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 7 – The Nihon Mukomachi Nomi (二本向待鑿)

“You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.”

Tom Wilson
Nihon Mukomachinomi. Definitely in the Miki City style

This tool is a specialty mortise chisel with two blades for cutting twin mortises at the same time. It was developed specifically for cutting mortise joints in wooden stiles and rails for doors, shoji, cabinets and other joinery.

DESCRIPTION

Interestingly, double or twin tenons are not called ” nihon hozo” (hozo means ” tenon”) but “ nimai hozo “ (二枚ほぞ) with “ni “ meaning 2. In this case the number is combined with the counter “mai “ used to count flat things like a sheet of paper or tenons. Japanese is almost as messy as English… I blame those pesky Buddhist priests for the complications involved in reading and writing Japanese, but I’m not sure who to blame for English.

The name is a variation of the name of the standard mortise chisel ” mukomachi nomi” in my previous post, and no, I still don’t know what it has to do with ” waiting over there.” In front of this is added ”nihon” (二本) with ” ni” meaning ”2” and ” hon” being a counter for longish things, like pencils or trees, or in this case, blades. The word is pronounced ” knee hone.”

Allow me to wander off the path a bit and talk about the Japanese language since you might find a few details interesting. If you don’t feel international today, please feel free to jump over the next few paragraphs.

The nation of Japan is called “Nihon” or “Nippon “ in the Japanese language and is written with the two characters “Ni “ 日  and ”Hon” 本 sometimes pronounced “pon.” Yes, the same pronunciation and one of the same characters used in nihon mukomachi nomi. Besides being a counter for pencils and trees and longish things, it also means ” book” and ” source. ” The word for the nation of Japan means “The source of the sun,” a jab by the Japanese at an arrogant Chinese emporer some millenia ago.

Spoken Japanese is not that difficult for English speakers to figure out, but the reading and writing are crazy difficult because of the vast quantity of Kanji, the multiple pronunciations possible for most of them, and the multiple meanings attached to many.

Elementary children are required to learn 1,006 kanji characters along with the various meanings and pronunciations. In total, a minimum of 4,272 characters are used in newspapers and magazines and must be learned before graduating middle school. Most educated people in Japan can read well over 6,000 of the over 13,000 registered kanji in Japan. Universal literacy requires a lot of study and memorization at a young age. This should give you an idea why education is so highly valued in Japan.

When I was a young missionary in Japan in the 1970’s, I spent several months stationed to Ehime prefecture in rural areas of the island of Shikoku, back when many farmhouses in that locale still had thatched roofs, no glass windows, and no electricty. Many of the older residents had spent their entire lives on their little farms and could not read or write, and had never seen a brown-haired blue-eyed foreigner before.

But the children in these mountain villages were always excited to see a foreigner and would swarm around and ask us where we were from. My standard response to this somewhat rude but innocent question was to point down at each of my legs and count them saying ”One leg, two legs. I’m a Nihonjin.”  The “nihon” I was was jokingly referring to was the same as the mortise chisel which is the subject of this post, not Japanese Nationality which is pronounced identically.

Now you know a stupid pun in Japanese, so never say you didn’t get your money’s worth at this blog!

The twin-blade mortise chisel is exceptionally difficult to make, and even new ones require the owner to perform a significant amount of tuning to convince them to perform well. They have never been common, and I am not aware of anyone forging them now.

APPLICATIONS

The twin tenons this chisel specializes in cutting are almost twice as strong as a larger single tenon, and are the preferred joint for high-stress wooden connections worldwide, especially joints in doors and windows. If you haven’t tried them before, you should. They look pretty cool as through tenons too.

Twin tenons have three advantages that justify the extra work. First, while they may have the same or even less cross-sectional area, they have more surface area than a single tenon in the same space, creating greater friction when assembled, if properly cut, creating a joint that is much more likely to stay assembled when stressed.

Second, this larger surface area also means a larger glue area, a big advantage with the right glue.

And finally, twin tenons are much more resistant to twisting, an huge advantage for highly stressed joints in operable doors and windows. This is their biggest advantage and is nothing to sneeze at. If you want a door to last, always use twin tenons, at least at the bottom rail.

Sokozarai chisel used to clean and shave the bottom of mortises

I purchased one of these chisels many years ago. They are difficult to tune. But even after all that work, the gentleman I learned tategu work from many years ago was not impressed with my clever tool insisting that a regular mortise chisel does a better job. There is an obscure structural reason why this makes sense, which I will not delve into here, but I did not ask Mr. Honda at the time for an explanation because it would have been improper to question a master who had been a professional joiner at his level for 60 years.

I can’t get these chisels made anymore, and know of no blacksmith that makes them nowadays. The time is not far away when handmade tools will not be available except as collectors items.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in this Series

If you have private questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the form located immediately below titled “Contact Us.” 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).

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

The best carpenters make the fewest chips.

~English proverb, c.1500s

Japanese mortise chisels are called “Mukomachi Nomi” 向待鑿. I am unsure of the origin of the name, but the Chinese characters can be read as meaning “wait over there.” A curious name, it may refer to the shape of the transition from blade to neck, called a “machi” which is unique in Japanese chisels. I will simply call them “mortise chisels.”

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is RhQ7fKz4d2rn835QYpWc5nfkz-T9dPJ5tM8y9CheZnv-R_iScbcRaWZHK9y1CDbke6eu6-81nKL726eUyOrh-z70laeodtZSziEiIqlJhNtq1d6NlnEVXkgZvsYYQ4GhTxQ5zvLd
12mm Mortise Chisel – Sukezane (Side View)
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is ZljBUdWCJpIPtrzw2MFkamLyZFkDXcISTUQcj6jDw6gxxxoSJaIcf4rdC5zLP44xks5BadwUcaYB5tiadLcbx7Ihi0iamNFX-FTVa_eERr8CfCRjNCUf8W2AOyurFdkvmVr-46TV
12mm Mortise Chisel – Sukezane (Ura View)

DESCRIPTION

Mortise chisels are single-purpose tools for cutting rectangular holes in wood for mortise and tenon joints, the oldest recorded wood joint known.

Unlike other Japanese chisels, and even Western mortise chisels, the sides of the Japanese mortise chisel are shaped square to the “flat” instead of being angled slightly less than 90 degrees. The surfaces of the sides are of course straight along their length, but are either flat or slightly hollow across their width.

Other varieties of chisels have sides angled inwards to prevent the chisel from binding in the cut. This is less than ideal, however, when cutting small mortises because it allows the chisel to twist inside the mortise scoring the sides and reducing precision. The Japanese philosophy is that the blade’s sides should shave and clean the mortise at the same time it is cutting it so the sides don’t require additional cleanup with a paring chisel. Its a matter of precision and efficiency.

The straight flat sides of the mortise chisel have a relatively larger surface area that can create a lot of friction in the cut making extraction difficult in some cases, so the standard maximum width is 15mm.

Many advocate using double bevel cutting edges for Western mortise chisels. I have no problem with double bevels for atsunomi used to cut wide, deep mortises because the double bevel tends to kick more waste out of the mortise hole than a single flat bevel, although double bevels are more trouble to sharpen. But in the case of the standard Japanese mortise chisel, I recommend using a simple flat bevel for two reasons:

The first reason is that, since sharpness is critical for precise work, and a flat bevel is quicker and easier to sharpen, a flat bevel is more precise.

The second reason is that a flat bevel tends to stabilize the chisel in the cut more than a double bevel blade can, keeping it from twisting out of alignment and gouging the sides.

The lubrication provide by an oilpot makes using a mortise chisel quicker and the final product cleaner and more precise. Please see my previous post on the subject. https://covingtonsons.home.blog/2019/05/09/the-essential-oilpot/

APPLICATIONS

The mortise chisel is a specialist chisel for joinery, cabinetmaking and furniture work. It is not generally used by carpenters. Craftsmen that routinely use mortise chisels work to much tighter tolerances than most woodworkers, so a professional-grade mortise chisel must be forged and shaped to tighter tolerances than other chisels.

I only have one blacksmith with the skills and attention to detail required to make mortise chisels to my specifications. He thinks I’m a prissy pink princess. I think he’s a stubborn old fart. We’re like an old married couple(ツ).

If you need to cut lots of precise mortise holes quickly, then this tool will definitely improve your results and increase your satisfaction. It may not be the most handsome chisel in your toolchest, but you will come to rely on it more than any other for quality joinery work.

Standard widths for mortise chisels are 3mm, 4.5mm, 6mm, 7.5mm, 9mm, 12mm, and 15mm, but Sukezane won’t make 15mm mortise chisels for me anymore, dagnabit.

More than any other, mortise chisels are subtle, intelligent beasties, or at least they can be. I will talk more about what to look for in a good mortise chisel, as well as how to realize their Einstein-like focus to help you do better work, in future posts.

YMHOS

Links to Other Posts in this Series

If you have private questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please use the form located immediately below titled “Contact Us.”. 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).