the Carpentry Way: An Embarrassment of Riches                                                          

An Embarrassment of Riches

The past couple of years in business have been sufficiently solid that I have been able to make investments in my shop infrastructure. Most of that has been by way of large woodworking machines, many of which were purchased used, some from reasonably near to where I live, and some from quite afar, including Germany, England and Japan. My business is important to me so I chose to take any extra capital that came my way and put it into my business, as opposed, say, to a new car, new clothes, heat for the shop....

Those have been big investments for me and I've made note of the new acquisitions as they have come about here on the blog. In terms of the big equipment, my shop is getting pretty close to where I want it, and a very much greater amount closer to what I want than the time I was working out of my kitchen on a sawhorse, which was when this blog first came about.

I feel blessed to have been able to make these investments in equipment, after having made do at times with a lot less, and having to rely upon the good graces of others at times to move projects along by way of equipment I did not have.

Along with the big lumps of iron that I've dragged into my shop, I've also been investing in all sorts of hand tools, most of which have come out of Japan. I don't generally remark too much on those items here, though that does not mean they haven't been incredibly important to me or that I do not treasure them, or that pictures of them haven't appeared in past postings here and there.

It's more I didn't want to make this blog about 'tool acquisition gloats'. I'm generally more interested in talking about the what/how/and why of the things I make and design, and a bit less about tools. I am however very interested in tools, and enjoy having discussions with other woodworkers about tools, so long as were talking about tools from the perspective of using them and not merely collecting them. Tools are the instruments of the craft and how could you be into your craft without similarly being interested in the tools which you wield to accomplish that craft? The funny thing is, I do meet and know quite a few woodworkers who churn out product without seemingly having much interest in their tools or anyone else's tools. That's a bit weird to me, but whatever.

Today a special package arrived from Japan, and I'll break my normal practice and make some mention of them, as I feel very lucky indeed to have them.

It's a set of chisels, 16 in total:

They range in size from 1mm on up to 60mm. All are White paper steel #1 - the blacksmith uses a special lot of white paper steel ingots, purer than usual, from the 1980's if I am not mistaken. Japanese blacksmiths tend to hoard special chunks of material in the same way that woodworkers do.

These chisels are made by Watanabe Kiyoei, who makes chisels, and planes, under the brand name of Kiyohisa. He's based in the heartland of Japanese blacksmithing, Yoita Village, near Tsubame City, Niigata. I've visited that village many years ago, though I met other smiths at that time not Watanabe-san.

I already have several tools make by Kiyohisa, including two planes and a few various chisels. I've found them to be exceptionally beautifully made, easy to set up, easy to sharpen and they hold an edge tenaciously. In my experience, Kiyohisa tools are among the best made, and I mean at any point in history. I'd put only a few makers in the same league.

Now, my experiences with Kiyohisa tools seems to have been widely shared by those who have acquired his tools, and as a result a waiting list has grown and the wait gotten longer to obtain them. I ordered a couple of fishtail chisels for a friend a few years back, and the wait at that time was supposed to be 3 years "or so". Well, the "or so" measure now means that the wait for his tools is likely something like 6 years or longer. I don't know exactly how long it is, but in general it is longer than I would be inclined to wait myself.

The Kiyohisa tools I have acquired in the past few years happened to have already been on dealer shelves or were regular-order items with a dealer and periodically restocked. In one case, I ordered a reverse trowel-neck chisel, or gyaku kote nomi, and after a year had passed from the order date the dealer offered to sell me one he already had in stock but fitted with a new handle to meet my specs. Otherwise I had all but given up on getting more Kiyohisa. Not that there aren't plenty of other fine products from other excellent smiths available, but when you find something you really like, you kinda hope for more of it I guess.

So, I have sitting in front of me a 16-set of Kiyohisa 'Kamon' chisels, and these chisels are totally made for me, to my specifications, specification which included type, sizes, length of head/neck/handle, type of handle, type of ferrule, type of striking ring (kashira). I did not order these 5 years ago, but within the past 12 months. How did this come about?

It was pure happenstance really. A tool dealer mentioned about a year back that a Kiyohisa chisel set had been made for a customer but he had lost contact with the customer and if he were unable to locate the customer the chisels might be available for purchase. He thought I might therefore be interested. I did a bit of digging around and located an email address for the person who I thought was likely the customer, sent that along and lo and behold that turned out to be the connection to the rightful buyer.

While I was only trying to be helpful, the dealer felt obliged to me as a result and on his own impetus asked Kiyohisa if he could possibly fit a special request in to the production schedule. I didn't know that could be even done, so I was unexpectedly faced with a special opportunity. That rare chance has materialized as this set of 16 beauties.

How about a closer look?

These chisels are a special configuration. They are longer than regular bench chisels, oi-ire nomi, and about the same size as mid-size striking chisels, chū-tataki nomi. They have flattened shanks, what are termed hiramachi style, except the proportions of handle, neck, and head are a little different than standard hiramachi chisels. The flattened shanks allow for deeper mortising, beyond full head depth, without risking that the shank will bruise the mortise opening as can happen with rounded shank chisels.

The handles are gumi wood (more on that below) and are longer than standard, since I have larger hands than the average Japanese carpenter. All the chisels have a single hollow on the back, though I had the option for multiple hollows on the larger chisels. I prefer the single hollow actually, and the argument usually advanced for multiple-hollows, that they provide better support when paring or chopping with a portion of the blade on the work, doesn't amount to much if you have a good range of chisel sizes to choose from. The multiple-hollow chisels, as they have more cutting steel on the bottom contact surface, are somewhat harder to sharpen and keep flat than the single hollow kind.

As mentioned above, these are a special type of Kiyohisa chisel, the 'kamon' model, a term which means family crest. The Watanabe crest is three dots over a bar:

The three dots, or mitsu-boshi, refer to three stars, which is a reference to a constellation within Orion, one of the 28 Mansions in Chinese astronomy. In the west these three stars are known as the 'three Kings'. They are in a line, hence the line under the three dots.

Specifically, kamon Kiyohisa refers to special edition chisels and planes which have received a low-temperature tempering. The usual minimum achievable tempering temperature is supposed to be around 160˚C, however Watanabe-san, through some alchemy (likely relating to special steps he takes in preparing the steel and its carbides  -it would be one of his secrets of course) is able to temper at lower temperatures than other smiths. He has produced chisels and planes with tempering temps ranging from 150˚C on down. I have a 150˚C plane and a 135˚ plane from the same maker (the tempering temperature is inscribed on the back of the tool).

These chisels I just received are all 100˚C tempered.

Several shops in Japan that carry Kiyohisa won't sell the Kamon models out of the country, but, well, like I said before, I was lucky. Please don't hate me for being in the right place at the right time.

I feel that I have quite possibly reached the end of the road in terms of chisels I would like to have, or dream of having, and I'm pretty much there as well with hand planes.  I'm looking forward to setting these new chisels up and putting them through their paces.

A few more pics now of these tools:

With a 16-set, I've have been able to add a bunch of chisels in those half sizes that I have sometimes wished I had on hand in the past.

Largest and smallest together:

Some forge weld lines to look at:

These chisels have a delicate feel, and yet are comfortable to hold:

Gumi is my favorite tool handle wood.

The gumi handles are cut out from branches, and thus the pith can be seen:

Gumi has been referred to by some as 'Japanese Boxwood',  however this is totally erroneous. Boxwood, as such, a genus of about 70 species in the family Buxaceae. Chinese boxwood, for example, is buxus sinica.

Gumi comes from the family Elaeagnaceae (try saying that three times fast; the scientific name is Elaeagnus), part of the plant order Rosales. It is a deciduous shrub getting up to 8m tall at most. There are some 50-70 varieties, however the wood used for utensil handles, gumi, associates to E. multiflora specifically.

The English name for Elaeagnus generally is Silverberry, with E. multiflora being termed 'Cherry Silverberry'. The Japanese also call this particular species natsugumi.

A drawing showing parts of this plant:

Here's a photo of the plant when fruiting:

Source: Wikipedia.

By accounts I have read the fruit has a sweet yet astringent taste, apparently a bit similar in flavor to rhubarb.

With 16 chisels to set up and sharpen, it will be a while until I have a chance to use them all, but I'm looking forward to getting to know them one by one, cut by cut.

All for this round - thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.