you don’t need a japanese chisel

[estimated reading time 16 minutes]

but you might want one. what’s the difference between a western and japanese chisel? my facetious answer is usually that a japanese chisel cuts on the pull-stroke but, of course, you’d be an idiot if you took that seriously. a japanese chisel is the same as a western chisel in use. it’s the construction that differentiates them. sort of. there’s actually less construction difference than you might originally think for some of them, though with others traditional construction methods still apply.

the point of this article isn’t to tell you not to buy a japanese chisel. what i am saying is you don’t have to buy one to do japanese-style woodworking and the difference is aesthetic, not functional. i will get a huge amount of argument from people telling me i don’t understand the difference and they’ll try to explain the physics and metallurgy of japanese steel compared to western steel. they might even be correct in their explanation. but here’s what really matters — i understand the difference and i’m not saying they’re the same. what i am saying is that this difference has no practical impact on the chisel’s use, either in how it is used or in the results you get from it. if you’re getting bad results with a western chisel, you’ll get bad results with a japanese chisel. if you’re getting good results with a western chisel, you’ll get good results with a japanese chisel. the technique is the same and the result is — i can’t emphasize this more thoroughly — indistinguishable.

what’s the difference between traditional western and japanese chisels?

traditional western chisels are made with a single piece of steel that is shaped and heat-treated (not just tempered but that’s part of the process) to make it hard. there are two common modern steels for western chisels now called o1 (high-carbon) and a2 (high-speed) — i’m not going to get into the chemical or physical differences between them but you can think of o1 as being generally softer and a2 as holding an edge longer but being a bit harder to sharpen. this distinction didn’t exist in traditional chisels, though. before modern manufacturing methods (think post-vietnam-era not just post-world-war-one) standardized and computerized steel production, the metal varied wildly from batch to batch. a chisel made by stanley in 1920 could have been an awesome tool or a squishy noodle fit for nothing but opening paint and scraping glue. it was hit-or-miss and that was bad. a modern western chisel is likely to be made with good-quality steel (yes, even the cheapest ones from places like aldi and inexpensive sets from narex have excellent steel so you don’t need to spend a hundred bucks on a chisel to get that — the extra money is mostly for two things, aesthetics and the quality of the handle). traditional western chisels were sometimes tang (metal rod going all the way through the handle) or socket (metal wrapping just the top of the handle) but this didn’t impact their function so it’s a meaningless distinction until you decide which you prefer the feel of in your hand — it changes the shape of the chisel and it’s easier to break socket chisels because the blade can separate from the handle but it’s easier to fix them when they break so it is more about what you like than one being better — i like tang chisels but i have both types and use them interchangeably.

traditional japanese chisels fixed the problem of shitty steel much earlier than western chisels did. japanese chisels were, in many ways, the best tools made anywhere in the world for a very long time. they were, practically speaking, the only modern chisels in a world of barbaric randomization in quality. there is a reason they have a cult following and a mystical respect in the woodworking community. they really were better in every possible way. a chisel is realistically a hard sharp piece of steel shaped so you can hold it easily and cut wood with it. if you bought a western chisel, you could easily end up with something that was shaped like a chisel and functioned more like a stick of celery. in japan, however, this was not the case. japanese chisels simply worked. and they still do. but that improved functionality came at a cost — two costs, actually, one being time/effort on the side of the user every time they want to use it, the other being a much higher cost of construction. the first is likely not worth it now. the second… well, the second is up to you — they cost more to buy because they cost a lot more to make both in materials and labor — that labor cost is real. if you find yourself complaining about the cost of a japanese chisel, look for a video on how a blacksmith makes one then compare that to how a western chisel is made and you’ll stop complaining very quickly. the process for making a western chisel, while chemically complex, is labor-light and very fast. making a japanese chisel is relatively simple in concept but extremely time-consuming hard work in practice. and you have to pay for that. if you’re not willing to pay, there are certainly western chisels now that are good options for you. choosing a chisel really has become about finding ones you like — better isn’t really a question anymore in any meaningful way.

i know what you’re going to say, though. i haven’t actually talked about the physical difference, just the reason a difference exists. yes. let’s talk about laminating steel.

a tale of two metals

centuries ago, japanese blacksmiths perfected the art of laminating metals — taking two pieces of metal, whether the same piece folded and bonded to itself or two separate metals, one soft and one hard, adhered with heat and pressure. it is likely the first time this process was perfected but there isn’t universal agreement on this point and it’s irrelevant — it might not have been first done in japan, though i suspect it was, but the process was refined there as it never was anywhere else. japanese chisels were traditionally made using steel lamination, as were swords (both folded and multiple metals) and plane blades (kanna — bimetallic cutters just like chisels).

the theory is simple. hard metal is brittle, prone to cracking. it’s also extremely hard and time-consuming to sharpen. soft metal doesn’t crack and is easy to sharpen — it’s also extremely cheap by comparison. this became a huge debate in the construciton of western tools — which metal do you pick? the tradeoff between “a little softer” and “a little harder” locked western tool manufacturers in a progress-free stasis as far as steel was concerned literally for centuries a plane from the seventeenth century and a plane from the early twentieth century were, as far as cutting power went, indistinguishable. that’s not to say it was bad. just that it wasn’t really getting any better on average and there was myriad variation from one tool to the next.

in japan, however, this process became more and more refined as the years passed. take a very thin layer of hard steel and stick it to a thick layer of soft steel and you have the best of both worlds. the whole thing doesn’t crack because the soft steel keeps it together and it is fast to sharpen because most of what you’re cutting through is soft — it’s still hard enough to cut, though, because the cutting edge is that tiny layer of hard steel. cutting a hollow in the back (the technical term, which doesn’t matter, is “ura” but if you know it people will think you’re really more intelligent — japanese chisels, by the way, go by various names in japanese but the one used in the west is usually “nomi” as in “is it your mom who wants a chocolate cake?” “no, me!” — but if you just call it a chisel and a hollow you’re probably doing ok and anyone who takes it seriously enough to argue isn’t worth the time to argue with — you’re not speaking japanese so you might as well, you know, speak english) makes that sharpening go even more quickly, though it’s unnecessary and has absolutely no impact on the actual performance of the chisel in its actual use. people will argue with me (and you) when you say that. they are wrong. the hollow is specifically there to make the chisel lighter and easier to sharpen. the wood doesn’t know there’s a hollow because — and this is a vital thing to remember — the hollow doesn’t touch the wood. in much the same way, the wood (even if it’s japanese cherry, my favorite wood to work with) doesn’t know if it’s a japanese or western chisel. actually it doesn’t know it’s wood. because, you know, it’s a tree and it’s dead and even when it was alive it can’t think or speak. but you get what i’m saying. all the wood touches is the hard steel edge and the hollow is for your benefit. it really does make sharpening far faster and easier. there’s a reason chisels have them. but it’s not because you get better results. it’s because it pisses you off less when you sharpen if you can do it twice as fast — and the speed difference really is that fast. i know people who add these to their western chisels and they swear by it because it saves them so much time sharpening. i find sharpening pretty fast anyway and this feels like a gimmick. but if it makes them happy they can go to town. twice. or even three times. (wide japanese chisels often have two or three narrow hollows rather than just one to avoid the single one getting too deep and compromising the stability of the soft steel component.)

i won’t describe the process for making the two pieces stick together. i understand it in theory but i’m not a blacksmith and, unless you are, there’s no real need to get all the nuance and detail. if you ever have a chance to watch a japanese blacksmith make a chisel or plane blade, take it. without question. it will change the way you think about your tools forever. for that matter, take any chance you ever get to watch a master tool-maker make a tool in any tradition. but especially a japanese blacksmith making a chisel. the first time i saw it, it blew me away. every time i see it, it still does. i know what to expect. i knew what to expect the first time. but there’s a difference between knowing and feeling it there in front of you and it’s an experience you won’t regret taking. well, unless you get too close and burn yourself. but don’t do that. you’re not stupid. i hope.

why do people like japanese chisels?

there are two kinds of people who like japanese chisels — tool snobs and traditionalists. i’m neither of those and there’s a reason i tend to use western chisels most of the time. i have japanese chisels. and i love them. but they’re a lot more work to maintain and set up and i like building furniture and designing new tools, not maintaining and restoring old ones. you might. and that’s totally ok. it’s just not where i get my happiness in this craft.

first, tool snobs. they like them because they’re complex and pretty. there is no denying this. western chisels generally look brutish and japanese chisels are a slightly different shape and they’re far more refined-looking. if i could get a working-out-of-the-box-shaped-like-a-japanese-chisel-in-a-single-steel, that would be my choice. but the involved setup and maintenance drives me crazy — it’s like telling me i can only have a car if i’m prepared to paint it when i get it from the factory and can only drive it if i do my own oil changes and tire rotations. i’d honestly just walk. if you like it because it’s pretty, that’s fine. if you like it because it has a rich history and complex construction method, that’s awesome. if you just like it because you like it, totally fair. there’s nothing not to love about it as long as you’re prepared to accept the time investment it takes. no, tool-snob is a term of respect for me, not a negative thing. i’m not a tool snob at all — i don’t care if the tool is pretty or historically-accurate. but i do polish my tools and keep them extremely clean. so perhaps i’m borderline. you know, like that line between the hard and soft steel.

second, traditionalists. and this is where things get a little complex and heated. there is so much to love about traditional woodworking, whether japanese, western or from another thoroughly-developed tradition like korean or chinese woodworking. i’m not a traditional woodworker — i’m not a traditional anything — i teach modern english and i’m so anti-traditional i usually begin my terms by explaining why shakespeare’s writing is so bad by modern standards it should be systematically eliminated from the education system and why we should stop teaching books written before 2000 (or definitely 1980) in schools as anything other than historical-literature specialty topics. but that doesn’t mean i don’t respect the tradition or those who are committed to it. it’s all about personal choice. building a piece of furniture with only traditional tools and methods takes far longer and the result can be much the same but this may be what you enjoy doing. you can also trim your lawn without a powered lawnmower and ride a horse to get to town. it’s not a bad way to live at all. i just can’t imagine myself giving up the joys of modern life either in my daily experience or my woodworking.

traditional japanese woodworkers tend to use traditional benches (which vary dramatically in height), traditional workholding (which is by any stretch of the imagination primitive — japanese workholding was good enough to work perfectly well about a thousand years ago and never really got an upgrade while western workholding in the roman era was ridiculously-minimalist and simply didn’t work so went through nearly two-thousand years of constant upgrades to get us to the modern vises we generally know and love) and traditional tools. a traditional chisel will have a short handle, a socket construction, a very short blade and be bimetallic with an extremely hard steel on one side (the cutting side) and the vast majority soft steel on the other for stability and speed. this makes the chisel fit well in the hand, light and fast to sharpen.

here’s the part that confuses everyone about japanese chisels, by the way, when they get the first one. it’s not ready to use when you buy it. you have to actually prepare the thing. western chisels just need to be sharpened. japanese chisels pretty much need a homecoming party complete with dance and ritualized welcome ceremony before you can get to work with them. i think this is ridiculous. there’s no reason the maker can’t just have the thing ready to be sharpened when you take it out the box. there’s nothing about the traditional construction method that necessitates this silliness — if i bought a new car and they told me i had to clean the surface, paint it, put on the hubcaps and dial in the fit on the brakes before i could drive it… well, let’s just say if toyota and nissan had taken that approach, we’d all be driving fords.

what about japanese chisels without two metals

these definitely exist and they’re awesome af. really. they’re just not very common. i like high-speed-steel (not just a2 but serious bench-grinder-compatible high-speed-steel, often abbreviated hss) a lot. really. i’d have all my tools made of it if i could. but it’s unrealistic. maybe in twenty years — i hope so — are you listening, veritas and lie nielsen? we want hss chisels and plane irons and we want them yesterday! but today it’s not easy to get grinder-compatible steel tools. there are a few japanese manufacturers, however, that make traditional-looking chisels with this approach and it’s a great idea. if you have a chance to get all the benefits of the shape of a japanese chisel with none of the downsides of the complex setup and maintenance, this feels like a nobrainer to me. snap that shit up. and send me a link if it’s a good price because these things tend to be brutally-expensive whenever i see them.

there are western chisels made this way, too. but given that i already buy my chisels with a2 (sort-of-high-speed) steel, the difference in cost is impossible to justify and they tend to come with handles that look like they were shaped by a javelin-throwing gorilla — i have big hands but i don’t have hands built to encompass the known universe and i don’t need the chisel’s handle to be one step removed from a professional-wrestling prop or torture device. the handles on narex chisels, by the way, are the only hesitation i ever have recommending them. they’re well-made and the design isn’t revolutionary but it’s competent with good materials and a relatively ok quality of production — but every time i pick one of those things up i feel like i’m a child using my father’s big-person tools for the first time and i have no idea whether the people who design at narex just happen to be absolutely massive or they grew up during the soviet brutalist period and this is what they think is aesthetically-pleasing. while we’re on this topic, veritas makes beautiful western chisels and they’re a joy to hold as long as you don’t get the o1 versions cause those really do feel a little noodleish after a few minutes of use.

can japanese chisels get sharper

maybe. i know that’s a weird answer and it feels like a copout but it’s not. the question is “sharper than what?” and it’s not quite as obvious as it sounds. yes, a japanese bimetal chisel is likely going to be capable of getting sharper than an average western unimetallic chisel. some japanese chisels don’t get as sharp as others. some western chisels can get screaming-sharp and there’s no difference. it isn’t a question of “all japanese chisels get sharper” — but the general rule is if you have an average one of each and you sharpen to the absolute limits of the steel on both the japanese one will be objectively sharper.

the other answer is who gives a shit? and this isn’t flippant. for one, are you sharpening your tools to the limits of their metallurgic properties? or are you sharpening them until they’re sharp enough to do the job then saying “enough” and putting the stone down to build some actual furniture? if you’re like me, that’s what you’re doing. and that means you’re probably not actually hitting the limitations of your western chisel. so the fact that a japanese chisel has the potential to get sharper is an awesome feat of engineering and an interesting triviality to throw out at a dinner-party (you remember those, right? back before hugging was a potential violation of infection-control and we could sit around a table discussing the finer points of sharpening and dust collection? no, me neither. it must have been a dream…) but it’s not really relevant to daily use in any meaningful way, as far as i can tell. a japanese chisel isn’t sharper by default. it’s just sharper if you take the time and effort to sharpen it that much. and i won’t. you might. if you do, it’s likely going to be possible to get it sharper. will it do better work that way? well, once it cuts the wood easily, the wood is cut. how sharp do scissors have to be to cut paper? do you really need expensive polished-blade sheers to do it? wood isn’t that hard. your chisel might really be sharp enough. if you’re doing good work, you’ve got the sharpening thing cracked. chill.

are japanese chisels easier to use

well, yes and no. they take more maintenance and setup so no. but they tend to feel nicer in the hand so that makes them easier to use. and they’re not usually built for people with bodies of large primates and that’s a big plus, too. and this is why i have some. and why i love them. once you get past the (absolutely stupid and unnecessary) setup procedure — or, like me, in most cases, just buy a used chisel and assume someone else has already done that work — it’s great. they fit better in the hand. i mean, this is a little subjective and if you have huge hands or certain types of western chisels you might actually find western chisels fit better. but for most people the japanese ones are highly-attractive because they just feel better. and that’s totally fair.

here’s something traditional japanese woodworkers might not like you to know, by the way. that hollow on the back that i said was to speed up sharpening and make the chisel lighter? what happens if you just ignore it and don’t do the tapping-out maintenance on it? does it fuck up your woodworking and make it obvious you’re a deficient noob? no. you can just forget about it and sharpen the chisel as if it’s not there. sharpen enough and it will actually disappear. will it slow down your sharpening? a little. will it have any impact on your work? absolutely none. zero. is this what i recommend when people ask me about maintenance on japanese chisels? certainly.

so you get a new japanese chisel out of the box and you want to set it up. you can watch a youtube video and see all the steps. extract the hoop (or maybe just find it in the box), strip the lacquer, set the hoop, pound the end, coat the thing (if you like) with the finish of your choice (i actually really like lacquer but some people prefer unfinished chisels or to use oils or whatever and that works, too). once that’s done (maybe an hour or two of work so it’s not really that big if you’re just doing one chisel — for fuck’s sake, though, if you buy a nice new set this can take an age and i have no idea why this isn’t expected as part of the making process) you can simply ignore maintenance from then on and treat it like a western chisel. tap it out? hell no. polish it? just like a western chisel. sharpen it? just like a western chisel. the barrier to entry just got a whole lot lower.

the real recommendation?

do you want to try japanese chisels? awesome. get one. i suggest getting a used one that’s been taken care of. one that’s been beaten to shit could have serious cracks in the handle that will cause problems and even cracks in the steel and nobody’s got time for that shit. you could buy a new one and set it up. there are great japanese chisels out there. really great ones. and there’s a really friendly and helpful facebook community of japanese woodworkers who speak english (and will help you read the japanese on your tools if you don’t speak the language) that i’m fairly active in. they’ll help you get one that’s within your budget and help you set it up if you get confused by the procedure — it’s stupid and they shouldn’t still make people do it as i’ve said but that’s not because it’s difficult, just because it’s part of the construction process and i don’t think it should be required of users any more than we make people build their own pots to cook in rather than just assembling them in the factory.

but this comes with two caveats. unless you’ve used japanese chisels in the past and know you love them and know what kind of investment you’re getting — whether it’s worth the money, really — buy one. not six or twelve. don’t get a cheap set. it will disappoint you and you’ll hate them. this isn’t like buying narex. there is a pile of absolute crap out there on amazon being sold as japanese chisels and yes, they’re japanese chisels. but they’re japanese chisels in the way that a 1976 honda civic is a japanese car — you don’t want a piece of that action, i promise you from the depths of my soul and my mother owned a ‘76 civic when i was a child so i know what i’m talking about. get one chisel in whatever size you think you’ll use most (maybe 6mm or, if you’re big on kumiko, 32 or 36mm) made by an actual person, a blacksmith. let them tell you about it and why it’s worth the money. if you have the money and they sound like they know what they’re talking about (and have a good reputation in the community of tool users), that’s your new tool.

the other caveat? you don’t need a japanese chisel. this is an optional purchase. you absolutely need chisels to do good work. if you’re trying to do serious, precision woodworking and you don’t have some chisels, you’re likely going to fail or you’re going to need more machines than santa’s elves have in their shop to compensate — and you still might not get there because there’s only so much you can do with a dremel and an oscillating multitool to clean up small parts and cut mortises no matter how many times people tell me they can do anything with them — though why they are so anti-chisel in the first place speaks volumes about bad childhood experiences with pointy things, i’m guessing. and this might not be the hobby for them. remember, a saw is just a series of chisels in a single tool all merged together. all woodworking really comes down to is cutting wood with various forms of chisels (also known as knives) and putting it back together in new ways, after all. but while you need a chisel it doesn’t have to be a japanese one.

you can do all the work you’ll ever do — and yes this includes work in the most traditional of all possible japanese styles — with a western chisel. if you’re going to do this, i recommend the veritas a2 (or pmv11 but honestly the a2 is awesome and significantly cheaper). you can get the narex chisels cheaply and put up with the ridiculous gargantuan handles or (like me) sand them down to something approximating hand-size. butt chisels are nice. but the point is what’s on the end — the sharp steel. get it screaming-sharp and it’ll work regardless of its nationality — japanese, american, czech, chinese, whatever.

why would you want a japanese chisel? they’re traditional. they’re pretty. they feel better than western chisels. and they’re possibly the most amazing things you’ll ever see made in all traditional woodworking. but they’re expensive and you might be limited in the pocketbook department and wondering if you need pricy japanese traditional chisels to get started in this craft, even in the japanese version of this craft. and the answer is a resounding no.

but if you have the money — wow, find a blacksmith and watch them make your chisels. you won’t be sorry. either way, though, go make a piece of furniture already. it’s only a craft if you actually do it. before you’re making shit, it’s a theory. and ain’t nobody got time to live as a theory, do they? thanks for reading.

(there should be an i <3 鑿 sticker here but i’m lazy and have other work to attend to but we really should get some shirts made with a picture of a plane on them for irony’s sake.)

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.