East meets West
Japan is a very different place. It’s a highly modern and thoroughly westernized country, yet permeating every aspect of Japanese life is a deep and ancient culture that’s easy to appreciate but very difficult for an outside to really understand. I was in Japan in December for 2 weeks learning more about a small part of that culture– the Japanese love of wood and their unique tools, used in a long tradition of building temples, shrines, houses, and wooden objects. West did meet east, as I was also there to teach a class on our western planes.
Japanese woodworking tools (eastern tools, as they share much with Chinese and Korean tools) are as different as our cultures. Besides the obvious difference that we tend to push – they pull – we are in awe of innovation and technology; Japan reveres tradition. Where a Stanley bench plane has dozens of mostly metal parts and a modern alloy steel blade, a typical Japanese plane has a minimal blocky wooden body (a dai) and thick short high carbon iron. Their simplicity belies their sophistication – especially in the forging of the iron – and the subtle and difficult tuning they require, which explains a growing interest among hobby woodworkers in easier to tune and use Stanley-type planes. That they are more stable in climates with wide swings in humidity is another plus.
Why pulling a tool evolved vs. pushing was always curious to me, until I saw craftsmen at work in Japan. Besides saws (which can be thinner since buckling is not an issue if you pull), planes don’t work better one way or the other. But if you spend most of your working day on a small cushion on the floor as nearly every craftsman I saw did, then using your body as a vise and pulling against yourself makes total sense. A heavy workbench is also impractical in a country with such tight space constraints, but yet Japanese carpenters do set up planing benches (stiff beams on X braces) to work longer pieces.
At the end of the class I taught a master carpenter set up a bench and we had what I jokingly call a “Plane-Off”. He had typical wooden planes of various lengths; I was using Lie-Nielsens. Naturally the class had a lot of laughs seeing me push his planes, and they smiled plenty for the beautiful thin shavings they got from my western tools, the first time ever for some. His planes had cutting angles of about 37°, which made glassy cuts on the clear softwood. They didn’t perform as well on a piece of curly Vermont hard maple. My LN #4 left a flawless surface, but Japanese pride made it very difficult for them to agree. It didn’t matter. I went home with a gift of one of the master carpenter’s planes to use and learn more about, and I know I intrigued them with the precision of our quite different tools. Many went out the next day and sent orders to Lie-Nielsen.
To the northwest of Tokyo, all the way across Japan, is the tool making center of Sanjo City. I had introductions to two craftsmen there, a maker of wooden plane bodies (dai) and a father and son blacksmiths making all types of edge tools. Communicating with them was going to be a problem as few craftsmen I met spoke much English. Fortunately by the time my class ended near Tokyo I had 4 woodworkers who wanted to tag along, all willing to translate.
Isao Inomoto works in a modest shop in a line of what looks like small factories. Trained by his father, Inomoto-san has been making dais all of his 70 years. He’s one of the best makers Japan, where craftsmen with the most revered plane irons go (yes, so much so some are named), or those in need of a custom plane for a planing contest.
Connected to his shop is a storehouse stacked to the rafters with mostly white oak blanks for a variety of planes. He prefers white oak but does use some red oak for special planes. There are thousands of them drying with dates crayoned on their ends, some as wide as 12”, from thick planks sawn locally. Also in the storehouse is a custom mortiser that chops out the mouth of the production planes he makes, and barrels of oil for soaking the completed bodies.
Inomoto-san works sitting on a thin cushion on a wide and polished wooden stage. Between his legs is his “bench” – the top 2” of a post that goes through the floor to a firm foundation below. On the wall behind him are his and his father’s tools, and surrounding him are a few squat but heavy machines on wheels that he moves into place when he needs them, such as a drilling a dai for the steel pin that locks the cap iron and blade in place. His wife helps him, making hot tea on a little wood stove she keeps fired.
He works quickly and deftly laying out the angled cuts for the mouth, and then with serious force and a large chisel chops it out in minutes. Grain orientation of the blank seemed less of an issue than consistent even grain, but usually the grain is QS and perpendicular to the sole. Cutting the wedge shaped grooves for the plane blade, fitting it exactly to a very snug fit, and adjusting the mouth took at most 20 minutes. He then drilled for the retainer pin, fitted the cap iron, and sharpened everything off the platform on a few large waterstones set between his legs. The shavings this plane took were streamers – not curls – flying out behind.
The blade he fit was by a famous maker, perhaps taking months to forge and worth a thousand of dollars or more. To me it looked no different than another, maybe just a bit thicker. Inomoto-san pointed out the high skill of the maker can be seen in the narrow and consistent weld line of the high carbon edge to the wrought back. This unique Japanese metallurgy has always been a mystery to me, how such blades are made and the unique hollow(s) cut into their backs. So I was very much looking forward to seeing the process up close.
Our next stop was a forge similar to Inomoto-san’s shop, spare, concrete floor, metal sidewalls, with a few large machines such as trip hammers for production work. The small forge the son worked at sat on the floor, along with an anvil, a sunken tank of water for quenching, and a box of fine sand for slow cooling the steel when annealing. He stood in a sunken manhole with his waist just above the floor.
To light the forge the son preformed one of the most amazing demonstrations I have even seen, of hammering a piece of bar stock until it glowed red hot. It took all of 20 seconds, whomping the steel on the anvil with machine gun blows, each time turning the bar a quarter turn. The heat came entirely from the friction of moving the steel, tapering it so rapidly and consistently.
Making a chisel was less dramatic. Contrary to what you read, the softer wrought iron of the body is not old anchor chain (that was used up decades ago), but a piece of bridge girder. The cutting edge was manufactured yellow steel, quality tool steel denoted only by the color of its paper wrapper. It seems another myth, that of blue vs. white steel and the virtues of one over the other is simply their packaging as well; there is little difference.
Once the son had the wrought body and tang of the chisel shaped, he simply forge welded the yellow steel back on. He sprinkled some flux on the red hot body, positioned the equally hot back on top, and hammered them together. He then refined its shape, cut the hollows in the back, hardened, and tempered. Since wrought iron is low carbon, it doesn’t harden as the tool steel cutting edge does, but remains ductile. Its elasticity and ability to absorb shocks, is one of the virtues of this Japanese method of making blades. Nothing magic here, just basic science.
I had always assumed that the consistent hollows on the back of a Japanese blade were done with a precision grinder of some kind. Hardly. The father just held the back to a very large grindstone and worked by eye. He also demonstrated scraping the hollows using considerable pressure with a spokeshave-like scraper with a narrow curved blade.
The last stop was at the shop of Hirade, a dealer of the best woodworking tools in Japan. Even though it was tiny, there were dozens of different planes, chisels, natural sharpening stones, marking tools, and everything a craftsmen could need. My enthusiasm was dampened only by imagining carrying in my already full pack anything more.