When I started this blog I made a conscious decision to talk about tools as little as possible.  There are enough people, far more knowledgable than I, who are talking about tools.  I’ve always wanted the focus to be on the woodworking.  The tools that I use or that you use, are immaterial.  As long as they are sharp, they work.  That being said, I’m going to break my self-imposed policy.  Mostly because this blog serves as my woodworking journal, but also to give those of you who read it an idea of what in the hell I’m doing.

I’ll spare you the long version of the back story and make this as short as I possibly can.  Many years ago, while pursuing the Craft section of the local library, I spied a new addition on the shelves.  “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis.  As I thumbed thru the pages a single photo stopped me in my tracks.


This picture of Toshio Odate in his workshop represented to me the perfect workshop.  I knew nothing about Japanese woodworking or the tools, but I was hooked.  For a long time this small glimpse of Japanese woodworking was all that I had.

Fast forward a few years and the Internet is up and running strong.  By chance I stumbled upon an online retailer that sold Japanese tools, “The Japan Woodworker.”  There they were, all of the tools that I had seen hanging in the photo of Toshio Odate’s shop.  Of course I still had no money or a workshop, so I contented myself with thumbing thru the catalog month after month.  One Christmas though I was told to pick something from the catalog.  I chose two hand planes, my first hand planes in fact.  Japanese planes do not come ready to go.  The end-user is expected to do the final adjustments to get the plane working.  Of course I didn’t have the understanding or skill to set them up properly.  I could make them cut, but I couldn’t make them sing.  Nor were they in any way predictable in their use.

My issue is that I had not, nor have I, ever used a properly tuned Japanese plane.  My only first hand experience is with my own planes.  Essentially I’ve learned the hard way.  I’ve made just about every mistake possible and have had to work my way back to a properly working tool.  I’m still not there, but I’m getting close.  Ironically, learning to sharpen and use western style tools went a long way towards my gaining understanding of the Japanese plane.

Along the way I have picked up a pull saw or two.  I love them.  The ergonomics of the pull stroke just seems to work better for me.  I have also built up a collection of Japanese chisels.  Again, ergonomics plays a major role in that decision.  None of these tools are high-end.  Just quality user-grade tools.

Do I think there is something magical about Japanese tools? Nope. The wood doesn’t care whether you push or pull your tools. The funny thing is that the more I learn and understand about Japanese tools, the more I realize that there is much more commonality than difference between Japanese and Western tools. Especially when comparing tools prior to the Industrial Revolution.

So there you have my convoluted path.  My dream has been and continues to be, to work wood in the Japanese style.  Simplicity and mobility, just the wood, the tools and myself.  Have a look at the following video to get an idea of what I’m aiming for.

Greg Merritt

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19 Responses to Tools—

  1. Bob Easton says:

    Is your workbench a block of wood on the floor? My ole legs don’t bend that way anymore.

  2. woodchuck says:

    Same picture stopped me cold as well, Greg. Love my blended eastern/western methods. I continue to develop my skillset with eastern tools as I age. I’m a firm belever that the use of gravity and skill will beat out brute strength and allow me to continue working wood late into my golden years.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Glad to know that I’m not the only one effected by that photo. For me, the pull stroke of the Japanese tools just feels better. I’m sure there is some ergonomics specialist who could tell me why, for now though I just know it feels better.

  3. Salko Safic says:

    I don’t believe there is brute strength involved in western style woodworking, if you notice a hand tool bench is low, the Japanese work on a beam which is also low, so in both you put your back into it. They pull towards themselves because it’s spiritual more so than any other reason. It doesn’t mean that planing gets any easier pull vs push. I own a couple of Jap saws and both are excellent except for one darn thing, the teeth has a tendency to break as has happened to my saws but one tooth missing doesn’t affect it’s performance. Last night I was using a small jap saw and the finish left was brilliantly smooth comparing to a western saw but the jap saw has more teeth.

    Japanese woodworkers predominantly work with softwoods like powlinia I can never get that spelling right. Surfboards are made from this timber and I had a go working with it at one stage, unfortunately for me it was too soft but the Japanese make beautiful furniture with it. I just don’t know how it survives the transport. My point is that it’s a lot easier to saw softwoods with Jap saws than it is hardwoods. I’m sure they have saws made for hardwoods but the ones I got are for softwoods.

    Their joinery I believe are the best in the world, their workmanship the old fellas just shine. I think though as woodworkers we get hung up on all these different styles of tools, I think we should pick one and master it otherwise we might end up confusing ourselves and not mastering either.

    I think Greg you should consider making your own Japanese hand planes as you see they have several boxes full of various styles and shapes. I don’t think it wil cost you much at all including the iron. It’s definitely a lot cheaper than buying stanley’s. I don’t know much about their chisels and I don’t know if your ones are high quality or not but I do know that tools are our life it’s what defines us and what we produce with them. I don’t think we should ever skimp on buying high quality because its expensive. It’s only a one time event and you’ll never have to do it again.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Wow, there’s a lot in that comment Salko.

      I do find Japanese tools less tiring to use. I’m not sure if it is a result of the push vs. pull of the setup of the tools. I suspect it’s a combination of the two.

      Yes, the Japanese use a lot of softwoods, but hardwoods are used as well. The tools reflect this. Saws are set up differently for hardwoods as are the planes. The chisels too. The sharpening angle is changed depending on the wood being worked.

      I’ve been using pull saws for several years and have never broke a tooth. You most definitely have to let the saw do the work. No forcing it and just the slightest down pressure during the cut.

      The blade for Japanese planes is where the money is. Japanese planes can be some of the most expensive on the market. The blades are self wedging and the quality blades are hand forged. Making a plane body (dai) is more complicated than it would appear. I do have plans to make a dai for one of the blades that I have where the blade will be bedded at a high angle, 45deg vs 38deg.

      The chisels I have are professional grade, hand forged, but factory made to keep the cost down. High-end would be from a known blacksmith and would run in the $100’s of dollars per chisel.

      • Salko Safic says:

        Yes you are correct they all are hand forged at least the good quality ones. As I have read some where they are notorious for breaking a tooth here and there I don’t remember how I did it though it was long ago. I do use it occasionally, actually tonight I played around with both of them. I believe you don’t tire out because of it’s light weight but I did do a lot more strokes than I would with the western saw but then again they have more teeth than a western saw. I really do like the finish quality though so I do reserve them dovetailing.
        You know quite a bit about Japanese tools just stick with it if that;s your preference. I must admit the more I watch the old guys work the more I want to them a go. Ahh if I were only a multimillionaire.

  4. Coisas EM'adeira says:

    You naughty Greg :0 … I see what you’re aiming for… a great excuse to tell your manager when your watching Japanese videos on the internet! xD xD lol
    Seriously, that picture is a very “Zen” one and is so, so far away from my bench reality.
    It feels good just to look at!

    • Greg Merritt says:

      LOL…I doubt that my shop will ever look that way either. Truth be told, I doubt that Odate’s shop looks that way in use. The phot represents the ideal…reality can be quite a different thing.

  5. Dave G says:

    Enjoyed that video and the other dozen Japanese woodworking videos that followed on from that one. To be that skilled they are obviously very well trained, it must be some great apprentice training scheme they go through.
    I don’t think working at floor level is something I could do now,

    • Greg Merritt says:

      HaHaHa…sorry about that Dave. Those videos can suck you in and befor you know it two hours are gone.

      Using Google translate, it seems that these are youth competitions put on by the building trades unions. What I would like to find is information on the training program these young folks are put through. It looks to be a comprehensive program. From initial layout drawing to completion of the actual project. I think the States could benefit from such a program. The search continues though.

      • Dave G says:

        It was obvious from the video that all of the guys had been trained to a set method of operation ,it was like watching sycronised woodworking. Do they not use marking knives at all, I was always under the impression that accurate woodworking requires the use of a marking knife , they seem to manage without, would you say that assemble joints tighter than we would there seemed to be a lot of times were they were using a lot of force with hammers to assemble tenons into mortices.

        • Greg Merritt says:

          I’ve built a couple of projects just using ink line layouts. Your sawing skills need to be up to snuff though. They also use a marking knife. I think it varies between craftsmen.
          These joints are compression fit. Very tight against the end grain of the mortise, but not against the long grain.
          There is a lot of intricacies in the Japanese methods, I’m just beginning to see part of them.

  6. Matt McGrane says:

    Hey Greg. I own a copy and have read Landis’ “The Workbench Book”, so I’ve seen that picture too. As impressive as it is, it definitely doesn’t make me want to work from the ground (haha). The picture means a different thing to me – a man with his tools creating work, and in a damned well organized say. Doesn’t matter to me what type of tools you use – just work with what you have and enjoy doing it.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      LOL…like I said…the wood doesn’t care wether you push or pull your tools. It’s strange what things speak to us. I have no idea why that photo from many years ago spoke to me…but it did and I listened.

  7. Have been fine tuning seven antique Japanese planes over the past six months. Fantastic results, getting better all the time. Just last week figured out how to make a proper sumisashi. Now on to layout.

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Hey Michael…I’ve been wondering what happened to you. I was hoping you would be posting about those tools. It good to hear that you are making progress with them.

      I’m down to correcting all of the errors that I have made to these dai over the years. My blades are in good shape though. I’m pulling decent thin shavings and have control over depth without the blade jumping too far with an adjustment. To turn one of these into a really nice smoother, I’ll need to close up the mouth on the dai. For general work though, I’m in pretty good shape.

      I love the sumisashi. Nothing like a thin line of ink. There is a video on making them on YouTube. Did you see it?

      • I took the Western approach, fitting a tapered Dutchman to close the throat. Neither of the Japanese methods seemed right for me. Having restored a number of coffin smoothers, the differences are interesting.
        Have yet to come across a Japanese blade that wouldn’t take a fine edge. The stones that Matt left behind have improved my sharpening practice; Bester stones for the coarse work, a wide range of finer grades from 3k to 12k, some Shapton super-fine ceramics for finishing, a few natural blue stones.
        I did watch the video, soaking and splitting bamboo finally makes sense. Carved a cover for the sumitsubo, shellacked everything in hope that the wetness of ink will not distort wood so much.

        • Greg Merritt says:

          I’m not sure which method I’m going to use to close up the mouth/throat. There are lots of different options. I’m playing with the blades a little to see which set I want to designate as the polisher. Then I’ll tweak that dai.
          Sounds like a great assortment of stones you have to work with. I’ve had good luck with the few blades that I have, but have read that some blades can be finicky about the stones used. Going so far as to having a particular stone just to sharpen a particular blade.

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