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Book Review: Japanese Woodworking Tools
Their Tradition, Spirit and Use
By Toshio Odate

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Toshio Odate's Japanese Woodworking Tools introduces westerners to the wide range of tools traditionally used in hand tool woodworking in his native country. These tools, at once intriguing and at the same time baffling to westerners, have character, qualities and uses that differ from what we're used to in our own hand tools. Odate carefully lays out the traditional development of the tools from their earliest known days, describes their variations and explains their use.

But Odate's book is far more than a catalog of tools. As the book's subtitle-- "Their Functions, Spirit and Use"—suggests, Odate's mission in writing the book is to make clear the spiritual connections between the tools, their makers, users and application in woodworking. We westerners are prone for the most part to look upon our tools as objects of utility. Sure, we admire a beautifully-crafted handplane for its elegance, but it's in its use that we are most interested. This contrasts significantly from the Japanese experience of their tools. While the Japanese do rely on superior performance from their tools, they also expect them to have a certain elegance, a presence, a spirit if you will that reflects proudly on their heritage and on the love and intention with which they're imbued by the craftsmen who create them.

The distinction between the westerner's appreciation of his or her tools' capabilities, on the one hand, and the Japanese woodworker's reverence for the tools' heritage, on the other, is hard to convey in a few words. Odate helps us understand and appreciate the distinction through careful explanation and stories from his own apprenticeship to a sliding door maker. Not only are his reminiscences an interesting introduction to a different cultural tradition but they are also critical to our understanding of the spirit of reverence in which the Japanese woodworker holds his tools.

Odate's review of tools begins with the workshop, which often enough is an improvised setting at the job site. Typically, a planing beam 5-6 inches square and 10-15 feet long would be set up on an angle with one end on a horse. Long planing would be conducted on the beam; short planing would be done from a sitting position, traditional for much of Japanese woodworking. Also available would be a tool box of simple construction to carry planes and chisels to the worksite and then hold them ready for use.

As in the west, marking tools are essential to quality work, and here the Japanese tools resemble their western counterparts. These include the equivalents of snap lines, large and small squares, marking gauges, trammel gauges and panel gauges.

It's with saws that the differences from western tools widen. It is well known that Japanese saws cut on the pull stroke rather than the push. This allows blades to be thinner, since there's little risk of buckling the saw blade, thus resulting in thinner kerfs. The variety of types and uses of Japanese saws exceeds that of western saws and Odate explains their uses and how and when they are employed.

Chisels, too, differ from western chisels, though there are close analogs to what we're used to using. Odate discusses both socket and tang chisels as an introduction to Japanese Chisels, many of which employ a combination socket and tang. The Japanese appear to have an even wider variety of chisels than our western chisels, with many specialized chisels for cutting joints not ordinarily used in the west.

Like saws, Japanese planes (kanna) are used on the pull stroke, often from a sitting position. It's perhaps the sitting position that inspired the conversion from push to pull stroke, since from that position it's possible to use the full upper body strength to move the plane. Unlike western planes, which are generally set at 45 degrees, Japanese planes are set at 37-38 degrees, which enhances the slicing action of the plane and leaves a smoother finish on the softer woods that make up a large part of Japanese woodcraft. Odate points to the value of a very sharp blade and a chipbreaker set as close as possible to the blade edge for fine work. In planes with no chipbreaker, he would dampen the wood slightly to allow the plane to cut more smoothly.

Odate describes how to construct a block plane, similar to a western smoothing plane. Then he reviews the variety of handplane types, all wooden-bodied, some with chipbreakers, others with blades alone.

Planes and chisels are useless, of course, if not properly sharpened. Odate discusses waterstones—his preference. He concludes that manmade stones, though not traditional, are acceptable alternatives to natural waterstones and he uses them for all but the finishing stone, which for him is a natural waterstone.

Sharpening Japanese tools differs from western practice, partly because the backs of plane blades and chisels are hollowed out, leaving smaller areas to be flattened. Odate argues for a flat bevel on the blades, with no microbevel or hollow grind. He offers an interesting description of the methods of making Japanese blades, which are composed of a layer of hard steel attached to a backing of softer steel that absorbs shocks in use and eases sharpening.

Other tools are given brief treatment, including adzes and axes, knives, anvils, pry bars, oil pots of bamboo and clamps.

I found this to be a mind-bending book. It helped me understand the benefits as well as the traditions of Japanese Woodworking Tools and made me want to try some of them in my own work, particularly saws, planes, chisels and natural waterstones. Anyone who is intrigued by Japanese culture or who simply wants to give Japanese tools a try will find this book both inspiring and highly instructive. Because it has few if any competitors, this book is important. Though it may take you out of your comfort zone, Odate's gentle spirit and sensitive writing make it an easy trip. This classic book will be a welcome addition to the libraries of woodworkers of all levels.

Find out more and purchase Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use by Toshio Odate


J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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