Japanese woodworking tools, saws and chisels

Whilst in Japan I used very many saws and chisels all of which were of the finest quality and not to be confused with the cheap Japanese tools available in the UK.

The saws used by Japanese carpenters typically cost £200 and chisels around £150 each. I found it quite shocking that folk would pay £150 for a single chisel and an honour to be given a set of a dozen such chisels to work with. I think nothing of spending £700 on a new chainsaw for my work though in the knowledge that it will probably last 5 years. A good set of chisels will last a lifetime and having paid that sort of money for them they do look after them. Every afternoon at the end of work all tools are cleaned and put away carefully and they are kept razor sharp. Toolmakers give lifetime guarantees and will repair, and regrind any damaged tool. If you look at the picture above you will see above the saw one chisel which has been used and ground so many times both handle and chisel are now only an inch long, I have no doubt that chisel has done £150 worth of work. Here is a typical toolroll.

Saw sharpening is quite complex so is generally left to a specialist saw sharpener but these saws do cut very well indeed. Most carpenters kept their saws in a leather roll and they typically had 5 or 6 different saws some for ripping, some for cross cut, some for cutting the grooves for sliding doors, some for finer work and some for coarser. The saw we know in the west as a typical Japanese saw is the ryoba noku pictured top, a double edged saw with ripping teeth one side, cross cut the other side and a long bamboo handle which is pulled to the side of the body. The index finger of the right hand points down the length of the handle and in using this saw I was told to think not of the point on the line just ahead of the saw but to think about the final destination of the line, this resulted in long smooth strokes and the saw stayed on line perfectly.  These are the sort of joints I was cutting for the tea house so you can see a lot of sawing is involved.

 My favourite saws however were the bigger coarser mibiki (pronounced my biki) saws. These are held directly in front and pulled towards you. They cut incredibly fast and efficiently.

The big mibiki or mibiki oga is fun too, it is a ripsaw used for cutting wide planks. We found it was not as fast as the European pitsaw but when you took into account the time saved by only one man working it and not having to raise the beam onto trestles it was an attractive proposition. It could be used vertically as seen here or horizontally to cut boards from a big log lying on the ground.

One last picture from the tool shop we visited at the end of the trip. Sadly most of the tools were way out of my budget but I did buy some top quality waterstones which are much cheaper than in the UK.

6 Responses to Japanese woodworking tools, saws and chisels

  1. Jock August 31, 2010 at 2:16 am #

    Top blades all round Robin. I'm wondering how many years it took to wear the wee one down to the nub . How are the Japaneses turning tools ? Did you come across any ?Cheers for posting .Jock

  2. Robin Wood August 31, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    I saw no turning tools on this trip though I met one turner and saw his work. I have met Japanese turners in the UK and Germany and seen their tools as well as seen various presentations. They use hooks remarkably similar to mine, forge them themselves and sharpen on waterstones.

  3. Steve Branam September 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Any more detailed pictures of the work-holding when using the maebiki? I have one that needs to be re-handled. I've tried it a bit (wrapping cloth around the handle tang) but have had no luck once the teeth got down in the kerf, it just binds up completely. I've sharpened it based on photos and Toshio Odate's description, including very minor changes to the set of the teeth, but I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong. I assume a proper handle would help, but wouldn't expect it to make that much difference.

  4. stefan February 19, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    hi! yesterday i asked "wodknot" about a japanese tool used in wood carving and he recomended me to check your site.i looked through articles about japanese woodworking tools you have posted,but i didn't find it.the tool used in wood carving is called "sarukiri", and is used for making wood dolls in a form of art called, i think, "sasano bori" or "sasano itto bori" i searched on internet trying to find one to buy ,but i only found few pictures which don’t have a good resolution and a short video on youtube. i want to try to make one,and i need some good references about precise shape, thickness, length and to what angle it is sharpened.would you please help me with this informations,if you can?

  5. Robin Wood February 19, 2011 at 10:34 am #

    @Stefan I know the youtube video and the tool is shown very clearly http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iome0_REpXwI did not visit the bird carvers whilst in Japan.

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