Japan has contributed a lot to tool development, standing out as the world’s knife vanguard and a force in the machinery world. The nation also has also set trends in woodwork architecture that have reached western shores with welcome arms, and with their intricate style comes a legacy of unique woodworking tools.
What’s The Fuss With Japanese Woodwork Tools?
While other countries shifted their construction industries towards steel, brick and concrete, Japan remained staunch to wood structures. Japanese culture determined the traditional architecture that was prominent in the nation until the turn of the twentieth century, when fading wood resources forced the country to seek alternative materials. Their complete understanding of woodwork allowed them to build structures with complex wood joints that didn’t require the use of nails. These treasures of Japanese woodworking architecture remain, with great temples and vintage teahouses sitting untouched across the eastern nation.
Japanese hand tools have been refined since imperial times, but their method behind forging woodwork tools have been passed through generations; and this is what separates Japanese tools from their western counterparts. It has become an art form for specialist Japanese toolmakers, many of whom continue to create custom tools by hand as a nod to their ancestors. In fact, traditional Japanese toolmakers are directly tied to the master craftsmen who forged the original samurai swords, before moving their techniques to tools after the government had outlawed the samurai blade.
The difference shows in the quality. Japanese woodworking tools are lighter, their blades forged with reinforced Japanese steel and their handles softer, often too adorned with traditional engravings on the tool’s steel and grip. While not all Japanese hand tools reach Australian shores, the ones that do carry the sentiments of centuries of woodwork heritage and make a great addition to any carpenter or woodwork enthusiast’s toolkit.
Japanese Woodwork Planes
Japan developed their own smoothing plane early on in the Meiji period. It was different to Western planes in it’s application, as its effective use relied on the user to pull the blade towards them, as opposed to pushing the blade away. The design was seemingly simple, however it had been greatly thought out and was able to perform its duties on a range of surfaces with slight adjustments. The tool itself mirrored the traditional architecture of Japan, with their temples and tea houses often looking simple from the outside but carrying a great degree of complexity in their residing structure.
Japanese planes still exist in their traditional form, but you may find that many of these planes are made by collaboration, with one craftsman carving the block and another producing the blade. The plane blades are crafted in the same way as chisels, with the thin blade laminated to a larger iron body that is formed from recycled iron.
Most traditional Japanese woodwork planes do not arrive ready to use, instead requiring fine tuning before they can be used. These traditional planes also require a lot of maintenance, constantly having to be sharpened and tuned to sustain effective use. While this may initially seem discouraging, this style of customization allows the plane to take extremely precise shavings, and there are plenty of guides available for fixing and tuning your plane; see this one by The Samurai Carpenter.
Japanese Hand Saws
Japanese Ryoba Saws are two sided hand saws that have withstood developments in contemporary hand saw designs and stayed loyal to their traditional shape, which is largely influenced by early Japanese Katanas. They feature rip teeth on one side, for cutting with the grain, and cross-cutting teeth on the other for slicing against the grain, with the steel tang embedded in a long wooden handle to give the carpenter full control of the blade.
They are both hand made and machine made in contemporary Japan, with the hand made versions manually sharpened at the teeth and narrowed in the center to give users less friction and vibration when cutting the saw. Machine produced saws are commonly made from stainless steel and will not be as sharp as the hand made editions, but due to the precision machine cutting they will likely stay sharper for longer, making them an appealing alternative for Australians who can not simply send their saw to a Japanese maker for sharpening.
The Ryoba Saw may be the only saw a carpenter will ever need, but for those looking to expand their toolkit, a Dozuki Saw can offer ultra precision cutting in spaces other saws just can’t operate. The Dozuki Saw, similar to the traditional Japanese hand plane, works on a pull instead of push motion, and has been noted by carpenters to reduce fatigue and crookedness when cutting. Most Dozuki saws are designed for cross cutting and have specifically designed teeth that are angled to allow for smooth, splinter free cuts. Both versions of Japanese saws are offered at slightly higher prices than western hand saws.
Japanese Woodwork Chisels
While Switzerland houses Pfeil, the company regarded as the greatest producer of woodwork chisels in the world, Japan has maintained its contingency in quality wood carving chisels through years of refinement. For fine Japanese woodwork artists, there is no better tool than Japanese carving knifes or framing and carving chisels. Japanese artists such as Yoshitoshi Kanemaki display what can be achieved with chisels in his collection of intricate and detailed sculptures.
Japanese chisels use the same type of laminated blades as the traditional planes, with thin steel attached to an older iron body; the quality of this steel however is unmatched. As most of the chisels reaching Australia have been hand forged in Japan, they offer craftsmen a finely balanced tool with precise carving ability, and are offered in a collection of sizes to meet any purpose.
Heavier jobs may benefit from a Japanese temple builder chisel while fine joinery work can be easily managed with a slick dovetail, so the best thing to do when sourcing a range of Japanese chisels would be to chase down a full set, saving you both time and money. Japanese chisels will typically be more expensive than their North American Counterparts, but they often appear for sale on used market sites at decent prices.
Alternative Japanese Woodwork Tools
Japan’s range of traditional tools are broad and encompassing, each tool unique in its style and design and indifferent to Western hand tool revolutions.
JAPANESE CARPENTERS AXE
The Japanese carpenters axe is another example of a Japanese woodwork tool that has relied on a traditional design to achieve a precise purpose. The axe allows for space directly behind the blade, so the handle can be gripped with precise control for when the chopping needs to be handled delicately.
JAPANESE WOOD CARVING KNIFE
Japanese steel is celebrated across universal markets. Their knives and blades have long been superior in strength and weight, and as with any Japanese tool, they are crafted with the highest attention to quality. It’s only inherent then that Japanese wood carving knives are superior in the market. Their unprecedented sharpness make the blades perfect for whittling or carving and authentic knives are offered for as cheap as $30 across online markets.
OTHER JAPANESE HAND TOOLS
Japan does not neglect other essential woodwork and joinery tools either—they create every tool as if it’s a priceless piece of art. This scrupulous undertaking has positioned the nation as a leader of hand-forged tools, assuring a level of quality that will add precision to carpentry work, as well as giving DIYers undertaking early projects the chance to achieve a professional finish.