“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings”
The story of C&S Tools is not one of a business looking for products to sell, nor a manufacturer angling for customers to buy products, but of craftsmen seeking better tools. Let me tell you the story.
Your humble servant has lived and worked in Japan for many years, and learned about Japanese woodworking and Japanese tools from serious professional craftsmen called “shokunin.” They included primarily carpenters and joiners, gentlemen that were obsessed with the quality of the products they produced, their production efficiency, and the performance of their tools.
These gentlemen influenced me to seek out the best handmade woodworking tools available, including chisels, planes and saws because better tools help one perform better work more productively while making the job more pleasant. I am still absolutely convinced that is true.
I bought many different brands of tools back in the 1980’s and tested them. I asked craftsmen who’s skill and work impressed me what brands of chisels and planes and saws they used. After years of trying various brands, in the end, I concluded that Kiyotada and Ichihiro made the best chisels and Yokozaka Masato made the best plane blades available at the time. Over the next ten years, I disposed of my other chisels and planes and built up sets of chisels and planes by these blacksmiths.
My work has required me to move many times. In 2009 I was transferred back to Tokyo from Southern California, but the moving company mistakenly placed all of my chisels and planes in storage in the US instead of shipping them with me to Tokyo, so for several years I did not have access to them.
I no longer use my tools to feed the family, but still enjoy woodworking as both hobby and therapy to help maintain my sanity, so life in Tokyo without my tools was lacking something important.
I tried to purchase a few of my favorite tools by Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka but found they were no longer available, and because of the Kezuroukai effect, even used ones had doubled in price. Only Yokozaka-san was still alive, but once again, the Kezuroukai effect resulted in long waiting lists and inflated prices for his planes.
I eventually purchased a 10pc set of oiirenomi bench chisels under the brandname Kiyohisa from a retailer I trusted because, while the retailer warned that Kiyohisa’s products were nowhere near as good as either Kiyotada’s or Ichihiro’s, he insisted that the Kiyohisa brand was as “good as they get anymore.” They were shockingly expensive.
Sadly, I discovered the Kiyohisa chisels to be not only inferior to Kiyotada’s products, but of poor quality even when compared to cheapo tools, with some blades chipping unduly, others rolling their edges, and still others with poorly-performing differentially-hardened cutting edges; Absolutely hopeless. I was irate.
I took them back to the retailer and demanded a refund, but he responded that Kiyohisa products did not have a warranty. I since learned that this blacksmith does not warrant any of this products. As you can imagine I lost faith in that retailer’s opinion along with the products they sell. You can probably imagine my opinion of Kiyohisa too, so I won’t inflict you with the rant.
At this point I was thoroughly frustrated and so procured many different famous brandname chisels and tested them to destruction. The standard against which I compared them all was the excellent Kiyotada products forged by Shimamura Kosaburo, a blacksmith who was at one time lauded by metallurgists as being the best chisel blacksmith in Japan. I have yet to find a better chisel, but I tried. The testing criteria were initial sharpness, durability (resistance to cracking and chipping) and edge retention ability.
The testing process I employed was to sharpen each 24mm chisel’s blade to 10,000 grit, and cut mortises with it in a Japanese hardwood called Keyaki (zelkova wood). I would abuse each chisel to determine how tough it was, and examine the edge after cutting each mortise. If the edge rolled or dented (and many did), then I knew it was too soft and rejected it. But if it chipped, broke, or performed well, I took it to the next step where I re-sharpened it and continued to cut mortises until the edge chipped or dulled. I rejected those chisels that readily chipped or quickly dulled. Most of the newly-produced chisels sold under famous brand names, and all the chisels produced in Miki, which were too soft, failed these comparative tests utterly.
It was an expensive process but I learned an important lesson, namely, that brandname has nothing to do with quality or performance; The true source of quality and performance in edged tools is rather the blacksmith himself, his experience, skill, and rock-solid dedication to quality. Sadly, this common-sense logic is not applicable to mass-produced products.
The key point I want Beloved Customers and Gentle Readers to take away from this story is the fact that most “brandnames” are trademarked and owned by wholesalers and retailers . They sell these tools to faceless “markets” that have no direct voice. By contrast, blacksmiths sell to “customers” that give them direct feedback.
Right about now astute Beloved Customers and clever Gentle Readers are no doubt saying to themselves “Aha! But the wholesalers and retailers are still customers. Forsooth! Is their opinion of no account?”
As always, Beloved Customer has hit on an important difference to which I am compelled to provide a distinction. To whit, wholesalers and retailers are, with few exceptions, shopkeepers to whom a hard day’s work entails packing and unpacking boxes, and writing labels and invoices, not producing timber frames, cabinets, joinery or furniture. Most have never used a tool in the field or workshop professionally. Accordingly, while many talk a good game, their only source of feedback is the volume of sales and product defects complaints received from their customers. Their focus, therefore, is on moving volume at the highest possible profit margin, not producing a wooden product. In short, lacking hands-on experience and motivation from either demanding foreman or Client, their ability to differentiate quality and performance from one brand to another is akin to the proverbial fundament and elbow.
I digress. Back to the point of the story.
Wholesalers and retailers don’t care about feedback so long as product keeps moving. If a particular brandname stops selling, they change the brandname and dress the product up in a different color miniskirt and sequined hooker heels and send it back out to the street corner, so to speak. Thus it has always been.
But to the blacksmith his reputation is a precious thing that, once lost, cannot be recovered with just a fashion remake, a new hairdo or even a boob job.
Accordingly, the quality and performance of a blacksmith’s products directly impact his personal reputation, self-respect, and long-term income, as illustrated by the example mentioned above, whereas most wholesalers and retailers have little at stake.
If a tool wholesaler’s primary market is amateurs located in far-flung countries outside of Japan, then the fluid reputation of his brandnames, inflated by marketing, have much greater influence on his profits than blade quality. Indeed, few amateurs in any country know how to properly use and maintain professional-grade chisels anyway.
Even in Japan, amateurs carelessly damage blades blaming their failure on the blacksmith. Therefore, when marketing exclusively to inexperienced amateurs either domestically or internationally, the Japanese wholesaler’s surest path to profitability is to sell mass-produced tools at a high profit margin, blades that are softer and more resistant to damage than blades intended exclusively for professional woodworkers. Therefore, blades sold primarily to amateurs overseas do not need to be hand-forged from the best materials but can be mass-produced using less-expensive steel, cheaper techniques, and at lower cost resulting in higher profits. And since the brand name is fluid and can be repaired through marketing, quality is of little consequence.
This is the Miki way of doing business, very much in the style of MacDonalds. Do you like kangaroo meat?
I had learned an expensive lesson during this first phase of buying chisels and planes and destroying their blades. And so putting the lesson to good use, I next went looking for real-live long-established blacksmiths with reputations on the line instead of the famous brand-names.
I focused on traditional blacksmiths unaffiliated with the large wholesalers, working in small smithies who continued to produce chisels and planes for professionals using traditional blacksmithing techniques, and did not stoop to mass-production. I had set myself a time consuming challenge that couldn’t be accomplished using the internet or telephone alone. Indeed, these craftsmen don’t even own computers or mobile phones, and they sure as heck won’t do business over the telephone, especially with foreigners
During the next phase I bought more chisels and abused more blades. I spent weekends on trains going all over Japan visiting woodworkers and blacksmiths, inspecting forges and steel stockpiles, and checking QC techniques. At last I found 3 chisel blacksmiths and one plane blacksmith that consistently produced only the professional-grade tools I wanted with real-world performance approaching that of Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka.
I should add that Kiyotada, Ichihiro, and Yokozaka’s tools were expensive even when they were alive and producing daily. But since the tools I was seeking were to be secondary, perhaps temporary tools, I was willing to sacrifice appearance for lower cost on condition that the tools satisfied my performance criteria. The blacksmiths I found did not make the prettiest blades, but they all cut like crazy and kept cutting a long time without dulling or chipping.
During this process I was in communication with professional woodworker friends in the US that know how to use and maintain Japanese planes and chisels. I told them of my adventures and even sent them some of the tools I found to try. After testing the tools they too wanted some. Word of mouth spread and one thing lead to another.
I have a day job, so C&S Tools is not focused on maximizing profits. We sell our tools for the standard retail price in Japan plus online transaction fees without a gaijin or export markup. Not much of a business, but it gives me an excuseto spend time with the Japanese blacksmiths and other honest craftsmen I respect.
Unfortunately, our blacksmiths are not getting younger. All are in their late 70’s and 80’s. Production will not continue much longer, so if you are looking for professional-grade chisels and planes at a reasonable price, as I was, then don’t wait too long. No one knows when the “grey rain-curtain of this world will roll back and all will turn to silver glass,” as the old wizard put it.
Stan Covington, Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant.
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