Category Archives: Kobiki

Black Locust Crotch and the Sumitsubo


No, Black Locust Crotch is not some terrible venereal disease.

You may have dreams of lumber like the picture above.


But not have access to a $25,000 Woodmizer bandsaw mill. Pretty sweet machine though. Mark and I recently traveled several hours north to a place outside the town of Derby Line, VT, right on the border with Canada, to buy some white cedar. This is the guy’s saw mill.

All shed dried lumber, White Ash, lots of different Pine, and the fragrant aroma of air dried White Cedar drifting in the air. Dreamy, no?

It was the kind of place with such heavy tree cover that the road in was a skating ring of ice that not even studded snow tires could cope up the last hill. We walked in and had the proprietor give a helpful tow.


Back at Mark’s place I’ve had the time to lash together a new kobiki sawing frame from Black Locust poles I felled and bucked by hand with my madonoko. It was the first time I’ve had a tree barber chair on me from a poorly cut hinge notch and too slow of cutting through from the other side. If you’ve ever seen video of guys felling a tree with a two man cross cut saw and wondered why they’re sawing like the devils in them, its to avoid just such an occurrence. The hinge needs to be a certain width to break cleanly before the tree starts falling. Best to start learning this stuff on small trees.

This Locust wood is mostly in the open, which means a lower branching habit and not a lot of clear boules for typical board lumber. What is there is crotch wood, the kind of stuff Nakashima spoke so eloquently of and used to good effect in writing “The Soul of a Tree”.

And its the kind of stuff that I imagine lots of woodworkers happen upon and wonder how the hell to get it sawn into usable boards.


Here’s a small piece with the bark off, and I’m trimming the ends flush so that a level can be laid across. The blocks I’m working on are oak offcuts from the ‘free’ bin of Vermont Timberworks.


Starting with a plumb line on one face I measured out the thickness for the slabs to be taken off, in this case a 4/4 board in the middle to box in a heart check from the pith on the other end and two healthy thick slabs on either side.

You’ll notice that my boards are off center from the pith on the crotch side. While this means I’ll have a crossing pith on the inside face of my slabs it will also produce some interesting figure to the run of the grain.


With my layout done on either end and small notches cut on the edge of the ends with a pocket knife to register the string the ink line is used to snap straight marks on the convoluted surface of the log. One problem that arises is snapping a line into a deep hollow, the bounce of the string only gives you so much, and the farther back you pull the string to pluck it the more likely you are to pull to one side and produce a curve.

By stretching the string between the two ends you can use a level to drop a mark into the hollow and then snap from either end to that point. Presto, a straight line! I’ve seen this technique used to locate the mortises on koyabari for the posts that support the purlins on a Japanese roof.


Hang in there sumitsubo!



Very satisfying and rich, the dark marks from sumi ink.


Its helpful to understand the limits of what the ink line can do. A beautiful little protrusion like this is tempting to shave off, because I know I can get a good line. In this case I could extend vertical batens from my marks on the end grain and again drop a level into the hollows either side, but there’s enough of a mark that I simply sight down along the line and trace in with the sumisashi.

Ready for happy sawing!

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.