Communism is the opiate of intellectuals [with] no cure except as a guillotine might be called a cure for dandruff.
Clare Boothe Luce
his article is a show-and-tell about a matched set of custom-forged handsaws which have been your most humble and obedient servant’s trustworthy companions in the noble profession of making sawdust for many years.
The archaeological record suggests that, at least in areas of the world where rusty remains have been excavated, the standard metal handsaw in ancient times had rip teeth only. As evidenced by the superior mental powers Gentle Reader exhibits, Woodworkers have historically been extremely intelligent people, so no doubt many sawyers, carpenters and joiners back in the mists of time independently discovered that filing (or stoning) their sawteeth to an acute bevel angle and alternating the direction of the bevel made the saw cut much faster and with less effort across the grain (i.e. crosscutting).
With this discovery, the crosscut saw was born, and thenceforth has been a worthy servant to its masters and a good companion to its elder sister the rip saw.
In modern times with the proliferation of inexpensive (and dangerous) circular saws, rip handsaws have become as rare as selfless tax collectors, but the combination of a rip saw for making cuts parallel with the direction of wood, and a crosscut saw for making cuts perpendicular to the grain of the wood has been common-sense among those who value accuracy and efficiency at least since the proliferation of carbon steel saws.
Some decades ago while working as a carpenter, your humble servant realized he needed a set of larger rip and crosscut saws for fabricating joints in timbers. The search resulted in the purchase of several saws, but the set described in this article are the two I have come to rely upon for such tasks most.
Both saws were hand-forged 70~80 years ago in Sanjo, Japan by a saw blacksmith named Azuma with the brand-name of Nakaya Choujiro (中屋長次郎), a venerable name in Eastern Japan. The grandson of this blacksmith is still producing saws in Sanjo today, including the Seijiro brand ryouba saws we carry. Nowadays nearly all of his production has shifted to short saws used by luthiers.
I found these saws in a tool store in Tokyo which is now defunct due to the owner’s inconvenient relocation to the big lumberyard in the sky. At the time of purchase, the store owner informed me they were originally commissioned by and custom forged for a Miyadaiku (temple carpenter) in Arakawa Ward of Tokyo, but sadly he had moved on to sorting boards in heaven without picking up these sawblades, leaving them sad and lonely in a cabinet hidden behind buckets of paint and roofing materials.
I get misty remembering their joy at being rescued after languishing so many years in darkness…
The Bukkiri Gagari Rip Saw
The saw in the photograph above and at the top of this article is a large kataba (single-blade) rip saw with aggressive, progressive-configured teeth called a “bukkiri gagari.”
“Bukkiri gagari” is a name used for large rip saws with this style of handle. The word “gagari“ refers to a large rip saw. The word “ bukkiri” probably means “chopped” or “cut down,” referring to the shortened tang.
The pointed tang, typical of handsaws intended to be fitted with a straight in-line handle, was bobbed at the time the saw was forged, evidence that it is not a conversion, but was intended to be a bukkiri gagari when just a twinkle in Grandfather Choujiro’s eye.
The large brownish-orange discoloration seen on the blade is neither corrosion nor a shadow due to poor lighting, but a remnant of the heat-treating process common to saws forged in Eastern Japan, more evidence of quality handwork.
The blade’s length measured from tip to the beginning of the tang is 425mm (16-5/8″). The cutting edge (teeth) measures 330mm (13″), making it a 1-shaku 1-sun blade a slightly unusual length. The blade’s overall length measured from the tip of the exposed tang to the tip of the blade is 625mm (24-5/8″). It measures 130mm (5-1/8″) at the widest point at the tip of the blade. The back of the blade has a slight curvature away from the cutting edge as is standard for larger rip saws forged in Eastern Japan.
I made the handle from Japanese White Oak stained mahogany. It measures L270mm x w38mm x t30 (10-5/8″ x 1-1/2″ x 1-3/16″).
No doubt Gentle Reader is familiar with the more common Japanese handsaws with straight, softwood handles. This style of handle attached to the tang at an angle is called a “shumoku tsuka” 撞木柄 (shoe/moh/ku/tsu/kah). A shumoku is a wooden mallet used to strike bells in the Buddhist religion. I don’t know why this word is used for a saw handle; No one I have asked has been able to provide useful insight.
The shumoku handle can be attached to most any Japanese sawblade with a straight tang. It has several advantages. First, compared to the standard long handle attached in-line with the tang, it makes the saw much shorter in length and therefore handier for working in tight spots. This is especially useful when making vertical cuts from below for joints in the ends of large timbers resting on sawhorses or during erection where a long handle would get in the way.
The second advantage of the shumoku handle is the fact that, when combined with the stiffer blades of large rip saws, the user is better able to bring the stronger muscles of legs, back and both shoulders into play for more powerful cuts, an ergonomic principle similar to the thumbhole handle once common in Western handsaws.
The stance this handle makes possible also provides more leverage (greater moment couple) when cutting in tight situations and at unusual angles than a longer, straight handle can. This last factor makes the bukkiri gagari saw most valuable IMHO.
The Crosscut Saw
The crosscut member of this dynamic duo is also a kataba 片刃(single-edge) saw with a custom-made but more ordinary straight handle.
It’s overall length is 845mm (33-1/4″), with 420mm (16-9/16″) of that being the blade extending past the handle. The blade is 125mm (4-15/16″) wide at the tip.
The cutting edge portion of the blade matches its companion at 330mm (13″), so it too is a “Juissun” saw, meaning 11 sun.
It too has a beautiful curvature to its back which in this case is directed towards the cutting edge instead, giving it a diligent posture. As is the case with all matched sets forged by the same blacksmith, the curvature of the back of each saw is the inverse of its partner so that they nest neatly against each other lovey dovey. Although it has little if any practical purpose, Japanese shokunin are unreasonably fond of this cosmetic detail, as am I.
Of course, the handle is approximately the same length as the the blade (not including the tang), and oval in cross section measuring 30 x 35mm x 425mm (1-3/16″ X 1-3/16″ X 16-3/4″). We will discuss how to make this type of handle in a future article.
I made this handle long ago from a piece of scrap Akita Sugi cedar (cryptomeria) , wrapped it tightly with copper wire at the mouth end to reinforce against splitting, applied a dab of solder to lock the wire in-place, and finished it by rubbing the wood with a tool called an “uzukuri” made from skinny plant roots to partially remove the softer summer wood leaving an excellent, textured surface that won’t slip no mater how wet with sweat it becomes. I love Akita Sugi
Gentler Reader (may the hair on your toes ever grow long!) may be wondering why one would use a short, sideways handle for a rip saw but a long straight handle for a crosscut saw. An excellent question indeed and further evidence of your superior intelligence!
Some crosscuts in timber work benefit from a longer reach. But more importantly, while the longer handle provides less power than the shumoku handle, it provides more control, essential for precise crosscuts. The way it was explained to me is that the large bukkiri gagari rip saw is used up close to the face and “guided by the nose,” while the large crosscut saw is guided from further away by the eye. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.
Although I haven’t used these saws professionaly for far too long, I had the teeth sharpened and plate tuned a few years ago by a famous blacksmith and saw sharpener named Nakaya Takijiro located in Kawagoe.
In one or two of the photos you may detect the little marks his tapping tapping tapping hammer left on the blade when he trued and corrected it. No, he didn’t straighten it, but he induced internal stresses to relieve some oil canning that had existed from Choujiro’s forge. He also made other subtle stress adjustments with his little hammer that made the saw track straighter and smoother with less friction as it heats up. What a difference it made! He is literally a genius with a sawblade.
I don’t use these saws much anymore, but I enjoy taking them out of their protective wrappings once or twice a year to clean and oil them, catch up on news, and sing a song of sawdust together. They love to sing.
I hope you found this little show-and-tell amusing. I have other unusual saws I will introduce in future.
Until then, I have the honor to remain,
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 by using 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 the teeth on my saws all snap off.
“Living by faith includes the call to something greater than cowardly self-preservation.”
In this post your humble servant will present a few modern masterpieces of the blacksmith’s art produced recently by a single craftsman. I hope you are as thrilled as I am to know there is at least one craftsman left in the world that can produce chisels of this quality.
The craftsman that made these chisels is very unusual in that, unlike the frantically self-promoting, technically mediocre Hollywood blacksmiths such as Tasai, Funatsu, Kiyohisa, and the modern Chiyozuru gang, he is reclusive and shuns attention. Accordingly, I have been requested to not share any personal details about him, so please don’t ask. The fact is I don’t even know his real name just the brand he uses.
I won’t discuss why he is reclusive, but I will go so far as to say that he is self-employed, well-known in his chosen field, and that chisels are not his primary work product but only a sideline. He makes no more than 5 chisels monthly.
His business philosophy and blacksmithing techniques are interesting so I will share some details about them. He has four strict requirements that a Customer must satisfy before he will accept an order. The first two are business-related, and the last two are about the Customer.
The Blacksmith sets the delivery schedule. Period.
The Blacksmith sets the price. Period
The Customer must be a professional worker in wood who needs and will use the tools the Blacksmith will forge daily. His track record must be independently verifiable. Amateurs and/or hobbyists, regardless of their skill levels, need not apply. Collectors are specifically unwelcome.
Besides being expert in the use of chisels, the Customer must have a minimum level of skills, including the ability to make chisel handles and cut a high-quality Japanese plane block using only hand tools. Once again, this must be verified before an order will be accepted.
Your humble servant commissioned a few chisels from the Blacksmith many years ago and went through this same qualification process, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
The quality of his forging and heat-treat technique is unsurpassed producing a crystalline structure in hard steel that will take an extremely sharp edge, will hold that edge without easily dulling, chipping or rolling while cutting a lot of wood, and is easily sharpened.
But it is his metal shaping and finishing skills that are so awe-inspiring. Please notice the straightness and cleanness of the lines and planes, as well as the uniform and smooth curvature at the shoulders, and perfect symmetry. If Gentle Reader is unimpressed, I encourage you to make a full-scale model from cold wood before trying it in hot metal. I promise you will be convinced.
The Blacksmith uses only “free-forging” techniques, and does not employ the rough shaping dies other modern blacksmiths rely on to improve production speed. His forging technique is so sublime that the entire chisel is shaped to nearly final dimension by fire and hammer, not grinders and belt sanders.
He finishes his products using only hand-powered scrapers (sen) and files.
The performance of Blacksmith’s products are equal to or better than those of Kiyotada back in the day, and are more precisely shaped and more beautifully finished than those of Ichihiro (the Yamazaki Brothers) at their very best. They are simply the best chisels that have been made in Japan in the last 70 years.
Let’s take a look at four chisels recently completed for a Beloved Customer in the USA.
34 x 485mm Anaya Chisel
The Anaya chisel is an antique style used for cutting deep mortises and making other joints in large timbers. It is no longer commercially available.
57 x 485mm Anaya Chisel
42 x 490mm Bachi Nomi
The Bachi nomi is the equivalent to the fishtail chisel in English-speaking countries. The word bachi comes from the splayed tool used to play the 3-string Japanese shamisen, a banjo-type musical instrument. Here is a link to a video of two ladies using shamisen and bachi to perform a famous traditional song in Tokyo.
The Bachi nomi excells at getting into tight places to cut joints with acute internal angles such as the dovetail joints that connect beams to purlins.
There are several ways to resolve the angles at the tool’s face, but in this case the Beloved Customer and Blacksmith agreed on the most difficult, rigid and beautiful solution, the shinogi. This design has the advantage of maintaining a shallower side-bevel angle from cutting edge to neck return providing better clearance in tight dovetail joints.
The handwork performed on this chisel’s face is simply amazing, but the hollow-ground ura is even more spectacular to those who know about this things.
54 x 540mm Sotomaru Incannel Gouge
The Sotomaru or incannel gouge is a strong and convenient chisel used for cutting joints in logs and rounded members on architecture. More information can be found at this link.
This is an especially beautiful example as seen the symmetrical confluence of planes and curves at the shoulders.
I hope Gentle Reader found this post informative. You will never find better examples of the Japanese blacksmith’s art outside of one particular museum. It is exciting to consider that there is still one craftsman alive that can routinely perform this level of work.
While your humble servant has praised these chisels and the blacksmith that made them highly, please do not make the mistake of assuming that I am soliciting orders, or even suggesting that commissioning them is possible, because they are simply not available at any price. Please don’t ask.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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. May my ootsukinomi roll from my workbench and land cutting-edge down on my toes if I lie.
There are few blessings without a curse hidden inside, nor curses without a whiff of blessing. Like most things, it’s a matter of how you look at it.
Joe Abercrombie, Isern, “A Little Hatred”
In this article your humble servant will attempt to shed more light on the ancient “Mystery of Steel.”
This story does not begin on a dark Scottish moor, nor on a foggy London night in a drawing room with the door inexplicably locked from the inside concealing bloody mayhem splattered across intricately carved linenfold oak paneling; Rather, it begins in an ordinary woodworking shop. And it goes something like this.
The Brittle Edge
The curtain rises on a humble detached workshop where, unbeknownst to our victim, an erstwhile woodworker we shall call “Woody,” dastardly events are about to unfold (cue the deep, ominous music). It’s really just an old dilapidated garage, but it’s Woody’s kingdom and he is master here, or so his bench cat allows him to imagine. He’s expecting us, so we’ll just go on in.
Make sure the door is firmly closed behind you now; It tends to stick and Woody’s bench dog loves to jet out and root around in the neighbor’s garbage. No mystery about why they call the fuzzy little leg-humper “Stinky.” (ツ)
Pine and cedar plane shavings litter the floor of Woody’s shop and their fragrant aroma fills the air erasing the mutt funk. Autumn sunlight filters gently through the single dusty window as sawdust motes dance above a limp bench cat sleeping at the far end of the workbench dreaming of buffalo wings and big-eyed kittens. All appears well in Woody World.
Woody’s sitting at his workbench on his white Smith & Wesson padded stool where he has just unpacked his new chisel, admired it, checked the fit, finish and edge, and appears quite satisfied. He lays out a test mortise hole on a piece of scrap oak, picks up his gennou hammer (the one with the classic Kosaburo head and the sexy Osage Orange handle that turned out so well), and begins to chop a test mortise. But, wait!… Something’s not right!
With trembling hands, Woody examines the chisel’s cutting edge to discover the last thousandth of an inch or so has changed from smooth and sharp to ragged and dull. “Nooooo!” Woody wails as he lifts his arms to the ceiling, arches his back, and slumps to the floor on his knees in a pose reminiscent of Sergent Elias in that poignant moment on a battlefield in Vietnam; “I have been betrayed!” he cries with wavering voice. Yes, Woody’s a talented and enthusiastic drama queen in the Smeagle mold; Maybe even good enough to run for the US Congress.
Another of Woody’s qualifications for high public office is that he dearly loves to pull a cork, so while he walks to the corner Piggly Wiggly to get a 5th of tequila to anesthetize his emotional shock and refill his thespian fuel tanks, let’s take a load off and sit on his workshop sofa over there while I explain the cause of his emotional fragility. Yep, you’re right; It’s a recycled bench seat from an old Dodge Power Wagon he salvaged from a junkyard and converted to a sofa for watching ballgames and taking naps in the shop away from the jaundiced eye of “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” Don’t worry about your pretty pink dress, princess, it’s just honest sawdust.
With tools, tequila, and the mystery of steel involved, this could be a long story, so let’s consider how to solve this particular mystery before Woody gets back and starts up his caterwauling again.
But just so you don’t become discouraged, let me state right now that there is a tunnel at the end of the light, and that while all seems dark and hopeless to Woody now, he may actually have reason to rejoice greatly! But we’ll get back to that later in the story.
Your humble servant always asks the following questions when someone complains of a chipped cutting edge on a chisel or plane. When Woody gets back, and if he manages to remain coherent and vertical long enough, we’ll ask him these same questions. If your blades are causing you grief, you should consider asking yourself these questions too. Jose Cuervo and acting skills are not required.
What sort of quality is your problem chisel? Low? Medium? High? How do you know? This is relevant because a poor-quality chisel will fail just by looking at it too hard;
What type of chisel is it? A striking chisel or a paring chisel? Each type of chisel is used for different tasks and in different ways;
What and how were you cutting when the edge failed? This is important because some woods are best cut in a different manner than others, and some cuts require a special approach if we are to avoid damaging the chisel;
What is the bevel angle? If the angle is much less than the ideal for the type of chisel, plane, cut and wood, we may have found the culprit. Finding the perfect angle for your chisel and situation may take some experimentation;
How did the edge fail? Did it crumble? Chip? Roll? A combo failure (with cheese)? This will tell us a lot about the tool.
Was the wood you were cutting dirty? Did it contain embedded grit? This is an important question because many people carelessly use their valuable chisels, planes and powertools to cut hard minerals instead of scrumptious wood. The lesson? Don’t be a slob: Scrub your wood with a steel brush before cutting it. And saw off the last 3~4 millimeters off both ends of every board, or at least chamfer the ends with a block plane, drawknife or knife to remove the grit always embedded in end grain, before you put it through your jointer, thickness planner or tablesaw, or cut it with handsaws, planes or chisel. If you have not made a habit of doing this, don your scratchy sackcloth tidy whities, smear ashes on your face, then repent and be baptized because you have been abusing your innocent tools, Bubba. Clean your wood and you will notice the difference. Strange that no one I have ever asked this question to has admitted to using dirty, stony wood at first. The reason is usually simply that they didn’t realize it was filthy until I pointed it out to them, just as it was pointed out to me many years ago. What’s that you say? You don’t have a stiff steel wire brush in your toolbox?! Shame on you;
Did you abuse the chisel by trying to lever wood out of the cut, a mortise for instance? This is a common cause of failure. People accustomed to using amateur-grade tools with soft cutting edges frequently discover the edge of their new chisel has chipped after using it like a cheap Chinese screwdriver to lever waste, never imagining the harder and more brittle steel of a quality chisel might be damaged. Such boorish behavior voids the warranty on our chisels, BTW, because a chisel is a cutting tool, not a prybar, can opener, or paint stirrer, much less a screwdriver.
Did your answers to these questions suggest any remedial action to you? The best answer to Question 1 is often to procure a better-performing tool.
But if your tool is professional-grade instead of hardware-store grade, then you may need to learn how to use it and maintain it properly. But that is a story for another day.
Let us shift our attention briefly to another, related mystery, one that has more to do with human nature.
Why Are the Blades of So Many Modern Tools Mediocre Performers?
It wasn’t always that way, but there are sound business reasons why chisel and plane blades are such poor performers nowadays, even in Japan, and like many things, it boils down to money. The numbers of craftsmen that routinely use handtools has decreased, and therefore the demand for professional-grade tools is way down. In Western countries the degradation of tool standards started even earlier.
In this situation, and where customer expectations are as high as an earthworm’s vest pocket, mediocre tools are simply more profitable for manufacturers and retailers. After all, low-quality materials are cheaper and it only takes ordinary machines and minimum-wage factory workers, not expensive trained blacksmiths, to make tool-shaped objects from mediocre-quality materials. Professional woodworkers won’t touch such crap, but amateurs, the inexperienced and those bewildered souls who judge performance based solely on lowest cost buy them by the ton.
More now than ever, “sustainability” is given pious, pompous lip-service, while the reality of modern society is that high-volume sales of colorful but poor-quality tools designed to meet planned obsolescence goals, manufactured in lots of thousands by Chinese farmers, and destined to become early landfill stuffing has become the only viable business model left standing. Gofigga.
More importantly, even if they would do better if given half a chance, inexperienced amateurs seldom have anyone to teach them how to use and maintain their tools, so they never learn proper maintenance principles and cutting techniques. When they damage their woodworking tool blades carelessly, they blame the tool supplier for their own failure. As Mr. T would say: “I pity the fool.”
Faced with this sort of consumer, it is simply easier and more profitable for tool companies to manufacture, and for retailers to sell, chisels and planes with softer, tougher blades suited to amateurs. I think you can see the vicious cycle.
A Non-technical Technical Explanation
Your humble servant’s earlier comment that Woody may have cause to rejoice about what appears to be metallurgical malfeasance may cause some Gentle Readers to wonder if I am mad as a sack of owls; Perhaps my most excellent aluminum-foil skull cap (the one with purty curly copper wires) malfunctioned permitting those icky inter-dimensional aliens’ mind-control waves to leak through.
Like our absent drama queen, I too was devastated when first faced with a manifestation of the Mystery of the Brittle Blade many years ago, but I can now explain why it may be sign of a blessing instead of a curse. It’s elementary dear Watson. But I think it best to provide some background and explain some time proven solutions before presenting the good news. Steak before ice-cream, you see.
I beg the indulgence of knowledgeable Gentle Readers who feel insulted by the lack of temperature curve drawings and jargon such as “pearlite,” “martensite” and “ austentite,” and ask them to understand that, while this blog is focused primarily on informing our professional Beloved Customers, many Gentle Readers require a less technical explanation. Simple hospitality demands that your humble servant make an effort to provide useful insight to a wide range of Gentle Readers. As a dude wearing a skirt and sandals in a movie once said: “ Are you not entertained?”
Quenching the Blade
When a blacksmith quenches a high-carbon steel blade in water in the ancient manner (called “Yakiire” 焼き入れ in Japanese which translates to “burn in” in English), the steel suffers a thermal shock, sometimes severe enough to crack it. This violent cooling also causes a peculiar crystalline structure to form in the metal, one that causes it to become harder and increase in volume, and even to warp to some degree. The casual observer may imagine the water cools the entire blade uniformly, but ‘tain’t so.
Those areas of the blade that cool the quickest form the highest volume of crystals and become hardest. In the case of chisels, planes, and kiridashi knives, the end of the blade has the most exposure to water, cools quickest, and therefore becomes hardest, at least during the first quench.
The blacksmith may carefully repeat the heating and quenching process multiple times, sometimes varying the heat time and temperature to achieve the desired crystalline structure and uniform distribution of small, hard carbides that define “fine-grained steel,” but the quenching process by itself always leaves the blade too hard and too brittle to be useful as-is.
Tempering the Blade
Now that the blade is hardened, indeed too hard, the blacksmith must mellow the steel, reducing its hardness while at the same time increasing its toughness by carefully reheating and cooling the steel to modify the crystallized steel in a process called “tempering,” in English and “yakimodoshi “ 焼戻し ( literally “ burn return” ) in Japanese. In this way, a steel blade hardened to Rc85 degrees during the first quench, indeed brittle enough to break into pieces if dropped onto a concrete floor, can be softened to a useful hardness while becoming at the same time much tougher.
In materials science and metallurgy, toughness is defined as the ability of a material to absorb energy and elastically deform without fracturing. To “elastically deform” means an object changes shape or deforms when pressure is applied, but returns to its original shape when the pressure is removed. For example, if you clamp one end of a piece of mild-steel wire in a vise and apply a little force with your hand at the other end it will bend at first and then spring back to its original shape when you remove pressure. This is called “elastic deformation.” But if you apply enough pressure the wire will not spring back (“rebound”) but will remain bent. This permanent bend is called “plastic deformation.” Mild steel wire is truly “tough as nails.”
Glass is the opposite case. While it exhibits more elastic deformation than most people realize it can, it will tolerate no plastic deformation, because when the stresses in glass reach the “yield point,” instead of bending plastically, it breaks.
A brittle blade is hard but not tough, and while it will elastically deform a little bit (often so little it’s unnoticeable), it too easily breaks. Proper tempering therefore, is critical to obtain useful toughness.
But this reduction in hardness and increase in toughness brought about through tempering is not always 100% uniform, and as mentioned above, the extreme cutting edge of the blade of a chisel or plane tends to be hardest and therefore most brittle in the case of hand-forged tools, even after tempering. The cheap, mass-production solution is to simply make the entire blade softer, say Rc55 for example, so brittleness will never be a problem. But such a tool is more a sharpened screwdriver than a cutting tool suited to the needs of professional woodworkers, IMHO.
I’m being too harsh, you say? Not even a little bit. A soft blade dulls quickly, wastes the professional woodworker’s time and money, and is irritating instead of useful. Perfect for turning screws, spreading spackle or stirring paint but not much good for quickly and precisely cutting lots of wood for pay, thank you very much.
Solutions 1 & 2
The Mystery we are investigating on Woody’s behalf is as ancient as steel itself. And of course there are reliable ancient solutions our blacksmiths employ. Let’s consider two of them.
First, create a crystalline structure in the blade through hand-forging that is more resistant to fracturing than ordinary steel regardless of its hardness. This doesn’t happen by accident.
Second, employ painstaking heat-treatment techniques combined with uncompromising quality control to achieve the right balance of hardness vs. toughness.
To help control the heat-treat process, our blacksmiths apply a special mud-like compound to specific areas of the blade to slow down the thermal shock during the quench and improve the steel’s crystalline structure. Every blacksmith has their own “secret sauce,” so I can’t tell you what it’s made from. This technique is not perfect nor unique to Japan, but we know it has been successfully used by Japanese swordsmiths for at least 900+ years
It ain’t rocket surgery, but factory workers in Guangzhou or Mumbai can’t do it.
So, we have discussed the reasons, and some solutions, but what to do about a blade that’s already chippy?
Assuming the blade has been forged by an expert blacksmith in accordance with the principles outlined above, the fix to chippiness (oops, did I coin a word?) is to be patient and sharpen the blade three or four times removing the extra-brittle steel exposed at the cutting edge, the area that became harder and less tough than the rest of the blade during the heat-treating process. With few exceptions, the blade will then “calm down” and stop misbehaving.
This is the solution we ask our Beloved Customers to employ when this problem infrequently arises. It requires faith, and patience, but it almost always works.
The last solution, and one I certainly do not recommend to anyone except as a last resort, is to heat the cutting edge under a candle flame. Not an acetylene torch; Not a propane torch; Not even a butane lighter; A candle flame only. You want the extreme cutting edge to become just a smidge hotter than you can comfortably touch with your bare finger. Don’t heat the entire blade, just the cutting edge.
BIG FRIKIN DISCLAIMER 1: This method won’t fix a poor-quality blade or one that was initially ruined during forging or heat-treat.
BIG FRIKIN DISCLAIMER 2: If you are careless and do this wrong you can easily ruin the blade!
But what insanity made me say that Woody should rejoice when the cutting edge of his new chisel crumbles? I assure you, my reasoning is sound, I have Woody’s best interests at heart, and I will explain all to him when he sobers up. Probably tomorrow afternoon, at this rate. (ツ)
But I’ll explain it to you now, if you will be good enough to get me a root beer to wet my whistle from Woody’s cooler over there. No, that’s not a Class M-3 Model B-9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot, it’s one of those mini-fridges sitting on two skateboards with a shop-vac wrapped in Christmas lights perched on top that Woody puts out on his front porch for Halloween to thrill the kids and to keep a sufficient stash of cold adult beverages, and root beer too, of course, close at hand. He’s very practical that way. Oh, BTW, please don’t tell SWMBO about the adult beverages, or you’ll ruin a great Halloween tradition and preclude many erudite discussions in the future: Vino Veritas
Ahh, that’s better. Nothing like an ice-cold root beer.
Now where was I? Oh yes, the reason for my optimism: A high-quality blade that crumbles like Woody’s did when brand new, and mellows after a few sharpenings, is highly likely to be an exceptionally fine tool!
On the other hand, a blade that is too soft when new will never crumble or chip, but it will always quickly dull and never improve. A veritable gasket scraper. (个_个)
There are exceptions, of course: some hand-forged blades are defective and crumbly from beginning to end, usually a result of overheating the steel during the forging process, a rookie mistake. You should return such a defective blade to the retailer you purchased it from. If, however, to save a few bucks, you rolled the dice and bought a tool without a warranty, or purchased it from an online auction, you will need to enlist the services of Murphy’s two bubbly buddies Mr. Doodly and Mr. Squat.
Somehow I doubt Woody will thank me for solving this piece of the Mystery of Steel for him, but I am confident he will love the flavor of that chisel for the rest of his life.
PS: If you found this interesting, you may find other posts regarding the Mystery of Steel found in our “Sharpening Series” interesting too. The one at this link in particular is relevant to this discussion.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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. May I gag on a hairball if I lie.
The following is an old tale from Japan’s Toyama Prefecture. It’s not exactly a Christmas story, but includes all the classical elements a story shared on a cold winter’s eve must have: A beautiful maiden, a cranky blacksmith, an elemental creature, magic, weapons of death and destruction, an impossible challenge, and of course…, chickens. I hope you enjoy it.
Long long ago and far far away in a country in Japan called Etchu (modern day Toyama Prefecture) there was a large blacksmith’s shop.
The owner of the smithy, called “Master Blacksmith,” was well-to-do with many craftsmen working for him. He lived in a big house called a chouja.
Master Blacksmith had a single daughter of marriageable age, a rare beauty with almond eyes and long black hair shiny as a raven’s wing.
One day he announced to all the craftsmen in the area that he would give the hand of this daughter to the first suitor to forge 1,000 spearheads in a single night.
But no matter how skilled, every weapons blacksmith knows that it’s impossible to forge 1,000 spearheads in a single night, so his challenge went unanswered.
Master Blacksmith decided he needed to expand his offer and so put up a notice board describing his challenge alongside the main road for passersby to see, and waited for skilled craftsmen to appear.
Lo and behold an ogre that lived on a nearby mountain meandered by late one night and saw the notice. It did a little jig the way happy ogres do and gleefully exclaimed “Ha ha hee heee! A thousand spearheads is easy for meee!
The next morning, using the elemental magic that many ogres have, it changed his appearance to that of a young man and went down the mountain to Master Blacksmith’s house.
The Master looked doubtfully at the ogre in the shape of a young man and disdainfully said “What makes a young fella like you think he can make a thousand spearheads in one night?”
The ogre responded, “I can do it. I will surely make them before the cock crows in the morning.”
Thinking he had nothing to loose, the Master responded: “Then make them if you can.”
As the sun went down, the ogre in the shape of a young man went into the smithy, closed the doors, and began working.
Master Blacksmith heard sounds like the wind blowing from inside his smithy, but nary the sound of a hammer striking metal or the ringing of an anvil. Perplexed, he said to himself “What can he be doing in there?”
Slipping quietly around to the back of his smithy and peeking through a crack in the siding boards, Master Blacksmith was shocked as he had never been shocked before because he saw fire spewing from the young man’s mouth as he bent and folded and shaped yellow-hot steel in his bare hands like it was warm taffy!
Before his eyes a smoking stack of completed spearheads quickly grew. It became obvious to Master Blacksmith that all 1,000 spearheads would be finished well before dawn.
Fearful for his tender daughter, Master Blacksmith realized he had to do something to stop the strange young man from successfully completing the challenge, so he thought and thought and thought until his thinker overheated.
“The only way out of this mess I have made is for the cock to crow before all 1,000 spearheads are completed,” he eventually reasoned. Following this logic to it’s natural conclusion, he took a jar of hot water into the chicken coop where the chickens were all fast asleep dreaming of stretchy worms and crunchy beetles.
Desperate to make even a single chicken crow, he poured the hot water on the roost where the chickens slept soundly. The surprised chickens all woke at once in a panic with the hens squacking, cackling, and screaming while the roosters all crowed out “Cock-a-doodly dooooo!”
Hearing this racket from the chicken coop the ogre in the form of a young man became frightened, wailing out “I have been discovered!”
Instantly, the magic that had changed its appearance popped like a soap bubble revealing the ogre’s supernatural red skin, yellow horns, and shiny white fangs again. The ogre ran out of the smithy like ten stampeding bulls raising a cloud of smoke all the way back to the mountain where it came from never to be seen again.
With this, the blacksmith rubbed his chest and exclaimed in relief “I see, he was an ogre after all!”
“And just what is this?” he said as he walked fearfully over the shattered remains of the front door to his smithy and peered inside in amazement at the stack of smoking-hot, sparkling spearheads left behind by the ogre. Indeed, it turned out the red ogre had left behind exactly 999 completed spearheads, each wonderfully made.
From that day forward the blacksmith’s shop was famous for the quality of its spearheads, which are still known as “ogre-spears.”
And the blacksmith became wealthier than ever.
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For a change of pace, I would like to share this charming folktale from Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan, of a sort traditionally told to small children.
We originally posted this little story about a year ago, but since those pesky pixies seem to have pulled it down, we are re-publishing it today for Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day holiday and because Tengo was such a great workman (or at least labor producer).
I have included photo extracts from the Kasuga Gongen Genki E (春日権現験記絵) scrolls painted in 1309 on silk using silver and gold paints, showing carpenters working on the Kasuga Temple jobsite.
My children and I enjoyed this story. Perhaps you and yours will too.
The Tale of Tengo and Tenjin
Once upon a time there was a very good carpenter. But he was sad because he lived alone, so he asked the prettiest girl in the village to be his bride.
She did not want to marry, but to put him off without hurting his feelings, she decided to charge him with an impossible task.
“If you will build me a big house with 60 tatami mats in a single day, then I will marry you.” (60 tatami mats = approx 99 square meters = 1065 sqft based on the standard modern tatami mat)
The carpenter was shocked by this demand, but because he wanted her for his bride, he boldly accepted the challenge saying: “I will build you this house in one day.”
His voice rang with confidence as he said this, but he despaired in his heart knowing he could not build such a large and beautiful house in one day. He thought to himself “ What shall I do, what shall I do?”
But never fear, because as you have probably guessed, our carpenter was no ordinary fellow to give up easily. Before long he came up with a plan.
He made 2,000 dolls out of straw and breathed on each while casting a magical spell transforming them all into human carpenters.
The carpenter and his 2,000 man crew then went to work.
With the assistance of his 2,000 helpers, the carpenter completed building his bride-to-be’s house before the sun went down that day,
Overjoyed, the carpenter flew to the pretty girl’s house to tell her of his success. “I have finished the house you asked for. Please marry me now!”
“Truly?” she asked. Upon inspecting the work she found a big, beautiful house with 60 tatami mats, just as she had asked. “I will marry you.” she said.
And thus the prettiest girl in the village became the carpenter’s bride.
The carpenter and his bride then moved into their happy new home.
Afterwards, the 2,000 carpenters scattered throughout Japan to build houses, temples and bridges and teach many other carpenters how to build beautiful things for many years.
After several happy years had passed, the bride said to her husband “I have been silent up to now, but the time has come to tell you the whole truth. I am not really a human being, but an angel named Tenjin. I came down to earth from the kingdom of heaven. But the time has now come for me to return to heaven.”
The carpenter replied: “Ah, well, now that you mention it, I’m not a human being either, but a carpenter god named Tengo. Let’s both return to heaven together.”
So Tengo and Tenjin rose high into heaven where they still live happily ever after.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers by using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, incompetent facebook, or twitchy Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.
The following is an old country folktale of the sort a grandfather would tell his grandchildren before bedtime. So imagine you are little boy or girl sitting around an irori fire with your family on a full-moon autumn night, with the wind rustling the dried leaves on the trees just outside the closed wooden amado doors, as your white-bearded grandfather tells you this tale. Don’t be frightened!
Long ago and far away a traveling merchant was crossing over a mountain in the country of Oki in Japan (Sanin area) at sunset. As he reached the highest point he came upon a large lone pine tree with a crotch at about twice a man’s height. Using a bit of rope he always carried, the chubby merchant managed to pull himself up into the crotch and fell soundly asleep as the darkness deepened around him.
Hearing a strange sound, the merchant woke suddenly and was shocked to see his tree surrounded by dozens of large, long-toothed goblin cats glaring up at him in the darkness and yowling. He panicked fearing the monsters would jump into the tree and attack, and him without any way to escape. But all he could do was sit in the tree and pray the goblin cats would just go away.
At some point the beleaguered merchant began to realize the goblin cats were not just yowling but were actually speaking words he could just make out.
“My fellow goblin cats” said the boss cat. “That plump human in yon tree is the perfect main course for our banquet tonight, but obviously we can’t wait here all night for it to fall out.” The largest cat proposed a solution. “Noble goblin cats, I tell you what; I’ll climb the tree and push the fat lump out. When he hits the ground you jump on him, and our feast will be secured.” Without waiting for a response from his demonic feline friends the goblin cat placed a stick against the tree’s trunk, extended his sharp claws, and using the stick for his first step, slowly crept up the tree trunk towards the intended victuals.
Hearing these strange words and seeing the boss goblin cat’s preparations, the merchant realized he was facing a sticky end best avoided, so he quietly unsheathed his long 9sun 5bu dagger (288mm, 11.3 inches) and readied it for the cat’s attack. (If you like blades, here are some links to YouTube videos of beautiful formally recognized historical examples: (Yoshimitsu tanto (designated National Treasure); A tanto by Sukesada of the Osafune School of Bizen in the “yoroidoushi” style intended to penetrate armor. A tanto designated as a “Tangible Cultural Property” with the name “Uebataima“.)
The plump merchant couldn’t see anything in the poor light, but he heard the frightening sound of the goblin cat’s claws cutting into the treebark as it climbed “Zaku.., zaku…, zaku..”
He thought to himself “Here it comes!” “Just a little more now!!”
Suddenly the merchant saw the cat’s face just as it leaped at him with hooked claws extended and salivating fangs bared, but the merchant’s dagger pierced deeply into the big goblin cat’s abdomen releasing a fountain of blood, killing it instantly. The cat’s body collapsed in the same tree crotch with the merchant.
The goblin cats surrounding the base of the tree yowled and screeched like the demons from hell they were as they circled the tree’s base, shredding the bark with their wickedly sharp claws, then yowled and screeched some more. At last one of the evil creatures calmed down enough to say “It seems tonight’s dinner is more formidable than we first thought.” Hearing this, the merchant pushed the dead goblin cat’s limp and sticky body out of the tree so it landed with a wet thump right in front of furious goblin cats circling below.
Looking at their expired leader’s body, the goblin cats all jumped twisting into the air, cutting with their claws, spitting, frothing, screeching and yowling even harder. Then one said angrily “Now dinner’s gone and done it! This means war!” Spitting, hissing, and screaming things I won’t repeat to you children the goblin cats all scrambled up the tree towards the merchant getting in each other’s way and making a real hash of the job. In the confusion the merchant, who wasn’t really all that good with weapons, used his dagger to hack and stab every goblin cat that came within his reach killing and injuring more of the monsters.
The surviving goblin cats stopped their reckless attack and huddled panting and bloodied at the tree’s base arguing how to deal with this difficult menu item. “What shall we doooooo! What shall we doooooo!!“ they yowled up at the sky in frustration.
As they gradually calmed down one cool cat said “We must avenge these foul murders even if we all die in the attempt.” Another cat added “I’m not afraid to die but I worry about what will become of our mates and kittens if we are killed.”
The cool cat thought for a minute and finally said “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s go ask the blacksmith’s granny for help.” And with that all the goblin cats sped off into the dark like greased lightning.
Seeing his chance to escape, the merchant sheathed his dagger, gathered up his pack, and started to climb down from the tree. But before he could lower himself all the way down from his perch in the tree he heard the rhythmically chanting voices. In the dim light of the rising moon the merchant could just make out a palanquin born by six goblin cats chanting in cadence and surrounded by many others approach and stop beneath his tree.
“This is the place, Granny.” “Please knock that fat human out of this tree so we can eat him at our banquet!” beseeched the goblin cats.
The palanquin door slowly slid open revealing not a human grandmother but a huge white goblin cat of great dignity wearing a sleeveless kimono with a snow-white shawl over its shoulders. The monster rolled its large eyes in disgust at the smaller goblin cats and said “What is wrong with you useless ninnies?! Can’t you even take care of a pitiful human like that? You bunch are hopeless as yakuza.”
She paused her berating of her fellow goblin cats, and gazing up into the tree said “Well, I suppose I must knock this human out of the tree myself. Such a bother! You useless idiots stay out of my way now.”
With one voice the smaller goblin cats all yowled “Thank you Grandmother!”
Grandma cat removed her white shawl and handed it to the closest younger goblin cat, then began carefully testing her claws on the tree trunk. When her claws were ready, and without a second look up at the trapped merchant, she slowly began to climb the tree.
Let me pause here, children, to catch my breath and wet my whistle….. Ahh, thank you Hanako, an excellent libation indeed! Your mother’s sake brewing skills improve every year. And you helped, did you? An excellent child. Well done. Just one more sip.
Ah yes, and where was I? That’s right. The huge white goblin cat, who did not look anything like a granny at all, was slowly climbing a tree high in the moonlit mountains, one sharp claw at a time, to kill a plump, tasty human who had repelled and killed several precious members of her goblin cat yakuza gang.
So far the frightened merchant had bravely driven off every attack, but this time his legs were shaking with dread at the memory of the many goblin cats and the boss goblin cat that had attacked him already, but to make things worse, now a huge white monster goblin cat had arrived in a deluxe palanquin no less, and was climbing his tree! What terrible creatures they were! Can you imagine it little children?
Once again he heard the zaku.. zaku… zaku sound of claws cutting into the tree coming closer, but this time the pace seemed slower than before, perhaps because the newly arrived goblin cat was older and bigger. The poor merchant’s whole body shook like a leaf with fear.
It’s getting closer…. It’s almost here!!
But after another minute passed the big goblin cat still hadn’t reached his roost, so the merchant began to hope he might be able to to fend off the monster with his blade.
He gripped his knife tighter in his sweaty hands… and raised it over his head… just like this!
Suddenly the big goblin cat’s huge eyes appeared right in front of the treed human’s face. Gyaaaaaaa! he screamed in fear.
The monster struck out with its wicked, curved claws cutting the shocked merchant’s face deeply. But the merchant recovered his senses, and despite his injury, cut about wildly with his knife.
The big white goblin cat jumped up onto a limb of the tree and deftly swatted away the merchant’s frantic blows with her huge paws.
In between blows the man and the goblin cat spat curses and gasped for breath covering each other’s face with stringy spittle.
Although it seemed like the battle continued for hours, in less than a minute the merchant had been driven out to the end of the tree limb with no room to retreat. Suddenly, one of the goblin cats down below called out in despair, “Oh no, the sun is rising!”
Hearing this, the big white goblin cat stopped her attack, jumped down from the tree, stepped briskly into the palanquin, slid the door closed, and raced down the mountain road followed by all the other goblin cats scrambling like cockroaches in the sunlight.
As the sun began to rise in the East, the panting merchant collapsed back into his tree crotch. He thought about running far away from the terrible place until he recalled how afraid the goblin cats had seemed of the morning sun. And he thought of getting revenge for his injuries too, but confident there were enough hours of daylight left to make a decision, he collapsed back into his tree crotch and fell into an exhausted sleep. As he slept, he remembered the goblin cats that had first surrounded his tree saying something about the blacksmith’s grandmother.
When the sun was high and bright, the merchant climbed down from his tree, sore in every joint and with deep and painful cuts on his face, and followed the path down the mountain the goblin cats had taken. After he had walked a while he began to hear the “tink tonk tink tonk” sound of a hammer striking metal. Soon he came upon a small blacksmith’s shop with a house nearby. Inside the smithy was sweaty man hammering away at a hoe blade.
“May I ask you a question, good blacksmith?” said the merchant. The blacksmith paused his hammering, looked over the cut and bloody merchant and responded “Yup, what do you want?”
The merchant said “I heard there was a grandmother living around here….” The blacksmith pointed his hammer towards the house and said “Well, maybe. My granny is been sick and hasn’t left the house over there in a long time.” He raised his chin, squinted his eys at the disheveled merchant, just like this, and asked sharply, “What’s your business?” The merchant calmly answered “I have something to deliver to her.” The blacksmith then asked “Who is it from?” The merchant said “they didn’t give their name, just handed me this package and left.” The package the merchant was holding contained a whole yellowtail tuna fish he had bought at a fishmonger’s shop on the way. It wasn’t a very fresh fish though, and stank badly.
The blacksmith gave the merchant a distrusting look, when from inside the house they heard a hoarse voice croaking out “Saburo!” The blacksmith’s name was apparently Saburo because he called back “Yes, grandmother?” The voice answered “What’s going on?” Saburo answered “Somebody brought you a big fish, grandmother.” “Well, what are you waiting for, bring it here.”
With that, Saburo accepted the stinky fish and took it inside the house. When he returned, the merchant whispered to him explaining the events of the night before and pointing at the deep cuts on his face and arms as evidence. But the blacksmith would not believe the strange story and responded “That’s ridiculous!” “But I tell you, it’s true” said the merchant. “If you doubt me, just take a look for yourself.”
The two men then walked around to the back of the house as quietly as a pair of tiny mice wearing fuzzy bunny slippers, slid open the shoji doors into grandma’s room just a crack, and peered inside where they saw an old woman wearing a white kimono sitting up on her futon. The old woman reached out to the package containing the fish, brought her nose close, and smelled it “sniff, sniff.” As the two men watched, she greedily snatched the big raw smelly fish from inside the paper packaging and began to greedily bite off large chunks and swallow them.
With this, the merchant slammed open the shoji door, and jumped into the room. Saburo was too shocked to do anything but let out a roar of indignation. Surprised by the sudden noise, grandma turned back into her true form of a huge, white goblin cat, but before she could attack or flee, the merchant drew his sword and cut down the monster which leaked rivers of bright blue blood and died right there, thank you very much.
Saburo was so shocked by seeing his grandmother change into a monster and then die in a puddle of blue blood he could do nothing but stand there with his mouth hanging open as flies buzzed in and out.
Finally, the merchant asked “How long has she been alone in this room?” Saburo closed his mouth, opened it again, and said “About three years now.” “Three years, huh? Well your real grandmother is nothing more than bones by now, I wager.”
At the merchant’s urging, the blacksmith and his neighbors searched the house, and towards evening they found a pile of white bones wearing the Blackmith’s grandmother’s kimono under the floor, meaning the big white goblin cat had killed grandma and had been passing itself of as her for 3 whole years.
A sad but all too common story. Time for bed now my little ones.
(A folk tale from Oki Province)
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“And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze, And so the blossoms fall, and so my days …”
As I walked near my home today I was pleasantly surprised to see plum trees and even a few cherry trees working on their beautiful spring dresses. It reminded me of a day in April when my wife Kazuko and I went to Kappabashi street in Tokyo to buy a seiro, a dumpling steamer made of fragrant bent Akita Cedar wood and bamboo.
I don’t share her fascination for computerized sewing machines, smoothie blenders, and fuzzy bunny slippers, but she is an excellent cook and I would be a fool to deny her every possible assistance in obtaining any food-prep tool she desires.
Kaminari Mon (Lightning Gate)
From Kappabashi we walked to nearby Sensoji Temple, famous for the Kaminari Mon aka “The Lightning Gate” in Asakusa. Crowded with tourists, but good to see every few years.
After purchasing the seiro and other essential items at Kappabashi and visiting Sensouji Temple and Kaminarimon, we went to a little restaurant and enjoyed a nice lunch. After lunch we traveled a little further afield to view the last hours of the year’s cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms have an important place in the hearts of the Japanese people. The seasons change suddenly here and cherry blossoms seem to explode into bloom. For a few days the trees are bright and fluffy and glorious, but as quickly as they appear the individual petals fall to the earth leaving green leaves behind. The fallen flower petals decorate parks, sidewalks and ponds and flow down the rivers in spinning, colorful rafts.
The Japanese people love to walk underneath blossoming cherry trees, and where possible, spread a blanket under the flowers to enjoy lunch and few adult beverages with family and friends.
Since ancient times, as evidenced in literature, poetry (see the famous example above), and artwork, the budding, bloom and fall of cherry blossoms have been seen as a metaphor of all living things, including humans. Cherry blossoms represent a quiet, elegant, pure life with an inevitable, unselfish, beautiful ending. The cherry tree shares its bright raiment with everyone; The blossoms dance in the wind that scatters them. No complaints, no regrets, just the cycle of life.
One of my favorite memories is of walking home from the train station late one night after a long day at work. It was a cold night and the wind was blowing. Fallen cherry blossom petals formed a soft, beautiful snowstorm that whirled around me in an unexpected and sudden blessing of nature.
Lest any druids or tree-huggers among my Gentle Readers be offended, I will not say that trees do not have emotions, but I think we can agree their language skills are limited. Humans however definitely have emotions and lots of words, so allow me to delve a little deeper into the Japanese language and the emotions cherry blossoms evoke in the hearts of many Japanese people (at least the mature ones). If there is even a little bit of an artist or poet hiding among the dusty barrels in your soul’s basement you should find it interesting.
There is a strange word in the Japanese language pronounced “Setsunai” and written 切ない The direct translation of the characters means “can’t cut.” Strange, right?
The dictionaries translate the word as “painful” (both physical and emotional); sad; or even “heartrending sorrow.” But when used in the context of something as beautiful and inevitable as the budding, flowering, falling, scattering and often muddy end of cherry blossoms, it is used to express the emotions of the quite, sad, unavoidable end of a beautiful thing that once gave joy, a natural event that repeats every year. Not hopelessness or despair, in this case, but sadness after beauty.
A human life is (hopefully) much like this cycle. A baby is born and becomes a happy, energetic child. It grows into an adult, is productive and loving, and imparts beauty into the world. The adult grows old; its beauty and energies change. And the day comes when each human’s physical existence fails and their spirit is carried away, perhaps dancing on the wind like the petals of a cherry blossom. Beautiful on the one hand, sad on the other, but definitely setsunai.
Knowing cherry blossoms will appear next year and the cycle of life will continue tempers the sadness at the loss of such great, unselfish beauty, and gives one hope for the future, at least for a while.
I invite you to read Onitsura’s poem at the top of this blog again. Simple but setsunai indeed.
A craftsman, upon realizing a chisel, plane or saw blade won’t cut may jokingly call it “setsunai,” but not in the poetic sense.
The End of the Day
We enjoyed a beautiful day at Kappabashi and Asakusa, complete with a lunch of tempura soba for me and some sort of raw fish for my patient wife. Life is short and sometimes hard, but it has its beautiful moments. I pray you have many such moments, and that your blossoming will be joyous and your dance on the wind graceful.
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The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.
A wise man once said that every tool with a cord or a battery ends up in the landfill. I don’t know where my electrical woodchucks will end up, but I doubt any will find their way into museums.
The second I open a pretty powertool’s box, its value plummets to the basement never to recover. Was it a good investment? Perhaps it would be if I still made a living with them, but not so much now.
And sure as eggses is eggses, a year or so after opening that darn box a new and improved version of my little electronic piggy will be on the market wearing high-heels, a short skirt, and too much makeup. They tell me that’s progress….
Buying a power tool feels to me like bringing a shiny-eyed puppy with a furiously waggling tale home knowing I will abandon it later. It doesn’t seem right anymore.
And then there’s the financial and environmental aspects. While necessary for many jobs, power tools often cost more to have professionally repaired than to buy a new replacement. What’s with that? And the replacement batteries for those cordless beasties are not only ridiculously overpriced, the chemicals in them are poisonous forever.
Necessary? Perhaps. Long-term value? Not so much.
But handtools are different, IMHO. The quality ones are useful for generations. Many are even beautiful. Perhaps their resale value will not rise, but over time the good ones hold their monetary value. Especially the handmade ones. And I like to believe their intrinsic value will increase many times.
Ever think about how much money you spend on useful things that give you pleasure? Steak? Coffee? Beer? Donuts (mmm…. donuts)? Vacations? Big-screen TV’s? By comparison, quality tools are cheap, last a long time, are practical, promote healthy activity and productivity, and don’t make us fat, sick, dull, send us into a ditch, or raise our insurance rates.
A chisel may nick me now and then, but I will never fly my plane into a mountain.
And speaking of planes, remember when you were finish planing that piece of pine? The sharp blade; the sole tuned to perfection; the tight mouth. Whispy, translucent shavings boiled out of the plane’s body releasing a sweet evergreen smell and leaving a shimmering surface on the board.
And do you remember cutting those dovetails in cherry? Your favorite saw followed the layout line without hesitation, stopping the cut at the perfect depth. Something magical about that saw…
And how about your favorite paring chisel? Do you remember what it felt like shaping that mahogany neck, and the sight of the slowly emerging elegant shapes the sharp slender darling cut so effortlessly? Remember how it felt more like a part of your hand than an inanimate thing of metal and wood? Now that’s a blade!
Quality tools give me a tremendous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. How bout you?
Sadly, not all is blue bunnies and fairy farts. She Who Must Be Obeyed relentlessly counts the cost but sternly rejects the value of the woodworking tools I love. Her feminine mind can rationalize spending a fortune on cloth and thread and needles and the latest, greatest computer-controlled Swiss-made sewing machine with a 4-dimensional laser-guided unobtanium armature and smoothie blender attachment, but her eye narrows, turns sickly yellow, and dribbles poison at the sight of my latest plane or chisel.
Estrogen poisoning, I fear. Need to get that checked…
Will the things we buy now, use for a span of days, and leave behind when we go to the big woodpile in the sky be valued by our grandkids, or will they be sold to buy video games?
The bones are rolling.
I just know that I cherish my father’s old tools, and they still work pretty darn good.
Cheap at twice the price, says I.
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“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings”
The story of C&S Tools is not one of a business looking for products to sell, or of a manufacturer looking for buyers, but of craftsmen looking for better tools.
Your humble servant has lived and worked in Japan for many years, and learned about Japanese woodworking and Japanese tools from serious professional craftsmen called “shokunin.” They included primarily carpenters and joiners, gentlemen that were obsessed with the quality of the products they produced, their production efficiency, and the performance of their tools.
These gentlemen influenced me to seek out the best handmade woodworking tools available, including chisels, planes and saws because better tools help one perform better work more productively while making the job more pleasant. I am still absolutely convinced that is true.
I bought many different brands of tools back in the 1980’s and tested them. I asked craftsmen who’s skill and work impressed me what brands of chisels and planes and saws they used. After years of trying various brands, in the end, I concluded that Kiyotada and Ichihiro made the best chisels and Yokozaka Masato made the best plane blades available at the time. Over the next ten years, I disposed of my other chisels and planes and built up sets of chisels and planes by these blacksmiths.
My work has required me to move many times. In 2009 I was transferred back to Tokyo from Southern California, but the moving company mistakenly placed all of my chisels and planes in storage in the US instead of shipping them with me to Tokyo, so for several years I did not have access to them.
I no longer use my tools to feed the family, but still enjoy woodworking as both hobby and therapy to help maintain my sanity, so life in Tokyo without my tools was lacking something important.
I tried to purchase a few of my favorite tools by Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka but found they were no longer available, and because of the Kezuroukai effect, even used ones had doubled in price. Only Yokozaka-san was still alive, but once again, the Kezuroukai effect resulted in long waiting lists and inflated prices for his planes.
I eventually purchased a 10pc set of oiirenomi bench chisels from a retailer I trusted under the brandname Kiyohisa because, while the retailer warned that Kiyohisa’s products were nowhere near as good as Kiyotada or Ichihiro, he insisted that the Kiyohisa brand was as good “as it gets” anymore. They were shockingly expensive.
Sadly, I discovered the Kiyohisa chisels to be not only inferior to Kiyotada’s products, but of poor quality even when compared to cheapo tools, with some blades chipping unduly, others rolling their edges, and still others with poorly-performing differentially-hardened cutting edges. Absolutely hopeless. I was irate.
I took them back to the retailer and demanded a refund, but he responded that Kiyohisa products did not have a warranty. I since learned that this blacksmith does not warrant any of this products. As you can imagine I lost faith in that retailer’s opinion and the products they sell. You can probably imagine my opinion of Kiyohisa too, so I won’t inflict you with the rant.
At this point I was thoroughly frustrated and so procured many different famous brandname chisels and tested them to destruction. The standard against which I compared them all was the excellent Kiyotada products forged by Shimamura Kosaburo, a blacksmith who was at one time lauded by metallurgists as being the best chisel blacksmith in Japan. I have yet to find a better chisel, but I tried. The testing criteria were initial sharpness, durability (resistance to cracking and chipping) and edge retention ability.
The testing process I employed was to sharpen each 24mm chisel’s blade to 10,000 grit, and cut mortises with it in a Japanese hardwood called Keyaki (zelkova wood). I would abuse each chisel to determine how tough it was, and examine the edge after cutting each mortise. If the edge rolled or dented (and many did), then I knew it was too soft and rejected it. But if it chipped, broke, or performed well, I took it to the next step where I re-sharpened it and continued to cut mortises until the edge chipped or dulled. I rejected those chisels that readily chipped or quickly dulled. Most of the newly-produced chisels sold under famous brand names, and all the chisels produced in Miki, which were too soft, failed these comparative tests utterly.
It was an expensive process but I learned an important lesson, namely, that brandname has nothing to do with quality or performance; The true source of quality and performance in edged tools is rather the blacksmith himself, his experience, skill, and rock-solid dedication to quality. Sadly, this common-sense logic is not applicable to mass-produced products.
The key point I want Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers to take away from this story is the fact that most “brandnames” are owned by by wholesalers and retailers and are marks stamped onto products sold to faceless “markets” that have no direct voice, whereas blacksmiths sell to “customers” that give them direct feedback.
Right about now astute Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers are no doubt saying to themselves “Aha! But the wholesalers and retailers are still customers. Forsooth! Is their opinion of no account?”
As always, our Beloved Customers have hit on an important difference to which I am compelled to provide a distinction. To whit, wholesalers and retailers are, with few exceptions, shopkeepers to whom a hard day’s work entails packaging boxes and writing labels, not producing timber frames, cabinets, or furniture. Most have never used a tool in the field or workshop professionally. Accordingly, while many talk a good game, their only source of feedback is the volume of sales and product defects complaints received from their customers. Their focus, therefore, is on moving volume at the highest possible profit margin, not making sawdust. In short, lacking hands-on experience and motivation from demanding foreman or Client, their ability to differentiate quality and performance from one brand to another is like the proverbial fundament and elbow.
I digress. Back to the point of the story.
Wholesalers and retailers don’t care about feedback so long as product keeps moving. If a particular brandname stops selling, they change the brandname and dress the product up in a different color miniskirt and sequined hooker heels and send it back out to the street corner, so to speak. Thus it has always been.
But the blacksmith has only his reputation, a precious thing that, once lost, cannot be recovered with a fashion remake and a new hairdo.
Accordingly, the quality and performance of a blacksmith’s products directly impact his personal reputation, self-respect, and long-term income, as illustrated by the example mentioned above, whereas most wholesalers and retailers have little at stake.
If a tool wholesaler’s primary market is amateurs located in far-flung countries outside of Japan, then the fluid reputation of his brandnames, inflated by marketing, have much greater influence on his profits than blade quality. Indeed, few amateurs in any country know how to properly use and maintain professional-grade chisels.
Even in Japan, amateurs carelessly damage blades blaming their failure on the blacksmith. Therefore, when marketing exclusively to inexperienced amateurs either domestically or internationally, the wholesaler’s surest path to profitability is to sell mass-produced blades with a high profit margin that are softer and more resistant to damage than blades intended exclusively for professional woodworkers. Therefore, blades sold primarily to amateurs overseas do not need to be hand-forged from the best materials but can be mass-produced using less-expensive steel at lower cost resulting in higher profits. And since the brandname is fluid and can be repaired through marketing, quality is of little consequence.
That is the Miki way of doing business, very much in the style of MacDonalds. Do you like kangaroo meat?
I had learned an expensive lesson during this first phase of buying chisel and planes and destroying their blades. And so putting it to good use, I next went looking for real live blacksmiths instead of famous brand-names.
I focused on traditional blacksmiths unaffiliated with the large wholesalers, working in small smithies who continued to produce chisels and planes for professionals using traditional blacksmithing techniques, and did not stoop to mass-production. I had set myself a time consuming challenge that couldn’t be accomplished using the internet or telephone alone. Indeed, these craftsmen don’t even own computers or mobile phones.
During the next phase I bought more chisels and damaged more blades. I spent weekends on trains going all over Japan visiting woodworkers and blacksmiths, inspecting forges, and checking QC techniques and steel stockpiles. At last I found 3 chisel blacksmiths and one plane blacksmith that consistently produced only the professional-grade tools I wanted with real-world performance approaching that of Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka.
I should add that Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka’s tools were expensive even when they were alive and producing daily. But since the tools I was seeking were to be secondary, perhaps temporary tools, I was willing to sacrifice appearance for lower cost on condition that the tools satisfied my performance goals. The blacksmiths I found did not make the prettiest blades, but they all cut like crazy and kept cutting a long time without dulling or chipping.
During this process I was in communication with professional woodworker friends in the US that know how to use and maintain Japanese planes and chisels. I told them of my adventures and even sent them some of the tools I found to try. After testing the tools they too wanted some. Word of mouth spread and one thing lead to another.
I have a day job, so C&S Tools is not focused on maximizing profits. We sell our tools for the standard retail price in Japan plus PayPal fees of 4.1%, without a gaijin or export markup. It’s more of an excuse for me to spend time with the Japanese blacksmiths and other honest craftsmen I respect.
Unfortunately, our blacksmiths are not getting younger. All are in their late 70’s and 80’s. Production will not continue much longer, so if you are looking for professional-grade chisels and planes at a reasonable price, as I was, then don’t wait too long. No one knows when the “grey rain-curtain of this world will roll back and all will turn to silver glass,” as the old wizard put it.
Stan Covington, Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant.
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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 using 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 chisels chip and my plane blades chatter and gossip unceasingly!
Warning: This is a special Halloween post, but it may not be suitable for children.
In keeping with the Halloween season, I want to share this story about an unfortunate woman on the way back home.
The Japanese people have loved scary stories of all kinds for as far back as we know. Judging by the increasing popularity of horror movies in the USA, this is not a unique tendency.
True to form, this story includes themes common to many Japanese horror stories, such as lonely places and good food, helpless women and ropes, and a sad ending, indeed everything a scary Japanese folk tale needs.
As you read it, imagine you are a little boy or girl in a dark and drafty room in an old farmhouse tight against a bamboo forest. Big smoke-blackened wooden beams twist through the space overhead. It’s dark outside and chilly; the wind is softly blowing outside making the bamboo and paper-covered shoji doors rattle, and the few remaining dry leaves rustle. Mother has just finished cleaning up after the simple evening meal. You’re still a little hungry, but it was enough. A small fire is burning in the square sand-filled irori in the center of the room where Mother and Grandmother cooked dinner. The family is relaxing around the fire, and you are leaning against your mother or father as Grandmother tells this old story. I won’t insist you enjoy it, but I hope you can grasp the atmosphere of rural Japan in past centuries.
Long ago and far away there was a woman named Osei. She was 25 years old.
She had traveled from her home to visit her parents in a different village for several days. It was a half-day journey for a woman, normally one her husband or younger brother would have accompanied her on, but they were both too busy to travel with her this time.
Anyway, let’s walk along with Osei on her lonely path through a dim bamboo thicket at twilight.
Suddenly a man appeared by the side of the path, as if he had been waiting for her. Osei screamed in surprise.
The man was huge and looked just like you would imagine a bandit would be with a long, unkempt beard and wearing a dirty sleeveless kimono. He grabbed Osei’s slender arm violently and dragged her in among the thick bamboo stalks. Osei screamed like a banshee on fire but the thick silent forest swallowed the sound without an echo. Only a fox and the mice he was hunting nearby heard Osei’s calls for help.
Osei struggled frantically to free herself from his iron grip, but without stopping the man just looked back at her admonishingly and said “Calm down, I’m not going to eat you! I just want you to be my wife.”
The large, dirty man held tightly to one of Osei’s arms, while Osei’s feet and free hand scrambled in the fallen leaves on the forest floor trying to get back to the path. Hearing his words, she managed to gasp out “Wait, wait! I can’t be your wife, I already have a husband and two small children waiting for me at home! Please let me go!”
Without releasing her the man stopped and with a puzzled expression said “Think about it. There is only endless drudgery waiting for you at your husband’s leaky hovel. And the best you will have to eat is rough barley rice and pickled greens, right?” “But if you come with me your life will be easy. You can relax indoors all day and eat delicious foods. That’s a lot better than your life now, I wager.” He made other strange arguments about nice clothes and servants, but Osei didn’t hear a single word, she just continued to scream and struggle.
Giving up on trying to convince Osei with words, the man tied her up, threw her over his shoulder, and strode purposefully away into the bamboo forest. After a while, the forest opened up to a clearing with a single house. The house was large and well made, like a Governor’s mansion.
The man carried her into the house and lowered her onto the floor. Looking steadily into her eyes he firmly said “You are now the woman of this house. Your life here will be easy, so long as you don’t go outside. You will have delicious things to eat and a new silk kimono to wear everyday. Then you will understand that what I have said is true. Even if you think I am lying, stay here for just one month anyway, and after that you will be free to go. So stop all this hysterical wailing.”
Osei continued to cry, but after a while dinner appeared. It was everything the scruffy bandit said it would be.
Osei grew up on a farm and was a poor farmer’s wife so she had never even seen such luxurious food before. But thoughts of her husband and children made it impossible to eat a morsel, so she just sat in a corner of the room and cried in despair.
But humans are calculating creatures unable to live on affection alone. After three days she became so hungry she finally relented and ate a mouthful of food.
There were foods from both the sea and the mountains, wonderful dishes she had never seen before much less tasted. She didn’t forget her husband or children for even a second, but rationalized that the separation would only be for a month. As the days passed she began to eat regularly a little at a time.
Osei spent each day alone in her room simply eating and reading picture books the man brought to her, so she was not especially bored.
Most importantly, the man did not pressure her for physical relations, so the tension between them gradually relaxed.
Eventually, however, Osei had read every picture book several times and was left with nothing to do. She was bored.
One day as the smelly bandit was taking his usual afternoon nap she snuck out of the house as quiet as a mouse wearing fuzzy pink slippers. She slipped from the veranda into a large garden with a big white kura warehouse off to the side. She heard voices from inside the warehouse, and what sounded like rain dripping from a leaky roof. Osei was curious and peeked into the warehouse’s open doors. What she saw inside shocked her so badly she had to kneel to keep from falling over.
What Osei saw in the kura was dozens of bound women hanging upside down from the ceiling beams by ropes around their ankles as naked as the day they were born. Every single one of them was plump and sweating a yellowish liquid from their hair follicles and face which fell into a clay pot placed on the floor below each woman making a “drip, drip, drip” sound.
Osei was deeply ashamed at her indolence while these women had been suffering so close by. She began to cry at the sight. One of the women noticed Osei and whispered “Run! Hurry run away! If you don’t escape you too will end up hanging here with us while he steals your body’s oil!” With that all the hanging women looked at Osei pitifully and said as one “Run and bring us help!”
Osei was so shocked at first she couldn’t respond to the women’s pleas, but after a few minutes she did manage to stand and run away like a scared rabbit as fast as she could. As she fled through the forest and thickets daylight failed and she became even more fearful, but she continued running until at last she saw a light in the distance. It was an old farmhouse. She ran to the door and banged on it loudly until an old snaggle-toothed white-haired woman slid open the door.
“What’s the matter; why are you so panicked?” the old woman asked Osei. Reassured by the old woman’s concern Osei quickly explained what had happened.
“Well, come inside dear. I had no idea such a scary ruffian was skulking around these mountains,” said the old woman. “Oh no, I hear someone coming!” she suddenly barked, and pulled Osei inside sliding the door closed with a loud “clack!” Osei peeked through a crack at the doorframe and indeed saw a large figure running through the dark bamboo forest towards the house. “That’s him! That’s the man! He’s coming!” she gibbered in a low panicked voice.
The old woman guided Osei to a ladder going up to the house’s attic. “Quickly now, climb this ladder and hide above. There is a pile of hemp bags in the corner. Climb inside one of them and stay very very quiet until I get rid of that animal. I will hide the ladder so he won’t find you.”
Osei climbed the ladder, found the pile of bags, and curled up inside one as small and quietly as a potato bug. She could hear someone banging on the door below, and the old woman saying “I’m coming, I’m coming! Wait a second!” As the door slid open she heard the large man’s voice saying “A woman just came here, didn’t she!”
The old woman responded “No one but you has come here today.” The man’s voice said “Don’t lie, I saw her!”
“How could you see anything in this darkness?” said the old woman.
“You have an oil lamp burning inside. I saw her shadow at this very door when you opened it just now!”
“You must have seen my shadow twice,“ the old woman argued.
The man was angry now and spit out “I’m no fool! No way I would mistake an old hag like you for a young woman even in the dark.” “You’re trying to steal the woman I was preparing!”
The old woman lowered her voice, but Osei could still hear her response “Haven’t you got enough women already? Couldn’t you share just one with your old mother?”
The man continued to argue with the old woman, but eventually he calmed down and spit out “ Just this once, then, mother.” “Where have you hidden her?”
“In the attic,” responded the snaggle-toothed old woman pointing upwards with a finger and grinning. “Inside one of the bags. And while your at it, would you be a good boy and hang a new rope for me?”
“You know, you’re a lot of trouble for such an ugly old hag!” responded the man’s voice.
Hearing this Osei tried to escape from the bag, but before she could get away the bag was lifted into the air. The bag was suddenly and powerfully torn open and she was pulled out, only to be tied with a thick, rough rope around her ankles and suspended through a hole cut in the ceiling above the hallway below. Clearly, the rope and hole had been prepared well in advance and used before.
Osei looked around and saw the ruffian and his mother looking back at her. Of course, they appeared to be upside down. Looking at the floor below, Osei noticed a large clay pot placed directly below her with what appeared to be some yellow oil in the bottom.
Before long, a slow drip, drip, drip, … of oily sweat fell from Osei into the pot.
A sad ending to an all too common story of suffering.
(A folktale from the island of Kikaijima, located between Kyushu and Okinawa)
If you have questions or would like to learn mor
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click 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 I be hung by the toes for a week.