12/18/2013 Decorative Japanese Chisels -Part 2
|Last week I wrote about decorative Japanese chisels. Blacksmiths as a group confine most of their decorative work to the blades and the rest of the chisel, no matter the price range, tends to be stock items or nearly so.|
Handle making is a specialist trade and none of the modern smiths make their own handles and get them from a couple of suppliers. On even the most expensive tools you can usually see tool marks from the automated turning machines that are used. The only thing that varies is the material. From the top of the lead picture in this entry the woods are: White Oak, Sandalwood, Ebony, Red Oak, Wenge, and Boxwood.
Of these woods Red and White oak are the most common materials found on all Japanese chisels. Oak is resilient and easy to install on a tang, the wood is porous and absorbs sweat, and the material is inexpensive. The other materials listed fall under the category of exotics. All are in general much harder to mushroom without splitting the wood - Ebony being particularly hard and brittle. Installation of a very hard wood handle is harder. Toshio Odate cautioned me many times on the folly of using any other handle material than oak for a handle and certainly in almost all situations he is correct. Even on a paring chisel, which isn't meant to be struck, a non-absorbent handle will be slippier than an absorbent one. The brittle exotic woods are prone to breakage, and cost more money in the first place. But one cannot deny the elegance of the material. My own personal set of dovetail chisels has ebony handles and even with a long soaking mushrooming the handle over the hoop was hard to do, and the mushroom cracked in a couple of places. That being said the handles have a different, "more positive" feel than oak when striking. I feel the material allows a more precise strike with less energy absorbed in the handle. Another major problem with exotics is that Japan is by and large wetter than the US and the handles shrink when they come into the US. With oak you can compress the handle enough so that the hoop will still fit the handle snuggly and all you need to do is mushroom the head. With exotics, which don't compress well, many times the hoops arrive loose and there isn't much that can be done. Nishiki, who made my set, does prefer Ebony over oak for his decorative sets, but I fear it's an aesthetic choice, not a mechanical one.
The chisels shown are all hooped and designed for striking with a metal hammer. In the old days the blacksmith would forge weld their own hoops. These days, with the possible exception of Tasai, nobody does. The standard hoop is a shiny ring of plated steel, but manufacturers can also purchase stock hammered and blacked hoops for a more handmade look. Tasia's hoops don't look 100% stock, but they probably started out that way.
The ferrule that joins the chisel body to the handle is also a stock item. After assembly some blacksmiths grind a uniform finish to the top of the chisel bolster and the ferrule so that it looks like one piece, others don't bother, Some blue or blacken the ferrule, and others, like Tasai add forge marks to suggest that the ferrule is made from scratch. In his case they might be but I don't think so.
Traditionally smiths would sell only the chisels body and leave it to the craftsman to add a handle. These days, especially for American audiences, chisels are sold ready to go. Assembling the chisels, installing the handle, ferrule, and hoop, isn't usually done by the blacksmith. It might be done in their shop, but it is usually done when assembling orders. That way the smith can deliver a wide variety of chisel types with different combinations of handle material, hoop, and ferrule depending on the customer's requirements. It's not at all unusual even in high end chisels to find mismatched ferrules sitting too high on the handle and poorly seated hoops.
|In the European tradition the steel parts of tools have been usually made, for the last couple of centuries anyway, in large factories. The metalwork is usually straightforward, forged by nameless smiths, and any decorative differentiation is in the handle material, and maybe some brass trim. In Japan where the manufacture of edge tools is still concentrated in the hands of masters who sign their work, most chisel makers have one or two decorative versions of their tools where the steel itself is the focus of the decorations. |
In Japanese practice a thin high carbon steel cutting edge is forge welded onto a soft steel body. It's the body where the decorative moves take place. As all the tools by a specific maker have the same cutting edge layer there is no functional reason to use a decorative chisel. But they look cool, are eminently collectible, and in many cases inspire one to do better work.
I don't actually collect decorative chisels so the pieces I have in my collection date from the early days of this company when we imported samples of Japanese tools.
From the left (in the top picture and the first detail shot) three suminagashi style chisels, starting from the left, by Tasai. Then comes an maker I don't recall, followed by a chisel by Iyoroi. The suminagashi style is made by welding two different kinds of iron and other metals together, then flattening,folding and rewelding the resultant billet. The English term for suminagashi is "Damascus steel". Finally the steel is etched to bring out the dissimilar layers in a visible pattern. By varying the folds, layers, and materials you can get different patterns. Tasai is considered the modern master of this technique and you can see how elegant and reserved his chisels can be. The chisel by Iyoroi is fairly recent. The father of the current Iyori did spectacular suminagashi work but on his retirement the skill was not passed on and this new interpretation, while interesting, doesn't really excite me. I don't know much about the maker in the middle, the over the top character of the layers suggests that some of the decoration might have been formed not by folding but by welding already punched steel into layer. I just don't know enough to be sure.
In the second detail picture (and on the right of the main picture) we have a plain chisel in the middle surrounded by two chisels made from kamaji iron. The chisel on the right is by Nishiki and has a twisted shank - an old style which Nishiki reintroduced. (As far as we know Nishiki is retired and we only have a limited amount of his non-decorative chisels available) This style is make by using kamaji iron - which is very old wrought iron from before 1850, before sulfurous coals were used in the refinement, for the body of the chisel. After welding the body to the bottom steel layer the kamaji iron is etched. Wrought iron has lots of impurities, and is also was originally formed formed by forging, so after etching the impurities away you get a tree bark like texture which is very elegant.
One important characteristic of Japanese chisels is that they have hollow backs. The hollow is usually ground in, but it also can get decorative treatment. Nishiki chemically accentuates the grind texture, some other makers try for a smooth dead matte surface.
While I plan an additional blog entry on decorative handles and hoops in the near future here are a few more pictures, showing some of the decorative details of the suminagashi chisels and a closeup of the twisted neck chisel by Nishiki.
|One weekend a bunch of summers ago, when I was single, young, and optimistic, it was so hot that the young adults of New York City were walking around in their underwear. Shirtless men in micro shorts and sandals and women in the tiniest of skirts and what really was a nightie dressed up as outerwear but no less transparent. It was an excellent time to roam the streets, no imagination needed. One day my friend from France, I'll call him "Luc", dropped by wearing a beat up t-shirt, jeans with their legs torn off at the hip, and sandals. "Luc" I said, "What happened? I know it's hot but you look like the cat dragged you in through a junkyard".|
"I know", he said smiling from ear to ear "In Paris I could never leave the house like this".
Americans, are, as a group, the most casual dressers in the first world. Now this isn't a bad thing, we have a porous, egalitarian society but woe to the sales person who judges a customer on how they dress.
But, and this very important. The reverse isn't true. If you are selling high end woodworking products, as a cabinetmaker or as anything, customers will judge you all the time.
It's about first impressions. You might have just gotten out of the workshop (which destroys clothing) and you might be the honest workman but the first impression your customer will have is a guy wearing beat up clothing who obviously doesn't identify with the high end, well made, products you makes. No matter how convincing your sales patter is, you are not advertising your product very well because your subliminal message is defeating your pitch. It becomes an uphill battle.
This is why if you going into any high end store the sales staff is dressed to the nines.
Of course with woodworking products, you have to be careful. If you show up to a meeting in a suit and tie you are breaking the connection the customers want to have with the "maker", with the "craftsman". Even if you happen to be the person making the stuff, you come off as a sales guy and lose your maker cred.
Most guys I know who work with clients make sure that when they deal with clients directly they aren't wearing their shop clothing, but are wearing clean and stylish versions of their shop clothing. You need clothing that is clean, fits, informal but respectful, and most of all is well made and looks it. Clothing has to be stylish enough so that people don't think that you and your work are old fashioned. Do it right and the client who has no professed interest in clothing will still get a subconscious message that you are doing good work, and the client who actually takes an interest in clothing will get additional message that you are well dressed, clean and neat, and your clothing has the details and quality that they are looking for in furniture.
You want your clothing to advertise that you are a person who understands quality and that your bid, while on the high side of your competitors (of course), reflects your plan to deliver exactly the quality product they are looking for because you understand exactly what the customer is looking for.
Before you yell at me and tell me I'm exaggerating, think about how hard it is to convince anyone what quality is and why they should pay you for it, and then think about how we can all use any help we can get in moving a deal to close. Even if clothing isn't something you are naturally interested in - and I'm certainly not interested in clothing - it doesn't mean you can't be better at it. Fortunately, unlike learning to play the banjo, dressing better is mostly about finding sources for well made clothing, and making sure it fits.
This is a lesson I learned late in life. Preparing a presentation is just one more part of a project, and the accessories, including clothing, to make the presentation go well are just the cost of doing business. I think of it as a presentation tool like any other.
This gives me an excellent opportunity to mention that we are now stocking in very limited quantities a few styles of work clothing by "Engineered Garments". EG clothing is all made in a 50 mile radius of New York city, and the quality comes from using top notch fabrics and extreme attention to detail. We are stocking their clothing because EG the brand is owned by Nepetheles, a NYC garment firm that invited us last January to have a pop-up store in their store, and we were so take by the quality of the stuff they make, we thought we would give it a try. I have personally bought two pairs of pants and for the first time in my life I'm getting a few compliments because the pants are properly tailored in the first place and they just fit me better.
We elected to work with Engineered Garments, which is one of the best makers of work clothing in the US but happens to be at the high end of quality and price. Look around, ask around, if you want to up your game find a clothing maker who speaks both to how you want to be presented and to your budget. You will find that you will walk into a sales meeting with more confidence, you will create a better impression, and both advantages will make it easier to close a deal.
Note: Unlike everything else we sell we are not allowed to offer EG clothing via a click to purchase on-line. if you see something you like, just give us a call (800-426-4613) and we will help you with sizing and placing the order.
*N.B The expression "Clothes make a man" is a modern paraphrase from William Shakespeare
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy -- rich, not gaudy,
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that. (Hamlet 1.3.70-75)
Until he retired in the 1960's my grandfather owned a luncheonette in Chelsea whose primary customers were the factory workers who worked in the thousands of garment industry sweatshops in the area. Everything is gone now, a small hardware store occupies the location, but what reminded me of this is that at the end of the day, the last job for Cook was to sharpen all the kitchen knives and dry them so they didn't rust. In those days stainless steel knives didn't exist and today many chefs still prefer regular carbon steel to stainless. The reason is that carbon steel is easy to sharpen and it takes a wicked edge. A real wicked edge.
Ron Hock who knows a thing or two about steel used to be a knifemaker before he started making woodworking tools. So it gives us great pleasure to announce going full circle and introduce these two kits for making your own kitchen knives.
We love the idea of these kits as Ron has tried to make the kits as easy as possible for you. All the metalwork is done, and basically the work remaining is making and attached the handle scales - which is where the personalize the knife and make it yours.
|It's that time of year again when a tool retailer's mind drifts to retailing. With that in mind I thought I would go over some of the books we stock that I think you should read. |
Make a Joint Stool From a Tree
is a great underrated book. A how-to seeped in history. Jennie Alexander, a co-author along with Peter Follansbee also did a video on chairmaking many years ago called Make a Chair From a Tree
which I found long, but comprehensive and very interesting.
We Sit Together
is a small charmer of a book. I wrote about it and an exhibit based on the book here
Exercises in Wood-Working
is a great book for those of you who want to learn woodworking using hand tools and can benefit from a structured series of lessons.
I still think that The Joiner And Cabinetmaker
, which I had a hand in getting to press, is one of the best books on learning to do woodworking. The reason is that it is a story, a narrative about learning to be a joiner. I think the projects make eminent sense for a beginner and the story gives everything context.
We stock a lot of books, some I think are must haves, some that may not be a first choice for a beginner, but as you get more interested in producing good work these are books that should find their way into your library. In this age of the internet where so much information is available free one important thing you get from a book is a coherent narrative. The author has made editorial choices on how to present information over the length of the book and that to me makes it far easier to learn.
Here are a bunch of more books that are not on the list above that you can learn from:
To Make as Perfectly as Possible
By Hand and Eye
With The Grain
We expect to have one or two more titles available in the coming days or weeks. I've also left off the list a few charmers like Pocket Tree Finders by Nature Study Guild
which are great stocking stuffers and other titles which I can't think of now (it's Tuesday night just before the blog goes live and with all the talk of Black Friday and Cyber Monday I feel that I have to mention some products for the holidays but it's not like the marketing analysis committee has been working on this list for months. Actually the best part of working in a small company like ours is that we get to pick stuff we like - remember "staff picks" at the bookstore or video store - when we had book and video stores run by people? This is what this blog entry is really about.)
|The pictures are of a small set of Mathieson cabinetmaker's floats that I purchased a few years ago. Available in a bunch of sizes to match standard hollow and round profiles, these were offered by Alex Mathieson & Son, the giant Glasgow tool makers, from the 1840's to I think around 1880. |
While very rare, which is partly a function of the short time they were offered for sale, and partly because very few people bought them, the seemed the perfect antidote to how to work the last bit of a stopped molding. I also thought they might have some general cabinetmaking application as the Mathieson catalog does call them "Cabinetmaker's Floats".
Except that they don't work.
I mean that they really don't work. Of the half dozen floats I have, none has any significant wear on them and the teeth of the float have no relief angle. So then you go over a board, nothing digs in and cuts. I could not get them to cut for squat. I am willing to entertain the idea that the user needed to sharpen the float by either adding relief or rolling on some sort of burr. Of the former notion, that would be really hard to do. There are a lot of teeth and no clearance for sharpening. Of the latter notion, the steel is hard, and there is no evidence that anyone even tried. Also, in any case, most tools sold usually have enough grinding on them so that they sort of work. These floats didn't work at all.
This might account for their rarity.
Now for the second part of the blog title. We like to think that the Victorian woodworker used series of molding planes to work all their moldings on a job, working in an airy, well lit workshop. While this might have been true for workshops in rural areas, and for high end shops, in most places moldings were things you bought pre-made in lengths from a lumber yard, just like today. And from the 1840's on (actually a little earlier in some cases) the moldings were machine made on early shapers.
As a modern day seller of router bits I can tell you that everyone these days uses carbide bits and both routers and shapers spin incredibly fast so that you get a smooth surface. In the 19th century this wasn't the case. The bits would be steel, and the speed of rotation nowhere as fast as today. Consequently you ended up with a molding with regularly spaced rises and falls. This problem gets even worse as the cutters dull - which happens pretty quickly.
So what do you do about it?
Here is my theory, I have no contemporary evidence backing this up and would welcome some documentation. All I can say is that practical testing of my theory bears me out. If you take an uneven machine made molding, with the hills and valleys of a too slow or dull cutter and work a multi-tooth float with no relief over it, the float cuts. It evens out the hills and valleys and you get something that looks like it came from a molding plane. I think this is exactly what the Mathieson cabinetmaker's floats were for. And they were available from the early days of machine made moldings, where the uneven surface of the machine wasn't acceptable to only a few decades later, when the machines were better and customers also got used to machine made moldings.
I have no proof that I am right but so far I haven't been able to poke a significant hole in my theory. What are your thoughts?
Note: "To Make as Perfectly as Possible" is now available! Yipee!!
|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.||