Sharpening Japanese Woodworking Tools Part 1: Introduction

Hidari no Ichihiro Oiirenomi

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

Michelangelo 1475-1564

This is the first in a series of 30 articles that describe the sharpening procedures your humble servant uses and recommends for Japanese plane and chisel blades. Links to the other 29 articles are located at the end of this one.

The purpose for these articles is to share with our Beloved Customers reliable techniques for sharpening and maintaining the tools we sell consistent with standard practice among advanced Japanese professional woodworkers.

Each article in this series describes separate but related aspects of sharpening Japanese woodworking tools, especially chisels, plane blades, and kiridashi knives. While 30 articles sounds like a lot, it is certainly not enough to cover all details of this first and most important woodworking skill. No doubt Beloved Customer could add chapters based on your own experiences.

If it seems less than concise, please understand that it is written with enough detail so even the first-time sharpener can benefit from it, but with enough advanced techniques to stimulate the interest of even jaded professionals.

Of course, if I wrote only for the professionals, then those new to the process would be left confused and frustrated. Likewise, if I wrote only for Beloved Customers new to sharpening Japanese tools, then the professionals reading it would begin to make snoring noises (highly intelligently, of course). I hope you can appreciate the conundrum and forgive the resulting compromises.

Unlike most of what is available on the internet, these techniques are not based on irresponsible rumors expounded as fact in smelly, troll-infested forums, articles in magazines written by self-educated journalists, or silly videos on NoobTube.

I didn’t invent the techniques described herein, but they are nonetheless my techniques, the results of hard experience working with, and lessons learned from, professional craftsmen in Japan over a period of some 30 years, sometimes working as a professional woodworker, and other times working as an employee of two of Japan’s largest “super” general contractors.

This series of posts has 4 objectives: To save Beloved Customer (1) time, and (2) money, and to make your Japanese blades (3) sharper, and (4) cut longer. These benefits are worth obtaining if you are serious about woodworking, as professional woodworkers must be, but the requisite attention to detail and manual skills may not come easily to some. 

Indeed, you may need to unlearn bad habits, and develop new habits, skills and muscle memory in order to achieve these objectives. This is not a 90 minute process but will take weeks, maybe months. It certainly took me years to completely unlearn my bad habits and develop the necessary skills. I am confident these writings will make the process more efficient for you, if you follow them. I only wish I had the benefit of this information all in one place back in the day.

Of course these are not the only viable solutions available. Many woodworkers are self-taught nowadays and learn how to sharpen from books, magazines, videos, and classes, and have developed methods that work well for them. I am not minimizing those successes, merely proposing methods to further advance their skills.

However, be aware that several of the techniques described herein may directly contradict methods taught by the gurus that make a living scribbling, making videos, and teaching classes about woodworking.

These guys achieve popularity and financial success by helping amateurs get better results quickly after reading only a few pages in their $29.99 book, or attending their 2-hour class. To maintain their popularity and income, the techniques some (but not all) of them promote must be dumb-as-dirt simple, and are often shortcuts and gimmicks yielding “instantaneous gratification,” without the need to learn real skills. Nothing wrong with that, but is it good enough for you?

Unlike amateurs satisfied with superficial results, professionals need real skills that yield consistent results long-term. 

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Don’t be shocked, but I am not offering 90 minute gratification in exchange for your money. 

There are no “sponsors “of this blog. There are no advertisements, period, so this blog generates no direct income.

I have no “click goals, ” or “SEO strategy” to deploy; I don’t care if you “like” me, “subscribe” to my BoobTube channel” (I don’t have one), or buy access to my online tutorials (don’t do those either). In fact, this website doesn’t require you to register, it doesn’t use Google Analytics, it doesn’t embed cookies in your computer or attempt to mine your data in any way.

The advice I offer is free, but if you prefer gimmicks to lifetime skills, the techniques described here are not for you. I am sure such Gentle Readers can find some brightly-colored bubble-wrap to keep themselves entertained.

Do I have a profit motive? Nope, this information is free. I am not a sneaky corporate shill trying to sell books, magazines, videos, video games, advertising space, banners, VPN services, home security systems, sharpening stones, or heaven forfend, powertools with laser sights. I have never been lent or given a tool in exchange for a review, nor have I been wined, dined, laid or paid to write good things about crappy tools. 

Over the years, my professional needs and curiosity led me to purchase literally hundreds of planes and chisels made by many blacksmiths and companies. The operative word here is “purchased.” With my own money. Not a single one was ever given or loaned to me. Some I later sold, the good ones I kept. The two points I want to make are: (i) I put my money where my mouth is; and (ii) I have no financial conflict of interest.

I have several motivations for writing and sharing this information. One is selfish convenience. Over the years, people have asked me how to sharpen Japanese tools, and I have explained the process in letters, emails, and in person many times. This series of articles is a collection of my scribblings on the subject over several decades, and is intended to save me time explaining processes.

Another motivation is to ensure that the people who buy the small number of hand-forged tools we sell (our “Beloved Customers”) know how to properly sharpen them, so that those tools will provide long, productive, high-performance service. Our tools deserve to be properly maintained.

Some who experience difficulties with Japanese woodworking tools blame the tools, but in many cases the problem lies not in defective tools but rather stems from an insufficient understanding of basic sharpening principles and lack of experience. Without exception everyone with aspirations to be an excellent woodworker must go through that learning process at least once. We hope this series of writings will help make it a little less confusing.

But my primary motivation for making this series of articles available at no cost is to fulfill a promise I made to freely share with others the techniques I learned from the many carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, tool makers and professional sharpeners in Japan who taught me. In exchange for this free information all I ask of you, Beloved Customer, is an open mind and eager hands. Please, don’t cut either of them.

The adventure will continue in Part 2! But be forewarned, the price of admission may double. (ツ)

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.

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