Japanese axes and adzes

Whilst building the tea house in Japan we used a many axes and adzes. The axe that got most use was the carpenters ono, a bearded laminated axe that comes in various sizes from small one handed hatchets used for removing the waney edge of boards to large heavy versions used for squaring beams.

 This is Tak at work and he could use the axe equally left or right handed to such an extent he did not know which hand was easiest.

This one is a typical felling axe.

And this is the big masekarai, the very heavy axe used for rough hewing along the grain.

Once the timber is roughly hewn to shape it is “surfaced”, this can be done with a plane or the chouna or adze. This tool was not only a delight to use but it left a delightful texture on the work, if there was one tool I could have brought back from Japan it would have been a chouna. Most of those on site were old ones and there are only a couple of smiths making them now. Here are more chouna than you are ever likely to see in one place. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with many different ones to work out how they worked and what the differences were. Clearly different carpenters each sharpened them to suit their own style, generally though the outside bevel is slightly convex and the inside completely flat. This helps the adze to bounce up out of the cut rather than digging in.

Here Tani is giving us instructions on how the head should be mounted on the handle if we were ever lucky enough to acquire one.

This is how the chouna is used, the flexible handle allows very rapid strokes and the head is going into the wood then bouncing out leaving a range of very distinctive patterns depending on how it is used. This table top was textured with the chouna made by a very talented furniture maker we visited Takahiro Yoshino.

Folk from Yorkshire may now be thinking or Robert Thompson furniture but the texture from the Japanese adze is crisply cut and somehow alive. Thompsons I presume sand theirs after adzing resulting in a surface that I find very dull in comparison. I could have bought a new chouna and handle in Japan for £200-£250 but they were out of my budget and not as nice as the old ones. Thankfully on my return I have been corresponding with my Japanese friend Tomio Imaru and he is willing to search out and buy some old ones for me. I look forward to experimenting with these beautiful tools and introducing some new textures to my own work.

15 Responses to Japanese axes and adzes

  1. Daniel August 30, 2010 at 5:53 pm #

    I spent 3 years in Okinawa during the mid-90's but was never fortunate enough to visit or learn about Japan's history in the woodworking crafts. I found your trip to be very enlightening and I thank you for posting your experiences. -Dan

  2. Steve August 30, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    I liked the images and article both of your blog. I was in Japan some eight months back with my friend and I spent a day there in village which was far away from Okinawa. There I saw this people who were working on wood. I impressed and liked the way they were cutting and chopping the wood. They were really workaholic towards their Job. I liked your article because your blogs remind me that days.

  3. Le Loup August 30, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

    Great looking tools.Good post, thank you.

  4. Neil August 31, 2010 at 4:44 am #

    Wow! What a chouna collection. I have several old ones which I got without the shaft (a bit difficult for shipping overseas). I'm sure you could make traditional handles for yours when they come, Robin. In my case I had to make up a western version, which is working quite well for me. Have lots of fun when yours arrive.Neil

  5. Robin Wood August 31, 2010 at 6:00 am #

    Glad everyone has enjoyed these posts, there is a little more to come a bit on Yariganna or spear planes a most interesting tool, and some on the differences in marking out and jointing.Neil I was told the chouna handles have to be grown and traditionally they use "enju". A friend in Germany tried to make some with steam bent ash and they worked OK for a few months but then lost the spring. I had wondered if they could be cut from the area where a branch joins the trunk of a tree as they did with bronze age adze.

  6. Jock August 31, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Rob , a gluelam handle may work ok , at least until the right branch is found or grown. And strapping the hook when the chouna is not in use may help keep the spring in the handle for a while longer . What type of wood is used in shepherd's crooks , and how does that hook come about ?

  7. Robin Wood August 31, 2010 at 11:16 am #

    Gluelam is not really my kind of thing, think I'll wait and find the right shape in a tree. Old shepherds crooks were sometimes carved from where a small branch meets a large on but all commercially made ones are steam bent, mostly hazel or sweet chestnut. The can open up after a while particularly if subject to varying moisture levels.

  8. Jonas August 31, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    I think you might get quite a similar finish like the table top using a long handled spoon knife or a long handled crooked knife.

  9. Jonas August 31, 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    BTW perhaps you could go out and bend some future chouna handles in shape and let them grow for a couple of years? 🙂 Use some rope and stones etc. Judging on the thickness that shouldn't take too many years. Traditionally here in Sweden they used to bend living trees into certain shapes that they then could come back to and cut down a couple of years later.

  10. flyingshavings September 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm #

    Crooked knives do make a similar finish but the facets are much smaller. Think about it – how big a chip can you remove consistently with a two handled knife, compared to a tool with some weight in it?

  11. Brian September 6, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    Not to intrude with advertising, but here is a guy who loves tools and sells them, including chouna and yarigana and a lot of nice tools that I as an obscure tool geek, love…http://www.fine-tools.com/japaxe.htmhttp://www.fine-tools.com/jhobm.htmagain, nice tools, FYICheers, Brian

  12. Robin Wood September 7, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    Nice link Brian and good to see chona available in Europe. The Tagaki blades were the cheaper ones we saw available in Japan and not as nice as the old ones but the price was not so much cheaper in Japan then this website. He also does shapton stones which are superb, more on those later and yarriganna or yarri kanna again more on those later. These ones are very cheap and it would be interesting to hear from anyone that has tried them.

  13. Brian September 7, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    Here is some info on the chouna handles: http://www.fine-tools.com/japaneseadze.htmlApparently they bend and tie off a young pagoda tree and then harvest it when it is a little over an inch round and let it dry tied off… It would be fairly simple to do the same with ash, or hornbeam, or hickory in the US, but it would take a while.

  14. Robin Wood September 7, 2010 at 8:27 am #

    Yes Brian the site is quoting from Toshio Odate's superb book "Japanese woodworking tools their tradition spirit and use"as far as I can find "pagoda tree" is the same thing as the Japanese carpenters call "enju" Sophora japonica it is slow growing and they say it takes 15 years to grow a handle. It would be interesting to see if a grown ash handle stood up to the hammer they get.

  15. Cayo September 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Hi Robin,Very nice post, thanks for that. I guess the bearded shape of these japanese axes is particularly useful for various tasks and i wonder how the straight edge of the blade works. Also i'm curious how heavy is the head suitable for first cuts/hewing logs. I've seen three heads sold by various guys and it seems they use max. 2lbs axe heads. Has your own you show in another post similar weight?Thanks for helping me work this out.Cayo