Chisel Handles – The Right Wood

Japanese White Oak acorns

The Right Wood for the Right Place 適所適材

Old Japanese Saying

Our customers outside of Japan frequently need some information to help them select the best wood for their chisel handles. In this post I’ll describe the woods available and the advantages and disadvantages of each to help you make an informed decision.

The chisels we sell all have wooden handles in several varieties of wood, the two most common being Japanese White Oak and Japanese Red Oak. We also can provide handles for some chisels in Gumi (Silverberry wood), Ebony, and Rosewood. Let’s look at White Oak first.

Japanese White Oak

巨樹 シラカシ
Japanese White Oak tree

Japanese White Oak (JWO) is very similar to American White Oak in that it is closed grain, dense, and has medullary rays. The color is a little whiter than the American or European varieties, and in fact, it’s a little denser and stronger than either. It holds up well to being struck with steel hammers.

JWO is not a slick wood when dry and does not become slippery when wet, important characteristics in a tool handle where staying attached to the blade and staying secure in a sweaty hand while being pounded on are part of the job.

Like White Oak everywhere, it contains tannic acid. In fact, bark and chips from this wood have been used since before written history to tan leather because this chemical converts animal skins that would otherwise rot into durable leather. Tannin, which is the base word of both tanning and tannic acid, comes from the medieval Latin word tannāre, a derivative of tannum (oak bark), from which the tannic acid compound is derived.

Tannic acid can react with some people’s sweat causing the wood to turn a dirty grey color. This tendency is not strong among the Japanese people, but it is among many caucasians, including me.

This discoloration in no way weakens or harms the wood, it just makes it look dirty.

JWO generally has a bland, indistinct grain with few flecks, not a problem for a tool handle or plane block, but less than ideal for furniture.

Usunomi with Japanese White Oan handle

Japanese Red Oak

赤樫,どんぐり
Japanese Red Oak acorns

Japanese Red Oak (JRO) is as different from American Red Oak as the “the moon and a mud turtle,” as they say over here. It is a much more useful wood.

Similar to JWO, Japanese Red Oak is closed grain and also has medullary rays. It contains much less tannic acid, and ranges in color from a dark red (difficult to obtain nowadays) to a pinkish red.

JRO has been prized in Japan for tool and weapon handles since forever. Indeed, JRO is the preferred wood for the bokken wooden swords used in the martial arts. The better grades are denser than White Oak with a more interesting grain. Unfortunately, this grade of Red Oak has become difficult to obtain.

Japanese Red Oak tree

As with Japanese White Oak, Red Oak is not a slick wood when dry and does not become slippery when wet.

There are unscrupulous people that dye less colorful pieces of Red Oak a dark red color to jack up the price. We don’t deal with such slimy people and our JRO handles are all authentic. Caveat emptor, baby.

JRO has the advantage of discoloring less than JWO over time and tends to look cleaner longer. It makes a more attractive handle.

赤樫 大木
Japanese Red Oak tree

The downside to the JRO generally available nowadays is that it is a little less dense than White Oak. I consider Japanese Red Oak to be the perfect wood for paring chisels, and Japanese White Oak the perfect wood for atsunomi chisels. Either wood works fine for the smaller oiirenomi bench chisels.

Kotenomi paring chisel with Japanese Red Oak handle

Gumi

Gumi (Elaeagnus multiflora or cherry silverberry) is more a hedgewood or bush than tree. It has historically been cultivated primarily for the fruit it bears. It is stronger than Japanese White Oak, but lighter in weight. It has a distinctive yellow color that some people find attractive. I don’t get the attraction, but must admit it has a striking appearance.

Gumi makes a fine, durable handle. It is a more expensive material. My handlemaker has shorter pieces suitable for oiirenomi handles in-stock, but nothing longer.

Hammer handles of Gumi wood

Gumi handles are custom order.

Ebony and Rosewood

Ebony and Rosewood make elegant, durable, well-balanced handles for paring chisels, which are never struck with hammers and therefore unlikely to crack. But material costs are quite high. They are also custom order items that take some time to fabricate.

Oirenomi and atsunomi and other types of tatakinomi with ebony or rosewood handles look great. And in the case of amateurs that buy such chisels (from other sources) just to collect and/or admire, I have nothing to say. But we sell professional-grade tools to be used on real-world jobsites and in workshops by serious craftsmen for serious cutting, not to become safe queens. Using ebony and rosewood handled oirenomi or other varieties of tatakinomi to do real work is like wearing Jimmy Choo stilletto heels to a construction site.

Yes, Jimbo makes elegant shoes. And if your ensemble is well thought-out, a pair of his heels will make your legs look mahvelous dahling, simply mahvelous. Sadly, they will neither last long nor get the job done. Other workers will mock you behind your back. And embarrassing stuff will happen at the worst possible time.

Women. simply do not belong on construction sites... This is a scene from a TV show called Parks and Recreation. This woman is an actor. This woman was paid to fall like that. That woman is not actually that dumb.
Well…. that was embarrassing!

For warranty reasons, we do not sell tatakinomi of any kind with handles of ebony or rosewood. They are too easily and irreparably cracked/damaged if struck with a steel hammer. Professionals will not purchase, and we will not sell, such silly tools.

Customs Duties

While it has not been a problem so far, importation of some exotic hardwoods such as Brazilian rosewood into the United States can be a problem, according to the guitar makers I know and information on the infallible internet (ツ). If you order handles made from these woods, please be aware that you become the responsible importer once such materials cross into the jurisdiction of your local Customs Office. They may confiscate your tools or levy fines. The risk is all yours. That said, it has not been a problem so far.

Not encouraging, I know, but customs services worldwide are in the business of making literally tons of money every hour by taxing the entire world using their absolute authority within their bailiwick, and lots of guns. The most profitable income source for governments, as you know, is not taxes but making and circulating money (literally manufacturing money), followed by customs fees. Such it has always been; such it will always be.

On the other hand, we have experienced difficulties and customs duties in only two countries, namely Spain, which is notorious for once charging confiscatory import duties on gunpowder and cannonballs brought into Spain by Great Britain to free that country from Napolean’s armies during the French occupation.

Australia was brutally difficult on one occasion, but that incident may have been driven more by dazzling government incompetence rather than enforcement of the country’s importation laws.

Conclusion

For standard oirenomi and other tatakinomi intended to be struck with a steel hammer, either White Oak or Red Oak are entirely adequate and cost-effective. White Oak is a little stronger, but its appearance does not improve with use or age. Red Oak is not quite as dense and strong, but it is sufficient for these chisels and looks better over time.

For wider Atsunomi and Mukomachinomi (mortise chisels) which will see heavy use, White Oak is the best choice due to its higher density and superior strength.

If cost and delivery time is not a concern, you like the yellow color and want to be different, then gumi is an excellent choice for oiirenomi. It’s the same as the difference between brown leather work boots and tan-colored Timberland boots.

For usunomi and other paring chisels not intended to be struck with a steel hammer, Red Oak is the best choice, IMO, but White Oak will perform just as well. Gumi is not an option. Ebony and Rosewood look beautiful and feel nice (if you don’t have allergies to Rosewood), but are expensive and require lead time.

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.”

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 12 – The Usunomi Paring Chisel (薄鑿)

Our thoughts flow to our hands; our tools become as part of our bodies, the blade of our bodies.

Tsunekazu Nishioka, Temple Carpenter, Horyuji Temple Restoration, Nara Japan.
Tsunekazu Nishioka

In the first post in this series, we examined the two main categories of Japanese chisels: the tatakinomi designed to be struck with hammer, and the tsukinomi used to pare wood without using a hammer. Beginning with this post we will shift our focus to several varieties of tsukinomi.

If you need to cut precise joints in wood, then you need both striking and paring chisels.

The most popular variety of tsukinomi is the mentori usunomi (面取り薄鑿)which translates to “beveled thin chisel.” The name is appropriate as the blade is long and thin and the neck gently tapered.

42mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Side View)
42mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Face View)
42mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Ura View)
42mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Face View)
24mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Face View)
24mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Face Closeup)
24mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Ura View)
24mm Mentori Usunomi by Sukezane (Ura Closeup)

Description

Just as with oiirenomi, the blades of tsukinomi can be made with different profiles, such as the rectangular cross-section of the kakuuchi, or the more triangular cross-section of the shinogi.

The usunomi has the more streamlined cross-section of the mentori oiirenomi with two bevels ground into the right and left sides of the blade’s face, flowing over the shoulders and feathering into the neck.

An atsunomi or oiirenomi can pare joints, of course, but the steel crown and mushroomed wood fibers on the handle’s end make them uncomfortable for such jobs. More importantly, the blades and handles of these chisels are often too short to provide adequate angular control. In short, the usunomi is more comfortable to use, and pares wood more powerfully and more precisely.

Western paring chisels by comparison are even thinner and have longer blades than Japanese paring chisels. There can be no denying they do a fine job. Japanese paring chisels like the usunomi have a few potential advantages worth considering, however.

The most significant advantage is that the steel cutting edges of Japanese paring chisels are much harder. The paring chisels my blacksmiths forge are around 65~66 Rc , whereas Western paring chisels are usually around 55 Rc. A Western style paring chisel with its thin blade of uniform steel hardened to 65 Rc would easily snap in half if stressed. This extra-hard steel makes possible an edge that stays sharper longer, with the result that, given the same number of sharpening opportunities and time in a given workday, a professional-grade usunomi will help you do more hours of high-quality work than a softer blade. For craftsmen that use their tools to feed their families this higher-level of performance is not something to be sniffed at.

The second advantage of the Japanese paring chisel is their hollow-ground ura which makes it easier to maintain a flat bearing surface. If you haven’t used Japanese chisels, this claim may sound unlikely. But please recall that there are narrow lands surrounding the ura, all in the same plane, that create a flat bearing surface to guide the chisel.

Usage

This tool is well-suited to reaching into narrow mortises and other wood joints to clean and pare surfaces roughed out by axe, adze, saw and tatakinomi to precise tolerances.

It excels at trimming mortise side walls and end walls. And shaving tenon cheeks and shoulders to precise dimensions without causing spelching or cutting too deeply as shoulder planes are wont to do is a piece of cake.

In addition, the longer blade and flat face of the usunomi make it ideal for paring angles, such a 45° mitres, in combination with wooden guide blocks or jigs.

The usunomi may be struck with the heel of the hand, but never with a hammer or mallet. The slender neck, thin blade, and unreinforced handle will simply not accept such abuse gracefully.

Chisels intended to be struck with a hammer typically perform best with a cutting edge bevel of 27~30°. Any shallower and the hard steel at the cutting edge may chip instantly dulling the tool. However, the cutting edges of usunomi along with other tsukinomi are not normally subjected to the high stresses chisels motivated with hammers must endure, so the cutting efficiency can be increased by lowering the angle to 24° or so without creating problems, depending of course, on the wood you need to pare and the type of paring you intend. For instance, paring end grain may require a steeper angle than long grain.

If you have used long-bladed Western chisels hard for a few years, you will have no doubt experienced your chisel’s flat becoming somewhat rounded over many sharpenings. This occurs because, for various reasons, the center portion of the blade’s flat is abraded at a slower rate when being sharpened than the blade’s perimeter, resulting in distortion regardless of whether you keep your stones perfectly flat or not.

Obviously, a chisel with a flat that is banana-shaped lengthwise and crosswise is not ideal for paring flat surfaces, but there is a bigger problem. Namely, it is simply more difficult and time-consuming  to create a sharp edge on a blade with a curved flat than one with a true flat. A flat like this begs for amateurish tricks using rulers, etc.. of the sort professionals would be embarrassed to use. A friend once scathingly described these techniques as “training wheels.” Oh my.

The ura on the Japanese chisel is specifically designed to deal with this shortcoming, and it does a great job of it.

30mm Unsunomi by Nagamitsu – View ofFace
30mm Unsunomi by Nagamitsu – View of Mitsuura

The 30mm usunomi in the photo above has an ura with three hollow-ground areas instead of one. This detail is called a ” mitsuura” ミツ浦 meaning ”triple ura.” It has the advantage of providing a larger bearing surface than the standard ura does, one that is helpful when using wooden jigs for paring to precise angles, for instance. It also helps the ura index better when paring large surfaces, especially with chisel blades wider than 24mm.

Some people prefer chisels with the mitsuura detail for their appearance. I admit mitsuura look sexy, but I am not a fan of using this detail unless it is truly necessary because of the downsides I will not deal with in this already overlong post.

If I can liken the atsunomi to a shire horse, then the usunomi is a falcon. Both are beautiful powerful animals, but just as one wouldn’t use a draught horse to chase down a rabbit, or a peregrin to pull a plow, neither oiirenomi nor atsunomi are as effective as the usunomi for paring and cleaning joints.

The usunomi is one of those tools that is a pleasure to use.

Among woodworking tools, the usunomi is special: as it becomes part of your hand, you will discover that neither the blade nor your hand but your mind is shaping the wood.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in this Series

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 1 – The Main Categories

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 2 – The Mentori Oiirenomi (面取追入鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 3 – The Shinogi Oiirenomi (鎬追入鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 4 – Kakuuchi Oiirenomi (角打追入鑿)

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

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 6 – The Mortise Chisel (Mukomachi Nomi 向待鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 7 – The Nihon Mukomachi Nomi (二本向待鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 8 – The Atsunomi (厚鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 9 – The Uchimaru Nomi Gouge (内丸鑿)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 10 – The Sotomaru Nomi Incannel Gouge (外丸鑿)

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

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 13 – The Shinogi Usunomi 鎬薄鑿 Paring Chisel

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 14 – Kote Nomi (鏝鑿Trowel Chisel)

The Varieties of Japanese Chisels Part 15 – Ootsuki Nomi 大突き鑿

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.” Your information will remain confidential (we’re not evil Google or incompetent facebook).