Sharpening Part 8 – Soft Iron 地金

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

Albert Einstein

In the previous post on sharpening Japanese woodworking tool blades we looked primarily at the nature of the hard high-carbon steel used in making woodworking blades. In this post I will try to dispel some of the confusion that surrounds the other metal used in making most Japanese knives, axes and woodworking blades, namely the soft low-carbon steel called “Jigane” (地金). I hope this brief explanation will improve your understanding of some Japanese tools and aid your sharpening efforts.

Sources of Jigane

Most Japanese knives and woodworking blades are comprised of a thin piece of hard high-carbon steel, discussed in my previous post, forge-weld laminated to a piece of softer low-carbon steel or wrought iron called “Jigane” (地金) in Japanese, which translates directly to “ground metal.”

I will write more about this bi-metal lamination in the next post in this series, but for now take my word that it is essential to the performance of many types of Japanese cutting tools nowadays, and for many centuries was critical to manufacturing cutting tools in America and Europe as well.

The best jigane material for plane blade bodies is said to be scrap iron from the boilers of old trains, boats, and factories, etc.. Such boiler tanks were subjected to thousands of heating and cooling cycles during their years in service which drove out impurities, including carbon, making the iron very soft to the point of weakness.

The most desirable jigane for plane blades is called “tired” iron, named because it is not only soft, but looks weak and exhibits a visible grain along with cracks and imperfections which those familiar with Japanese plane blades covet.

A pile of jigane, probably old salvaged structural steel. Looks like boards of old wood, but it ain’t.

Wrought Iron Production

Nowadays, this very low-carbon steel, also known as “ wrought iron” is not produced in any volume for several reasons. First, demand is just too low to make it worthwhile to manufacture. Hand-forged ornamental iron is the only commercial usage besides Japanese tools, truly microscopic markets.

The second reason is that steel manufacturing processes have changed drastically in the last 100 years. For instance, it used to be that steel began as iron ore, basically rocks and dirt, which was melted and refined into low-carbon wrought iron, so wrought iron was an intermediate product of steel production. Indeed, this low-carbon product was much less expensive to produce than high-carbon steel and so was used for everything from the boilers, bridges, trains, ships and anchor chains mentioned above to axes, chisels, farming implements, machinery, what’s called “miscellaneous metals” in the construction industry, and of course plane blades. There are still a few surviving structures that were made using this archaic material.

Nowadays, things are very different. Carbon is incorporated into the steel early in the manufacturing process, so low-carbon wrought iron never becomes an intermediate product.

Also, scrap metal has become critical to steel manufacturing processes nowadays. Remember what happened to steel prices worldwide when China was buying up huge volumes of scrap metal worldwide for its Olympic infrastructure building projects?

I think we can agree that this energy-efficient cost-reducing recycling of natural materials, one that was hardly an option 150 years ago, is a very good thing. But it does have a tiny downside, namely that most commercially-available scrap metal available in any useful volume today has been through the modern steel-manufacturing process many times and already contains not only high levels of carbon, relatively speaking, but alloys such as chrome, molybdenum, and nickel from previous melting pots. Indeed, undesirable chemicals such as phosphorus, sulfur and silica tend to be high in general junkyard scrap metal. On the other hand, keeping these unintended alloys and impurities under control is a serious challenge for manufacturers of tool steel.

In summary, wrought iron simply isn’t made anymore, and it is not a sustainable, profitable product.

Japanese blacksmiths making high-quality plane blades nowadays mostly use wrought iron recycled from old anchor chains, old iron bridges, or other recycled iron structural components. If you see a hole in a plane blade, like the extra-wide plane blade pictured at the top, it once housed a rivet. Yes, structural steel was once connected with hot rivets instead of bolts. Hi-tensile modern bolts are better.

Plane Blades

A plane blade by Ogata-san in his “Nami no Hana” series using Swedish Asaab K-120 steel. Notice not only the fissures and defects, but also the striations and grain typical of soft, tired “wrought iron.”

Mr. Takeo Nakano (see his photo below) makes my plane blades. He is a kind, quite man with the outward appearance of a sedentary grandfather, but when using hammer and tongs at his forge within his dark smithy, his posture and visage reminds me of an intense Vulcan reinforcing the gates of Hades.

Like nearly all the plane blacksmiths in Niigata, he uses scrap iron obtained in a single lot many years ago from an iron bridge that was dismantled in Yokohama Japan.

Mr. Nakano at home

I am told that most of the jigane used for plane blades in Hyogo Prefecture is old recycled anchor chains.

The fissured and cracked jigane of a a 70mm plane blade by Usui Kengo, another Niigata blacksmith (RIP). Notice the rod which retains the chipbreaker is non-existent, replaced by two short stubs. An elegant detail in this plane body by Ito-san (Soh 宗).
The back of the same Usui plane blade. Notice the cracks and inclusions in this excellent jigane exposed at the polished bevel. Very wabi-sabi. This jigane was once part of an iron bridge in the city of Yokohama, Japan.

In the case of plane blades, structural strength is not critical, so laminating a thin layer of high-carbon steel to form the cutting edge to a soft iron body is adequate. Indeed, the thicker the hard steel layer, the more time and effort it takes to sharpen the blade, so in a high-quality blade the thicknesses of the high-carbon steel layer and the soft jigane body will be carefully balanced to ensure the blade’s bevel rides the sharpening stones nicely and can be quickly abraded.

Plane blade blacksmiths use the same strip jigane used for chisels for making less-expensive plane blades.

Chisel Blades

In the case of chisels, while ease of sharpening is still important, the body and neck must be harder/stiffer to prevent them from bending, so a different, stiffer variety of jigane with a higher carbon content and fewer defects is used, and the steel layer is typically made thicker.

The jigane used by my chisel blacksmiths is a commercial product not produced anymore (thank goodness they have stockpiles) called “gokunantetsu” 極軟鉄 which translates directly to “extremely soft iron.” With a carbon content of 0.04~0.07%, a better description would be “very low carbon steel.” When heated and quenched, it doesn’t harden much.

The adventure will continue in the next exciting episode where we will bring it all together into a blade. Don’t forget to have popcorn and jujubes ready.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

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The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 11 – The Tsuba Nomi Guard Chisel (鍔鑿)

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”

Confucius

The “Tsuba” in Tsuba Nomi is the Chinese character 鍔 which means “guard” as in a sword or knife guard.

Two nubs attached to opposing sides of the blade just below the handle look like the guard for a knife or sword. This chisel is driven with a hammer to quickly create a pilot hole for nails or screws. The blade becomes tightly wedged into the wood, but by striking up on these projections with a steel hammer, the blade can be extracted.

This unique chisel comes with blades with round, square, or rectangular cross-sections.

Square and rectagular blades usually have a chisel-point beveled on two sides, but sometimes are beveled on just one side. Round blades may have simple pointed ends, but sometimes they have short triple tines to drive the crushed wood fibers into the hole.

While this chisel severs the wood fibres, unlike an auger, drill, or gimlet, it does not remove material from the hole. The ends of the severed fibers are angled down into the hole, and over time and exposure to humidity and water, will partially swell back to their original shape locking nails in tightly.

This chisel is still used in the wooden shipbuilding industry, but other than that sees very little practical use nowadays. I own one but have have never used it in anger.

A Double-tsuba Nomi
Hole made by a Tsuba Nomi with a forged nail partially inserted. Used to to edge-join boards, this method is typical in traditional Japanese wooden shipbuilding
Far Left: Double Tsuba Nomi. Center: Single Tsuba Nomi. Far right: Strike up on the blade’s “guard” to extract.

YMHOS

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The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 5 – High-Speed Steel Oiirenomi (HSS 追入鑿)

“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but of playing a poor hand well.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

So, you finished building that fine cabinet, or 8-panel entry door, or carved balustrade and the day has come to install it at the jobsite. Will you need to cut a bit of gypboard or lath-and-plaster while installing it? Might your chisel get jammed against or into bricks or concrete in the process? Will you need to cut a notch in sandpaper-grit filled plywood or OSB? Any hidden screws or nails in the way that might require more than stern words?

Jobsite installations and remodeling often demand nasty work everyday tools can’t accomplish without serious damage. At that moment, having a tool tougher than the job is the difference between working and whining. This is that tool.

DESCRIPTION

HSS oiirenomi are a modern variation of mentori oiirenomi made using high-alloy steels tougher and more resistant to abrasion and high temperatures than more traditional steels.

Sukemaru High-speed Steel Oiirenomi

These chisels are useful for doing remodeling work and cabinet and equipment installations where plywood, MDF, OSB, LVL, drywall, acoustic board, insulated board, plaster, mortar, underlayment and studs full of hidden nails, and even ALC (autoclaved lightweight concrete) panels need to be cut, trimmed, fitted or demolished. Demolition…Oh joy (not).

Although High Speed Steel (HSS) won’t become as sharp as plain high-carbon steel, and takes more time to sharpen using a grinder and diamond plates, when you need to cut or trim the hard abrasive materials listed above, these blades will keep clippin’ without chippin’ when a standard chisel would be turned into an expensive gasket scraper. Also, one can quickly repair the damaged edge on an HSS chisel with a bench grinder or angle head grinder of the sort found on any construction jobsite without burning or softening the steel, a handy feature indeed.

HSS oiirenomi are hardened using special processes that leave the metal bright instead of creating the black oxide skin typical of standard high-carbon steel blades, an appearance some people find attractive.

Before I tried my first HSS oiirenomi, I kept a couple of old plastic-handled steel-cap Stanley chisels in my toolkit as “beaters” for cutting gritty, abrasive materials. They were soft and instantly dulled, but their edges would dent instead of chipping and were easily repaired. Poor things; some days they ended up looking more like rounded-over wide-blade screwdrivers than wood chisels. HSS chisels are just the ticket for this kind of brutal work.

The chisel pictured above was manufactured by Mr. Usui Yoshio under his brand “Sukemaru” (助丸). He is the fourth generation in this long line of famous blacksmiths.

The blade is one-piece of high-speed steel, not laminated high-carbon steel. The neck, however, is a softer, more malleable stainless steel which adds toughness to the tool while reducing costs.

Interestingly, the blade and neck are not welded together, but are connected by spinning the neck at high speed and forcing it against the stationary blade fusing the two components together more securely than is possible by welding. An amazing sight to see. High-level mechanical engineering going on here, boys and germs.

Standard widths for high-speed steel oiirenomi are 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 21mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 42mm.

YMHOS

© 2019 Stanley Covington All Rights Reserved

Please share your insight, questions or comments in the comments section below. If you would like to learn more about our tools, please use the contact form located directly below.