Japanese woodworking tools, the plane

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.

4 Responses to Japanese woodworking tools, the plane

  1. Neil August 31, 2010 at 5:06 am #

    Robin, I have a some old Kana blades (without the blocks) which I have accumulated over the years that are spare to my requirements. You would be welcome to a couple if you would like to make up your own blocks for them. If so, email me.

  2. Robin Wood August 31, 2010 at 5:54 am #

    Neil,That is a very generous offer and it would be a very interesting project to work on so yes I would very much like to take up your offer. I have some dry old oak that has been in store for many years, I imagine making a plane block is best done in stages to allow the stress out of the block and to get it really stable. I shall have to read up on it a little.

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  4. Tam Dl August 2, 2015 at 6:24 am #

    I built my first Japanese plane back around 1979. I just got stuck in and had only a few published articles to use for info. The first plane I made was a rough object, but has served me well all this time, it is sorta in the Jack range, but it has fairly wide capabilities, and is never far from my hand in the shop. I have lots of Japanese tools since that time, and am familiar with most price ranges and types.

    The original plane used a blade purchased from LV for 13.50 Canadian. The subblade was a throwaway, but the main blade is superb, and compares not badly to blades 20 times more expensive. If you see a true catalogue of Japanese woodworking tools, there are hundreds of different pieces for sale, in all price ranges. It only makes sense that they export their best stuff. But there is tons of very good stuff at every price range. I have a superb set of HSS chisels that work just as nicely as my Ouchii chisels.

    I put the 13.50 blade into a piece of north american white oak. Not the best choice but it has been ok for the last 35 years. I have had to resole it a few times, there is a whole 20 minutes shot. 🙂 The first plane I ever owned, also from back then, that took a 4 tens shaving was set in a white oak body also.

    I have a crazy C&W style plane I made using a Japanese blade held in the conventional Japanese manner. That block is NA beech, again, not an ideal material, but wood is wood, not pixie dust, and it works fine.

    Paradoxically I have never spent money on Japanese tools where the higher price range was not justified in some discernible quality, but one is working the wood, not the tools, and the end results can be superb regardless of the grade of tool. Well, there is one exception, tourist grade Japanese tools with fancy handles and that kind of thing are sometime not even seconds in quality.