A Visit to Tashiro Hardware in Seattle

As a beginner woodworker, I’m always gathering knowledge about the craft. While books have been insightful, and the Internet has been decent, nothing has taught me more than the couple of hours I spent with an old master this week.

Frank Tashiro, an American of Japanese descent, runs a small retail web site and showroom from his home in Seattle. Tashiro Hardware is a place where one can find a good selection of Japanese-style kataba and dozuki saws. This 90-year-old retired blacksmith made chisels, plane blades, knives and chains, among other things. When it comes to steel, you could say he’s got a handle on things.

With its door surrounded by bamboo, you could almost walk by his home/office without noticing the little doorstep, with “Frank Tashiro” lettered on the mailbox. He greeted me at the door and brought me in to see his wares. The front room is his showroom; the back room, his office. His full line of his saws and handles are on display boards, with merchandise organized in racks. He directed me to sit in a chair, and we small-talked for a moment. I told him I was looking for a dovetail saw. He was quick to locate a suitable specimen, then he asked me how much time I had. Because I was a stranger in town with nowhere to go that evening, my night was free.

He posed me a question, “How do you sharpen?” I responded that I used a pair of ceramic stones and free-handed things. He followed up with a, “But do you know how to sharpen things?” Indeed, I thought I knew how to sharpen, but had a feeling he would soon show me the error of my ways. Inside I was giggling like a little girl. “Sit here, in front of the workbench,” he beckoned, as he stooped to grab an old pail filled with tools. “Would you like to see how I sharpen?”

“What does it mean when we cut something?” I did my best to fumble through what I thought was correct, as he grabbed a small chalkboard to illustrate. He drew a row of dime-sized circles, and asked me to think on a molecular level about this.

“Does not the edge of the tool enter and divide the material?” He pushed a wooden wedge through his row of chalk molecules. A light came on in my mind. “Even if it is water or oil, at the moment the tool enters, it has divided the material, no?”

He explained tool edges this way: They all can be illustrated by drawing a mountain with its top lopped off, which is the tip of the tool. He drew this on his little chalkboard on the bench.  Some have longer, shallow sloping sides. They are tough and last long before sharpening, but they may not cut the material as easily. (Enter and divide….) Other edges are steep and can cut well, but they may roll over or crumble at the edge.

He then demonstrated how to hold a tool at the correct angle to sharpen using simple handmade jigs. I would illustrate, but will simply say that none of his jigs have moving parts. “The most accurate method is to have no moving parts,” he emphasized. “Nobody can sharpen this better because it is based on a principle.” Another light came on for me.

On sharpening stones: He said it didn’t matter what one used. As long as you can get an edge that is too narrow to reflect light, you are sharp. His stone looked to be an ordinary oilstone. He said a great edge comes together at maybe three-ten-thousandths of an inch (.0003”), if we could measure that.

I also learned how to find square to a surface, using nothing more than a mirror. “You can even set your table saw blade or drill press square this way.” Light bulb.

He challenged me every step of the way, asking questions to make me think. I spent almost two hours mesmerized, feasting on his knowledge. What originally began as a trip to look at dovetail saws turned into a life-building experience. I was able to feel, maybe for a couple of short hours, like an apprentice learning from a dedicated master.

I asked if it would be OK if I made a recording of some of his teachings so I could refer to them later. He said that was unnecessary.

“Once you have been taught, you will know this forever.”

— Randy Clements, Rexburg, ID

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to A Visit to Tashiro Hardware in Seattle

  1. frpaulas says:

    ACK! More details! Please!

  2. Marilyn says:

    Huh! Whaaaa? How come I don’t know about this hardware store and I live in Seattle?? Love the story. Maybe some day I’ll get a chance to pick up some knowledge from Frank.

  3. rmcnabb says:

    Pix or it didn’t happen. (haha). How about a little more detail? I’d like to know the dao of the chisel sharpening jigs myself…

  4. John Vernier says:

    I had a similar lesson from Mr. Tashiro nearly 20 years ago, when he had a small commercial storefront. The amount of time he wanted to spend educating a single, completely uninformed stranger amazed me. Somebody needs to put him in a classroom, if he is willing!

  5. billlattpa says:

    I know little about Japanese woodworking and tools for that matter. I’ve used some Japanese chisels before which I thought were very impressive. I wasn’t so much impressed with the hand planes, which were of excellent quality, but I couldn’t see how pulling them was any better than pushing. But with all that being said, I can read or listen to Japanese woodworking philosophy for hours and always learn something new.

  6. bucho125 says:

    Thanks for sharing the big wisdom. Inspiring.

    How does one find the squareness by using merely a mirror?

  7. Patrick says:

    Chris, with Mr. Tashiro in his 90′s, would you please use your considerable connections to get him on video, or Roy’s show, or something before his considerable knowledge is lost. Thanks in advance.

  8. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    I must second what Patrick said. Every time I have had a chance to sit with a master or his caliber, (no matter the medium or tradition,) I feel like I have actual taken another step forward in my craft. Please Chris, if you or Randy could capture some of him on video, it would be marvelous. This is one place where technology really is of great value in saving the teachings of individuals like Mr. Tashiro.

  9. rwdawson says:

    This same approach can be used to set a saw blade perpendicular to the surface it is cutting. Tilt the blade left and right, when the reflection shows a straight line, the saw is perpendicular. Same with chisels.
    Of course these tools need to be clean enough to reflect light.

    Richard

  10. Ron Harper says:

    How cool is THAT?

  11. B Jackson says:

    Astounded is the word. Speechless I am. This is really the Tao / zen of the craft. I wonder if the Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans ever knew this – either masons (Socrates) or carpenters (Jesus) .

  12. Isaac says:

    Thank you Randy for sharing your experience. I live in seattle and had never been to Mr. Tashiro’s shop (Hardwick’s is my local haunt). I went this afternoon and I will be going back again. Mr. Tashiro is a very generous person and an inspiration.

    Again thanks,
    Isaac

  13. Rich B says:

    Frank Tashiro – closed his store ages ago. I didn’t know he still had a retail operation. I visited a couple of times and got the same lesson every time. I still have the water stones and saw’s I bought there. Many, many years ago I understand that the family had a store downtown. I have lived in Seattle for thirty plus years and it predates that.

  14. Petri says:

    - lovely piece of writing, would love to be subject to such teachings from a master! But came here to ask if anybody can identify the chisel and where to get one (or two) like that?
    Thanks for everything and keep up the good work!
    – Petri from Sweden

  15. tms says:

    I bought my first tools from Frank a little more than 30 years ago. I went back a couple times more to buy tools but only twice. As much as I appreciated Frank’s expertise and willingness to teach, it did get in the way if you wanted to just drop in and purchase. Frank’s self discipline would not allow him to just sell someone a tool. No matter how you professed your ability to use it, or sharpen it, Frank had to, at least, give you the 30 minute version. And of course, he couldn’t remember you from the last time you purchased.

  16. joshslopsema says:

    this is a really beautiful story and I’s nice to see the Japanese perspective being explored…there is a great interview with jay vanarsdale where he explains how Japanese woodworking evolved…this is what happens when your sword makers start designing saws and chisels and your joinery must adept to earthquakes. http://www.renaissancewoodworker.com/interview-with-jay-van-arsdale/

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