Ripping Boards from Logs with a Maebiki Oga

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Sawing a board from a log with a handsaw is not only possible, but quite an interesting venture.  If you can love your maebiki oga and snap a good and true line, board lumber will proliferate. I’ve been putting some pretty good hours on my maebiki oga the last week learning to use it, and I’m still far far away from proficiency, but have garnered some useful insight. Up in the Colorado rocky mountains there’s so much beetle kill pine that at least one person dies every year from a tree falling on them while hiking. Suffice it to say, plenty of logs can be had for the asking, assuming you can get them out. Right now I’m still sawing through the beetle kill that came from our property.  This is “blue stain” lumber.

Kobiki Saw Horse

I’ve seen a few pictures searching the interweb of Japanese kobiki at work. There’s lots of shots of sawyers starting the cuts at the top of the log, but nary a photo of finishing the cuts at the bottom. My work holding was really shoddy the last time I posted about using this saw, and I’ve definitely upgraded.

I made this ‘A’ frame saw horse from 5″-8′ pressure treated fence poles. Its tied together with cotton rope, with a few diagonal braces nailed on to keep it from racking side to side. I can start my cuts with the log lying at a shallow angle across the bottom rest. I also used a few pieces of heavy rebar and turned them into log dogs, also a necessity if you want to saw lumber. They do a great job of holding the lumber in place. I’ve been getting by with the three I made pretty well.

Maebiki from Below Log

Standing behind the tip of the log gives a smooth start, being able to see the layout lines on the top and tip of the log. From there its quite comfortable to saw while seated under the log. I’ve been placing another piece of lumber on top of the log being sawed to stand on at a more comfortable angle and keep from smudging up my chalk lines. It also dampens the chatter that can occur when sawing under the log. I’d really like to get a sumitsubo Japanese ink line. Chalk just doesn’t seem to throw well on the irregular surfaces of the log. Canting off two sides of the log allows me to get a more certain layout, at the expense of the widest boards in the center of the log.

Maebiki oga from on top

If my line starts drifting on the opposite side I’ll move to the top of the log and try to correct. I know I said earlier that wedges are your friends, and they are, but you want to use as little wedge as possible to keep the plate from rubbing. Open up the cut too far the saw may want to lay to one side and start cutting at an angle. Sometimes you can rescue a cut that is going badly off the line by wedging the board to an angle that allows you to correct back on the line. Just make sure that you’ll be able to straighten the saw plate back in line with your ink/chalk line once you’ve made the correction. The plate on this saw is so, so very deep, and it corrects like a super tanker at sea. You have to start reversing the direction of your correction before you actually reach it or you end up over correcting and binding as you saw drunkenly back and forth either side of the line.

Maebiki Oga finishing cuts

Here is an eight foot log on the horse, finishing my cuts down to the end. I had to use two screws through the waste lumber either side at the bottom to keep the end from slipping off the horse when sawing. This log position is awesome, because I can saw letting the weight of the maebiki help itself in the cut. You can saw from either side of the log without having to flip it, as well as saw while seated on the back side. Any time you can sit down while slinging a big piece of steel like this, do it!

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A good strong puff of breath keeps my line clear of saw-dust.  My poor western back is not used to working like this, and it takes some getting used to.

Its been a real challenge getting this saw optimally sharpened and set. Over the past week I’ve sharpened it about twice a day for a full day of sawing, but never adjusted the set. This lead to increasing problems tracking on my cut line and binding on the saw plate. As a shoji maker all of my saws have very minimal set, and I strive to keep it that way. But green lumber and a thick plated saw like this require much more than you’re theoretical .004″ tooth set.

So how much set does a maebiki oga need? Good question. There is so precious little info out there in English on hammer setting saws. You just have to get a cheap saw and give it a try.  I’ve been slowly adding set in with a hammer and anvil. My anvil is a piece of 4″ CR ROD 12″ long. It weight at least 50 lb, so makes a decent anvil for hammering on saw plates and peening rivets, whatnot. Probably could do some light forging on it if I ever get my forge set up.

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The hammer is reground from a tack hammer. Its probably a bit light for the job. I’ve only found one picture of a guy hammer setting teeth on a maebiki oga and it looks like he uses a cross peen without ridges, peening at a right angle to the long axis of the tooth. That would allow the user to work with the saw plate supported on your lap. Why don’t I just find that picture.

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The existent hammer setting marks on my saw suggest that the above photo and a straight cross peen were used.

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However, this hammer does work just fine. The face is flat and the ridges are quite shallow, made with a couple passes of a swiss triangle file. I have the saw teeth resting on a straight chamfer at the anvil edge. I want to change it to more of a radius to match the smooth curve that hammer setting leaves in the tooth. I finally think I put enough set back in the saw. Now its just a matter of practice.

Sawyers unite! I know of at least two other woodworking bloggers who have talked about getting a maebiki oga. Do it! You’ll love spending all day to saw one log into boards! Best time ever. Seriously though, we need to figure this stuff out and document it. How many kobiki are even still alive in Japan anymore? And just try finding a partner to get on the bottom of your pit saw. Maebiki are the way to go.

Andon Lamp with Asanoha Pattern

Andon Lamp

I just finished this Andon Lamp, my first. Its made out of pine, and the ordinary character of the lumber was not making me terribly excited about what the finished lamp would look like. And in the daylight it is okay, not great, but turn on the lamp and the glow is magical. It doesn’t put out a great deal of light through the shoji paper, but the mood of this piece I love.

Andon Jigumi

The pattern work for these lamps is quite intricate and time consuming, leaving me wondering if there’s actually anyone out there who would pay for it what it is worth. I actually made it for a friend’s birthday, so I’ll use it as a test case for packing and shipping.

Andon Lamp 2

What do you think? I’m already designing the next one in my head. I can see looking at the market of other people who make this stuff that I need to be able to execute the diamond and hexagonal jigumi to set myself apart.

Restoring and Using a Maebiki Oga

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I’m very tired today from sawing lumber by hand.  Maebiki Oga, whale noko, whale back saw, its all the same. Tools the kobiki shokunin wielded with great skill and energy to saw lumber before power mills took over.

Just got a new puppy, Darla. She’s some kind of a husky lab mix and is 100% adorable hanging out in my shop.

Maebiki nokogiri

The tools of the trade, two maebiki oga and three Japanese cross-cut saws for taking the limbs off trees and cutting logs to length. I ordered these from a seller on ebay for $300. Not bad eh? Of course they arrived covered in rust, without handles, teeth in a shambles, and bent from god knows what kind of horrors in shipment.

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All of these saws with the exception of the shiny new one had the bends and twist beaten out with a hammer on an anvil. Talk about a black art. There’s really no other way to learn hammer correcting a saw these days than to get some cheap steel plate or cheap old bent saws to practice on. The maebiki oga on the left most is still too twisted to use. Because the plate for the saw is quite roughly hammered, its too difficult for me to tell where most of the twist is. It seems like the plate was hammered thinner in the middle as well. It is very easy to ruin a saw by beating on it with a hammer. I know, having ruined several. You need to know why you are hitting, every single blow, know why it is needed and where. Until I understand the saw better, it will hang on my wall and relax. When my skill is ready and the saw is ready I will come back to it.

Japanese saw handle tang

Like I said, I had to make new handles for most of the saws. Its a pretty straight forward process. Trace tang on one half of handle blank, carve recess, glue hand blank together and shape. I feel like I’m using Toshio Odate’s “Japanese Woodworking Tools” as a bit of a bible for my shop these days. I’ve read it countless times, but you never really get it until you try it for yourself, until you hold a saw like this in your hands.

Maebiki oga

One of the maebiki came with writing on it. I like to imagine it says something wonderful about its history or the sawyer who used it, and it almost feels like a shame to take it off, but there is too much rust under the laquer and paint on this thing. I don’t collect tools, I acquire tool to work. Work keeps tools fresh and not rusting away on a barn floor. The original owner of this saw would probably be amazed at it having traveled to the other side of the world to be put back to use. I think after I am gone this saw will still be traveling, looking for the next craftsman with skill.

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Would anyone be able to translate some Japanese?

Sharpening Maebiki Oga

Securely clamping this saw  for filing was necessary because I had to take a good deal of metal off to bring the teeth back into shape after jointing. Its always interesting to joint the teeth of an old saw for the first time. It always surprises me how poor the jointing is for the tooth line. These saws especially depend on efficiently translating a humans energy into cutting force. Joint the saw every time you sharpen and you’re insuring that every tooth on the saw is doing as much work as possible. I’m sorry I don’t have more photos of sharpening this saw, it took several hours and I was too in the zone to stop at the time. Suffice it to say, you need the largest feather file you can get your hands on.

Chon-gake

The Larger teeth on both maebiki oga have “chone-gake” chipbreaker teeth. I actually used a small square swiss needle file to freshen the angles. I tried to keep the angles on the teeth the same as they came, but honestly even my meager skill with metate was able to even things up a bit. The teeth on these saws are the hardest I’ve ever filed. It makes lie-Nielsen saw plates feel like mild steel. Seriously, I was worried my feather file would go dull before I finished. A few of the teeth in the middle of the tooth line were so hard the file wanted to skate without substantial pressure.

Sawing Maebiki Oga

Its been raining every day here for the past couple of weeks so instead of sawing outside I brought a small piece of elm in to try the saws out. The actual mechanics of sawing are pretty easy, if enormously hard work. Its much harder to mark the log, snap your lines properly, and hold the log securely to be cut. My work-holding here was pretty shoddy, I need some real log dogs and saw horses.

But the teeth on this saw are f**king laser beams. It sounds like a zipper being pulled when you pull back and saw dust streams from the cut. I was quite methodical to use the fullest length of the saw possible in the cut. Not just for using the teeth as evenly as possible, but to help clear the saw dust from the cut. With such a deep cut you need to worry about chip clearance at least as much as pulling the saw with power on the tooth edges.

Hand milled lumber

The milling marks left from the saw are barely visible. It took more than a couple of hours to saw these boards and I’m definitely feeling it at the end of the day. All I can think of to add is that wedges are your friends. Use wedges! Don’t let the plate rub and slowly pull your work bench across the shop floor like me!

I’m deeply happy to have these saws. They represent something wonderful, being able to start with the fresh raw tree and work to something so finished. I don’t have the time to saw lumber by hand often, but what can I say? For some reason it brings me peace. Or maybe I’m just really, really tired.

Izutsu-Tsunagi Pattern

Izutsu-tsunagi pattern sample

The izutsu-tsunagi pattern is an abstraction of the Japanese well curb, the parallel crossed supporting structure around a well. This pattern seemed like the next logical pattern to learn after asanoha. In fact, its a good bit easier and faster than asanoha. Today is the last day I’ll be spending at my Grandfathers house-sitting, so I didn’t want to put this pattern in a frame for lack of time.

Square Jigumi

I made a small square jigumi from 5/16″ kumiko using a pair of dividers to create the even interval between pieces.

Cutting kumiko

The smaller squares that form the pattern within the jigumi were thinner 1/4″ kumiko material. It would be a real pain in the butt to try to make the lap cuts with the kumiko already cut to length for each square. With four pieces stacked together I marked four groups, one for each square, and cut the lap joinery before sawing them to length.

Izutsu-tsunagi in progress

With the small squares glued together all that’s left is the diagonal locking pieces. There’s a bit of a challenge in getting each opposing key to be equal lengths. I suppose you could use a stop on your 45 degree trimming jig and slowly bring two pieces in to length through trial and error. In essence, some fitting is necessary, but a bit of math gets you closer from the start.

Locking piece length

The small izutsu square was sized such that it formed three even intervals within the internal space of the square jigumi. So, knowing the interval between the izutsu kumiko, its a simple matter to calculate the length of the diagonal locking piece. Pythagorean theorem anyone? With a simple right triangle you can just multiply the length of one side by 1.414 to get the hypotenuse, but its useful to know both methods of calculating.  I’m working to the thousandth of an inch and that is the tolerance that you need to be working with (for us poor Americans not accustomed to the metric system). I should think that if the thickness of my kumiko wasn’t consistent I would have a lot more time fitting these pieces. I’m pretty happy if my kumiko holds tolerances +-.002″ from what I want. Don’t force the first set of opposing diagonal pieces. If the fit is too tight there it will squish the izutsu square and make more trimming necessary for the remaining diagonals.

This pattern is great and I’m eager to use it in a larger shoji project, possibly as a border. Or, if I get the gumption, a whole shoji panel set with square jigumi with izutsu-tsunagi!

Asanoha Pattern Piece

Asanoha pattern

The redwood boxes I made a couple days ago inspired me to try using the rest of the redwood 2×4 I had for a small asanoha pattern piece. It measure one foot quare with a square jigumi and 1″ square frame. Because I’m still away from my home shop all of the work was done with hand tools.

Japanese mortising

I’ve been watching lots of Youtube videos of Japanese shokunin working at a planing board and they use their legs and feet to hold material while doing all sorts of stuff. It looks awkward, but turns out its faster than clamping material for mortising. In addition, my knees were absolutely screaming from sitting cross-legged and kneeling all day, so anything you can do to stretch them out feels good. Normally I’m sitting at the same height as the material I’m mortising, so working this way actually allowed me to be less stooped over.

Mitered mortise and tenon

For the frame joinery I used a mitered mortise and tenon. Not quite as strong as the mitered boxed mortise and tenon, but this piece is so small it didn’t seem necessary.

Square Jigumi

The kumiko work was quick, so few pieces to cut and mortise. I’m finding it necessary to finish plane my kumiko while checking thickness with a dial caliper to get accurate results. A kumiko-kezuri-kanna plane with holdown bar would really help my tolerances. I’ll definitely be making one in the future.  Iida tool sells a hikouki kanna by Inomoto for a mere $900. I think you can see why I use a much simpler kanna to make my kumiko.

Asanoha pattern

The mitered mortise and tenon required some clamps to hold things together for glue-up. I had a little trouble with the angles on my miters this time. The 45 degree jig that I used to trim the miters on the mortised ends was starting to get a little inaccurate and worn from use. I didn’t notice it until I test fit the frame pieces. Thankfully it was correctable without changing the total inside length of the frame pieces. This piece was sixteen hours to make, so its worth about $200 if it were to be sold.