The Story of a Few Steels

An illustration of the Eidai tatara furnace (a cross-section illustration is shown at the end of this article) with human-powered blowers to right and left. Looks like hot work.

The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.

Theodore Roosevelt

The terms White Steel and Blue Steel frequently pop up in discussions about Japanese woodworking tools and kitchen knives. The usual misunderstandings abound in those discussions and BS takes majestic wing. In this article we will try to share some accurate information sourced directly from the steel manufacturer and our ancient blacksmiths that actually make and work these steels instead of the usual soft-handed shopkeepers and self-proclaimed experts living in their Mom’s basement.

We will begin by studying some etymology of two of Japan’s most famous tools steels. We will then drop into history class to discuss ancient domestic Japanese steel, and then shift our attention to why these modern steels came into being. After that, we will go to metallurgy class, but without the technical jargon, to explain what these steels contain and why. And finally, we will outline the defining performance characteristics of those same two steels in the case of woodworking tools.

Please ready your BS shovel.

Product Designations: Yellow, White & Blue Label Steels

These terms refer to tool steels manufactured by Hitachi Metals, Ltd. in their plant located in Yasugi City in Shimane Prefecture, Japan. If you are into woodworking tools or Japanese cutlery you have heard of these steels.

Hitachi, Ltd., founded in 1910, is one of Japan’s most prestigious manufacturers. Its subsidiary, Hitachi Metals, Ltd., was established in 1956 primarily through acquisitions.

“White Steel” is an abbreviated translation of HML’s nomenclature of “Shirogamiko” 白紙鋼, which directly translates to “White Paper Steel.” Likewise, “Blue Steel” is an abbreviation of “Blue Label Steel,” the translation of “Aogamiko” 青紙鋼.

Just as “Johnnie Walker Blue” is the commercial designation of a famous Scottish whiskey with a blue label pasted onto the bottle, Aogami is the designation of a high-carbon tool steel with a blue label pasted onto it. It’s that simple.

Since your humble servant can read and write Japanese, and the steel itself is neither white, nor blue, much less yellow, I feel foolish calling it White Steel or Blue Steel as many in English-speaking countries do, so prefer to call them Yellow Label Steel, White Label Steel or Blue Label Steel in English, or Kigami, Aogami, or Shirogami steel. Please excuse this affectation.

Now let’s go back in time a few hundred years. I promise to keep it concise.

Traditional Japanese Steel: Tamahagane

Tamahagane, written 玉鋼 in Chinese characters, which translates to “Jewel Steel” and is pronounced tah/mah/ha/gah/neh, is famous as the steel traditionally used to forge Japanese swords, but prior to the importation of steel from overseas, beginning with products from the Andrews Steel mill in England, it was once used for all steel production in Japan.

Before Admiral Perry’s black ships re-opened the many kingdoms and fiefdoms scattered across the islands that now comprise modern Japan, the only local source for natural iron was a material called Satetsu, a loose surface iron written 砂鉄 in Chinese characters, meaning ”sand iron,” and pronounced sah/teh/tsu. Satetsu looks exactly like black sand. It is quite common throughout the world, as you may discover if you drag a magnet through a sandy river.

Typically found in rivers and estuaries, for many centuries the area around Yasugi City in Shimane Prefecture was a prime source.

Satetsu was historically harvested in Japan using dredges and sluices creating horrendous environmental damage. Fortunately, the days of wholesale estuary destruction are in Japan’s past.

Although Aluminum is the most abundant metal on this rock we call home, iron is said to make up 34% of the earth’s mass. Japanese satetsu as harvested is a fairly pure form of iron lacking nearly all the impurities typically found in iron ore from mines.

Historically satetsu was refined in rather crude furnaces called ” tatara” to form clumps of brittle, excessively-high carbon steel.

A tatara furnace in operation. Satetsu is combined with charcoal and heated over several days. The resulting bloom steel, called “Tamahagane,” settles to the bottom in clumps and puddles and is removed by breaking the furnace apart.
出来上がった巨大な鉧を引き出します
The tamahagane that melted to the bottom of the tatara furnace being pulled out of the factory building.
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Freshly-smelted Tamahagane. Being raw iron, it oxidizes quickly.

Steel produced this way in the West is called “bloom steel.” Blacksmiths hammer, fold, and re-hammer these crumbly lumps to remove impurities and reduce/distribute desirable carbon forming the more homogeneous Tamahagane steel. This webpage has some interesting photos of tamahagane.

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A clump of Tamahagane early in the forging process. Most of this material will be lost as waste before a useful piece of steel is born.
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After the Blacksmith hammers the raw clumps of Tamahagane hundreds of times, he then forms it into numerous small flat steel patties, which he breaks into the pieces shown in this photo in preparation for forge-welding them into a single larger piece of steel that he can then forge into a blade.

Tatara furnaces are still operated today producing Tamahagane in limited quantities for use by registered sword smiths. Tool blacksmiths use Tamahagane occasionally too out of interest in traditional materials and methods. It is expensive and difficult to work, with lots of waste.

A sawsmith who was active both before and after the availability of British steel on the island of Shikoku in Japan is recorded as saying that imported foreign steel increased saw production efficiency in his area tenfold. Clearly, Tamahagane was very labor intensive.

Mr. Kosuke Iwasaki, a famous metallurgist and blacksmith, described forging Tamahagane as being like “hammering butter” because it flattened and spread too quickly and unpredictably, at least compared to modern steels.

Besides its peculiar forging characteristics, compared to modern tool steels Tamahagane is a difficult material infamous for being easily ruined and extremely sensitive to temperature during all phases of forging and heat treatment.

In use, tools made from Tamahagane behave differently from modern commercial steel, or so I am told. I own and use a straight razor custom forged from Tamahagane for me many years ago by Mr. Iwasaki. I also own antique Scheffield and German razors, but my Iwasaki razor puts them all to shame in terms of sharpness, edge retention, and ease of sharpening. I also own a couple of antique Tamahagane saws, but I have not used them much, nor have I used Tamahagane chisels, planes or knives, so my experience is limited to this one wickedly sharp little blade.

My beloved Tamahagane cutthroat razor by Iwasaki

Why do I bother Gentle Reader with this story of ancient techniques and obscure products no longer viable? Simply because Tamahagane and the cutting tools and weapons it was once used to produce had a huge practical and cultural influence on both Japanese history and the Japanese people’s attitude towards weapons and cutting tools, in your humble servant’s opinion.

Although imported Western steel served Japan well during its advance to modernity, the memory of the performance of cutting tools made from Tamahagane remained alive in the national memory. Indeed, I am convinced the Japanese people’s love and fear of sharp things is not only psychological but genetic, although I have not seen any studies on the “sharpness gene.” But that is a story I will save for the next time we are enjoying a mug of hot coco together around the iori fire on a moonlit Autumn night. May that evening come soon.

Steel Production in Modern Japan

Enough ancient history. Let’s shift our focus to more modern steels.

When Japan began to mass-produce commercial steel from imported pig iron using modern techniques, the first tool steel made was identical to Western steels, including the impurities. These are still available today as the “SK” series of steels as defined by Japan Industrial Standards ( JIS).

Eventually, to satisfy the irrepressible sharpness gene of their domestic customers, Japanese blacksmiths and tool manufacturers pressured Japanese steel companies to produce steels with fewer impurities and with performance characteristics approaching traditional Tamahagane.

Rising to the challenge, Hitachi Metals endeavored to replicate the performance of Tamagane using modern smelting techniques and imported pig iron and scrap metal instead of expensive and environmentally unsustainable satetsu.

Ingots of Swedish pig iron

Hitachi purchased and modernized an old steel plant in Yasugi for this purpose. They formulated the best steel they could make using the best pig iron they could find, mostly from Sweden, an area famous for hundreds of years for producing especially pure iron ore. The results were Shirogami Steel (pronounced she/roh/gah/mee/koh 白紙鋼), Aogami Steel (pronounced aoh/gah/mee/koh 青紙鋼), and Kigami Steel (pronounced kee/gah/me/koh and written黄紙鋼) meaning “Yellow Label Steel.” Later, they developed Aogami Super steel (青紙スパー ) and Silver Label Steel (stainless steel). Each of these products are available in various subgroups, each having a unique chemical formulation.

For a time, Hitachi marketed these steels with the “Tamahagane” designation. Problematic, that. Indeed, many saws and knives were stamped “Tamahagane” when these steels were first introduced.

With the increased popularity of Japanese knives overseas, several Japanese manufacturers have once again adopted this problematic practice of naming the steel their products are made from as “Tamahagane” despite being made of common steels and even stainless steels. Because these spurious representations were and continue to be made for the purpose of increasing profits for companies that clearly know better, in your humble servant’s opinion even the stinky label of BS is too good for them.

Caveat emptor baby.

Chemistry

We tend to think of steel as a hard metallic thing, but lo and behold, ’tis a chemical compound. Few chemicals humans make are absolutely pure, and while White Label, Blue Label, and Yellow Label steels have exceptionally low amounts of undesirable contaminants, they do exist. Dealing with the results of these impurities has been the bane of blacksmiths since the iron age.

The most common undesirable impurities include Phosphorus (reduces ductility, increases brittleness, and messes with heat treating), Silicon (a useful chemical but too much decreases impact resistance), and Sulfur (reduces strength, increases brittleness and warping). Obviously, something must be done about these bad boys.

Some people imagine that, through the Alchemy of Science, impurities are simply “disappeared” from steel during smelting. While some impurities can be eliminated through heat and chemical reactions, it is not possible to reduce the content of those listed above to insignificant levels through smelting alone.

Undesirable chemicals can be tolerated in steel to some degree because, like arsenic in drinking water and carbon monoxide in air, below certain levels they cause no significant harm. The best solution we have discovered is to reduce the concentration of impurities to acceptable levels by using ore and scrap that contains low levels of impurities to begin with, and constantly test, and reject or dilute the ”pot” as necessary to keep impurities below acceptable levels. This practice is known as “Solution by dilution.”

White Label steel is plain high-carbon steel without other additives, while Blue Label, Yellow Label, Silver Label, and Aogami Super steels have various chemicals added to achieve specific performance criteria. Please see the flowchart below.

Production Flowchart of White Label, Blue Label, and Super Aogami Steels
A flowchart outlining the manufacturing process

Another technique used to mitigate the negative effects of impurities found in steel ore is to add chemicals to the mix. Chrome, molybdenum, vanadium, tungsten and other chemicals are added to create “high-alloy” steels that can be more predictably forged and heat-treated, are less likely to crack and warp, and will reliably develop useful crystalline structures despite detrimental impurities. Such high-alloy steels can reliably produce useful tools in mass-production situations by untrained labor and with minimal manpower spent on quality control. But no matter the hype, such chemicals do not improve sharpness or make sharpening easier.

If you look at the table below, you will notice that White Label and Blue Label steels both have the same minute allowable amounts of harmful impurities such as Silicon, Phosphorus, and Sulfur.

Chemical Table of White Label, Blue Label and Aogami Super Steels

Product Designation Shirogami 1 (White Label 1)Shirogami 2 (White Label 2)Aogami 1 (Blue Label1)Aogami 2
(Blue 2)
Aogami Super
Carbon1.3~1.4%1.20~1.30%1.30~1.40%1.10~1.20%1.40~1.50%
Silicon0.10~0.200.10~0.200.10~0.200.10~0.200.10~0.20
Manganese0.20~0.300.20~0.300.20~0.300.20~0.300.20~0.30
Phosphorus<0.025<0.025<0.025<0.025<0.025
Sulfur<0.004<0.004<0.004<0.004<0.004
Chrome0.3~0.050.20~0.050.30~0.05
Tungsten1.50~2.001.00~1.502.00~2.50
Molybdenum0.3~0.5
Vanadium
Cobalt
Annealing Temp °C740~770°cooled slowly740~770°cooled slowly750~780°cooled slowly750~780°cooled slowly750~780°cooled slowly
Quench Temp°C760~800°water760~800°water760~830°water or oil760~830°water or oil760~830°water or oil
Tempering Temp°C180~220°air180~220°air160~230°air160~230°air160~230°air
Hardness HRC>60>60>60>60>60
Primary UsagesHighest-quality cutlery, chisels, planesHigh-quality cutlery, chisels, axes, sicklesHighest-quality cutlery,  planes, knivesHigh-quality cutlery, planes, knives. sicklesHigh-quality cutlery,  planes, knives
Chemical Table of White Label and Blue Label steels as well as Aogami Super (this table can be scrolled left~right)

Carbon of course is the element that changes soft iron into hardenable steel, so all five steels listed in the table above contain carbon, but you will notice that White Label No.1 has more carbon than White Label No.2. Likewise, Blue Label No.1 has more carbon than Blue Label No.2.

The greater the carbon content, the harder the steel can be made, but with increased hardness comes increased brittleness, so White Label No.1 is likely to produce a chisel with a harder, more brittle blade than one made of White Label No.2.

Accordingly, White Label No.2 steel makes a wonderful saw, but sawblades forged from White Label No.1 tend to be fragile unless the blacksmith removes excess carbon during forging to improve toughness.

In the case of chisels, plane blades, and kitchen knives intended for professional use, White Label No.1 is the first choice followed by Blue Label No.1 steel.

Where high performance at less cost is required, Blue Label No.1 or Blue Label No.2 are often preferred.

With impurities and carbon content the same, the chemical difference between White Label No.1 and Blue Label No. 1 then is the addition of chrome and tungsten, elements which make the steel tougher, much easier to heat treat, and reduce warping and cracking, thereby yielding fewer defect with less work. Chrome, and especially tungsten are expensive chemicals that make Blue Label steel more expensive to purchase than White Label Steel steel, but with easier quality control and fewer rejects, overall production costs are reduced.

All things considered, and this is a critical point to understand, compared to White Label Steel, Blue Label steel is easier to use, and more productive despite being a more expensive material. Indeed, many blacksmiths and all mass-producers prefer Blue Label steel over White Label Steel, when given a choice, because it is easier to use and more profitable, not because it makes a superior blade.

Many wholesalers and retailers insist that Blue Label steel is superior to White Label Steel because it is costlier and contains elements that make it more resistant to wear and abrasion intimating that it will stay sharper longer. To the easily deceived and those who do not follow this blog this may make perfect sense. But when wise Gentle Readers hear this sort of tripe they will know to gird up their loins and ready their BS shovels to keep their heads above the stinky, brown flood.

Wise Gentle Readers who choose blades forged from Blue Label Steel will do so because they know that Blue Label steel makes a fine blade at less cost than White Label Steel, not because Blue Label Steel blades are superior in performance. Moreover, regardless of the steel used, they will always purchase blades forged by blacksmiths that possess the requisite dedication and have mastered the skills and QC procedures necessary to routinely produce high-quality blades from the more difficult White Label Steel.

Quenching & Tempering

The process of hardening steel, called “heat treatment,” is key to making useful tools. Modern high-alloy steels vary in this regard, but in the case of plain high-carbon steels, the two primary stages (with various intermediate steps we won’t touch on) of heat treatment are called “quenching” and “tempering.”

In the case of quenching, the steel is heated to a specific temperature, maintained at that temperature for a set amount of time, and then plunged into either water or oil, freezing the dissolved carbon in the steel into a rigid crystalline structure containing hard carbide particles. After this process the steel is quite hard, indeed brittle enough to shatter if dropped onto a concrete floor, for instance; Basically useless.

To make the steel useful for tools it needs the next step in the heat-treatment process, called “tempering,” which adjusts the rigid crystalline structures created during the quench, losing some carbides, but making the steel less brittle and much more tougher. This is achieved by reheating the steel to a set temperature for a set period of time and then cooling it in a specific way. This heating and cooling can happen in air (e.g oven), water, oil, or even lead. All that really matters is the temperature curve applied. Every blacksmith has their own preferences and procedures.

With that ridiculously overly-simplified explanation out of the way, let’s next take a gander at the “Quench Temp” row in the table above which indicates the acceptable range of temperatures within which each steel can be quenched (using water or oil) to successfully achieve proper hardness. If quenching is attempted outside these ranges, hardening will fail and the blade may be ruined.

In the case of White Label steel, the quenching temperature range is 760~800°C, or 40°C. Please note that this is a very narrow range to both judge and maintain in the case of yellow-hot steel, demanding a sharp, well-trained eye, a good thermometer, proper preparation, and speedy, decisive action. Just to make things worse, even within this allowable range a shift of temperature too far one way or the other will significantly impact the quality of the resulting crystalline structure, so the actual temperature variation within the recommended quench temp range an excellent blacksmith must aim for is more like ± 5˚C.

Compare this range of quenching temps to those for Blue Label steel with an acceptable quenching temperature range of 760~830°C, or 70°C of range, a 75% increase over White Label steel.

Let’s next consider the recommended Tempering temperatures.

For White Label steel, the tempering temperatures are 180~220°C, or 40°C of range. Blue Label steel’s temperatures are 160~230°C, or 70°C of range, once again, a 75% greater safety margin.

The practical temperature range for quenching and tempering Blue Label steel is still quite narrow, but this increase in the allowable margin of error makes the job a lot easier, making Blue Label Steel much less risky to heat-treat successfully than White Label steel.

Judging and maintaining proper temperatures is where all blacksmiths, without exception, fail when they first begin forging and heat-treating plain high-carbon steel. The guidance of a patient master, time and perseverance are necessary to develop the knack.

I hope this partially brings into focus the challenges these two steels present to the blacksmith.

If you seek greater adventure, please look online to find similar data for many of the popular high-alloy tool steels. Comparing those numbers to White Label steel and Blue Label steel will help you understand why mass-producers of tools, with their lowest-possible-cost mindset, limited quality control efforts, and factory workers instead of trained blacksmiths, prefer them.

Warpage & Cracking

A huge advantage of chrome and tungsten additives is that they reduce warpage and cracking significantly. This matters because a blacksmith using plain high-carbon steel like White Label steel must anticipate the amount of warpage that will occur during quenching and shape the chisel, knife, or plane blade in the opposite direction so that the blade straightens out when quenched. This exercise requires a lot of experience to get right consistently, making White Label steel steel totally unsuitable for mass-production.

Steel is an interesting material. When yellow hot, the carbon is dissolved and moves relatively freely within the iron matrix. Anneal the steel by heating it and then cooling it slowly and the carbon molecules will migrate into relatively isolated clumps with little crystalline structure leaving the steel soft. But if the steel is heated to the right temperature and suddenly cooled by quenching, the carbon is denied the time and freedom it had during the annealing process, instead becoming locked into the iron matrix forming a hard, rigid crystalline structure. This iron/carbon crystalline structure has a significantly greater volume than pure iron, which is why the blade wants to warp when quenched.

Adding chrome and tungsten and other chemicals reduces this tendency to warp.

An interesting example is a sword blade. A Japanese sword blade is typically shaped either straight or curved towards the cutting edge before quenching, but during quenching the blade warps and curves without encouragement from the blacksmith. The skill and experience required to pre-judge the amount of this warpage and the resulting curvature of the blade, and then compensate while shaping the blade before quenching to achieve the desired curvature post-quench is not something one learns in just a few months or even years.

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A Japanese swordsmith with a blade made from high-carbon Tamahagane poised for quenching. Notice how straight the blade is. He has invested months of work into this blade to this point and a misjudgment or even bad luck in the next second can waste it all. Not a job for the inexperienced or timid.
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After quenching, the resulting warpage is dramatic, but according to plan. The swordsmith must anticipate this distortion and shape the blade to compensate prior to the quench if he is to avoid unfortunate results. Notice the mud applied to the blade before quenching to control the formation of crystalline structures and achieve differential hardness. Tool blacksmiths are faced with the same challenges on a smaller scale but more frequently.

Unlike Tamahagane, however, modern commercial steels containing alloys like chrome and tungsten warp much less, and suffer far fewer shrinkage cracks.

Aogami Super is another steel in the table above. It’s an interesting steel, containing more carbon than both White Label steel and Blue Label steel and a lot more tungsten than regular Blue Label steel. Consequently, it is even more expensive. Aogami Super was originally developed as a high-speed tool steel especially resistant to wear. There are much better steels available for this role now, but Aogami Super is still hanging in there.

But all is not blue bunnies and fairy farts because high-alloy steels have some disadvantages too. 

Those who hype high-alloy steels always praise to the heavens the “wear-resistant” properties Chrome and Tungsten additives afford. When the subject is woodworking handtool blades, however, please read “wear resistance” to mean “a bitch to sharpen,” and/or “not very sharp.”

Tungsten makes the steel warp less and expands the heat-treat and tempering temperature ranges significantly leading to fewer defects during production. But the addition of tungsten also produces larger, tougher crystals that simply can’t be made as sharp as White Label No.1, and that makes the blade much more difficult, unpleasant, and time consuming to sharpen, all while wasting more sharpening stone material in the process.

White Label steel has no additives other than carbon. It does not need additives to compensate for or to dilute impurities because its production begins with exceptionally pure pig iron, mostly from Sweden (for many centuries the source of the purest iron in the world), and carefully tested and sorted scrap metal. Both White Label and Blue Label steels, if properly hand-forged and heat treated by an experienced blacksmith with high quality standards, will have many more and much smaller carbide clumps distributed more evenly throughout the iron crystalline matrix producing a ” fine-grained” steel of the sort coveted since ancient times

Nearly all the tool steel available nowdays contains high percentages of scrap metal content. Scrap metal is simply too cost effective to ignore. Careful testing is the key to using scrap metal advantageously.

Performance Differences

Gentle Reader may have found the historical and chemical information presented above interesting, but they do not really answer questions you may have about the performance differences between these steels, and when presented a choice, which one you should purchase. Your humble servant has been asked and answered these questions hundreds of times, and while only you can decide which steel is best for you, I will be so bold as to share with you the viewpoint of the Japanese blacksmith and woodworking professional.

Long story short, in the case of planes and chisels, the typical choices of steel are still White Label No.1, White Label No.2 or Blue Label No.1. These steels will not be available much longer.

If you are dealing with honest blacksmiths and honest/knowledgeable retailers with experience actually using, not just talking about and selling, tools, you will have observed that a specific plane blade, for instance, made of Blue Label steel will cost less than the same blade made from White Label steel, despite Blue Label steel being a more costly.

At C&S Tools a 70mm White Label No.1 steel plane blade cost 77% more than one made from Blue Label No.1. This means that the blacksmith’s average cost in terms of his labor (overhead, forging and shaping being the same) is also around 77% higher over Blue Label steel, a direct reflection of his potential additional time expenditure due to risk of failure. White Label simply warps and cracks more, but when failure occurs it only becomes apparent after all the laminating, forging and shaping are complete, when there is nothing left to recover. Ruined steel cannot be reliably re-forged or re-used, so all the material cost and labor up to the point of failure are simply wasted like an expectation of honesty in a California politician. It is not a material for careless people or newbies. The steel that is, not the politician who is certainly irredeemable.

So if White Label steel blades are riskier to make, with more wastage, and therefore more expensive, what are the performance characteristics that make White Label steel blades a favorite with professional Japanese craftsmen? Two primary reasons: First, properly made White Label steel blades can be made sharper. This makes the craftsman’s work go quicker and more precisely.

Second, properly made White Label steel blades are easier, quicker and more pleasant to sharpen. It’s a sensory, zen thing. That sums it up.

Is White Label steel worth the extra cost? I think so, but the performance differential is not huge, and only someone with advanced sharpening skills will be able to take full advantage of the difference. For most people on a tight budget, or in the case of woodworking situations where sharpness is not critical, and sharpening speed and pleasure are not driving factors, then a less-expensive Blue Label steel blade is perhaps a better choice. It absolutely makes a fine tool that does a great job of cutting wood.

Let’s shovel some more BS out of the way by performing the mandatory experiment of taking a high-quality White Label steel blade and a high-quality Blue Label steel blade, sharpening them identically using the best stones and advanced technique, and then considering the answer to the following two important questions:

Question 1: Will the additional sharpness of a White Label steel plane blade create a smoother, shinier finish surface on wood than a Blue Label steel blade?

Answer 1: Definitely not. But since it started out a little sharper, it will cut a little better a little longer.

Question 2: In the case where edge-retention, cutting speed, and cutting precision are more important than a shiny finish, which absolutely applies to chisels and knives, will the additional sharpness of a properly made and proficiently sharpened White Label steel blade improve a tool’s cutting speed, edge-retention, precision and control?

Answer 2: Absolutely yes. On condition that the user possesses the skills to achieve and maintain that extra degree of sharpness. There is a reason sharpening has always been the first essential skill in woodworking.

These are the reasons why we don’t even offer chisels made from Blue Label steel, or even White Label No.2 with its lower-carbon content, and resulting reduced hardness.

But whether plane blade, chisel or knife, a properly forged and heat-treated blade made by an experienced professional blacksmith from simple White Label steel will always be quicker and more pleasant to sharpen than if made of Blue Label steel with its added sticky chrome and hard tungsten. To the professional that has the need for the additional sharpness as well as the skills necessary to produce and maintain it, that’s a difference many find worth the extra cost.

I daresay many of our Beloved Customers agree.

Related Information

Gentle Readers may find Hitachi Metal’s catalogue about their tool steels interesting. A PDF can be found at this LINK. Sorry it’s in Japanese. The first metal in the top row is White Label No.1 steel. The Quench temp shown is 760~800˚C and the tempering temp is 180~220˚C. The hardness is 60+ Rc.

You may also want to check out this article by Niigata Prefecture’s Research Center which shows some interesting details as well as pictures.

The steel tested is Blue Label No.2 steel (row 6 in the Hitachi catalogue pdf). It has added chrome and tungsten to reduce warping and increase the range of quenching temperatures. They heat-treated samples and listed the results for 7 of them. In each case, the quench temp varied from 750˚~900˚C (1382˚~1652˚F) in water, but the tempering temp was kept constant at 180˚C (356˚F) in air for one hour. Figure 4 at 775˚C (1427˚F) shows the best, finest, most uniform crystalline (Austentite) structure. Lower temps are not as good. Higher temps are worse. 25˚ one way or the other made a big difference. And remember this is Blue Label No.1 steel, which is much less sensitive to variations in temp than White Label No.1 steel. When using these steels, experience talks and BS walks.

There has been some bad news lately about Hitachi Metals. I won’t go into all the details, but Hitachi Metals announced in October 2020 that it’s planning to reduce its workforce nationwide by 3,200 employees. The likely impact on the Yasugi plant has not been announced.

YMHOS

A cross-section of the Eidai tatara furnace (also pictured at the top of this article) with human-powered blowers to right and left. The central furnace shows satetsu as the first layer resting on charcoal with the fire below. More layers of satetsu and charcoal are added as the process moves forward. The resulting mass of Tamahagane settles to the bottom of the furnace, but does not drop into what appears to be, but is not, a void below.

YMHOS

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Relevant Posts

Tool Maintenance: Corrosion Prevention

A Rusted Plane Blade by Hatsukuni. What did it do to deserve such horrible neglect?

“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life!”

Alfred Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

Between damaged tools and guns, corrosion prevention has been a high priority for your humble servant over the years motivating me to purchase many corrosion-prevention products and test them in various climates. After climbing mountains of hype and swimming floods of BS I think at last I have something of value, perhaps even the genuine article, to share with Gentle Readers.

There are three aspects of corrosion prevention for steel tools we will address in this article: Corrosion due to sharpening, corrosion due to handling, and corrosion due to storage.

But first, to help Gentle Reader understand the basis for the measures I will recommend below, allow me to explain my sharpening philosophy.

Tool Philosophy

The word “philosophy” is of Greek origin and means the “love of wisdom.” I won’t flatter myself that I developed any original wisdom about maintaining tools, because the truth is I stole most of what I know from better men and the rest came ipso facto from my own screw-ups. Embarrassment is a fine teacher.

Professional craftsmen have no choice but to constantly maintain and repair the tools of their trade, but necessary or no, clients and employers often resent the time craftsmen they hire spend maintaining tools during the work day. After all, they are paying them to make a product, not to fiddle with tools. The perceptive craftsman will strive to understand his Client’s perspective if he wants to be trusted with profitable repeat work.

Therefore, I don’t sharpen, fettle, or repair my tools at the jobsite anymore than is absolutely necessary, and never in front of the Client or employer. This is not some feel-good yuppy-zen BS, but a serious, concrete work philosophy with physical and financial consequences. It was taught to me by experienced craftsmen in America and Japan, all since retired to the big lumberyard in the sky, who knew what they were about. It has served me well.

So how do I keep working when blades dull, planes stop shaving, power tools stop spinning and bits stop biting? Whenever possible I have multiple saws, planes and chisels in the types/sizes critical for that day’s work, and even extra bits and power tools on-hand, so that if a particular chisel or plane becomes too dull to get the job done, or a bit breaks, or a circular saw, for instance, goes tits-up, I need only pause work long enough to retrieve a sharp, ready to rock-n-roll replacement from my toolbox or tool bag.

This means I must purchase, sharpen, fettle and carry around more tools than I am likely to use during that workday. But since my tools are partners that earn their keep, it is not wasted money or effort. In fact, this philosophy has resulted in tool-maintenance habits that I believe ultimately save me time and money while improving my work efficiency all while reinforcing my Client’s or employer’s confidence in me, just as the old boys said they would.

Of course, after a few days of continuous work I will have accumulated multiple blades that need sharpening, so if I am to keep making sawdust I must sharpen them in batches of 5~10 at a time. And because I sharpen in batches, as do professional sharpeners, I have given great thought over the years to maximizing positive results such as speed, sharpness achieved, and economical use of stones while minimizing negative results such as rusted steel. I humbly encourage Gentle Readers to give these matters just a few seconds of consideration. What have you got to lose besides steel?

Corrosion Prevention: Wet Sharpening

The bevel of the Hatsukuni blade shown above. Lovely colors.

The corrosion risk to tools when sharpening is corrosion caused by residual water in the scratches, cracks and crevices of the blade, as well as accumulated chlorine from tap water, promoting rust, especially at the very thin cutting edge. Yes, that’s right, I’m more worried about corrosion dulling the cutting edge than of it creating red spots elsewhere on the blade.

When sharpening a batch of blades in my workshop, after a blade is done on the final finish stone, I dry it with a clean paper towel, apply a few drops of Corrosion Block, smear it around on the blade to ensure a complete coating, and set it aside to draw water out of the pores and seal the steel. It works.

Corrosion-X is another good, but stinkier, product. Neither is good enough long-term, however.

After the blades have sat for a while, usually at the conclusion of the batch, I wipe off the CB and apply CRC 3-36. This is a paraffin-based corrosion preventative that floats out water. Paraffin won’t evaporate or wick-off and is the best product I have found to prevent rust developing on a clean, moisture-free surface.

CRC 3-36 sprays on easily and soaks into everything, and if allowed to dry, will give good long-term protection, as in years. It’s especially good for saw blades because it gets deep into the teeth. But you don’t want to apply it to anything even a little wet with water because paraffin will seal it in promoting rust. Ergo, Corrosion Block first.

There are many rust-prevention products on the market, so I am not suggesting CRC3-36 is the best, only the one I prefer, partly because O Mistress of the Blue Horizons doesn’t object to the smell too strongly if it wafts into her holy chambers from the workshop. If I use Corrosion-X, however, she bars the door with a broom, bayonet fixed, and makes me strip before she’ll let me back into the house. A gentle flower, indeed. But I digress.

This system works fine for short-term, and even for long-term storage if I wrap the tool in newspaper or plastic to protect the coating.

When sharpening in the field, or if I will be using the tool right away, I don’t bother with spray products, but just strop the blade on a clean cloth or the palm of my hand to generate friction heat, apply some oil from my oilpot, and call it good.

If you don’t own and use an oilpot already I won’t call you an idiot, but I still remember the time long ago when that word was directed at me by someone I respected for not making and using one. He was right.

A useful trick I learned from sword sharpeners is to use chlorine-free, slightly alkaline water for sharpening. I mix Borax powder with distilled water in a plastic lab bottle to use to keep stones wet and to wash blades when sharpening. Washing soda works too. A little lye added to sharpening water will also increase its pH. Using such water will not entirely prevent corrosion, but it certainly slows it way down. Test it for yourself.

Corrosion Prevention: Handling

We sometimes pull out a chisel, saw, or plane blade to gaze upon it. They are lovely creatures, after all. There are two things to be aware of when doing this, however.

Recall that the adult human body is comprised of approximately 60% water, some of which is constantly leaking out of our skins mixed with oils and salts. When you touch bare steel with your hands, skin oils, sweat, and the salt contained in sweat stick to the steel and will cause rust. It’s only a matter of how quickly and deeply.

The solution is to avoid touching bare steel you will later store away with bare fingers, and if you do touch the blade, wipe it clean and apply some oil from your oilpot or spray can right away before returning it to storage.

Gentle Reader may be unaware, but there can be no doubt that harsh words not only hurt the tender feelings of quality tools, but can directly damage them. How do I know that rude language offends steel tools, you say? Well, I have ears don’t I? In addition, over the years I learned a thing or two from professional Japanese sword sharpeners and evaluators, who are even more obsessed with rust than your paranoid humble servant, no doubt because of the high financial and historical costs of corrosion in rare and expensive antique weapons.

With the gift to the entire world of the Wuhan Virus from the Chinese Communist Party, we have all become more aware of the human tendency to constantly spew droplets of bodily fluids, often containing nasty bugs, into the air around us sometimes with unpleasant consequences. A handsaw can’t catch the Commie Flu, but fine droplets may find their way to the steel surface when we talk to them or around them. Corrosion ensues.

In Japan it is considered rude to speak when holding a bare sword. Indeed, it is SOP to require viewers who will get close to a bare blade to place a piece of clean paper between their teeth to confirm the mouth is indeed closed and not spewing droplets of spit onto the blade.

I am not exaggerating the cumulative long-term damage fingerprints and moisture droplets expelled from human mouths and noses cause to steel objects. Any museum curator can confirm.

How does this all apply to woodworking tools? If Gentle Reader takes a tool out of storage and either talks to it, or to humans around it, please wipe it clean, apply oil, and rewrap it unless you will be using it immediately.

Tools deserve respect. Perhaps I’m superstitious, but I’m convinced that if we avoid rudely smearing salty sweat or spraying globs of spittle that would cause our tools to turn red and go away, they in turn will be less inclined to cause us to leak red sticky stuff. Some tools are vindictive if offended, donchano.

Corrosion Prevention: Storage

The air on earth contains dust and moisture. Dust often contains abrasive particles harder than steel as well as salts and other corrosive chemicals. We must keep these particles and chemicals away from our tools.

Air also contains moisture that, given access and a temperature differential, can condense on steel tool blades causing condensation rust.

Your humble servant discussed these matters in length in earlier articles about toolchests, but a critical criteria of proper storage is to prevent dust from landing on tools, and to prevent the tools from exposure to airborne moisture and temperature differentials. A closed, tightly sealed, clean container, cabinet, toolchest or toolbox is better for tool storage than pegboards or shelves.

If Gentle Reader does not already have such a tool container of some sort, I urge you to procure or make one.

Tool Rolls

Your humble servant owns and uses tool rolls. They are handy for transporting tools such as chisels, files rasps and saws, but they have limitations Gentle Readers need to be aware of.

The first problem with tool rolls is that they appear to protect the cutting edges of chisels and saws, but that is only wishful thinking because the delicate and dangerous cutting edges are only hidden behind a thin layer of cotton or leather. Guess what happens if you drop a cloth tool roll of sharp chisels onto a concrete slab.

If you bump a tool roll of chisels against another tool, then brush your hand against the now exposed but hidden cutting edges while digging in your toolbox, sticky red stuff may get everywhere. Will the bloodshed never end!?

Do tool rolls protect tools against corrosion? No, in fact they can make it much worse because fibers in contact with steel, especially organic fibers such as cotton, can wick moisture to the steel producing corrosion. Please see the photos above.

Leather tool rolls can be especially bad in some cases because of residual tanning chemicals.

I’m not saying don’t use tool rolls, only to be aware of their limitations and use them wisely.

As mentioned above, I do use tool rolls in the field. The trick to preventing rusted blades is to insulate them from the fabric, so I make little plastic liners from the hard but flexible plastic used for theft-proof retail product packaging that fit into the pockets. Just a strip of plastic cut wide enough to fit into the pocket tightly and folded in half. Besides preventing rusty blades (the crowns will still rust) these little liners make it much faster and easier to insert blades into the pockets without cutting the tool roll. They also help prevent blades from cutting through the cloth or leather. The price is right too.

If you need to use tool rolls for long-term storage, I recommend you clean the tools, coat them with a paraffin-based rust-prevention product, and wrap them full-length in plastic wrap before inserting them into the tool roll’s plastic-lined pockets.

If tools are faithful and profitable servants, indeed extensions of our hands and minds, don’t they deserve more from us while they are in our custody than a rusty, pitted, neglected ruin like the plane blade pictured above?

YMHOS

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 crickets be my only friends.

Our erstwhile apprentice from the clothing-optional workshop has dropped a chisel into the water while sharpening, and laments the inevitable corrosion. Being bald as a bowling ball, I’m desperately jealous of her long hair, but it must get in the way when working the stones.

The Essential Oilpot

Clean Wood

Redwoods

Infringe upon the rights of no one. Borrow no tool but what you will return according to promise. Take no wood, nor anything else but what belongs to you – and if you find anything that is not your own, do not hide it away, but report it, that the owner may be found.

Brigham Young

In this post your humble servant will offer some advice that, if followed, will save Gentle Readers time, money, and wear and tear on their valuable woodworking tools. These are not original techniques; I stole them long ago from professional woodworkers in Japan. Wise Gentle Readers will be as bold.

Inspection & Questions

Before we go any further, Gentle Reader, do me a favor. Check the soles of your steel planes. Unless they haven’t been used much, you will probably discover scratches, some of them may even be quite deep. Do you think whatever made these scratches might also have dulled the cutting edges of your planes at the same time?

What could have possibly created these scratches? Have iron pixies been using your planes to shave bricks?

Unless you have a serious pixie infestation, it probably wasn’t anything as large as a brick, but rather tiny particles in or on the wood you have been cutting. Could these vicious, hard particles have grown naturally inside the tree the wood you are using came from? Is there anything that grows naturally inside a tree that is harder than a plane blade’s cutting edge and big enough to cause such deep scratches? Perhaps these abrasive particles were maliciously concealed inside the growing tree by compadres of the shambling horde of 6-armed, green-skinned, Fanta-guzzling aliens that follow me everywhere?

Or could the damage have been caused by nails, screws or staples left in the wood? Perhaps. Pixie toenail clippings? Happens more often than we realize. Tiny fragments of a divorce lawyer’s heart? Maybe, but they are rare and tougher than stellite. No, it’s more likely the culprit is something harder and more insidious than even Murphy’s pointy purple pecker, a substance all around us, one we often ignore.

Nitty Gritty

Logging Redwoods in Humbolt County California, 1905

Politics and journalism aside, we live in a dusty, dirty world, and although the steel in your tool blades is very hard, ordinary dust and dirt contain plenty of particles much harder. I guaran-frikin-tee you that collision with even a small particle of mineral grit embedded in the surface of a piece of wood can and will damage a blade’s cutting edge.

You may believe the damage is minimal and of little concern, but every time your blade becomes dull, you must resharpen it. Every sharpening session costs you time pushing the blade around on stones, time not spent cutting wood. And sharpening turns expensive blades and stones into mud. This is time and money wasted, lost forever.

And the abrasive action of dirt and grit embedded in wood is not hard on just chisel blades, plane blades and the soles of steel planes, but is even harder on sawteeth and wooden planes.

The damage is not limited to just your handtools either. Take a closer look at the steel tables of your stationary equipment such as your jointer or tablesaw. Unless they are new, you will find scratches. Has that pervert Murphy been smokin dope and humpin sumpin on your jointer’s bed when you weren’t looking?

Nay, Gentle Reader, supernatural causes aside, and unless you have been grinding legal beagle body parts in your workshop, these scratches are clear evidence that the wood you’ve been working is neither as clean as it looks, nor as clean as it should be. You’ve gotta do something about that.

Ruba Dub Dub

So what can you do? Strange as it may seem, the simplest and surest way to get rid of dirt and grit is to follow your mother’s instructions about the cleaning the bathtub: Simply wash it with soap, water and a scrub brush, followed by a rinse.

Bet you never thought of washing wood before have you?

The idea is to wet, scrub and quickly rinse the dirt and grit off the wood, not to make the wood soaking wet, so none of that “rinse and repeat” nonsense, and don’t get carried away with the hose. A bit of dishwashing soap or borax mixed in the water bucket will help lift out dirt and grit.

Don’t forget to pat each board down immediately afterwards with clean rags to remove surface water. Then separate each board, stand it on stickers on-end, or rest it on-edge, and allow time and circulating air to dry it out of the sun.

Remember to wet both sides of each board to minimize warping. And don’t soak a lot of water into the ends.

Disclaimer: It is not well suited for thin material or laminated wood products that might easily warp, or if you are in a hurry, or if you lack adequate space to properly air-dry the wood. 

Whether you wash the wood with water or not, be sure to do at least the following two steps on every board before you process it with your valuable tools.

Scrub Scrub Scrub

First, use a steel wire brush to dry-scrub all the board’s faces both with and across the grain. Yes, I know it makes the surface rougher. Tough pixie toenails. Scrubbing with a stiff steel brush is extremely effective at removing dust, dirt, embedded particles of grit, and even small stones from long grain. Give it a try and you will both see and smell the dirt and particles expelled. Pretty nasty stuff sometimes.

Saw Saw Saw

Second, and this is supremely important, before planing a board either by hand or using powertools, saw 2~3mm off both ends. This is why you have that circular saw with the carbide-tipped blade. If you can’t do that, at least use a steel block plane, drawknife, or other tool to chamfer all eight corners of the board’s ends to remove both surface dirt and embedded grit.

This step is critical because grit and even small stones frequently become so deeply embedded in endgrain that even a steel brush can’t dig them out. But sure as God made little green apples, Murphy will place them directly in the path of your plane blade.

If you do these things, your tools will thank you over many years with abundant chips, shiny shavings and cheerful little songs. Promise.

Yosemite Valley California, 1865

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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, incompetent facebook, or thuggish Twitter and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. If I lie may the bird of paradise fly up my nose.

The Matsui Precision Notched Straightedge

Matsui Precision Bevel-edged Straightedge with notch

You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.

Aristophanes

This post is about a tool that looks quite ordinary but is in fact extraordinary in subtle ways.

Why Do Woodworkers Need a Good Straightedge?

When woodworking we need to be able to mark and measure straight lines and examine the precision of edges and surfaces. There are several ways and tools available to accomplish these tasks, but the steel straightedge is efficient for shorter distances, assuming one’s straightedge is up to the job.

For most woodworking tasks we don’t need a precision straightedge. But for those few activities where it is necessary, nothing can take its place. So what are some of those activities? I can suggest a few from my experience:

  1. I use a precision straightedge as a “Standard” to check that my working straightedges and squares (the ones that are used and abused daily) are truly straight and square. This is necessary because, during use, Murphy governs all operations, while pernicious Iron Pixies dance among the piles of dandruff on his shoulders. Due to their malicious ministrations, measuring and marking tools are easily damaged, wear-out, and lose tolerance so I need a reliable “Standard” to check them against regularly. Of course, you can’t check for straight or square unless you have a truly straight line/surface to index from. It would be silly to imagine that the edge of one’s tablesaw top or jointer table are perfectly straight without first checking it against a reliable standard;
  2. I use a precision straightedge to examine the soles of my handplanes to help me keep them straight, flat and free of wind because it’s very difficult to plane a flat surface with a screwy plane. No matter how much time I invest in truing my planes, I’ve found the results are never better than the straightedge used.
  3. Check that lapping plates and the float-glass plate I use for truing stones and plane soles remain within tolerances. Yes, they wear out too.
  4. Check that the tables of stationary equipment such as tablesaws, bandsaws, jointers, and planers are true, and that infeed/outfeed soles of handheld electrical planers are properly aligned;
  5. Check that surfaces of wooden components of special projects requiring extra precision are true.

Do you ever need to accomplish any of these tasks?

Tasks for Which the Matsui Precision Straightedge is Not Ideally Suited

The Matsui Precision Straightedge is not an expensive tool, but since it is one I rely on, it is most cost-effective to protect it from premature wear and damage, so the following are tasks for which I use a less-expensive and less-protected “working straightedge” instead of my Matsui precision straightedge:

  1. I don’t use it for checking sharpening stones. The Matsui straightedge can do this job with style, but after a few years of being pressed against (and dragged over) abrasive stones, the tool’s precision would be degraded. Better to use a less-expensive straightedge for this job, and check it occasionally against the Matsui Precision Straightedge to confirm it’s still straight. If it isn’t, fix or replace it.
  2. I don’t use it for daily general woodworking tasks. Once again, the Matsui straightedge can do general jobs with style, but after a few years of being pressed against (and dragged over) wooden surfaces, the tool’s precision would become degraded prematurely. Instead I use a “working straightedge” that has been checked against my “Standard” Matsui Precision straightedge;

How To Use a Precision Straightedge for Checking Tools and Surfaces

Neither the human hand nor eye can measure a straight line or a true plane with any precision unaided, but there is one technique older than the pyramids all woodworkers must be proficient at, namely to place a truly straight, simple straightedge on-edge on a surface to be checked, be it a board, a jointer outfeed table, or the sole of a plane, and shine a light source at the gap between the straightedge and the surface being examined. If gaps exist, light will pass between the edge of the straightedge and the surface being checked confirming the surface is not straight and/or flat. The human eye can detect even a small amount of light this way and both quickly and effectively judge how flat the surface being checked is with a surprising degree of accuracy.

Feeler Gauge

Another technique that yields more precise values without relying on Mark1 Eyeball is to place the straightedge’s beveled edge against the surface to be checked, and insert feeler gauges into gaps between the straightedge and the surface. If the feeler gauge selected won’t fit, then one replaces it with thinner gauges until one that just fits is found.

Once you know the value of the gap between your straightedge and the area of the board you need to true, for instance, you can divide the measured thickness of the shaving your planes takes in a single pass (easily checked with a vernier caliper) to calculate how many passes it will take to true the high-spots on a board. eliminating a lot of the guesswork that makes precise woodworking difficult at times.

To reliably perform these checks, we need a truly straight straightedge. Straight is a relative thing, but straightedges sold for woodworking are seldom straight because purveyors rely on purchasers to not bother, or even know how, to check the quality and precision of the straightedges they sell.

Another reason honest, precision straightedges are relatively rare among woodworking tools is that making a high-tolerance piece of hardened steel that is straight, and will stay that way, is hard work that most woodworkers are neither inclined to appreciate nor bother to check, much less pay for. Is ignorance bliss? I believe it is in the natures of our Gentle Readers to always strive to improve the quality and efficiency of their work. A high-quality precision straightedge is an essential tool in that blissful quest.

Challenges & Solutions

The dilemma of the straightedge is that it must be thick and rigid enough to prevent warping and flopping around in-use, but reasonably lightweight and not too bulky or it will be clumsy. At the same time, it must not be too thick, or it will block out most of the light passing between its edge and work-piece making it useless.

Another challenge the straightedge faces is the constant threat of damage. If the delicate edge is too soft, it will become dinged and deformed instantly becoming inaccurate. And if the straightedge rusts (the bane of steel since ancient times), precision will suffer.

What are the viable solutions? They are obvious and proven, but seldom implemented well. Here is how Matsui Precision does it.

Stainless Steel Construction

First, they use high-quality stainless steel to prevent corrosion. If you work in humid conditions or if you will admit to perspiring salt-laden moisture at times, then this is important, but not rare.

Properly-sized, Precision-ground & Polished

This straightedge is not an insignificant piece of stainless steel. It is available in various lengths, but in the case of the Matsui’s 400mm straightedge (a handy, reasonably-priced length), the blade is 34mm wide and 3mm thick, enough to keep the blade rigid in use and prevent warping, but not so wide or thick as to feel heavy or clumsy. It weighs 320gm, a nice balance of rigidity and weight.

Compact, lightweight tools made using quality materials efficiently have a deep genetic attraction to the Japanese people.

What is more rare is the fact that Matsui then precision-grinds and precision polishes the stainless steel (not the same thing) so the tool is as straight and flat as machinists require, because this is a tool designed to the higher standards of machinists, not just woodworkers.

Hardened & Trued

Matsui also hardens the stainless steel to ensure the tool is rigid and will resist wear and damage over its long useful lifespan.

During heat treating and grinding the metal warps slightly. After stress-relieving the tool, Matsui inspects each tool one-by-one and corrects irregularities or rejects those that cannot be sufficiently corrected. It’s called quality control, something that never happens in China or India in the case of tools intended for woodworkers.

Beveled Edge

To make it easy to see light passing between the straightedge and surface being checked, one edge is beveled. The importance of this detail cannot be overstated.

The Notch

The Matsui Precision Straightedge being used to check the sole of a 70mm finish handplane with a blade by Sekikawa-san. The notch fits over the cutting edge so one can check the sole with the blade protruding as it will be in-use. In this photo the blade has been extended waaay too far out of the mouth to make it easy to see the cutting edge. Please notice the light showing between the straightedge and the sole indicating that something is not right. The wedging pressure of forcing the blade to project this ridiculous amount has warped the block so that the most important part of the sole, the area directly in front of the mouth, is not touching. The point is that the notch makes it possible to check the sole with the blade projecting the intended distance, a job simply not possible with an ordinary straightedge.

In the case of the tool we are introducing here, Matsui cuts a small semi-circular notch in the beveled edge of the blade to provide clearance for irregularities in the surface being checked, such as welds, or in the case of woodworking tools the cutting edges of the blades of handplanes, electrical planers and electrical jointers. This is an important and unique feature.

Why is this notch so useful? The problem with using a metal straightedge to check/true the sole of a handplane has always been that, in order to correctly check for flatness/wind, the blade must be set to project from the plane’s mouth the same amount it should be when the plane is being used, because in the case of Japanese planes the wedge-shaped blade applies slightly different pressures on the wooden block at different depths in the block, producing variable degrees of deflection.

But if the blade is projecting from the mouth from the same amount as it will be in use, then the straightedge will ride on top of the blade preventing a proper examination, and at the same time, possibly dulling the blade and gouging the straightedge. The solution has always been to adjust the blade to not actually project, but to be just in-line with the sole, a fiddly process that has resulted in many dulled blades, scratched straightedges, and inaccurate examinations.

With the elegant Matsui Precision straightedge, however, the notch fits directly over the projecting blade avoiding the irritating and time-wasting fiddling normally required to get the blade in the exact position, one that ultimately yields an imperfect reading.

If you need to maintain handplanes, electrical woodworking tools, or do precision woodworking and need an accurate, reliable, lightweight, durable, reasonably-priced straightedge to help take the guesswork out of these jobs, this product is just what you need. I have been using one for years and couldn’t get by without it.

If you are interested, send us a message using the form below.

YMHOS

Kireaji 切れ味

‘Be careful you don’t cut yourself. The edges are sharp enough to shave with.’
‘Girls don’t shave’, Arya said.
‘Maybe they should. Have you ever seen the septa’s legs?”

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

I mentioned in a previous article my belief that a love of sharp tools is embedded in the Japanese people’s DNA. I am convinced this is by no means limited to the people of these mountainous green islands. I know it is deep in mine too, and it may be in yours.

Whether they were made of bone, flint, copper, bronze or iron, humans of all races and all locations worked with axe and adze, chisel and scythe, sword and dagger to keep body and soul in close proximity for many thousands of years before written language was invented or Microsoft products crashed. Our reliance on and love of sharp tools is still part of our DNA, to one degree or another, and for good reasons.

The words we humans make and use give insight into our deeper natures, so a very brief lesson regarding a single word in the Japanese language, one that is an intentional, defining characteristic of our tools, and one you will not find in any textbooks, may be illustrative of this point.

Cutting Flavor

The word your most humble and obedient servant has in mind is “kireaji” 切れ味 pronounced “ki/reh/ah/jee. This word is comprised of two Chinese characters. The first of the two ideograms being 切 , which is pronounced in its un-conjugated form as “setsu” or “kiru,” meaning “cut.” This is an interesting character. People who study these things say it is an ancient combination of two characters. The small one on the left looks like the character for the number seven 七, but actually it represents a vertical and crosswise cut in the shape of a plus sign 十. The character to the right, 刀 , is pronounced “to” or “katana” and means “sword.” So “kiru” means to cut with a sword or blade.

The second character in the word is “Aji,” 味 meaning “flavor.” Combined, these two characters mean “cutting flavor,” but the resulting word has nothing to do with the human sense of taste and everything to do with the feeling transmitted to the user when a blade is cutting. This word is used in reference to all cutting tools from axes to swords to razors, and certainly for knives, chisels, and planes.

In the English language, the closest word we have is “feeling of sharpness,” I suppose, but it isn’t the same. The act of cutting, in the Japanese tradition, is a sensory experience, one that can be pleasant, in the case of a well-designed sharp blade, or unpleasant in the case of a clumsy dull blade. I think you now have a sense of what the word kireaji means, and how how it feels. Do you understand why it is an important word when talking about tools?

When we speak with our blacksmiths and sharpeners about the tools they produce, the kireaji we expect of their products is always part of the discussion. A blade can have a good kireaji (良い切れ味, an indifferent kireaji (どうでもいい切れ味)or a “distasteful” kireaji (不味い切れ味). It can be “brittle” (切れ味が脆い)or it can even be “sweet” (切れ味が甘い)meaning soft as a spoiled child. We always insist the first meaning be applicable because anything less is failure. Even if some of our customer’s tastes may not be refined enough to discern the difference, ours are.

We work closely with our blacksmiths and sharpeners to make sure they understand our requirements for sharpness. And just to be sure, we constantly test their blades to ensure compliance. If you buy a tool from us that has an especially sharp edge and looks like it may have been used lightly, please understand this is part of our QC efforts and not a return or a reworked reject.

If you know of other languages that have a similar idiom, please let us know in the comments section below.

Like the flavor of fine wine, rich chocolate or gourmet donuts (mmm donuts), the kireaji of cutting tools varies with materials, blacksmiths, and specifications. At C&S Tools we are not satisfied with outward appearance only, but take our products to a different level by making kireaji the very highest priority. This makes C&S Tools almost unique among retailers of edged tools.

Does kireaji matter to you?

Bon appetite!

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below. Please share your insights and comments with all our readers in the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.

Safety Rules & Habits for Edged Handtools

The chisels, knives, and planes we sell are all hand-forged by ancient smiths. There may or may not be dwarvish ancestry in one or two cases, but without exception our blacksmiths make blades with unsurpassed crystalline structure that cut like Satan’s scalping knife.

The Psychology of Steel

It’s important for those of use who use such sharp handtools to understand how they think. Allow me to put on my metallurgical psychologist’s hat for just a moment to expound. FYI this hat is a highly-polished brass skullcap engraved with runes of power and decorated with multiple rings of tiny silver bells suspended from stubby brass rods attached to the cap that tinkle prettily when I walk. Much glitzier but more dignified than the aluminum foil cap with projecting curly copper wires I use to protect my mind from the brain-rays of alien used-car salesmen. But I digress.

High-quality blades are especially single-minded and simply live to cut wood. If you don’t believe me, just ask them. You will hear the chirping and tapping sounds they make when they are happy, if you listen carefully. And the shavings and chips that fly from their milky silver edges will attest to the fun they are having. They love cutting wood best of all, but the problem is they will try their darndest to cut anything they can latch onto. It’s just their nature; something we must understand if we are to prevent the servant from becoming the bloody master in the blink of the eye.

First Real Injury © 2007 Sauer & Steiner

Safety Rules vs. Safely Habits

Everywhere we look nowadays there are rules and busybodies busily enforcing them. They don’t call it the “nanny state” for nuttin. Safety rules can be helpful but don’t do us any real good unless we we eventually turn them into those unconscious actions commonly called habits. Like never pointing the barrel of a rifle at anyone anytime even by accident, or putting on the car’s brakes before the vehicle crashes through the storefront, the potential consequences are just too severe to leave them as empty rules.

I don’t want to sound like a nanny, but as someone who has made one, perhaps even two stupid mistakes in his lifetime (difficult to believe, I know), I would be derelict in my duty if I did not point out one rule and a few wise safety habits worth developing especially to those of our Beloved Customers that purchase our chisels and knives and want to continue to have more than just an emotional attachment to their fingers, hands, toes and feet.

The Big Safety Rule: Don’t Let Them Bite You

The most important cutting-tool safety rule you need to follow is: Don’t let them bite you!

Sharp wide blades can sever a lot of nerves and tendons in the blink of an eye. A deep injury won’t even be painful if your blades are sharp, at least at first, but the damage may be impossible to repair fully and too often is life-changing, and never in a good way. So the application of this rule is simply don’t give cutting tools an opportunity to do mischief.

Safety Habit Number One: Never Cut Towards Yourself or Anyone Else.

OK, now that the big safety rule is on the table, let’s break it down into three basic safety habits. First, never ever ever never cut towards yourself or anyone else.

An example. A universal mistake everyone, without exception, makes at least once is to hold down a piece of wood with the left hand while cutting it with a chisel or knife motivated by the right hand towards the hand holding down the wood (in the case of right-handed people). They slip, or the chisel or knife jumps out of the cut, or the chisel or knife is dull and they lose control, or they apply too much force, or don’t allow enough distance to slow the tool down after the cut should end. Whatever the cause, in the next instant the wood quickly changes a pretty crimson color, and the left hand feels strange. So please, never ever ever never allow your hands to get in this situation. Assume I’ve now yelled this warning into your ears 50 times and hit you with a wooden mallet with each cockroach-killing screech to make the lesson sink in. It’s that important.

Safety Habit Number Two: Reject All Distractions While You Have a Cutting Tool in Your Hand


Another common mistake everyone makes from time to time is to allow a distraction to control us while holding a chisel or knife. For instance, trying to juggle a can of beer and a chisel at the same time may place your nose or eyeball at risk (alcohol is such an uplifting beverage); Or scrambling to answer a cell phone call without setting the chisel down first may result in the sudden appearance of an inconveniently leaking red nick in your neck that doesn’t quite compliment the fashion statement being made by your hand-embroidered woodworking robes.

Case in point: Many moons ago before my beard turned white I was cutting mortises with a sharp chisel at my workbench, using the time-honored butt clamp, of course, when a yellow-jacket wasp (of which I have an uncontrollable phobia ever since a frantic encounter as a small child with a hornet’s nest in Grandma’s attic), landed on my leg. In a blind panic I swiped the wasp off my left thigh with my left hand, which by total coincidence was also holding the chisel. 40 years later I still have that big unsightly scar that ended my promising career as a bikini model before it really got started, robbing the world of great beauty (ツ)。


Professional woodcarvers all know somebody with deep, crippling injuries to nerves and tendons in hands or legs from using carving tools improperly or while distracted. Not a few have lost whole hands. The wise ones wear kevlar or steel mesh gloves when they must secure work by hand while using chisels or knives. While I don’t condone it, professional woodcarvers must sometimes violate the rules just to get the job done. These safety gloves are good for preventing slicing cuts, and help to reduce the severity of injuries in all cases, but may not stop a knife or chisel from stabbing you if it is motivated, so please don’t violate the first rule just because you’re wearing fancy gloves.

The solution? Set your knives and chisels aside in a safe manner and location before you do anything other than cutting wood. In other words, have the self control and situational awareness to reject all distractions.

Oh yea, and please don’t drink and drive chisels.

Safety Habit Number Three: Always Set Your Tools Aside in a Safe Place and So They Can’t Move

This final safety habit is related to number two above in that distractions often cause us to violate it. In this case the hazard is a chisel or knife falling from a work surface, at which point Murphy rolls up his sleeves, licks his eyeball with his long purple tongue, and painstakingly guides the tool cutting-edge first towards ankles, feet and toes. In Japan were work has traditionally been performed while sitting on the floor, a common problem is accidentally kicking a chisel. Of course, the chisel doesn’t appreciate such boorish behavior and will bite back.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t wear thick leather steel-toed work boots in my workshop. I prefer flip-flops or crocs without the heavy and dreadfully unfashionable steel accessories. The problem is that flip-flops are not tough enough to prevent a 200gram atsunomi falling cutting-edge-first from a height of 70cm from severing a toe, so I am careful to not give Murphy the opportunity to place his bomb sight on my “little piggies.” I encourage you to always be aware of both Murphy and pernicious pixies and never put yourself at their mercy.

The solution? Be careful of where and how you set your tools down and make good practices a cast-iron habit. Don’t leave them hanging over the edge of your workbench, or balanced on top of other tools where a bump from a strolling bench kitty or vibration from a hammer impact might knock them off. If you have several chisels or knives on your workbench at the same time, use a chisel box. Another effective solution is to make a tool rest by cutting some notches in a stick of wood, place it in a safe location on your work surface and rest the tool’s blades in those notches to keep them organized, to protect their cutting edges from dings, and most importantly, to prevent perfidious pixies from pushing or rolling tools off your workbench and Murphy from dive-bombing your wiggly pigglies. This is especially important if children have access to your workplace or you have curious kitties swanning around demanding snacks and ear-rubs.

How to Develop Good Safety Habits

Everything we have discussed so far is only hot air and electrons unless you manage to actually ingrain wise safety habits into your soul. I don’t know how it works for you, but the steps below work for me. Whatever it takes please develop good, engrained safety habits.

Step 1: When you have an accident (and you will), stop working and figure out how it happened, and what you could have done to avoid it. Hopefully it won’t be while waiting for X-ray results after an iron worker drops a bunch of steel decking cutoffs on you from 14 stories above (that really hurt and destroyed a perfectly good hardhat).

Step 2: Every time you find yourself in a similar situation, stop and consider if the same bloody thing could happen again, and what you need to do differently. For instance, figuring out a clamping arrangement that keeps your left hand out of the path of travel of a bloodthirsty paring chisel is something worth taking a few seconds to do.

Step 3: Remember the pain and embarrassment of the original accident to help you make the process of thinking through potential ouchy incidents, and then using the solutions you developed automatic. In this way a good habit is born.

I can also share a personal superstition with you. Everyone nicks themselves occasionally when using sharp tools. I know I do. When this happens, I place a tiny smudge of the red stuff on the tool that bit me, and on any other cutting tools that have yet to nick me, and let it dry. I’m pretty sure this quashes their curiosity about how I taste in advance. At least I think that’s what they tell me when I am wearing my brightly tinkling metallurgical psychologist’s hat (ツ)。

There is one thing I can promise: you will find a severed tendon or damaged nerves in a hand or foot to be more than just inconvenient. And if, like me, fashion is your life, scars may tragically preclude your picture from ever appearing in the Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated. Such a loss!

Be careful. Develop good habits and make them automatic. Don’t let your tools bite you or anyone else, even if they beg with those big puppy-dog eyes.


YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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, incompetent facebook or a slimy data miner and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. Cross my heart.

Sharpening Part 29 – An Example

The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius

This is the final post in our series about Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Blades, in which I will try to bring all the information provided in the previous posts together into a single practical example. That does not mean the entire contents of those posts is repeated here, however, so please refer to the previous articles if things become confusing. I have provided some links in the text, and provided links to all the articles at the end.

But before we dive into our practical example, I would like to create some context.

Paying Debts

The purpose of this blog, as I have mentioned before, is not to sell stuff or attract clicks but to help our Beloved Customers increase their knowledge and improve their skills in maintaining and using the high-quality hand-forged professional-grade woodworking tools we purvey.

Another purpose is to pay a debt of the kind that can’t be recorded on paper, only in the heart.

In this series of posts I have carefully NOT promised quick and easy results, nor have I given abbreviated explanations or promoted dumbed-down techniques tailored to fit neatly within the publishing parameters of a book, magazine article, or a pretty little video. This is because the series is not about me, or my skills, or what I think is best, or selling stuff but rather helping our Beloved Customers obtain real long-term results and life-long skills of the sort expected of professional Japanese woodworkers. And since I can’t instruct them directly, our Beloved Customers must truly understand the principles and techniques so they can train themselves. Fragmentary instructions and short-cuts would be far easier to write about, but wouldn’t help with that training.

I share many experiences in common with most of our Beloved Customers, but I’ve also had some unusual experiences working with and being mentored by extremely accomplished Japanese professional craftsmen including sword sharpeners, tool sharpeners, carpenters and joiners. None of those gentlemen charged me a notched nickle for the things they taught. Likewise, I have never sought compensation for teaching others those same techniques. And so we come to the other reason for this series, namely to pay those gentlemen back for the time they spent and the kindness they showed me.

So gird up your loins, recall the information and techniques presented in the previous 28 posts in this series, and let’s sharpen a blade.

Removing Damage and Correcting the Bevel

We will not even try to deal with all the possible starting points for sharpening a woodworking blade. In this example we shall assume the lands surrounding the hollow-ground area at the blade’s ura are already flat, planar, and polished. If your blade is not in this condition, follow the instructions at the end of this section. We shall also assume the edge has a small chip that must be removed first. These conditions will cover 80% of sharpening jobs.

Richard Kell 625-3000 Brass Bevel Gauge
Richard Kell 625-3000 Brass Bevel Gauge

If the blade’s cutting edge bevel angle is where you want it to be, the bevel is already flat, and the blade isn’t damaged, please skip to Step 11 below.

1. Examine the Bevel Angle: Check the bevel angle with your bevel angle gauge. 27.5° ~ 30° for plane blades, 27.5° ~ 35° for oirenomi and atsunomi. No less than 24° for paring chisels.

2. Correct the Bevel Angle: If, based on the check in the previous step and the blade’s actual performance, you determine the bevel angle needs to be adjusted, correct the bevel angle using your 400~800 grit diamond plate or FLAT carborundum stone either free-hand or using a honing jig like the Lie-Nielson product, the Eclipse jig, or whatever catches your fancy. If you use a honing jig, you may want to add a drop of oil to the moving parts before they get wet. Be careful to avoid making skewed or curved (cambered) cutting edge unless that is specifically what you need.

3. Examine the Edge: Examine the blade by eye and touch. Stroke the edge with your thumb (over and away from the edge not into the edge!) to confirm its condition, and run a fingernail along its length to check for defects as described in the previous post in this series. Your fingerprints will snag on any rolls or burrs, and your fingernail will detect irregularities invisible to the eye. Assuming there is some minor damage, go the next step. If there is no damage, the bevel is in good shape, and the blade is just dull, skip to step 11 below.

4. Remove Damage: Remove chips and dings from the cutting edge by standing the blade, cutting edge down, on a flat 1000 grit stone, with ura facing away from you, tilted a few degrees from vertical towards you, and pull the blade towards you without applying downward pressure. Usually one or two strokes will suffice. The goal is to remove damage by creating a flat at the cutting edge. Examine the flattened edge with eye, fingertip, and fingernail to see if the chip or defect has been removed. Repeat until it’s gone. Don’t overdo it. Whatever you do, don’t allow the blade to become skewed! This method takes a bit of courage the first time, but it is the quickest, surest, and most economical way to get the job done.

5. Clean the Blade: Carefully clean grit and mud from the blade and the honing jig’s wheel (if you use one) to prevent contaminating the next stone. This is important.

6. Check and Color the Bevel: Check the bevel frequently to confirm full contact. You might blacken the bevel with a marking pen or Dykem to make it easier to monitor progress. This step is worth repeating between stones because it is helpful in monitoring what you cannot see otherwise.

7. Sharpen on the Rough Stone: This is the most important stone in the process. Now that all the damage has been removed and the bevel is in good shape, we need to abrade the bevel until the flat we made in step 4 is gone and we have created a tiny, clean burr. Sharpen the blade’s bevel on your roughest diamond plate or FLAT carborundum stone. If sharpening freehand, take short strokes. Always use the entire face of the stone, including corners, edges and ends as described in the previous post in this series. Turn the stone end-for-end frequently to compensate for your natural tendency to work some areas of the stone harder than others. Watch the edge carefully to make sure the width of the flat made at the cutting edge in Step 4 above gradually decreases in width evenly along the cutting edge’s length. If the flat becomes narrower at one corner than the other, apply extra pressure at the wider side, or hang the corner of the blade’s narrower side off the stone for a few strokes to correct. Stop when the flat is gone, and a clean, uninterrupted, but barely detectable burr is created. With practice, you should be able to do this without a honing jig. When using all the stones and plates in this process, keep them wet at all times, and add water as necessary. If the stone becomes dry, not only will it clog and stop cutting efficiently, but friction may cause localized heating of the thin metal at the cutting edge softening it. Remember, you’re tearing metal from an extremely thin cutting edge. You cannot see it and your fingers cannot feel it but this destruction heats up metal at that thin edge.

8. Check the Burr: Your fingertip will feel the burr long before your eye can see it. Stop when you have a small, uniform burr without interruptions the full width of the blade. Confirm this with your fingernail. Anything beyond this is just wasting metal and stones. With practice, this process will go very quickly, and you can move onto the next stone while the burr is barely detectable.

9. Create Skewed Scratches: When you have a uniform burr, work the blade sideways, or at an angle, on the stone to create diagonal scratches on the bevel removing the straight-on scratches the stone produced.

10. Clean the Blade: Wipe and wash the blade (and the honing jig’s wheel, if you are using one) to remove grit and mud. This is very important to prevent contamination of finer-grit stones. 

At the conclusion of step 10, the bevel will be flat, uniform, and at the correct angle. The flat created during step 4 above will be gone, and you will be able to just detect a full-width tiny burr using your fingers. 

For the next steps, keep the blade attached to the honing jig if you used one in the previous steps. Otherwise, sharpen freehand if you can. Don’t let the honing jig become a crutch that slows you down and prevents you from developing control.

Normal Sharpening Procedures

This is where the sharpening process normally starts when the blade is not damaged and the bevel is in good shape but only needs to be sharpened. It usually does not include a honing jig which can only slow things down.

11. Check and True the Medium-Grit Stone: You may decide to use more than one medium grit stone. I always use a 1000 grit, and often use a 2,000 grit stone as well. Whatever you use, it must be clean and flat. As described in previous posts, you need to check your stones flatness frequently with a stainless steel straightedge. To do this, wash any mud off the stone and pad (don’t rub) the stone’s face dry with a lint-free clean cloth or paper towel. Hold the stone up to a light source, place the straightedge along the stone’s length, across its width, and across its diagonal and check for light leaking between stone and straightedge. Make a pencil mark, such as a line or circle, on high spots using a wide carpenter’s pencil. Once you understand if and how the stone is distorted, flatten it using whatever method you prefer, a diamond plate, a specialized truing block, or my preferred method, another stone of the same grit. If you use my way you won’t need to worry about grit contamination and can save time and money by truing two stones at the same time. Six of one, half-dozen of the other.

12. Sharpen on the Medium-Grit Stone(s): Work the bevel on your medium-grit stone in short strokes using the stone’s entire face from side to side, end to end, and corner to corner, turning the stone end-for-end frequently and being careful to avoid rocking the blade. A bulging bevel is bad news, Bubba. You will know you are done with this stone when all the diagonal scratches from the previous stone, especially at the extreme edge, have been removed. The burr may or may not have disappeared by now. Check with your fingerprints and fingernail. If it still remains, it should be just barely detectable. If it is still big, you need a few more strokes on this stone to shrink it. Using a loupe at this point will be informative. End your work on this stone by creating some new diagonal scratches on the bevel erasing all the previous straight scratches.

You may want to repeat this step using another medium-grit stone, such as 2,000 grit, to save wear on your finishing stones. Either way is fine.

13. Clean the Blade: Wipe and wash the blade (and the honing jig’s wheel, if you are using one) to remove grit and mud. This is very important. Remove the honing jig at this point if you have been using one.

14. Polish on the Finishing Stone: Move onto your finishing stone, usually a 6,000~8,000 grit synthetic stone. This may not be the final finishing stone you use. Be sure it is flat, uncontaminated with grit from rougher stones, and wet. You may want to use your nagura stone to create a slurry from the stone’s corners and edges that will accelerate the polishing process. The finishing stone serves a polishing function, and because it’s grit is so fine, it lacks the ability to distort the bevel badly, so you can take longer strokes and polish the blade on both the forward and return strokes. When all the diagonal scratches from the previous stones are gone, you are done with this stone. If there is still a burr left after the medium-grit stone, it should have evaporated by now. If not, the burr was probably too big to begin with and your technique needs refinement.

15. Examine the Bevel: Take a good look at the polished bevel. Are there still scratches left from the previous stone? This may be because you did not remove all the scratches from previous stones. Or it could be because this stone or previous stones in the series were contaminated with dust or rougher grit. If so, you should figure out why and correct that problem before the next sharpening session.

16. Polish the Bevel Using the Final Finishing Stone: This step may not be necessary, depending on the time available, the degree of sharpness required, and your inclinations. This extra polish probably won’t make a significant difference in the cutting tool’s cutting performance so is often abbreviated during a busy work day. If you use a natural finishing stone or a 10,000+ grit finishing stone, this is the time to use it. Simply repeat the process in step 14 above, but be sure to apply light pressure, keep the stone at least a little wet, and sharpen on both the push and pull strokes.

17. Polish the Ura: With the bevel polished as finely as you intend it to become, polish the ura on the final finishing stone only. Place the last 1/2” of blade’s length on the stone’s edge (the stone MUST be flat) with the cutting edge parallel with the stone’s length, and the rest of the blade hanging off the stone but supported by your right hand. Press down on the bevel with two or three fingers of your left hand. Be sure to apply even pressure with these fingers. These fingers press down only and do not push the blade. The right hand pushes the blade back and forth and onto and off-of the stone. Take light strokes focusing pressure on the extreme cutting edge, but without lifting the blade’s head.

18. Polish the Bevel (Again): After several strokes on the ura, polish the bevel.

19. Alternate Between Ura and Bevel: Go back and forth polishing the ura and bevel, but keep in kind that you want to limit the number of strokes on the ura side (assuming it’s already highly polished as discussed above).

20. Examine the Edge: Check the full length of the cutting edge frequently with your eyes, fingertips and fingernail. The burr should be gone entirely. The edge should be sharp, and absolutely smooth. All the rougher scratches from previous stones should have disappeared. I make a final sharpness test by shaving an ultra-thin slice of skin from a callous on a finger allowing my bones to sense the degree of sharpness. This method is much more accurate than shaving hair off the arm. If you try it please don’t draw blood.

21. Clean, Dry and Oil: After you are done sharpening the blade, rinse it with clean water or sharpening solution (Item 5 in Post 17) and wipe it dry on a clean cloth or paper towel. You may want to strop it lightly on a soft clean cloth (or the palm of your hand, if you are confident in your abilities) to remove hidden water. I recommend applying a spray liquid rust preventative to the blade that displaces moisture, such as CRC Industries’s 3-36 or WD-40. CRC3-36 is paraffin based, floats water out of the blade’s nooks and crannies, and leaves a film that will prevent corrosion long term. However, please note that, while WD-40 is very convenient and displaces moisture, it evaporates entirely and is therefore not adequate for long-term corrosion protection. If you are going to use the blade right away, a little oil from your oilpot is cheaper, more convenient, and will do the job just fine.

With practice, and assuming you have not let your stones become too distorted, this entire process from Step 1 should take no more than 10~15 minutes. This assumes the blade is chipped or damaged and you need to correct the bevel or use a honing jig. Honing jigs slow the process down but are convenient when using rough stones and coarse diamond plates.

If the blade is in good shape and just needs normal sharpening, the goal should be 5 minutes from the medium grit stone in step 11. If you can’t do that quickly right away, don’t rush, just practice and get a little quicker each time: Slow is smooth; Smooth is fast.

Note: If you are sharpening a new blade, or the ura needs to be trued and/or repaired, work the ura on all the stones used in the steps above, but be careful to limit the number of strokes on the rougher stones to the absolute minimum. Also, instead of keeping just 1/2” of the blade’s length on the stones, move it diagonally in and out towards the blade’s center to prevent the stones from digging trenches in the ura. Use special care during this process.

I recommend covering at least your finishing stone with something when you are not using it to protect it from contaminating dust. I simply wrap mine in a sheet of newspaper. It doesn’t take any time or money. Some stones prefer to read the sports pages, others prefer current affairs. Just ask them.

Conclusion

I am confident the techniques described in this series of posts will prove useful if sharp tools matter to you. Your tools may not talk much, but if you train yourself in these techniques I promise they will sing their appreciation.

I trust the gentlemen that taught and mentored me would be pleased with the content in this series of articles, although I doubt they have time for reading nowadays. I will ask them when I see them again in the big woodpile in the sky.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in the “Sharpening” Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel

Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues

Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip

Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction

Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes

Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face

Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.

Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small.

Lao Tzu

A key milestone our Beloved Customers should aim for when sharpening a blade is the production of a “burr” at the edge when abrading the bevel (not the ura) using the first rough stone in the series. The formation of the burr indicates that the extreme edge of the bevel side of the blade has been abraded enough.

In this post in the Sharpening Japanese Tools Series, we will examine how to raise this burr and why it is important to do so, how to use the burr to test the condition of the cutting edge as you are sharpening, and how to transition from one stone to the next finest stone in the series

Raise a Burr

The steps in creating and then abrading away a burr. The size of the burr in step 2 is grossly exaggerated for clarity. Indeed, unless severe damage to the edge needs to be repaired, you should not normally be able to detect the burr by Mark 1 Eyeball alone.

Japanese plane and chisel blades tend to have harder steel at their cutting edges than Western chisel and planes, and consequently, their steel does not exhibit the plastic deformation necessary to readily produce large burrs, or “wires” as some people call them, when being sharpened. In fact, “burrs” on professional-grade Japanese chisel and plane blades may be difficult to detect.

The key point to remember is that a clean, uniform, smooth burr signals the elimination of all major defects, chips, and dents at the cutting edge. If there are a lot of deep defects to remove, the thickness of the metal at the edge that must be abraded is correspondingly greater, and the burr developed will tend to be correspondingly larger. But a large, loopy burr or wire is not desirable because it will tend to break off prematurely leaving a jagged, ragged edge that will actually set back the sharpening process.

You want to create a barely-detectable, tiny and clean burr as soon in the sharpening process as possible. My advice is to do it on the roughest stone, although you may not be able to test if it is clean until after a few strokes on the medium-grit stone (1000 grit).

As we discussed in a previous post in this series, the way to keep the size of the burr minimal and the blade’s bevel flat is to focus the pressure of abrasion as close to the extreme cutting edge as possible, but without overbalancing and gouging the stone and dulling the edge. This is the most essential skill in freehand sharpening.

Now that we have a burr, let’s look at how to test it next.

Testing the Burr

As you are working to produce the burr, you will need to quickly test its progress, but that can be difficult, if not impossible, to do by eye alone. To make this process easier and quicker, rub the pad of your thumb or finger over the ura’s edge, away from the cutting edge, thank you very much, when using your rough stones. Your fingerprint ridges will snag on the burr long before you can see it. If the edge is chipped or damaged, the burr will not be consistent but will be interrupted at each defect. There is nothing at all to be gained and much to lose by allowing the burr to become larger than absolutely necessary, so pay attention.

Once you have a small burr, you then need to test it for defects. If you run your fingernail along the burr’s length (the width of the blade), you will feel interruptions in the burr long before you can see them. Keep working the blade’s bevel on the rough stone until the burr is consistent across the full width of the blade, and free of dents and chips.

In the case where you need to remove serious damage to the cutting edge, you may want to use a loupe to ensure the defect has been transferred entirely to the burr and is not longer in the cutting edge.

If you are careful to focus the abrasive effect of the stones on the extreme cutting edge instead of the rear of the bevel, the burr created before moving onto the medium grit stones should be barely detectable. Once again, except in the case of removing large chips or blade damage, creating a big burr is not only a waste of time, stones and steel, but if the large burr is torn off during sharpening, it will leave behind a tragic amount of damage that must be repaired by once again abrading the edge and raising a new burr. Don’t start chasing that tail.

Best to create just enough of a burr to confirm that damage has been removed and then encourage it to evaporate.

Don’t forget to check the angle of the bevel with your hand-dandy bevel gauge. See the section on Pixie Predation Prevention & Pacification in Part 11 of this series.

After the burr is in good shape, then polish the bevel on the medium and then fine stones. The burr will be polished off without special effort.

Assuming the ura is already polished on your finest finishing stone, you shouldn’t need to touch the blade’s ura on any stone until the final finishing stone.

Transitioning From One Stone to the Next

Recall that the purpose of each stone used after the roughest stone in the series is simply to replace the deeper scratches left by the preceding stone with finer scratches. In fact, there is nothing to be gained and much to lose by moving onto a finer stone before all the scratches from the previous stone have been replaced. Therefore, it is important to check that all the scratches from the previous stone have been polished out before moving to the next. This is not always easy to confirm without magnification, so to make it easier and surer, I suggest you skew the blade’s bevel on the stone for the last 3 or 4 strokes to make new diagonal scratch marks at an angle different from those produced previously. 

These skewed scratches will be at a different angle than those produced by the next stone, of course, and will be easy to differentiate from the new scratches with the nekid eye. When the next finest stone removes them entirely, you will know you have probably spent enough time on that stone, and can go to the next. But don’t forget to skew the blade again before going to the next stone.

Of course, there is no need to skew the blade on the final finishing stone.

Summary

We have discussed three important sharpening techniques in this article which you must master if you have not already:

  1. Raise a burr by abrading the blade’s bevel on your rough stones using your skillful technique;
  2. Test the burr for size and completeness using your fingertip ridges, and for defects using your fingernails. If the burr is incomplete or has detectable defects, continue to work the blade on the rough stones on the bevel side only until the burr is good.
  3. Skew the blade during the last 3~4 strokes on each stone (except the final finishing stone, of course) to create diagonal lines. When all those diagonal lines are polished off by the succeeding stone, you will know it is probably OK to move onto the next finest stone in the series.

You now have some powerful tools to use when sharpening your excellent tools, and none of them cost you a nickel. How’s that for value? (ツ)

Be forewarned, however, that if you use these techniques you may be forced to choose between a glamorous career as an international professional fingernail model or the quiet life of an expert woodworker. What to do what to do…..

In the next and final post in this series we will use all the aspects of the sharpening process discussed previously to sharpen a blade step-by-step. Be there or be square.

YMHOS

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 my eyebrows grow 10 inches everyday.


Other Posts in the Sharpening Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel

Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues

Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip

Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction

Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes

Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face

Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr

Sharpening Part 29 – An Example

Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face

A beautiful face: Oohirayama Lotus stone

If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.

Woodrow Wilson

The subject of how to use the face of your sharpening stone is so basic and seems so unimportant that few give it the attention it warrants. But it is not trivial: it deserves its own post because it can truly make a big difference in the time and money you spend sharpening.

Money Down the Drain

Instead of focusing his attention on the blade alone, a wise man will make a conscious effort to use the entire face of his sharpening stone from edge to edge, end to end, and corner to corner instead of digging an oval swamp in the center of his stone’s face.

This habit will help to keep a stone’s faces flatter over more strokes longer, saving time truing the stone, and extending its life thereby saving money.

Remember that you paid money for the stone, the entire stone, not just the hollowed-out oval area in the center most people create when carelessly sharpening. How much of a stone do most people throw away? Idunno, 20%? If you paid $100 dollars for the stone, that means $20 was turned into mud and washed away without providing any benefit to you at all. And don’t forget that you had to spend time cutting down those high spots to keep the stone’s face flat. That makes it more than a $20 loss if you count your time worth anything, which you should.

Why not use the sides and ends of the stone too?

Developing Good Habits

When developing these intelligent work habits, use a carpenter’s pencil to cross-hatch the stone’s surface to help you keep track of the areas you have not yet touched. Industrial diamonds are made from graphite, it’s true, but pencil lead is still softer than the finest sharpening stone and won’t affect the sharpening process one way or another.

Also, before and while sharpening, frequently use a thin stainless steel ruler to check the stone’s face lengthwise and crosswise at various locations, and of course on the diagonals to monitor wear. Don’t guess, lazy bones, examine. Between ruler and pencil you may discover you have developed less-than-efficient sharpening habits. With some thought you will also figure out how to change those habits so your sharpening efforts will be quicker and more cost-effective.

Before long, you will be able to detect uneven wear and warpage fairly reliably without using either tool as much, so stick with it until you do.

Hang Ten

One conundrum you have probably already discovered is that it is impractical to use the extreme right and left sides and both ends of the stone’s face to sharpen a blade. Or is it? Here is wisdom: Teach yourself how to sharpen with one corner of the blade hanging off the stone part of the time, alternating between right and left corners, of course. Strange as it may seem this technique is effective at not only keeping your sharpening stone flatter, but for keeping the cutting edges of your blades straighter. If this doesn’t make sense to you, think about it real hard. Then give it a try and you will see what I mean.

And since you are taking short strokes anyway, why not work the blade crosswise at the ends of the stone? A lot of expensive stone going to waste there.

I hate to sound like a broken record, but you will find that making short strokes will make it much easier to use the entire face of the stone.

If you feel this post needlessly states the obvious, or is “verbose,” allow me to remind our Gentle Readers once again that the purpose of this blog is not to provide entertainment, sell stuff, troll for clicks or snag subscribers but to help our Beloved Customers develop good work habits through education. Some of them are newbies, and others are old hands, but if I were to write only for the professionals then I would be neglecting the newbies, so if you know this stuff already please congratulate yourself and celebrate your good fortune by buying a new carpenter’s pencil.

Related image

YMHOS

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information.

Other Posts in the Sharpening Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel

Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues

Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip

Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction

Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes

Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face

Sharpening Part 28 – The Minuscule Burr

Sharpening Part 29 – An Example

Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

My relationship to reality has been so utterly skewed for so long that I don’t even notice it any more. It’s just my reality.

Ethan Hawke

The Taming of the Skew

You will have noticed that it is easier to keep a blade stable when sharpening its bevel if you skew it on the stone. There is nothing wrong with skewing the blade so long as you understand the natural consequences of doing so and compensate for them appropriately.

Let’s examine some of those consequences.

First, a skewed blade tends to wear-out, or hollow-out, the center area of the stone quicker. This is inefficient, wasting time and stones, but can be compensated for if you pay attention and work the blade evenly over the stone’s entire face.

Second, people tend to place uneven pressure on a skewed blade, wearing the blade unevenly.

In addition, the leading corner is exposed to more fresher, larger grit particles (which cut more aggressively) than the trailing corner. As a result, the blade’s leading corner tends to be abraded more, causing the blade’s edge to gradually become skewed or rounded in shape over many sharpening sessions. This is definitely bad, and is often mistaken for the work of those devilish iron pixies. But if you are aware this can happen, and pay attention, you can compensate for it. 

Third, and I have no way to confirm this, I am told by the guys with microscopes that diagonal scratches at the extreme cutting edge leave it a tad weaker, causing it to dull just a bit quicker. The way to compensate for this is to keep the blade’s cutting edge perpendicular to the direction of travel during the last few strokes on the finishing stone.

So in summary, habitually skewing a blade while sharpening is fine, but may cost a little efficiency, and may cause your blades and stones to become distorted.

Please read the quotation at the top of this article and consider whether or not your sharpening reality has become skewed without your realizing it. I know mine was for a long time.

These aren’t things you wouldn’t have figured out for yourself eventually, Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers, but now, at least if you pay attention, you’re a few years ahead on the learning curve.

In the worst case, at least ignorance isn’t an excuse anymore.

YMHOS

Related image
Shakespeare’s Shrew, Katherine Minola, played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1987 movie. In this photograph she’s obviously watching someone skewing a plane or chisel blade while sharpening it. She has the classic “squint eye” down perfectly, as did Clint Eastwood, of course.

If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions 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 or incompetent facebook and so won’t sell, share, or conveniently and profitably “misplace” your information.

Other Posts in the Sharpening Series

Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1

Sharpening Part 2 – The Journey

Sharpening Part 3 – Philosophy

Sharpening Part 4 – ‘Nando and the Sword Sharpener

Sharpening Part 5 – The Sharp Edge

Sharpening Part 6 – The Mystery of Steel

Sharpening Part 7 – The Alchemy of Hard Steel 鋼

Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

Sharpening Part 9 – Hard Steel & Soft Iron 鍛接

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

Sharpening Part 12 – Skewampus Blades, Curved Cutting Edges, and Monkeyshines

Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

Sharpening Part 14 – Natural Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 15 – The Most Important Stone

Sharpening Part 16 – Pixie Dust

Sharpening Part 17 – Gear

Sharpening Part 18 – The Nagura Stone

Sharpening Part 19 – Maintaining Sharpening Stones

Sharpening Part 20 – Flattening and Polishing the Ura

Sharpening Part 21 – The Bulging Bevel

Sharpening Part 22 – The Double-bevel Blues

Sharpening Part 23 – Stance & Grip

Sharpening Part 24 – Sharpening Direction

Sharpening Part 25 – Short Strokes

Sharpening Part 26 – The Taming of the Skew

Sharpening Part 27 – The Entire Face

Sharpening Part 29 – An Example