Talking Japanese tools with Dorian Bracht / by Tom Sands

Japanese design and aesthetics have held global sway for centuries. Think Porcelain, Bonsai, Sushi and Marie Kondo. In the world of woodworking it’s the tools that are having a big impact at the moment. The internet has made not just information, but the tools themselves much more accessible. From stunning hand-forged Suminagashi steel chisels and blades to bamboo wrapped Ryoba and Dozuki saws. Take a look through any catalogue, website or workshop window and you’ll be sure to find plenty of Japanese saws, chisels, waterstones and planes.

A shot of a few bits from the Tom Sands Guitars collection…

A shot of a few bits from the Tom Sands Guitars collection…

A former Shoji maker’s apprentice and Japanese joinery Youtuber based in Berlin, Dorian Bracht uses both European and Japanese hand tools. The recent Interval episode provided a perfect opportunity for him to share his thoughts on the subject.

Even to a casual observer the tools look different. Saws come in an amazing array of blade geometry, from curved to double edged and are wielded using a long, straight handle. Chisels and planes bear thick, laminated blades forged by master blacksmiths. Also Japanese tools cut on the pull, in direct contrast to Western tools which cut on the push.

At first glance a Japanese plane looks archaic. A block of wood and a chunk of iron. The antithesis of a Stanley plane in it’s cast metal glory, stuffed with a myriad of threads and adjusters. The oak sole of a Japanese plane (Kanna) must be scraped and the blade fitted by the user, which once learned brings numerous benefits. Firstly the craftsperson can optimise the set-up for the conditions, purpose and material. Dorian points out that this process also brings a deeper appreciation of how a Kanna is used and maintained.

Taking a Kanna plane to the backstrip on this Cocobolo Model M.

Taking a Kanna plane to the backstrip on this Cocobolo Model M.

The deceptively simple physical geometry also provides a more holistic feel to how the tool and wood are interacting. You can make micro adjustments to how the plane is held, pulled, or angled in response to this feedback. Dorian admits that there is a lot to learn and perhaps a shift in thinking so his advice is, “If you’re interested in them work with them a lot!” Certainly the more you use them the more you get a sense of what the blade is doing, and the finer the finished surface can be.

Taking this skill to its extreme is the Kezuroukai, the Japanese wood planing competition. Competitors have two hours to finetune their tools and technique before they plane three shavings in front of a judge. The winner is the woodworker who takes the finest shaving. The thinnest wood shaving on record was just 3 microns, which is 10 times thinner than a human hair and even smaller than a blood cell. Respect!!

From the Kezuroukai Japanese wood planing competition. Source: YouTube

From the Kezuroukai Japanese wood planing competition. Source: YouTube

And then there is the Genno, a Japanese hammer. A wonderful example of a simple tool that works beautifully. They are forged with a mild steel centre with a hardened steel outer surface. Dorian explained the reason for this is that the soft steel core enables the hammer to absorb recoil energy. This makes them more efficient and less tiring to use, also because they have one flat and one slightly convex striking face they are suitable for everything from tapping chisels to driving nails.

Dorian admits it’s easy to romanticise Japanese tools, their functional perfection, blades sharpened by a waterstone hewn out of a rock. Implements honed down over the centuries to become what is essential and nothing more. The minimalism, authenticity and tranquility in design shown throughout Japanese culture epitomised in chisels, saws and planes. It is also true that in trained hands they are just wonderful to use, giving the artist a sharpness and precision that is exceptional. Perhaps that’s why Dorian and Tom are such fans!

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Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use by Toshio Odate

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Dorian Bracht on the Interval

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