Song of the Maebiki-Oga

The process of sawing a beetle kill pine log into 4/4 (1″) thickness boards, using an antique Japanese hand saw known variously as a Maebiki-Oga, Whale Back Saw, Whale Noko.

The work was accomplished over two days, starting with peeling and marking the log. It produced 58.78 Board Feet of lumber, a value of $165.76 at my local retail price of $2.82 per BF. For two days of labour, ten hour days, that works out to $8.28/hr of value produced. Not too bad for a hand saw, right?

Shooting and editing a video takes a great deal of time! Let me know if you want to see more, otherwise I have some sawing to do, haha.

You know, I feel I am standing at a cross-roads looking for where to head next. If I want to truly make a living doing things like this it means studying with the right person, an apprenticeship. I don’t mean that I want to apprentice as a kobiki, haha, I love it but no. I’ve realized that shoji probably will not work for me as well, the local market is simply not here and crate shipping large items is a serious hassle.

I’m a tool maker at heart, and I love the nokogiri. Maybe there’s something in that.

Sharpening the Maebiki-Oga

The whale-noko needs frequent sharpening, thankfully its quick. Perhaps you can hear that some of the teeth in the center are harder than the others?  I start with a small square file to form both facets of the chone-gake. At the moment I’m using a 100mm yasuri to file the top bevel that forms the edge. This is a normal sharpening, only some of the chone-gake need adjustment, there’s enough set for many sharpenings, and the top bevel haven’t become too wide to require cutting down of the major tooth angles. I use a coarse diamond plate for jointing the tooth line. Soon to come, video of the saw at work.

Work Holding for Quarter Sawing by Hand


The best work holding is a heavy log. So, take one log and saw it in half. Easy right? With an asymmetrical pith it takes a bit of eyeing the symmetry to decide where to cut. I clocked this cut, it took two hours of sawing.


In this case there was quite a pronounced crook at the bottom end of the log. I was glad that I had sawn through the crook halving the crotch wood. Looking at the inside of the tree it was clear that the main trunk had at one time died, and a side shoot took over as the primary, so there’s some really wild grain at the bottom. Its the kind of thing that I should have seen when bucking the tree to length and cut around.


At this point it became obvious that my center line had to be moved to better orient to the grain, and produce boards without excessive taper.  I thought I would saw the quarters on my bandsaw so no board cuts were marked at the time.  Knowing what I do now, that my bandsaw simply cannot handle heavy stock with the blade I’m running, I should have gone ahead and marked two boards on each log half either side of the center line.


One of my neighbors, Tuck, dropped by and gave me a log. Now, this is the truck you want if you’re picking up logs! I’ve come up with a couple better ways of loading logs in my pickup truck, but this is what the pro’s use.

This reminds me, I was watching a video the other day about a guy loading a giant red gum in Australia. The loading process is not that remarkable, but the end of the video shows a really unusual saw mill.

Ever seen a giant circular saw connected to the boom arm of a bobcat? Wild stuff, I would not have wanted to be the guy standing there taking the video.


I added this simple back stop to hold the bottom of the quarters. I suppose I should pick something a bit more durable looking. If this were to break the log would swing back like a pendulum and deck me in the skull. Up to this point I’ve been simply screwing the log to the horse, but for a log quarter you end up putting too many screw holes into the bottom of every board you make.


Now knowing that I need to saw most of the quarter by hand I leveled one face and marked the ends for each board cut. Even though I had sealed the end of the log with wood glue the sumisashi gave a fairly clear line.


My other work holding solution, screws and plastic pipe strapping. Not terribly elegant, and I’m working on something better, but it works. Log dogs are great for holding logs in a given orientation, not so much as a hold-down device.


This is what a dull saw looks like. The teeth actually take quite a polish from use. Edge wear is just polishing of the steel.


The site that I linked to in my previous post, Carpenters from Europe and Beyond, also have video of many other sawyers. One of them:

Pit Sawing in Turkey

It shows a rope hold down with board and wedge. Its a simple concept that I would use in a couple different points of holding on my ‘A’ frame saw horse, pictured is my favorite so far. One of the problems I’ve had is the log pivoting over the horse when sawing beneath it at the start of the cut. If you think about it, I could use a variation of this for holding the log vertically in lieu of the pipe strapping. You can tell that I don’t go to any extra effort to make this stuff look nice, its all about function.  I also had to add an extra log cradle on the bottom rest to bring the log high enough up off the ground that I could saw underneath with a full comfortable stroke.


And! My wooden floor, how’s this Mark? Good old mother earth and a bed of soft sawdust.

What must it have taken?


I’ve been sawing over the past week the sections of big tree that by some miracle was able to be loaded in my truck. I started with one of the smaller sections, marking at 1-3/4″ on center, so making boards of 1-5/8″ after the kerf is considered. Really I think of this cut as 6/4, the thickness I need for shoji rail/stile. I was amazed to get such a good mark of the ink-line for the ouside boards. Some of it had to be marked in by eye with the sumisashi.



And, after a day of sawing, I came to the parting off. I’ve been told that the maebiki-oga looks almost cartoonish in scale. It starts to make perfect sense when you’re cutting through more than 12″. This log was heavy enough that I had to waylay my brother into helping me lift it onto the horse. It almost tipped over the whole affair in the process. I guess that’s how you know that the log is getting heavy enough to mill horizontally. Ideally one person can accomplish any of this stuff with a bit of ingenuity.

The sawdust makes sitting on the ground quite comfortable. Or kneeling for that matter.


If you understand the possibilities of the ramp you’ll save yourself a great deal of back ache. I almost, almost had a dumb moment and tried to lift the log up onto the cradles. Apparently I can learn!I keep on putting my cant hook in photos as well, hopefully you can understand how fucked you’d be not to have this tool and try to move heavy logs. I need some heavy towing chain and a couple log hooks though, I could definitely use some more tools.


For the next log I picked the largest one. Since it was slightly oblong in cross-section I marked my boards to maximize accurate marking surface as opposed to width of board. Somebody linked to a great video of a Japanese carpenter sawing a log:

I want his trestles! Next time I pick up some timber I’ll be getting something smaller I can hew to boxed heart 8×8 for heavy trestles. Oh, wait that wasn’t the link that I was thinking about. In any case I used a guide for the start of the cut.

Should I point out how epic it is to be sawing horizontally? I don’t know, it like a revolution for me, not to be vertical. It really changes everything.


To cut off one board at a time, to really be able to focus on each board face cut, its dramatic. And useful! Not to be constantly moving the log. I’m cutting this one to 2″ slabs.  It took me quite a while to get a proper posture for holding the saw. The hand higher up the handle holds the saw plate itself. For the best control I laid my thumb along the back spine of the plate. Doing anything the same way for a long time gets fatiguing, so you have to change it up every once in a while, try new things. Your body figures it out or you injure yourself, so its fairly self correcting.


I was worried that having the plate ride against the lower side of the kerf would make it difficult to cut to the line. Oddly enough its actually easier to be accurate sawing horizontally. I mean, dramatically better quality of cut. Perhaps it is harder to put power into the cut with the loss of gravity assisting in the vertical orientation, but practice and training can overcome.


So, which direction do you start the cut from? I’ve tried top to bottom, bottom to top, it doesn’t matter from the saw’s perspective. What does matter is not pissing into the wind. What I mean is to saw such that the wind carries the saw dust away from the  plate. If it blows back onto the top of the plate it creates friction in the kerf, and that makes for a terrible time sawing. Binding of any kind, avoid it like the plague, be it from pitch build up, wandering off the line, warping boards, poor wedge technique. The sawing is fun and easy when the plate rides lightly in the kerf.  The only time its impossible to avoid a bit of binding is sometimes at the start of the cut before the plate is deep enough to get wedges in there. Sometimes the boards just really want to clamp together, other times its because you didn’t start the cut in plane and bind as you correct back to the line.  In any case, its a serious pain in the ass with the super deep plate of the maebiki-oga. A frame saw has its advantages too.


How could I not talk about sharpening the saw? I thought I had a grasp on edge wear with my maeiki-oga. The 16″ cuts for this log taught me a serious lesson. With an eight inch cut the maebiki-oga eats through that shit, even when less than perfectly fresh. Its a question of force per unit area, you know? So for a heavy cut, you feel it right away when the saw is a little dull. It took at times several sharpenings to get through a board, simply because a saw that is a little bit dull is no good in a heavy cut, it just doesn’t remove the material the right way. The knots are not kind to the edges of the saw either. Not to mention how much effort it saves. And my body always appreciates the rest to sharpen the saw.


Going through a knot? The saw will not let you miss it. I can almost draw the board for you while I’m sawing it.


Well, there’s more to it then that which I had hoped to convey. I guess in the end you’ll figure it out if you put the time into it. I struggle at times to find a context for the amount of time I’m putting in to learning the use of this saw. As hard as the work is physically, its almost beside the point, I just seem to love the kobiki work. My bandsaw blade gave up the fight today and I just sighed, went back to the wall and picked up my maebiki-oga. A century of life for a tool that just keeps on giving with every sharpening.

Futae Kaku-Tsunagi Pattern


Finally I have a chance to put the new hikouki kanna I made to work with a little kumiko pattern exercise from Desmond King’s first book “Shoji and Kumiko Design”.  Futae Kaku-Tsunagi roughly translates to double right angle connection and is a great trial of accurate kumiko lap cut joinery, as well as careful fitting of mitered corners.

I cut a slew of 1/4″ thick kumiko from redwood, which takes a beautiful polish from the kanna. Any pattern starts with a plan, and for this one it can be layed out on a single story stick. As complicated as this pattern looks, it involves only two separate groups of kumiko.


My workspace. The concrete gets pretty hard to sit on by the end of the day, but its worth it to not have my back feel like hell from spending so much time hunched over a bench.


The POV for one of the fundamental tategu sawing positions, kneeling in front of low saw-horses. If your dozuki technique is not good you’ll bind in the cut and have a hard time holding the kumiko steady on the horses.


Transferring marks from the story stick to each group of kumiko to be cut. The pencil line tells me which side of the line to cut on and mark for the other side of the lap cut that allows these pieces to fit together.


Nakaya Eaks 210mm kumiko saw really leaves an amazingly thin kerf. I’ve cut kumiko joinery with a larger dozuki saw, but the Nakaya really has me spoiled. The problem is that the slightest slipup tends to kink the blade, and they have to be ordered from Japan. Time to stock up!


With both groups of kumiko cut the assembly fun can begin!


The jigumi gets glued together, hopefully with the right kumiko in the right place, with its proper up/down or left/right orientation. Somehow I always manage to turn one around and am left hoping that my layout was stellar enough that everything is perfectly symmetrical. In traditional shoji screens the kumiko are often sort of woven together, its not a true weave, but the notches tend to alternate top to bottom. With a jigumi like this where notches are all on one side of a given piece of kumiko you end up with a warped screen if your lap cut notches are too tight.


All of the mitered end pieces are cut from the same stock of kumiko made previously, just with certain sections cut away. It wastes some lumber, but saves a tremendous amount of time from allowing you to cut the lap cuts as a group.  Pretty cool, it took me a long time of staring at this pattern to see that the whole thing is based on only two groups of kumiko.


In order for the mitered corners come together tightly every piece is individually marked and trimmed so that it is slightly proud of its theoretical proper length.


The horizontal pieces were cut for the top half first, and then verticals added. Because I was only installing a small piece from each kumiko at a time I had to keep things organized, and numbered each left to right.


Finally you can see where this pattern thing is going, double right angle connection. It never ceases to amaze me how awesome some carefully cut bits of wood can look.


Fitting kumiko is quite time consuming, and I stopped at the end of the day to go look at some logs of my neighbor. Its difficult to get an idea of scale, but the large ones in the group are just over 16″ diameter, pretty good size. But really long dead, super dry, and checked all to hell. As it turns out there’s quite a range in log quality when it comes to beetle kill lumber. I was recently trying to work out the value of a given log. I ran across a sawmill website:

Bascially, price payed by a saw mill is given per thousand board feet, determined by the cosmetic grading of the log and a calculation of volume using the diameter at the small end of the log and the Doyle scale.  The best I can tell a reasonable price per board foot would be something like $0.10. So a two foot diameter beetle kill log eight foot long, containing 200 BF of usable lumber by the Doyle scale is worth about $20 USD, haha. Try that with Black Walnut and the numbers come out much, much different. Of course, if you buy a peeled log from a sawmill of that diameter it will probably cost upwards of $15 dollars a linear foot! As it turns out, the price for blue stain pine at my local lumber dealer, at $2.82 per BF for flat sawn 4/4 is quite high, $1.50-1.75 is much more average across Colorado from what I can find online.


I continued on the pattern work the next day, today, but got an email from another neighbor about the trees I had previously marked, and a chance to get them in my truck!


I think I marked three trees, this is just one of them, the bottom half actually, cut into three 8′ sections. Finally, a big log at 16″! How do I call this big? Yes, there’s bigger out there, but just try to move this sucker! It was a real struggle just to get it in the truck, and the bar on my chainsaw wasn’t long enough to buck straight across.


Standing dead, so still a bit of checking, but really beautiful by beetle kill standards. Only 1/8 twist in this tree compared to the 1/4 twist of the last one, with also very little taper. So much lumber! Cut with a hand-saw! Ok, I’ll save my excitement for tomorrow when I have to actually saw them. But you can tell, yes, I’m going to make some beautiful slabs and quarter saw. I sealed the end grain cuts with some wood glue thinned down by half with water, trying to head off additional checking.


And came back inside to finish up the kumiko pattern. I hope you’ve enjoyed the juxtaposition of my day between large/heavy and small/refined, I do seem to get around. Lets just hope I can do at least one of these things well!