Sharpening Part 13 – Nitty Gritty

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” 

Oscar Wilde

In this post we will dig into a few important nitty gritty points about sharpening stones everyone needs to know. Perhaps you already know all these points, but please ready your shovel because there may be at least one buried surprise.

A Flea’s-Eye View

When seen under high-magnification, the surface of a sharpening stone looks like millions of densely-packed stones embedded in a flat field. The smaller the stones, the finer the grit.

As the blade is pushed and pulled over these stones, they scratch and tear metal from the blade’s surface leaving behind scratches corresponding to the size of these small stones. This violence continues until the blade’s ura and bevel form a clean intersection of two planes.

A view of a blade sharpened with 1200 grit diamond plate showing the furrows left by individual pieces of grit

Seen under high-magnification, the cutting edge is jagged where these furrow-like scratches terminate at the cutting edge. To some degree, it may even look like a serrated sawblade. Some blades, like kitchen knives and swords, are used in a slicing motion to cut soft materials like meat and vegetables and enemy arms, and their performance benefits from a serrated cutting edge more than a highly-polished edge, and so do not need to be highly polished on fine-grit sharpening stones. 

Plane and chisel blades, however, are used to cut wood, a material typically harder than foodstuffs, in a straight-on direction, not in a slicing motion, for the most part. In this situation, a rough, serrated cutting edge is weaker than a highly polished edge because the jagged edges are projecting out into space like the teeth of a handsaw blade, and are relatively unsupported and more easily damaged than a highly-polished blade with smaller, more uniform scratches terminating more cleanly at the cutting edge. 

Therefore, in order to produce a sharp durable blade, we must make the microscopic cutting edge smoother and more uniform by using progressively finer grit stones to produce shallower and narrower scratches, and a thin, uniform cutting edge.

But how fine is fine enough? There is a curious phenomenon related to friction that is applicable to cutting edges, and is useful to understand. 

The Friction Paradox

Imagine a cube of heavy stone with its downward flat face resting on the level, flat surface of a larger slab of similar stone. Let’s say it takes some specific measure of force pushing horizontally on the stone cube to overcome the static force of friction between the two stone surfaces in order to make the cube start moving. 

If we gradually increase the degree of polish between the two contact surfaces and measure the force required to start the cube moving at each progressively higher level of polish, we will find the force decreases with each increment of increased polish, for a time. This is at least partially because the irregularities between the two surfaces (asperities) do not interlock as deeply when the surfaces become more polished. 

However, at some point, more polishing brings the surfaces of the two stones into such intimate contact that the molecular attraction between them, and therefore the force necessary to move the cube, actually increases. 

The Inflection Point

The same phenomenon occurs with tool blades. If you sharpen and polish your blades past a particular point, the friction and heat produced between blade and wood will increase, as will the energy that must be expended, while the resulting quality of the cut and durability of the cutting edge will not improve significantly. Of course, the time and money invested in stones spent sharpening past this point will be mostly wasted.

The inflection point where additional polishing yields increased friction with little improvement in cut quality will depend on your tool and the wood you are cutting, but you can gain a pretty good idea of where it is if you pay attention over time. While the sharpening stone manufacturers hate my saying it, in my well-informed opinion there is little practical gain, beyond self-satisfaction, to be had from sharpening chisels or planes past 6,000~8,000 grit, making this range of grit an inflection point in my mind. What about you?

Conclusion

I encourage you to conduct your own experiments to determine the inflection point in the case of your planes and wood you cut. Many who figure this out save themselves significant amounts of time and money sharpening over the long-term.

To those of our Gentle Readers that love sharpening more than woodworking, and enjoy putting money in the pockets of sharpening stone manufacturers more than keeping it for themselves, I apologize for pointing out the floater in the punch bowl. But you probably would have it noticed it eventually anyway, if only from the taste difference.

I will touch more on this important point in the next exciting installment in this scientificish adventure.

YMHOS

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form below.

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

Even monkeys fall from trees (猿も木から落ちる)

Japanese saying
A famous wood carving of 3 monkeys located at Nikko Toshogu Shrine post resconstruction that illustrates a famous saying originating in China that also works as a pun in the Japanese language. From right to left: See no evil; Speak no evil; Hear no evil (見ざる、聞かざる、言わざる).

Ideally, a tool blade will have absolutely uniform dimensions: the right thickness and taper, perfect cross-sections, uniform curvature, and straight edges and surfaces. However, professional grade Japanese tools are not made on CNC machines, but are hand forged, and have dimensional imperfections. Indeed, imperfections are part and parcel of all human endeavors. Most imperfections don’t matter; Sometimes they make the tool better; Other times they need to be remedied.

You, Gentle Reader, may not notice that the blade or cutting edge of one of your chisels or planes is “skewampus,” and consequently the cutting results are less than ideal. You may blame those poor results on your technique in using the tool or the irregular wood grain, when the real problem is the shape of the blade’s cross-section, or your unintentionally sharpening the blade with a skew. We will examine this problem in this post.

We will also look at the curved or “cambered” cutting edge profile in plane blades, the benefits and undesirable results it can produce, and how to incorporate this blade profile intelligently into your woodworking repertoire.

Many people, like monkeys in trees, learn bad habits from their friends and teachers. We hope this post will help you understand what is going on with your woodworking blades, and how to shape and sharpen them intelligently instead of just monkeying around. Please be sure to BYOB (bring your own bananas).

A serious craftsman doing Fine Woodworking in a Pixie-free workshop (notice the strategically-placed boots).

Dealing With Skewampus Blades

Skewampus is an interesting word I learned from my mother. I am told it is a combination of the word “Cattywampus” meaning “in disarray,” and “askew.” I think it is the perfect word for describing the ailments some blades suffer.

While less than ideal, it is not unusual for the thickness of a chisel blade’s cross section to vary slightly across its width, with one side being thicker than the other, forming an irregular quadrilateral cross section. This irregularity is found in plane blades too, but it is not typically a problem. Since there is more steel on the thicker side, the cutting edge will tend to develop a skew during sharpening.

Japanese plane and chisel blades are formed by laminating a layer of hard steel to a much softer body made of extremely low-carbon steel or iron. If the lamination exposed at the cutting edge is not uniform, the area of the blade with more hard steel touching the sharpening stone will abrade slower than areas with less exposed hard steel such that the cutting edge will tend to become skewed during sharpening. Perfection is not required, but the uniformity of the lamination is an important detail to observe when purchasing Japanese tools.

Likewise, Western plane and chisel blades that are not uniformly heat-treated, and that exhibit differential hardening across the bevel’s width, will also tend to become skewed during sharpening as one side of the bevel abrades quicker than the other. This problem is more common than you might imagine, especially in the case of inexpensive tools where appearance and low price are given higher priority than quality.

Anyone that has experience bidding high-dollar construction projects will understand the statement “the most profitable job may be the one you lose.” Cheap tools are much the same way: that low-cost chisel or plane may look good on paper, but if you count your time worth anything, if you dislike headaches, and real-world performance matters to your bottom line, then such a tool is often disastrous. Caveat emptor, baby.

A chisel or plane blade that has an irregular cross section or a skewed cutting edge may not be a problem for many cutting operations. However, when cutting mortises, a chisel blade with a skewed cutting edge or irregular cross section will tend to drift to the side gouging the mortise’s walls and ruining tolerances. If you find that your mortise walls are gouged, or that tolerances are poor, check your chisel blade’s shape, and correct any deformities.

Like all human work spaces, Japan’s smithies are not immune from pixie infestation despite annual blessings by Shinto priests and periodic offerings of rice, salt and wine to the spirits. In a previous post we discussed supernatural predators, so I will refer you to it for antidotes to pernicious pixie pox. But the deformities we are examining in this post are more often the natural result of the human eye misjudging hammer blows or non-judicious use of grinder wheels rather than precocious pixies at play.

If your blade’s deformity is not excessive, you can compensate by applying a little extra pressure on the blade’s thicker side while sharpening it. 

It is interesting how a little off-center pressure on a blade being sharpened over many strokes can change its shape. Many people unintentionally deform their cutting edges by not paying attention to the amount and location of the pressure their fingers apply. A word to the wise.

Another potential solution is to skew the blade in relation to the direction of travel when sharpening the bevel. This works because the leading corner of a skewed blade is abraded quicker than the trailing corner. But once again, inattention causes many people to skew their blades when moving them around on their sharpening stones unintentionally creating, instead of intentionally correcting, skewed cutting edges. There is nothing wrong with skewing the blade when sharpening so long as you are aware of the distortion this practice can produce and compensate accordingly. Another word to the wise.

If these methods don’t compensate adequately, you may want to grind and lap a chisel blade to a more uniform cross-sectional shape. A chemical bluing solution used afterwards will help conceal the shiny metal exposed by this operation if your chisel objects to the shiny spots. Some of them can be quite vain, you know.

A chisel with a an adequately uniform lamination and cross-section, and nice polish.

Cutting Edge Profiles

Many people have access to electrical jointers and planers, but relatively few have industrial equipment with the capacity to dimension wide boards such as tabletops. And of course architectural beams and columns are typically too long or too heavy to dimension with most stationary electrical equipment.

The choices available to most people for dimensioning such materials therefore are either handheld electrical power planers and/or sanders, or axes, adzes and hand planes. Powerplaners, sanders, axes and adzes are beyond the scope of this article, but we will look at hand planes.

I need more than one plane? You can’t be serious!

Although the very idea gives some woodworkers vapors (I don’t mean gas), an efficient craftsman will have multiple planes with cutting edges honed to profiles matched to specific operations.

Everyone that dimensions larger pieces of lumber by hand needs a plane with a wide mouth and a curved or “cambered,” cutting edge called a “scrub plane” in the West, and “arashiko kanna” in Japan.

This variety of plane excels at hogging a lot of wood quickly when the craftsman needs to significantly reduce the thickness of his lumber.  If the blade is narrow and curvature is deep, this plane will hog wood quickly, but leave a deeply rippled surface, often with bad tearout.

One might also have a second arashiko, or jack plane with a wider blade with a shallower curvature for the next steps in the dimensioning process. Such a plane will not hog wood as quickly, but it will produce a surface that is closer to flat and smooth and with less tearout. You can see the advantage of having two arashiko planes, or a scrub plane and a jack plane, with different cutting edge profiles when dimensioning lumber.

Many Gentle Readers use electrical-powered planes to dimension lumber before turning it into furniture, doors, chairs, or sawdust, etc. and are aware that planers always leave tiny ripple-like scallop cuts on the wood’s surface, along with some tearout. This will not do as a final surface. A hand-plane finish is far superior, but it doesn’t make sense to remove any more than the bare minimum of wood necessary to remove the washboard.

A finish plane is the perfect tool for this job on condition that it is sharp, set to a fine cut, the chipbreaker is tuned and set properly, the blade profile is appropriate for the width of the wood to be finished, and the wood does not have too many large knots. In one or two passes such a plane can easily remove the ripples and leave the wood clean and shiny without changing its dimensions much at all.

Assuming the wood is cooperative and one knows how to sharpen and setup their plane properly, blade profile frequently remains a key factor many fail to grasp. Obviously, the curved cutting edge of a scrub plane cannot produce the perfectly flat surfaces required for joining two pieces of wood together. On the other hand, the corners of a perfectly straight blade will leave clearly visible steps or unsightly tracks on the surface of a board wider than the blade, which is not a problem when rough dimensioning a board, but is painful to see if the board’s surface is to be left with just a planed finish.

So how do we solve this conundrum? When finish planing, the professional approach is to use two planes each with a different cutting edge profile. The first type of finish plane has a perfectly straight cutting edge used to plane pieces narrower than the blade’s width. Since the blade’s corners are not riding on the wood while cutting it, they won’t leave tracks and ridges.

The second type of finish plane found in the professional’s toolkit has a curved cutting edge, or more correctly, curved just at the corners to prevent it from leaving tracks and ridges when planing boards wider than the blade. Nearly all the edge is left straight, but creating this tiny amount of curvature at the right and left corners causes it to smoothly disappear into the plane’s mouth so no tracks are made and any ridges are nearly impossible to see or feel. In other words, the corners of the cutting edge never touch the surface of the board, and so don’t leave discernible tracks or ridges. The finer the cut made the smaller any ridges created will be. Indeed, where a high-quality surface is required, the final cut with the finish plane will produce shavings thin enough to see one’s fingerprints through.

You may want to reread the previous two paragraphs to make sure you understand what these two cutting edge profiles are and what they can accomplish before you read further.

Naturally, a professional doing high-quality work needs at least two finish planes, one with a straight cutting edge used to produce flat, precisely-dimensioned surfaces on wood narrower than the blade’s width, and another finish plane with a cutting edge very slightly curved at the corners used to finish wider surfaces.

There are those that advocate using a curved blade, sometimes dramatically “cambered” as some call them, for all applications. Those who teach this sloppy technique twist themselves into knots justifying tricks to approximate flat surfaces using such blades. I have no doubt this is an ancient technique, but I think it is a sad practice that sprung from the carelessness of some craftsmen in flattening their sharpening stones, and with time this bad habit became a tradition in some quarters. I strongly suspect fans of this strange way of doing business habitually sand all visible surfaces anyway so tracks and ridges are not a problem for them. But the fact remains that perfectly flat, track/ridge-free surfaces work best for joinery.

Tradition and “monkey see monkey do” are a useful place to start, but as his skill level increases, the thoughtful and efficient craftsman will eventually seek to confirm the validity of the traditions he has been taught. I urge you to get started early.

Sadly, too many people never notice the strange instruction label pasted to their boot’s sole, nor that smelly stuff sloshing around inside.(ツ)

monkey-see-monkey-do
Mommy monkey teaching baby monkey bad habits. When will they ever learn?

Conclusion

As we come to the end of this post, my advice to you, Gentle Reader, is to learn two bedrock basic skills to perfection. First, learn how to keep your sharpening stones flat; And second, learn how to sharpen your blades to have a straight cutting edge. Everything else will flow naturally from these skills. Your blades deserve it. We will talk more about these subjects in the future.

In this post, we have discussed 12 serious points about plane and chisel blades and how to use and improve them all but a few woodworkers in the West are unaware of, or ignore, but which are common knowledge among professional Japanese woodworkers in advanced trades. While condensed, it is enough information to fill a book, but we are giving it to you for the price of bananas (BYOB, remember?). We hope you picked up on each point, and test those that are new to you.

The next installment in this simian soap opera of sharpening will focus less on monkeyshines, and more on stones and techniques. Please stay tuned.

YMHOS

I can’t wait to read the next post!!

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.

Sharpening Part 11 – Supernatural Bevel Angles

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is John_Bauer_-_The_Princess_and_the_Trolls_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Pixie, kobold, elf, and sprite, All are on their rounds tonight; In the wan moon’s silver ray, Thrives their helter-skelter play.

Joel Benton

Iron Pixies

Gentle Reader, have you ever placed a tool down, only to later discover it has vanished into thin air? Do your tools ever become unexplainably dull or corroded within what seems like just a few days after cleaning and sharpening them? If so, you may have an Iron Pixie infestation without realizing it. 

Respected fairyologists theorize that, unlike their timid brethren frolicking in forests, or their blingy cousins in Hollywood, New York, and Washington DC who delight in tricking the mass media, film industry and corrupt politicians into constantly making greedy, immoral, hypocritical fools of themselves, Iron Pixies (genus Fatum Ferrum), do not fear iron or iron alloys. Indeed, besides pilfering and concealing tools that contain iron, they love nothing more than to use their corrosive powers to return this metal to its natural state through the thermodynamic chemical process known as “rubeum, et conversus abibo” (turn red and go away).

These piratical pixies become especially joyful if the owner of the snatched tool is unable to find it after much frantic searching, and is eventually forced to buy a replacement. Only when they see the replacement tool will the pernicious pixies permit the owner to locate the pilfered tool, usually rusty and chipped.

We’ll come back to the supernatural aspects of woodworking tools, but first let’s examine some more mundane details about sharpening blades, and a few things that typically go wrong with them.

The Ideal Bevel Angle

There is such a thing as an “ideal bevel angle” for each blade in each cutting situation, one that cuts the wood quickly, cleanly, with minimum force expenditure and that keeps the blade effectively sharp for the maximum amount of cutting possible, but determining this angle is not an easy calculation since it is difficult and expensive to actually observe what is happening at the cutting edge from a shaving’s-eye-view.

For example, a steep  60° bevel angle on a chisel will support the cutting edge thoroughly and will be durable, but it will pound the wood more than cut it wasting time and energy and damaging the wood unnecessarily. On the other hand, a 15° angle will cut well, but is likely to chip and dull quickly. A balance is necessary.

This balance will depend on many factors including hardness and abrasiveness of the wood you are cutting at any time (e.g. Sugar Pine versus Ipe), the quality and nature of your chisel blade, the type of cut you are making (low-pressure surface paring versus high-pressure deep mortises), and the care you take to protect the cutting edge. Yes, technique matters.

Determining the ideal bevel angle is ultimately a trial and error process the diligent craftsman will unconsciously perform until it is second nature, but the following are some general guidelines to get you started.

Most Japanese woodworking tools, including plane blades and striking chisels (oirenomi, atsunomi, tatakinomi, mukomachinomi) perform well in most construction and furniture woods with the standard 27.5°~30° bevel angle. This is a good compromise, acute enough to cut most wood efficiently without too much friction, while still providing adequate support to the thin cutting edge to avoid chipping. 

But like any rule, there are exceptions. For example, 35° is often a superior bevel angle for chisels when quickly cutting mortises in harder woods or planes shaving tropical hardwoods.

When cutting very soft woods, such as Paulownia, similar to balsa wood, a 22~24° bevel angle may work best. 

Paring chisels (tsukinomi), when used properly, are subject to less violent forces than striking chisels, and can handle a 24° bevel angle. But for most woods, a professional-grade Japanese plane or chisel blade will likely experience chipping if the angle is much less. 

There are many variables and potential solutions one might consider, but as a general rule, I recommend starting your experiment with a 27.5~30° bevel angle for plane and chisel blades. 

If you find that your blade chips or dulls quicker than you think it should, increase the angle gradually until it calms down. This can result in a double-bevel blade, one difficult to sharpen freehand. In this case, I fully support using a honing jig, at least until you achieve a flat bevel wide enough and stable enough to sharpen freehand. But don’t handicap yourself by relying solely on honing jigs because they can become like training wheels on a bicycle: slow and childish.

Mercurial Bevel Migration

There is a strange, almost supernatural phenomenon many woodworkers experience, the first evidence of which is a plane or chisel blade that previously held a sharp edge a long time suddenly and unexplainably beginning to dull or roll or chip sooner than before. Even professionals with many years of experience occasionally see their tools exhibit this nasty behavior. 

Some craftsmen faced with this dilemma begin to question their sanity. They may ask themselves: “Has heaven turned its face against me? How do I rid myself of this curse? Do I need to see a shrink?” Other craftsmen, more aware of the dangers of pernicious pixies, draw strange hex symbols on their walls or inlay brass circles and pentagrams into their floors to exorcise them from their workshop. Indeed, this practice has a long history in Europe and America.

Related image

Unfortunately, more than one blacksmith has been falsely accused of poor workmanship when the fault actually lay with the tool’s owner unwittingly allowing Iron Pixies to run amok. If this happens to your tools, please use the methods described below to purge any pestilent pixies in the area.

You would be wise to consider all possible causes of Mercurial Bevel Migration (MBM), including those unrelated to any infernal fiends that may or may not be skulking in your lumber stacks. 

But if not pesky pixies, what else could cause this maniacal metallurgical malfeasance?  Never fear, Gentle Reader, there is another possible explanation, one that can be resolved without paying for years of expensive psychotherapy and mind-altering drugs, or placing small bowls of blood and milk around your workshop, or enduring the pain of tattoo needles, or paying for stinky ceremonies involving burning sage and spirit drums.

The more likely cause is simply that it’s human nature when sharpening chisels and Japanese blades with their laminated, top-heavy construction to apply more pressure to the bevel’s rearward half (farthest from the cutting edge) abrading the softer jigane body more than the harder hagane cutting layer. Eventually, as the soft jigane wears away, the bevel angle will decrease to the point where the cutting edge will lose support and become fragile.

Once you are aware of this tendency and take preventative measures (and assuming you don’t have an iron pixie infestation), all should be well.

Next let’s examine some measures to get rid of both this bad habit and trixy pixies.

Pixie Predation Prevention & Pacification

If you suspect the presence of iron pixies, you should perform a Pixie Detection test. A reliable method is described in the next section below.

In any case, to avoid pixie infestation, you should create a workshop environment unfriendly to pixies. The following is an partial list of measures I have found to be effective.

Image result for brass bench dog
Brass bench dogs are an effective pixie repellent
  1. Cleanliness: Clean bench surfaces and sweep the floors daily. Periodically vacuum and wet-mop workshop floors twice a year during the winter and summer solstices (approximately June 21 and December 21);
  2. Add more lighting: Iron Pixies fear light because it reveals them to their enemies;
  3. Keep a pair of boots near the door into the workshop: Pixies are deathly afraid of boots, especially when they contain the feet of sharp-eyed human children, but just the sight of boots will prevent them from entering a space;
  4. Keep brass benchdogs in your workshop. Expert fairyologists insist, and I agree, that having a brass bench dog (remember, Iron Pixies do not fear iron or steel or the IRS) or two close by will banish Iron Pixies to the workshop’s dark recesses and keep their nasty claws away from tools. The deterrent effect of bench cats is unclear, but if you decide to rely on one, be sure it bothers to stay awake;
  5. Welcome spiders: Although this may seem to contradict No. 1 above, Iron Pixies fear spiders, especially daddy longlegs, who tangle them in their webs.
  6. Make regular offerings to the gods of handsaws. More on this subject in future posts.
Richard Kell bevel gauge
A compact and effective brass bevel angle gauge by Richard Kell

A more mundane but sure way to prevent MBM is to make or buy a bevel angle gauge and regularly use it to check your bevels during sharpening. Aluminum, stainless steel or even plastic gauges will work of course, but brass or bronze are more effectual at purging perfidious predatory pixies because copper is toxic and zinc causes pixies indigestion. Be sure to store it close to your valuable steel tools to help repel the maniacal monsters.

Here’s the important thing: once you have this tool on hand, use it to check each blade before, during and after sharpening to ensure you are maintaining the correct bevel angle instead of allowing it to decrease incrementally over repeated sharpening sessions. Make this a firm habit. More on this important subject in future posts.

Remember to measure the bevel angle at the blade’s far right or left edges because the hollow-ground ura of Japanese blades makes it difficult to correctly measure the angle if you check it elsewhere.

Pixie Detection Methods

A serious pixie infestation in a toolchest located in a clothing-optional workshop. Notice the absence of bench dogs, bevel angle gauges and boots in this image.

Iron Pixies are secretive creatures most people never see, but if you suspect you have an infestation, a detection test is called for.

While there are many proven methods to test for pixie infestation, the least expensive non-toxic iron pixie detection test is to sharpen a plane blade, and while doing so, attempt to “stick it” on the stone as in the photo below. This phenomenon is evidence the stone and the blade are in such perfect contact that the suction between the blade, water and mud on the stone’s surface strong is enough to support the weight of the blade.

No, this is not a trick photo with concealed supports, superglue, or photoshop enhancements. The blade is “stuck” to the wet stone’s surface. This is a rite of passage those who wish to become proficient in sharpening must accomplish, iron pixies or no. Not recommended for potato chip-thin Bailey-style plane blades.

If you are unable to accomplish this marvelous feat even after many attempts, you can be assured of the presence of peevish pixies nearby. In that case, use the preventative measures listed in the section above. You should also flatten your sharpening stones (especially the rough and medium grit stones) and make sure your blade’s bevel is perfectly flat. Bulging bevels are the pernicious pixie’s playground. (Aha! Iambic pentameter!)

Fair warning: If you stubbornly persist in your efforts to stick a plane blade before purging the area of pixies, they may go berserk to prevent this sublime event from occurring. If that happens, Katy bar the door!

Infernal Pixies! You Shall Not Pass!!

In the next stage of our adventure, we will examine some of the health ailments blades commonly suffer.  High cholesterol in chisels? Planes with pneumonia? Or just toolish hypochondria? Stay tuned to find out more.

YMHOS

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located directly below.

Sharpening Part 10 – The Ura 浦

If a craftsman wants to do good work, he must first sharpen his tools.

Confucius, The Analects
Related image
Geographic Ura
Chisel Ura

We talked about the Ura previously in post No. 9. It is a defining detail in most Japanese woodworking blades, and one we must understand if we are to efficiently sharpen them. In his post we will look into this important feature in more detail.

What is the Ura?

Japanese plane and chisel blades have a unique and intelligent design feature at what is called the “flat” on Western plane and chisel blades, called the “Ura” (pronounced oo-rah).

Ura translates into the English language as “bay,” as in a protected area where the sea meets the shore. At the center of the ura is a hollow-ground, depressed area in the hard steel hagane layer that serves two purposes. 

One purpose is to make it easier to keep the blade’s “flat” (the shiny areas surrounding the depression) planar (in the same plane).

If you pay attention when sharpening your wide Western chisels and planes you will notice that, after many sharpening sessions, the blade’s flat, which was once planar, becomes convex with a high point at the flat’s center making it difficult to keep the extreme cutting edge, especially the corners of the blade, in close contact with the sharpening stone. Yikes!

This doesn’t occur because you don’t know how to sharpen your blades, but simply because your sharpening stones/platens/paper tend to abrade the blade’s perimeter more aggressively than the center. The resulting curvature makes it more difficult to polish the flat’s extreme cutting edge. Major buzzkill.

Because of the Ura, Japanese woodworking blades are quickly fettled initially and tend to stay planar without a second thought for many years of hard use, an important benefit if you count your time worth anything.

Another purpose of the Ura is to reduce the square inches or square millimeters of hard steel you must polish during each sharpening session. As you can see from the photo above, the shiny perimeter land is all that touches the sharpening stone. Compare this with the black area which doesn’t touch the stone. That’s a lot of hard steel you don’t have to deal with. Besides making the job easier, it also saves a lot of time when sharpening and helps one’s expensive sharpening stones last longer. Time is money and stones ain’t cheap, as my old foreman used to say. Even if you don’t use your tools to make a living, remember that time spent sharpening is time stolen from the pleasure of making wooden objects.

The Downside Of the Ura

The Ura detail is not all meadow flowers and fairy farts, however, because it does have one unavoidable downside: Over many sharpening sessions the Ura unavoidably becomes gradually shallower, and the lands surrounding the Ura on four sides become correspondingly wider. It is not uncommon to see old chisels and plane blades with the depressed area of the Ura almost gone. You can postpone this day by sharpening the Ura wisely. However, in the worst case where the Ura disappears entirely, you will still be left with an entirely usable Western-style flat, so not all is lost.

In the case of plane blades, unless the plane’s ura is subjected to a brutal sharpening regime, the land that forms the cutting edge (called the “Ito ura” meaning “strand” as in a flat area on a riverside, in Japanese) tends to gradually become narrower, and even disappear entirely after numerous sharpenings. Of course, when this happens, the blade loses its cutting edge, and the land must be restored by “tapping out” or bending the cutting edge towards the ura side, and then grinding it flat to form a new ito-ura land. Tapping out a blade requires some caution, but is not difficult. I will not deal with this aspect of blade maintenance in this post.

In the case of chisels, which have smaller and shallower ura compared to wider plane blades, the land at the cutting edge does not typically require tapping out, although it’s certainly possible to tap out wider chisel blades. Narrow chisel blades, on the other hand, are difficult to tap out without damaging them due to the rigidity produced by the hard steel layer (detailed in the previous post in this series) wrapped up the blade’s sides.

Mitsuura Chisels

Ichimatsu Nomi Ura (by Kiyotada)
Spearpoint Mitsuura chisels by Sukemaru using EDM technology. Sadly, Mr. Usui no longer produces them.

Some chisels are made with multiple ura, typically called “mitsuura” meaning “triple ura.” Mitsuura chisels are more difficult to sharpen because the area of hardened steel that must be polished is larger. The Ura of mitsuura chisels also tend to wear-out quicker than single-ura chisels because each individual ura is shallower in depth than standard Ura. I am not a fan of multiple ura except in a few specific applications.

In the next stage of our journey into the mysteries of sharpening, we will wander through the metaphysical realms of the “Fae.” Be sure to have a brass bench dog in your pocket when we leave the well-lighted pathways.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington

Please share your insights and comments with everyone in the comments section below. If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the questions form located immediately below.