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.
Please share your insights or comments in the section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the contact form below.
“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.
I have 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 performance of their tools. They influenced me to seek out the best handmade woodworking tools available, including chisels, planes and saws because better tools help one 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 8o’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 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 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 fairly expensive.
Sadly, the Kiyohisa chisels were 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 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 started buying 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 is that most “brandnames” are sold by wholesalers and retailers to “markets” that have no direct voice, whereas blacksmiths sell to “customers” that give them direct feedback. Accordingly, the quality and performance of a blacksmith’s products directly impact his personal reputation and self-respect, 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 appearance and a 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 and making it a warranty problem for the wholesaler and retailer. Therefore, when marketing exclusively to inexperienced amateurs either domestically or internationally, the wholesaler’s surest path to profitability is to sell mass-produced blades that are softer and more resistant to damage than blades intended exclusively for professional woodworkers. 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. 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, and so putting it to good use, I next went looking for real live blacksmiths instead of famous 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. 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.
PS: If you have questions or would like to learn how to purchase our tools, please use the questions form below and we will respond.
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 drafty 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 she was wrapped in rope. 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)
Please share your comments in the “comment form” below. If you have any questions about our tools, please use the questions form immediately below.
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.
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
Long long ago and far far away, there was a very good carpenter. But he was sad because he lived alone.
So he went to the prettiest girl in the village and asked her 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, but he despaired in his heart knowing he could not build such a large and beautiful house in one day. He fretted to himself “ what shall I do, what shall I do?”
But never fear, Gentle Reader, because as you have probably guessed, our carpenter was no ordinary fellow to give up easily, and before long he came up with a daring plan.
He made 2,000 dolls out of straw and breathed on each one while casting a magical spell transforming them all into human carpenters.
The carpenter planned the building, and he and his 2,000 man crew 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. She went to see and found a big, beautiful house with 60 tatami mats, just as she had conditioned. “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 and for many years taught others how to build houses, temples, bridges and many beautiful things of wood.
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. I am 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 am not a human being either. I’m a carpenter god named Tengo. Let’s both return to heaven together.”
So Tengo and Tenjin rose high into heaven where they still live together happily ever after.