A British Introduction to Japanese Planes, Part 1

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Editor’s note: Craftsman David Savage has kindly agreed to post here a series of articles on setting up and using Japanese planes, all told from the perspective of a skilled (very skilled, actually) Western woodworker who demands a high level of performance from his tools.

A sharpened steel wedge in a block of wood that will, when set up right, pull off gossamer shavings leaving a polished finish straight off the tool. That is where we are going.

I am to take you on a journey. A journey into a way of working with wood that may change the way I shine pieces of furniture. It may work, it may not; artists are used to taking this kind of risk, accepting that more than half of our daft ideas are just that, daft ideas. But this time you will come with me. I will report periodically on what I have learned, and share it with you; if it’s a failure, that too I will share.

Way back in the 1970s, Japanese tools came, along with James Krenov, into the lives of many British woodworkers. I picked up, used and reviewed Japanese chisels. What I learned about Japanese tools in 1980 I learned from an American monthly newsletter called “Mahogany Masterpieces.” I learned about the forging process involved in creating a high-quality blade. This was a development from the Japanese Samurai sword-making history – super-sharp edges that could chop through three bodies at one blow….

What they created for us was a supremely sharp and hard-wearing edge. Made of two steels, a hard steel at the cutting edge, with a backing of softer steel. The hard steel itself had been forged. That is, it had been put into a hot forge, made a red and then beaten with a hammer. This forging process not only changes the shape of the steel, but it changes its structure. Steel has a structure a little like long-grain rice. When it is beaten and hammered, those long grains align and form a narrower, tighter structure. This is why these edges are capable of becoming sharper.

This forged cutting-edge is then laminated to a softer backing steel to make sharpening easier and to make the blade accept shock. The laminating is done in the hot forge and results in the best cutting edges a woodworker can get hold of.

I have known this for years and benefited from using great “Ouchi” chisels for the last 30 years. But I never messed about with planes until now.

Japanese planes were tricky. There was a mystery to setting them up that was not so easily unraveled in the days before World Wide Web. And, after all, we were having enough of a problem setting up our Western planes. Japanese planes needed very careful setting up; the blade never fitted the body, and the bodies needed to have convex bases to function and you pulled the damn things not pushed them. So why bother?

But these hand planes are sublimely simple and very sophisticated. A sharpened steel wedge in a block of wood that will, when set up right, pull off gossamer shavings leaving a polished finish straight off the tool. That polished surface, that handmade shine, THAT is what I want! Something elemental that cannot be put there with plastic polishes. That, combined with CAD development, a three-dimensional printer and a CNC machine will, I hope, take my furniture to places I have yet to see.

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So why are you always on that laptop Carol asks? The truth is that eBay to a newcomer can become quite a distraction. I have, after hours of research, bought an antique Japanese plane iron. I was quite startled when my bid was accepted at £23.30. My bid was £11 and my reserve £30 and it all happened in the last 20 seconds! I admit to being no eBay Warrior, but I enjoyed the tussle so much that another Kanna, for that is the proper term for a Japanese plane and blade, will be arriving soon. Just don’t tell Carol.

When it arrived, I was like a child at Christmas tearing open the package; I can’t remember getting this excited by tools for more than 30 years. I was stunned by how heavy and elemental these two bits of metal were. Clearly a skilled person had invested hours into their existence and other skilled hands had used them perhaps for 30 or 40 years. Half the life of the blade was still there, and I plan to use what remains of it.

Next I will tell about flattening and restoring this blade to sharpness and finding a body to fit it to. Apparently for each blade there will be 10 bodies, all of them dead.

Toodle ooo….

— David Savage, http://www.finefurnituremaker.com/

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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4 Responses to A British Introduction to Japanese Planes, Part 1

  1. Mathieu says:

    Hmm. What an interesting development. I am rather pleasantly surprised to read about kanna on The Lost Art Press bolg. Usually the source of all things wood ‘n tools from the western world. Maybe next year we will can sign up for a workshop ‘building the Anarchists tansu’.

  2. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    As a student, designer and builder of 民家 (Minka) or Farm house…I will very much enjoy following along on this adventure…thank you!

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