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.

13 thoughts on “Restoring and Using a Maebiki Oga”

  1. Awesome! Well done mate. I hope you make something gorgeous out of the elm (witch elm? or American elm?).

    Was the log green? Your cuts are very tidy.

    I have just acquired a maebiki also. In very good condition but the teeth need jointing. The rake on yours and mine seem set for soft woods. Obviously it cut the elm though! I can’t wait to get this incredible tool operating; I’m utterly humbled by it.

    1. Thanks! I think it is Siberian elm, there seems to be plenty of it growing in suburban areas along the front range. The log was green, and the teeth of the saw are set for softwood. It was hard to pull, but cut pretty well none the less.

      Awesome that you’ve acquired a maebiki-oga! It is a saw that requires constant work and sharpening, but you’ll love it I’m sure. Send me some photo’s if you get it up and running, I’m always curious what other people settle on for work-holding.

      All of my hand sawyering posts are now organized under ‘kobiki’ tag.

      1. Turns out my saw is from the same guy you bought yours off!
        Fingers crossed for a flat and undamaged saw.

        Saw your saw in a YouTube video:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9WDEm8P_hc

        How did you clean yours up?
        I’m thinking of using some slurry off of a Naniwa 220 stone.
        Wondering if the stone could be used to flush the plate up if it needs it.

        Although I’d like to remove the surface rusting and inspect any patina.
        I’ve got a wire disk and a small grinder but that feels like butchery to me.

        Any advice you have time to spare would be hugely appreciated. I’m so chuffed to see someone put the work in to get his saw REALLY working!

        Name it yet? A saw like that has got to have name right? I’m thinking about Mobiki (get it? lol)

        Thanks

        Ellis

        1. You’re right, same guy. I don’t think he knows too much about tools, but he seems to be pretty good at finding these saws. There’s slightly better deals to be had on Yahoo Japan auctions, but I feel like I got a pretty good value from the purchase. I did buy two saws, specifically so that I would increase my chances of getting a good one. The maebiki-oga that I favour of the two has a thicker surface ground plate, heavy and stable in the cut. Of course, you can always send it to Mark Grable if it needs more work, but you’ll have to get pretty good with the file and hammer setting if you want it to cut well. There’s actually a special parallelogram shaped file with 135 degree angle for the chone-gake, but I’ve done pretty well with a square file, just sharpening each facet of the chone-gake separately. Mark said he uses a round file, might be worth a try. I can saw for about half a day before it really feels like it needs sharpening, some seriously wonderful hard steel.

          For removing rust I had to be pretty aggressive, the surface of these saws is often fairly undulating. I used 220 grit silicon carbide sandpaper with WD40 as lubricant, and added a bit of loose 150 grit silicon carbide abrasive to help work into the low spots. In spots with really bad rust I’ll work from any direction, but in general I used long strokes along the length of the saw to keep the polishing consistent looking. It actually took a lot of time to get the rust off by hand, and I didn’t take it off all at once. The saw takes a nice polish from use though, finally after many many hours in the cut its starting to look pretty good. I wipe it down with camellia oil after every use.

          The tang can have the worst rust problem, make sure you get it all off before putting a handle on, or it will just keep rusting in contact with the wood and the moisture it holds, consider wire brushing the tang if need be and treating with something to block rust.

          I hope you get a good saw! Please let me know how it goes, there’s definitely a learning curve, especially over the first 100 hours or so. I was searching online a couple days ago for other people actually using these saws, couldn’t find much of anything. We’re bringing it back!

          1. Thanks for the advice!

            At least the saw is huge so I stand some chance of doing an OK job! I’ve read it’s good practice to start on a large saw. I’d love to see some video of you sharpening and setting.

            I found this link (which you might have found with your searching):

            http://www.geocities.co.jp/SweetHome-Ivory/2387/Kikigaki/Oga.htm

            all about Maebiki. I’m gonna get it translated by someone at Exeter University as there are lots of Japanese students.

            Also I’ve read that Mr Hayashi (林さん) has written a book on sawing, but again it’s in Japanese (no surprises)!

            :http://okanna.blogspot.co.uk/2006/01/kezurou-kai.html

            Photo of Mr Hayashi filing his saw.

            And I found these guys ripping some green English oak (Quercus robur), so that gives me great confidence that I can use this for the average European hardwood (Hornbeam not included lol)

            Will be interesting to see how often I’ll need to sharpen the saw working on these species. I might get another 1 or 2 saws if I can find them and file a hardwood tooth geometry if necessary.

            Hopefully you’ve not seen all this before!

            Happy ripping:-))

    1. Thanks Ellis, great links!
      Yup, Mr. Hayashi has written a book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/4094114718?psc=1&redirect=true&ref_=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00
      It was totally worth it for me to buy, even not speaking Japanese. I’ve yet to try milling horizontally, but I think I’ll get the chance here quite soon because I’ve come across some trees that are too big to move easily without heavy equipment. Halving and quartering in place, even straight up slabbing the whole thing in place, one of the real beauties of these saws.

  2. Words on the saw read like lyrics to a workers song. Odd lyrics though, reads like the lament at having to share the wood with “mountain master” which I would imagine to be the tree fellers. Something like that…

  3. The song lyrics inscribed on your saw are of a folk song from Miyazaki Prefecture, in Kyushu Japan. This song would be sung by the workers using this saw. My wife is translating and researching the meaning of the lyrics for me. Old Japanese can be debated like old english as to the true meaning.
    The lyrics are are a reflectlion of the the life of sawyer working in the mountain side. There is a story within the song of an older sister marrying to a sawyer, and being drawn apart from her younger sister. It seems as though there is a comparison being made to the seperating of the trees from the mountain side, as the workers remove trees belonging to the same family.
    My wife (Japanese ) has trouble to understand the song, as the lyrics are from a bygone era.

    This is link to a performance of the song:
    “Hyuga Kibiki Uta” (songs name)

    http://youtu.be/zAXMRB34Yc4

      1. I was really inspired by your blog, and your passion for the trade. It’s a great thing your doing by posting photos and videos to be found by the rest of us who share your enthusiasm towards true craftsmanship.
        I hope more people come by your work and share their support for heritage hand craft by employing people like yourself and purchasing soulful solid wood furniture.
        I am a Canadian living in Osaka, Japan. We are blessed to be able to make these connections with today’s technology. Please do reach out.

        Steve

  4. Gabe,
    The verse written on your saw says that the sawyer (山師, yamashi) is worse (more hated) than the carpenter (大工さん, daikusan) because he separates the friendship (between trees) by cutting them down (and leaving some lonely and longing).
    舞蹴

  5. Sorry for the necro-post, but I’ve been looking and can’t find the answer to a question I have anywhere. Can you say approximately how thick your maebiki is at both the teeth and the back of the blade? Been having so much trouble finding one for sale that doesn’t have teeth missing that I’m going to start talking to fabricators I know to see about getting a new one made.

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