They are good friends and reliable workmates that worked hard for many years to pay rent, tuition and food for the wife and babies.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the see the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.

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 Mama Shishi bite my head off.

YMHOS

Other Articles in “The Care and Feeding of the Wild Mortise Chisel” Series