Japanese hand planes are simply a delight to use. When well set up and sharpened by an expert they glide through wood with little resistence and leave a surface finish second to none. The thing that impressed me most about planing wood on the kesorokai tea house project however was the way the worksite was organised on a sloping site so that gravity helped the work.
The Japanese carpenter planes not at a bench but on a beam, these beams are portable and we had several set up on the tea house work site, the beams were all sloping slightly downhill and as we worked we pulled the planes down the slope.
The obvious big difference between Japanese planes from European is that you pull rather than push them but there are other differences too. The blades are very very thick, always laminated and sharpened on a single bevel rather than with a secondary bevel. This has pros and cons, it means when sharpening a larger area of metal is in contact with the stone which means it is easier to control the sharpening and maintain a good flat bevel by hand but it takes longer to remove the metal. The Japanese deal with the latter issue by having incredibly fast cutting waterstones, more on those later.
There are other differences too, in tuning and setting up of the plane and in use. The blades are set at lower angles than typical European style planes, around 37-8 degrees rather than 45, this makes the European plane easier to use but the lower angle of the Japanese plane when correctly set up gives a far superior glass like finish.
The name of our exchange event was “kesurokai” which translates as “planing together” and the Japanese kesurokai organisation holds regular events at which carpenters bring their best planes and try to plane the thinnest most perfect shaving. A nice clean softwood beam is set up, about 5 feet long and 2″ wide. Each competitor planes shavings which have to be complete single shavings the full width and length of the piece. The thinnest wins. I have seen shavings made which are much thinner than toilet paper and when placed over a page of text in a book it is easy to read through them. The thinnest winning shavings are measured by micrometer and get down to 0.05mm.
The Japanese tea house we built had a lot of planed timbers where the the European timber frame was predominantly finished with broad axes. I liked these simple supports for planing long timbers, the rough timber was marked with a snap line, rough shaped with the axe then planed. I spent one afternoon hand planing solidly for 4 hours, it was surprising how much work could be achieved and we were soon knee deep in shavings.
Planes come in many shapes and sizes, I used a set of three for planing the grooves in the main structural timbers into which the main panels of the tea house were housed. We also visited a chairmaker who used a range of small curved planes to smooth chair seats.
I did love the Japanese planes and the surface finish they produced but decent ones start at £300 each. I did learn a lot about how to set a wooden plane up well though and will be revisiting my old wooden planes collected over the years at car boot fairs.
More posts coming on saws, axes, yariganna and my favourite tool the Japanese adze.