Category Archives: Hand Tools

Studying with Yann Giguère of Mokuchi Woodworking


I managed to sneak in a few lessons between his busy production schedule with Yann Giguère of Mokuchi Woodworking in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, NY. Yann undertook a nine year apprenticeship in traditional Japanese carpentry with Dale Brotherton of Takumi Company, and there are few people more capable of teaching hand tool skills and passing on knowledge than Yann at the moment. Interestingly enough, Yann was also there in Iowa when Yataiki was teaching, and I heard about him from a traveling shakuhachi musician/carpenter Max Citron who visited with a trove of great photos and video from Takenaka carpentry museum while I was in Vermont.

What a great teacher! Like most of the people you’ll meet that work in this field Yann showed a total lack of pretentiousness or aloofness. You might imagine that we dived right in to the intricacies of koyabari, hip roof layout, and joked about the frustrations of kumiko-zaiku work. However, of far greater utility was working at the fundamentals of good carpentry; marking, sawing to a line, sharpening, and tuning kanna. I could have spent three times as long learning this and not have gotten it all.

For example, even more than discussing what a good layout looks like we started with exploring the sumisashi (bamboo ink brush). I’ve made a few of these in the past for marking logs to saw to boards, but approached their use with a admittedly western mindset, placing the bevel on the wrong side of the pen for right handed use. You see, I was assuming that the greatest accuracy came from holding the marking tool plumb against the straight edge. The reality of this is that you can’t very well see the line that you’re marking, and tend to draw less than straight lines. Ever wondered why your marks don’t come square around a piece you’re marking even though you know the piece is perfectly square? By holding the bevel edge of the sumisashi against the square you’re hand is out of the way allowing a clear view of the work.

And neither in this regard did Yann have a slavish attitude of adherence to one particular marking instrument. In his shop at the time was a bunch of white ash being joined into a low bed for tatami, marked with pencil because the ink might bleed into the open pores of the wood and require too much material be removed at finish planing to remove the marks. So too did I see a nice selection of left and right hand marking knives.

Next, having myself had the need to show the use of the hand saw, I was greatly impressed to see the ease and naturalness with which Yann let the saw work. We discussed the problems I’ve seen in my own work with producing flat sawn surfaces, mostly related with pushing the saw too hard into the cut and using too dull of a saw. You might expect that Yann used only the highest quality saws, but everything of what was demonstrated to me was quite intentionally with saws of the disposable blade variety. And he had quite a nice collection of hand made saws.


Including three maebiki-oga, one of which you can see in the background!

We covered snapping lines with sumitsubo, Yann demonstrating how, and why, to snap curved lines by twisting the ink line. Most of my last lesson was devoted to sharpening and tuning of kanna, which opened my eyes on what good sharpening looks like, and its not like I’ve failed to spend my fair share of time learning this skill. Will I be able to sharpen while squatting on the ground? Lets find out…

I feel ready to make my first foray into Japanese structural carpentry now, for better or worse, daiku means action and practice, and I can see the road ahead quite clearly.

Even in the short period of time I spent at Yann’s shop I learned more than could possibly be discussed in a simple blog post, and that would miss the point in any case.  Having come from a fine music background previous to carpentry it was not hard for me to appreciate the relationship of student and teacher for the direct transmission of knowledge. Some things are still most easily communicated person to person.

Imagine then a gathering of many skilled carpenters! Kezurou Kai NYC will be held August 26-27, 2016 in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, NY. Last year Jim Blauvelt won the planing competition, and he not only cut the dai he used, but forged the kanna! Want to go?


Sen and Sen-Dai for Hand Scraping Saws



This is going to be a post with a lot of pictures, hopefully it won’t take forever to load on your web browser. To start, a method for measuring saw plate thickness, basically a red-neck deep throat dial micrometer using a drill press. By setting the zero on the dial to the thinnest parts of this saw I could write the deviation in thousandths directly on the plate, a grid of numbers. Supposedly this kind of saw plate variation of thickness for western panel saws is unusual, but it offers me a good opportunity to discuss the Japanese tools used to hand thickness nokogiri.


With the grid of the saw mapped I built up a topographical map to better visually represent the variation in thickness. After all, if you’re going to scrape a saw evenly you need to know where to take off metal. This saw already went through quite a bit of hammer straightening, but the problems with the uneven thickness of the plate are making it difficult to get that last 10% of straight. The normal fashion for gauging proper thickness on Japanese saws is to bend the saw and observe the curve, and I can attest that this is, with appropriate experience a la Yataiki, an extrememly accurate way to thickness saws to within a thousandth of an inch, based on some of his saws that I have looked at with the dial micrometer.


The tools used to scrape the saw plates are sen. You’ll find that these were once very common tools to all of the tool making blacksmith trades, including katana and kanna. Some of the sen pictured here are specialized for saw making, like the one at the very bottom of the frame, but there are others that could be used for hand scraping the ura (hollow) on the backs of Japanese chisels and kanna, or the flute on the sides of a katana.


This particular set uses laminate construction with Swedish steel.


And the final stage of scraping involves a lot of work hand burnishing the surface with a lot of pressure and elbow grease.

What kind of Swedish steel I would very much like to know, seeing as saying Swedish steel is about as useful as saying they are made from high carbon steel, there’s a lot of different kinds out there these days.


Lets start with a frame of reference for what the hell I’m talking about. This is a photo of Yataiki thicknessing a saw at the sen-dai. Beautiful metal shavings, no? The sen-dai comprises both the board the saw is resting on and the staple vise used to hold the saw flat. The large staple goes over the sen board and is mounted into a foundation block of poured concrete in the ground, a large block about two feet wide by four feet long, very stable.


For holding the saw down flat to be scraped on the sen-dai there are lots of little spring clamps and wedges. These are all used under the staple of the sen dai. The ball bearing is for rolling vigerously in hand to prevent blisters, the loop of steel is a way of binding the handles of a pair of tongs when forging. The little rectangular wedges hold the sen board against the wedge beneath it that gives it the proper downward angle for work.


For holding the opposite side of the saw nearest where you would be seated are more spring clamps, elegant little pieces of spring steel that slip over the edge of the sen board.


Saw makers don’t make one saw at a time, its more of a production affair. Here is a good stock of rough forged blanks, ready for rough grinding after the tangs are forge welded on.


An elegant spring clamp in use.


And under the staple the various wedges. The spring wedge holding the tang down has a curl at the other end used as a snell, for tapping the wedge loose.


This is just a mock up of the sen-dai. There is one size of board for larger saws.


And a smaller, thinner board for dozuki. Both of these are made from Kashi, Japanese white oak, the same wood used in plane dai.


The staple spring clamp for dozuki have a variation with a little stop cut at the end that the blade butts up against.


That allows for working right up to the end of the saw plate.


In the past all of the thicknessing would have been done by hand. More modern methods involve a rough surface grinding to remove most of the excess material. Here is a ryoba saw, rough ground and tempered. Beautiful colour.


Apparently dozuki are differentially tempered, softer along the tooth edge.


What you’re seeing here is a dozuki blade that’s been hammer straightened after tempering with two different kinds of hammers. Fascinating surface!


Note: This post has been edited to correct an earlier mistake, referring to Japanese Oak as Keyaki (a type of Japanese Elm) instead of Kashi.

Cutting Compound Angle Mortise and Tenons


Is modern digital technology running rampant in your life? Grab a saw! Join me for a little work and find out if your mind has been colonized by a corporation.


I finished the stool yesterday, so time to work through the rest of the problems associated with making a splay legged stool. Its a good thing that I’ve waited to post about this until finishing, because I found a few mistakes I made that were very instructive in understanding this project, which I’ll go into more detail with on the final post of this series detailing the final assembly.

The compound angle of the mortises meant that chopping with a chisel would have presented some great difficulties, so I started by drilling the waste with a brad point twist drill. I used the layout lines on the sides and a straight edge placed on the side for visually aligning the drill.


Just as you would for chopping with a chisel, drill half way through from both sides to reduce the chance of drilling waste outside the cut lines.


The table mortises were first layed out on the bottom using measurements from the center lines of the board, with the lines transferring up on all four edges with the common 3.5/10 slope to the top. Because the mortises were too far in to sight accurately I used a bevel gauge placed at 45 degrees in plan to gauge the angle for the drill and its alignment. In this case the angle for the drill, because it is at 45 degrees to plan (top view) uses the displacement multiplied by the square root of two, working out to about 4.9/10 for the angle to set the bevel gauge to.  Why the square root of two? I’ll let you figure that one out, its very, very common in dealing with slopes that are a regular 45 degrees in plan.

To pare the surfaces of the mortises in the top I made a guide block for the chisel at the common slope, which applies to both the end grain and side walls of the mortise. One block to pare them all.


I tried using the extra leg I had cut as a guide block for the mortises on the legs but found it faster to simply sight along the edge of the leg, and used a big timber framing chisel.


Cutting the tenons was very special for me because it was the first chance that Mark has given me to try some of Yataiki’s saws. I used a 240mm ryoba for all of the cuts. This saw was very good, to put it mildly. My saws are all mushy disposable blade type, so coming from that to a saw like this is a quantum leap, and I joked with Mark whenever he asked how it was going that I had only broken off a couple of teeth. That is a real concern with lending someone a good saw to use, its no small matter, you don’t just hand a saw like this over lightly, and I greatly appreciated the gesture on Marks part to let me use this tool.

The saw was very thin, light, and finely set. Easy to use one handed, and really did all of the work without me pushing it through the cut. For the first time I felt like I was really experiencing new dynamics of the saw in the cut.


Should you run across a saw with these Markings…


Treasure it dearly.


Yataiki gave this saw to Mark when he was teaching in Iowa for making charcoal for the forge and asking doing things like counting the number of teeth on a saw.


It has some history, as the staining and hammer marks from hizumi will attest.

As an aside, I’ve been meaning to write a post on Marks hizumi hammers, but have been holding off because I don’t want to be too proscriptive about which hammer is the correct one for a particular task. What is important, besides the weight of the hammer matching the thickness of the plate, is the shape of the cross peen edge. And to that end, its easier to describe the correct shape and size of the mark it leaves than the degree of radius on its edges. Measuring the ghosts of the marks on this saw shows a cross peen mark about six millimeters long and one millimeter wide, an ellipse.


The yoko-biki (cross-cut) are nice and slender little daggers, really well proportioned.


The tate-biki are likewise pleasing to the eye.


My normal method of ripping tenon cheeks is with the piece of wood held vertical in a bench vise, but I found the teeth of this saw too sharp and aggressive to handle the angle of cutting uphill to the grain. The alternative is cutting downhill with the piece held horizontally. The saw horse I’m working on is a bit low for this task but It worked nicely, with the advantage of being able to freely orient to the best light from the south facing windows.

Getting the chance to use this saw was a real eye opener for me. I knew my disposable blade saws weren’t that great, but the positive difference is almost unquantifiable, and I find myself hoping to buy, perhaps not a totally handmade professional grade saw, but something with decent steel that I won’t feel too bad about sharpening on my own. The world needs more saws like this!

Lighting the fire of Creation


So, dear reader, where did we last meet? Ah yes, I installed the caster wheels on my cabinet.  All of the White Ash in this piece made it heavy, so its actually fun to be able to push it around. I finished with a coat of Danish oil and a coat of paste wax, god knows we all like stuff that looks shiny. With the cabinet finished I loafed on the couch for a day, casting about for a new focus. I’m rather Holmesian in the aspect of not dealing with idle time well. If all you do is obsessively work you can actually forget how to relax. Ah, there’s my new years resolution, re-learn to relax and have fun! How about some more time in the shop, that’s fun, right?


So finally I was seized upon by the desire to get the forge lit again, make some yasuri. If you’re a newer reader to my blog you can get up to speed with my first post on file cutting.

In my first attempt at shaping a Japanese file I spent a lot of tedious time with dial calipers trying to make the file blank dimensionally perfect, which honestly was a waste of time. What is important is consistency in the angles between the faces, and the thickness at the acute edges that forms the gullet root when filing saw teeth. To that end I made a profile gauge out of some scrap saw plate, based on the angles from my 100mm yasuri. Any file I make will probably be smaller than 100mm. Specifically I need some very small single sided files to do a proper job sharpening my joinery saws. This gauge then should cover the range of what I will make (with the exception of the single sided file profile).


One of the previous sticking points in file making that I ran into was cutting both sides of a file without damaging the previously cut face against the anvil surface. A sheet of lead between the file and the anvil is the solution, but where the hell do you get lead these days? And specifically soft lead, not the weird alloys in car batteries or wheel weights? The answer for me was a visit to the local scrap metal recyclers. I just walked in and asked to buy some scrap lead, and they even sold it to me for scrap prices, which is an order of magnitude cheaper than paying for fishing weights.


I’m going to assume that anyone that reads my blog is not a moron when it comes to working with lead, learn what due cautions you should take. Part of that is not cutting the lead in a way that generates a bunch of dust or filings in my shop. A cold chisel wastes no lead. I actually used a wood chisel on top of a stump, didn’t hurt the edge at all, and cut out a nice little pad for my anvil top. I then took it outside to torch anneal my little sheet of lead.


The fire of creativity was really with me, I got so focused I pretty much forgot to take pictures of anything until the end of the day. What do you think of my redneck Japanese forge? Real high tech and well put together, I think not. We’ll perhaps the fuigo is well put together, god I love my fuigo. I’m tapering down the ends of some square stock so that handles can be burned on. I found a spot of shade to work in for the afternoon, and had everything shaped and ready for hardening by twilight, after the sun went behind the mountain. My fuel was hardwood charcoal, I annealed in a bucket of wood ashes, and my quenchant was slightly warm water. Sorry, no clay slip as of yet.


For instance, this is a file cutting chisel I made. It required almost zero shaping work because its made from the tang of a large mill file, all I had to do was forge in the primary bevel. I tried the cutting edge after a water quench and had an edge that crumbled at the sharpening stones. So a little torch tempering ensued, and I tried to draw the faintest of straw yellow at the cutting edge. Almost magically it now forms a wire edge when sharpening, and holds up in use. Seriously, this stuff feels like magic.


Back to the handle that was forged a bit, riveted to a cutting edge to make a basic sen! The cutting edge was made from a piece of the same mill file that I made the above file cutting chisel. Even with as little forge skill as I have, simply being able to bring a decent sized piece of tool steel to heat treating temperatures is truly powerful in a small shop. It opens up a whole world. It allowed me to anneal the cutter, shape it, drill the rivet holes, and harden. Eventually I would like to be able to make a fully forged sen with laminated cutting edge, but this is a great first step.

When the cutting edge is sharp and you find the right angles and pressure, it takes the most marvelous smooth shavings. Get it wrong and chatter, gouging, and cussing ensue. As to how you might actually work a saw plate to an even thickness with one of these, that will take much more work and study.

Accurate Tools

Yah, so you know that pretty starrett straight edge you paid a mint for? Its a darn wall ornament the first time you drop it if you don’t know how accurate surfaces are developed.


I love my sashigane but I’ve dropped it a bunch, and its not anything to write home about in terms of quality. With the use of a 24″ Veritas precision straight edge I can measure the deviation with a feeler gauge. How’d it do? Oh, not too bad I guess, .003″ was the maximum deviation. But that’s still enough to notice, especially when using it as a reference planing boards flat or using it to check the sole of your kanna. Besides, we need tools we can trust implicitly, tools that are bona fide accurate.


So in steps the granite surface plate. I don’t have a machinist grade plate, but for what I paid its an incredible degree of accuracy in terms of flat. Why doesn’t everyone have one of these? I applied a thin layer of Dykem hi-spot blue and rubbed the long outside edge of the sashigane .


The ink doesn’t lie, as long as you know how to rub the part without distorting it. If this were your average try square I wouldn’t hesitate to take some metal off. As it is, this is a sashigane, which need to measure precisely 15mm. It came to me from the factory a few thousandths of and inch shy of that in spots, total deviation in width was plus or minus .004″, kind’a poor when you think about it. Thankfully I was able to considerably improve the accuracy by only removing metal where there was already too much. I used a small diamond file on the hardened stainless, I don’t care for hand scraping thin edges.

My normal practice has been using a large machinist reference try square to check my sashigane. But wouldn’t you know it, I took the occasion to look at it on my surface plate a bit, measure it with my good micrometer, it sucks. The best way to check a carpenters square is a marking test, the proof is in the test of the line it lays down.


With sashigane to my satisfaction in hand I got back to task planing out some panels, and just wouldn’t be satisfied by this cheap bosch planer. I know this is a cheap tool, but sometimes…come on, no adjustment at all on the planer knife? And it comes badly askew from the factory in terms of the blades alignment to sole. Haha, as if the sole was in anything you could term alignment.


In machinist parlance, I believe what I’m about to do is called “putting lipstick on a pig”.

I think I voided the warranty.


A shim stack made from shoji paper leveled out the blade relative to the front sole. I had to lap out the front sole to flat with sandpaper on my granite plate so that the blade could be relative to something.

Might I introduce some instability by lowering the quality of fit for the bearing housing? Sure, but this is plastic, and the top of the bearing housing has a rubber bit that holds the bearing down against the bottom plastic housing, so its not like the engineers were struggling for tight tolerances with this anyway.

Other good shim materials .001″ or so: cigarette paper, the foil that poptarts are wrapped in. Get creative here!

In addition I aligned the back of the sole with the front by filing plastic away where the screws held the plate to the bottom housing. Its not perfect, but a damn sight better. This is the first project where I felt I needed the use of a hand planer. It can get me to within a little over  1/32″  of thickness, and has kept my elbow from getting shot pushing my Spiers jointer all day. Now I only push it half the day! The trade off is dust, choking dust that blankets every surface, stirred up by every passing foot fall. And noise, you enter a very closed off little world wearing hearing protection and dust mask.


I made great use of the plane across the grain. My Spiers  jointer was hand scraped against the large granite surface plate I showed earlier, a wonderfully accurate tool if the blade is sharp. I haven’t a bench dog and tail vise to clamp between, so this is a bit of a balancing act.

Now that the panel work is ready I need to sit down and finish detailing my drawing for the piece. Isn’t it about time I learned to use sketchup?