Yearly Tool Haul 2012: Japan and Taiwan

This year’s annual transpacific trip included Japan as well as Taiwan. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see too much in the way of wood/woodworking stuff; there was just too much on the agenda.

However, I did get to go to the Meiji Jingu shrine, and the second gate (torii) on the path there is one of the largest wooden ones around, and happens to be made of Taiwan Yellow Cypress:

(The sign says “hinoki from Taiwan”–They consider the wood to be interchangeable.)

I didn’t have enough time to research tool shops in Japan, much less visit them, so I limited tool-buying to the home center-style stuff. To be honest, little odds and ends are all I really need right now. That’s a lucky thing, too, because the tools you get at the home center there are about a million times better than the ones you get in the US. Here’s the first batch:

At the top, a small mallet (wanted to see what it would do as a plane adjuster, plus I break the Thagomizer on a regular basis now–need to make another). Then there’s one of those milled-tooth files, that I’m going to try out as a half-round complement to the Shinto saw rasp that I like so much. Next is a diamond feather-edge file, because it looked like it might come in handy. And on the bottom is a general-purpose knife that I’m going to try out in my seemingly endless search for a marking knife that I like. That knife is nothing special, just the kind that a schoolkid might have used for sharpening pencils as described in Odate’s book.

Next is a couple of small squares:

The 4″ Lee Valley double square is at the top for size comparison. The 10x5cm square seemed like a handy size to me, and the tiny try square (made in Sanjo City) was too cute to resist. Note that even though these tools were not bought from a specialty shop, their accuracy is still guaranteed, and indeed, both are right on. You just can’t get that kind of thing from a home center in the US, and the price of these squares really isn’t excessive. We’re talking about $10 here.

I wish I could have gotten one of those larger framing squares that have the beveled face, but it would have not survived the airport baggage-handling gorillas. I suppose I can get those here, anyway.

Next up is a couple of sharpening implements:

I really have no idea what that thing on the top is, but it was cheap and it’s really coarse, so I figured that if nothing else, it could maybe be used to rough up the surface of my Sigma Power #120. I got the diamond plate on the bottom primarily for conditioning my waterstones.

Oh yeah, I got some shoji paper, too.

After leaving Japan, I went to the now-familiar tool shop in Taipei, and it turned out that I wasn’t quite done with Japan yet. I decided to buy my first Japanese chisel there for the hell of it (and to make Wilbur Pan gloat or something):

And I was looking for a smallish/medium smoothing plane, and got this typical Japanese-blade/Taiwanese body hybrid:

Annoyingly, the face of the blade on this thing was not flat when I got it–it had a very (very) slight convexity on one half of the edge. For those of you familiar with this kind of steel, though, you know that lapping it away is basically an exercise in futility, and it took me an embarrasingly long time to remember this.

So I tapped it out. I’d never done that before, and it was as nerve-wracking as everyone says it is, but I have to say that it worked like a charm.

Finally, the tool I was most looking forward to buying was a plain-jane Taiwanese-made rabbet plane:

Why? Because I’m fed up with my Stanley #78–a torturer of left hands since 1885. The one here doesn’t have a depth stop, though I could make one or clamp one on. And it seems that the convexity demon from the blade on the preceding plane infected this one, too. So I tapped out this one, too, this time with a little more confidence. Yay!

The maybe-not-so-strange thing about this plane is that it’s designed to be used left-to-right. I’m not sure it’s going to make much of a difference, but it might give me an excuse to buy an antique Western rabbet plane to complement it.

This Year’s Tool Haul from Taiwan

When preparing for this year’s trip to the tool shop, I decided to try to concentrate on purchasing tools that I believe I actually need (imagine that). I had a few ideas already, and I started out with a pile of Taiwanese carving tools–primarily outchannel gouges, but also a V tool and some other stuff:

I also got a big pile of hollowing and rounding planes:

Of course, right away, I might be straying from the “buy what you need” mantra, because I’m not sure I really need all of these. However, they’re so much fun and so cheap (less than $10 each) that it’s hard to resist. And as usual, the blades are great: forge-welded cutting steel on softer metal with hollowed faces that take just a minute or two to flatten. I sharpened and tested all of these in almost no time at all.

When I saw this compass plane, I realized that I didn’t have one and that this was probably a good time to get one:

This plane exhibits a very common scenario for the better planes sold in Taiwan: a blade made in Japan (supposedly) and a body made in Taiwan. There is also a double-convex version of this plane, as seen on this blog (I hope to feature some more from the author at some point).

It’s a wicked fun plane to use. I had to try it out; I first gouged out a curve in some wood and then smoothed it out with this thing. It’s really remarkable how easy this goes when everything is tuned correctly. Although this wasn’t the cheapest tool in the shop at about $30, it’s really hard to beat the performance at any price.

The final tool that I’m going to talk about for this year’s trip is another plane. I got to wondering what a full-sized Taiwanese bench plane would be like. However, as I mentioned before, most bench planes in Taiwan are either wholly from Japan or have a Japanese blade with a Taiwanese body. The shop had one bench plane with all-Taiwanese components, though, and at $35, it was about a third of the price of the hybrids, so I bagged it:

I didn’t have to wait long to use it, either, because while I was still in Taipei, Uncle had a cabinet door that didn’t fit. So I sharpened the blade with the same sandpaper that I used for the chisel on the old cabinet.

It worked fine for this purpose, but it was a job that didn’t need finesse–I wouldn’t have had the time for that, anyway. Not only was the sandpaper (“Matador” brand, 1200 grit) not quite as fine as I had wanted, but the body was new and probably needed some tweaking. I also set the blade for a rather thick shaving.

When I brought it back home, however, I had time to tune the plane. So because it’s somewhat similar to a Japanese bench plane, I dug into Odate’s book and looked at Wilbur Pan’s blog for his experience first, then looked at what I had in front of me.

The first thing I did was to sharpen the blade on my waterstones, and I got a wonderful edge in no time. However, I also noticed something that I still need to think about–this blade was fairly well-cambered, so its initial grinding had it set up as sort of a jack plane.

The type of plane is important because you’re supposed to set up the sole differently depending on its purpose. The rougher the cut, the more you’re supposed to hollow the sole, or so the story goes. However, I don’t need another jack plane, and because the mouth on this one is ultra-tight, I decided that I might want to keep my options open and proceed with caution.

However, something needed to be done to the body because it appeared that the wood had moved slightly since production, causing some of the sole in front of the mouth to protrude a little from the level of the mouth and end. I suspected that I was having trouble with this because my shavings were not of a consistent thickness. I verified this with a straightedge using the method that Odate describes, and quickly marked the high spots. He says to use a scraper plane or something of that nature to take down the high spots (and form a hollow). Wilbur Pan likes to use a card scraper, and I would have done that as well, except that I am silly and haven’t actually gotten around to making one.

I ended up carefully using my Veritas low-angle block plane to knock off the high spots. I didn’t really hollow the sole because I would rather use a scraper for this. But it was enough for a semi-serious test of what the plane can do, and it does make a delightful shaving. A little more work on flattening out the camber on the blade, and this thing could easily be my go-to smoother.

This brings up an important question: What exactly am I doing? After all, I have more bench planes than I can shake a stick at. It seems to be, though, that the more I use wooden planes, the more I like them. It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re western or Asian planes–I simply like the way wooden planes feel, and I’m really starting to appreciate how easy it is to adjust them. Perhaps I will downsize a few of my metal planes sometime.

Someone (who?) once said, “Wood on wood–sure feels good!” There’s a lot of truth to that.

PS: In case you’re wondering what the rectangular hole underneath the blade is, for, the plane comes with a removable handle. When fit, it looks like this:

I believe this is for getting a sturdy grip to pull when using the plane for tougher work, but I’m not too sure. I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you’d use two hands on because it’d be hard to control like that. I likely won’t be using it.

An Antique Eastern Cabinet

On last year’s trip to Taiwan, I encountered a cabinet at the in-laws’ place that I found interesting. This year, I got to take a closer look and some photos.

It’s probably about 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law says that her husband bought it before they were married, and he bought it from a Japanese friend or vendor (at this time, Taiwan was a territory of Japan).

It was likely not the most expensive cabinet that you could buy at the time, but its construction clearly indicates that it was a good quality item and that it was primarily (if not completely) made by hand–I don’t see any machining marks on it, and at this time, machine tools were not in common use in the area.

The design is pleasant and streamlined. It consists of two pieces–the upper part shown in the preceding image, and a base with two more drawers on the bottom. The base has a kickboard that matches the overall design, and is well-moulded:

Last year, what I noticed first about this piece was that the doors had the mitered-face mortise-and-tenon joint that I wrote about (and made) last year:

The tenon (like most of the ones I’ve seen here) is a through tenon. It’s very common in furniture here, and I now know the Chinese name for it–but I’ll save that for later.

The drawer construction would bring mixed reactions to some western joinery enthusiasts–the sides are tacked in. Though our first reaction might be to poo-poo this, remember first, that dovetails are not common in eastern furniture, and second, that this thing is 90 years old, and these drawers are still very solid. The humidity differences it has had to endure have been quite extreme–from very humid and sticky summers to a life in an air-conditioned environment.

It’s all solid wood construction. The face is a good-quality light-colored hardwood that’s been lacquered, the rim around the face is an expensive dark wood (don’t know what, but it has large pores). The rest is a quick-growing softwood of some sort.

The rest of the drawer is also quite solid, in spite of violating  “rules” of drawer construction (tacked together from the bottom, bottom panel grain runs along the front-to-back axis rather than side-to-side):

Notice the “rear deck” on the back. It’s not of a consistent width. It serves as a drawer stop–I am speculating that the builder intentionally let this protrude and then simply trimmed the end to get the drawer to stop flush with the front of the cabinet.

Here’s the hardware on the lower drawers. I don’t know if this is the original, but it’s kind of cute:

[edit: It’s not original; see comments. Thanks to Daniel for putting a finger on this.]

Now, with all of this said, there’s a further story with this cabinet. Over the years, the wood has moved in such a way that made the drawers very difficult to close. It was even said that they might have to get rid of it because it was so difficult to use. So I said, hey, this is the best piece of furniture in this house, and I could get the thing in good shape.

I didn’t have any appropriate tools (even after a ritual tool-shopping trip that I’ll talk about later), or any I could borrow, so of course, I decided to go buy something. I went down to the tool shop in search of a chisel and some sandpaper to sharpen it.

The sandpaper was easy enough. But I wanted a Taiwanese-made chisel, and got one. However, it looks like this:

Yeah, it says “Miki Japan” on it, with a name. This is one thing that sometimes drives me up the wall with Taiwanese manufacturers. An example of this is that you’ll often see labels like “Boozoletti Italy” in stores on clothing that’s made in Taiwan, on really decently-made stuff. (Yeah, you can get not-so-well-made stuff too, but that’s another story.) It’s almost a very strange parody of the knockoff concept. (Some companies have wised up and created their own unique identities, but that’s another story, too.)

In this case, the chisel is made of the laminated (laid) steel that you’d expect from something like this, and it takes and holds an excellent edge.  The grinding was excellent–it took only a few minutes to flatten and polish the face.  Perhaps it doesn’t hold an edge as well as the famous Japanese chisels (not sure about how to test that), but it’s as good as any mass-produced western manufacturer of the past such as Union or Pexto.

And it cost a grand total of about $7.50. Best of all, it got the old cabinet in great shape in very short order.

My First Socket Chisel Handle (Whee)

Everyone seems to make a handle for a handle-less socket chisel that somehow escaped the wrath of mushrooming by way of hammer. In my case, I had a 1.25″ Stanley 720 sitting around asking for some attention. I thought, hey, well, if I ever have a chance to sit down with a lathe, maybe I’ll make one.

Then Bagathon rolled around, and I asked Tom Conroy about what’s involved in making one, because he actually turns stuff and always has good advice. He said that a lathe is not really necessary, and the socket fit itself always needs a bit of tweaking, so I might just try to make one without turning.

So I decided that is what I would do, and I finally got around to it. I dug out the handy block of yellow birch that I used for my pigsticker handle, cut off a piece, marked lines through the center of each face, and then cut what sort of looks like a square tenon for the cone where the socket fits:

After tracing the approximate angle line onto each face here, I used my saw rasp to take it down to a cone. This sounds trickier than it is; all you do is work the corners first so that you have an octagonal shape, then refine it until you have a cone.

Then to fine-tune the chisel’s fit, I put the chisel on top of the cone and twisted a little:

The grime inside the socket left marks on the high spots that I could then pare off:

After a few iterations, the chisel fit, and it was off to shaping. I didn’t know what pattern to use, but I like the general contour of those yellow-handled Lee Valley chisels, so I traced that to a piece of paper, then traced that pattern onto each face:

Next time, before doing anything, I’ll mill the block down to its final extent so that I don’t have to remove as much. Because the block was much wider than the ultimate handle width, I had to saw two parallel faces off and re-mark the pattern.

But even with this, the shaping went relatively quickly, first getting down to a squarish profile:

Then doing the octagon thing again to get to a refined curve, and finally some files and sandpaper to get it smooth, I had something that looked like a handle. Here’s the more-or-less end result before finishing:

It’s not perfectly round, but it’s fairly close. I’m not sure I want perfectly round. The next handle I make will probably have a sort of oval profile.

Tom was right. This wasn’t hard at all, and it didn’t take much time, either. The only thing that was a little bit of a pain was holding the handle in place when it began to take final shape. I had to improvise some jaws to fit in the vise for that.

Chisels: 1, Thagomizer: 0

There I was, thumping away at a mortise in the stool top. Whap whap WHAP, hey, something just got funny. Remember how I hinted that the Ash chisel handle might bite it? Well, it turns out that the chisel made a pre-emptive strike (notice the perpetrator lurking in the background here):

A totally predictable failure pattern, I suppose. I did the only natural thing here and glued it back together:

I don’t know how long this repair is going to last.[*] In theory, it should be okay if I manage to strike in the center of the mallet, but then again, the ultimate reason that this happened was because I didn’t hit the chisel handle in the center.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. Maybe one or more of these will help in the future:

  • A bigger mallet for bigger jobs like this. [note: see Joel’s comment below on why this may not be the greatest of ideas]
  • Strike in the center.
  • Make the mallet out of wood with an interlocked grain.
  • Not hit the chisel so hard.

[Edit: July 24, 2011, about a year and three months later. However, the new break was totally different.]

Restoring an Ash Mortise Chisel

To make the joinery in the stool project, I’m going to need a fatter mortise chisel than my W. Butcher “pigsticker.” Fortunately, while trolling eBay a while back, bidding cheaply on every pigsticker I saw (and losing all of them), I managed to pick up two for about $13 each. When the dust cleared, I had a 3/8″ William Ash and a 7/16″ Samuel Newbould. Both needed work to get back into usable shape, but at least I didn’t have to make a handle for either.

For whatever reason, I picked the Ash to restore now, which had a lot of rust. In retrospect, I have no idea why. The Newbould doesn’t have much rust, but it does have some pitting near the tip, as does the Ash. And of course, that’s the worst part, right? So no problem with the slightly smaller chisel, right?

Well, that is, unless that one has a tip that is about as sharp as a blunt screwdriver, which is exactly what the Ash had. But I’m pretty hardheaded, so I resolved to reshape the bevel. However, even though this type of chisel is laminated and most of the metal is pretty soft, the cutting edge is always ridiculously hard. I didn’t want to spend years trying to muscle that off. For salvation, I turned to…

The world’s most horrible grinder.

Hand-crank grinders look cute and all, but I bought this Wissota thing for about 50 cents a long time ago, and after fiddling around for a long time trying to make it turn even halfway reasonably, I put it aside. Some of its many features include:

  • Grotesquely misshapen, hot-burnin’ wheel
  • Mismatched bushing/arbor
  • Missing tool rest (although this might not be such a bad thing)
  • Bent crank handle
  • Frozen nuts
  • Broken clamp knob

But for whatever reason, instead of going out and getting something reasonable, I put it on the bench and started fooling around with it. I managed to get the nuts turning, and when I tightened everything up and turned the crank, it started spinning with a groan. For lack of a better idea, I squirted a little WD-40 into the oil hole, and to my surprise, the noise went away and it turned freely.

So I put on the safety glasses, got a jar of water for cooling the blade, and went to work, using a clamped board as a tool rest. This worked well enough (gotta love those high-carbon steel sparks), and before long, I had an actual bevel on the blade. Whee.

Then I turned my attention to the chisel’s face. There was a lot of pitting near the tip on this one after some flattening:

Oh, how I hate dealing with this mess. It was off to the surface plate and the 3X sandpaper to fix this problem:

The sandpaper doesn’t stay aggressive on this steel for very long. After switching sandpaper about 5 times (note to self: get some 60-grit paper next time), I had finally gotten through the pitting, so I finished smoothing the face, then turned my attention to the bevel side.

I started with an Eclipse-style honing guide at first, but this chisel is just too heavy for that, so I just did it freehand. This worked well, and before long, I had a sharp chisel. But it’s not truly sharp until you use it to make sure, so I did just that on some beech:

Yeah, I’d say it works. I might remove some of that black oxidation on the sides at some point, but for now, I don’t think I need to. Anyone want to take bets on how long the handle will last?

One question remains: What will become of the world’s most horrible grinder? I might be able to make it work reasonably well with a decent wheel and a little tuning. Or should I get a new one? Grinders are useful things, no doubt about it; I just hadn’t really needed to bother with one until now.

Taiwan: Final Tool Survey

Here’s an inchannel gouge I got in Taipei. This is how all of the “local” carving tools there I saw were designed:


It’s fairly long, maybe about 9″ or so. But that’s not the first thing you notice about it–the lack of a handle is. They typically aren’t used without mallets.

These things are struck with a long, rectangular mallet made of a single piece of wood. They are somewhere around 2x2x9″, with one end rounded so that it’s comfortable. Due to the small hard area that they hit, the mallets quickly form concavities on their faces. So soon after you start using a new mallet, it tends not to slip.

Although it looks cheap, this gouge was not particularly cheap. The red at the end means that it’s made with “quality steel,” and I think the cost was about $8. I’ve tried it out and it works fine, but I think I’d prefer to make an appropriate mallet before doing too much with it.

The plane below is a little block-esque plane made by “Hsieh Hsing:”


This one actually came with packaging, which advertised it as “Japanese-style,” despite the fact that it’s no different than any Taiwanese plane I’ve seen. It’s short (maybe about 4″ long), and has a thick, quality blade that was very easy to flatten. Its throat is rather wide open, which lends it to uses of more rough block plane, but it does a good job and I can’t complain about that.

The final Taiwanese tool I’ll describe is a little special due to the person who gave it to me. One of the reasons for this whole trip was to meet my future inlaws, and as scary as that may sound, it turns out that they were all really great. One uncle in particular is also interested in building stuff, so I showed him this blog and we talked a bit on the subject. He’s also the one who took me to the store where I got most of these tools; it would have been difficult to find without him. And finally, he gave me this little smoothing plane:


Thanks, Uncle!

I think I’m finally mostly caught up with updates from the trip, so it’s time to get focused back on my various projects; I’ve already got some stuff started and can’t wait to get back to business on that. I’ll have some updates shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this view from Mugumuyu near Hualien (those rocks are marble):


Somewhat Interesting Uninteresting Chisel

When tool-hunting in Taiwan, I expected that I’d find a few western tools with mostly Asian-style ones. The reality for most places was a pile of power tools that look the same everywhere, but we generally don’t do that kind of naughty talk around here.

I’ll start with what is likely the most uninteresting of the lot. One of the larger tool/hardware shops in Taipei had a western chisel that I felt compelled to buy because there were a lot of things about it that seemed strange to me. (That it cost a little less than $10 didn’t hurt, either.)

What first caught my eye were:

  • Made in Japan.
  • Wooden handle. Seems like some sort of ring-porous thing like ash or hickory, with medium-sized pores.
  • Wide (I didn’t have anything 1.5″ wide).

Well, when I got it home, there were a few more things that I noticed:

  • Unknown manufacturer. The backing card (see below) says “Quality is Approved by Sygma U.S.A.,” but I have no idea what this means. Searches have returned no results for a manufacturer of that name here. It might be an ISO certification company or something, because it says ISO 9002 at the bottom. Or it just may be completely made up.
  • No UPC code that I can see.
  • Hooped handle, which is very much like the Japanese style.
  • Instructions on the back of the card (see below) are actually halfway decent (“A dull chisel is difficult to guide and dangerous to use”).

And then I sharpened it last night. The grinding was really good–it took only a couple of minutes to flatten the face, and there is a perfect little hollow in the center that starts about a centimeter from the edge. There were no jaggies. Once honed, it easily pared shavings off of Douglas-fir endgrain and didn’t seem to lose its edge, but only time will tell to see how good this steel is.

So here are the pics. If anyone’s ever seen one of these before…


Silly Honing Guide Tricks

After finishing off those last two projects, I had some time to clean and rearrange stuff in the shop, and as I was doing so, I couldn’t help myself from sharpening up a nice old W. Butcher chisel I got off of eBay a while back. I decided that I needed to reshape the bevel, so I put some Norton 3X on the surface plate and set up my Lee Valley/Veritas Mk. 2 honing guide. (I sharpen freehand for the most part now, but for shaping, I use the guide.)

As I was going to work, the blade did something that it sometimes does in the guide–it slipped and rotated out of square. This has been my only major gripe with the guide, and it’s going to happen with any top-clamping guide, especially with the narrower blades.

Then I thought of a way to make it stop, maybe. I took a small piece of very fine grit sandpaper (1500 in this case), folded it, and put it between the blade and the guide on the bevel side, where it wouldn’t affect the bevel angle:


And it no longer slipped around. Someone else has probably thought of this fix, too, they’ve had to.

(For the record, my only other gripe with the guide, a minor one, is that the knurled knobs are sometimes difficult to loosen. I’d kind of prefer something more like a wingnut.)

Mortise chisel: Part 2

I marked out the angles on the mortise chisel by “feel,” just by sort of looking at all of the pictures I’ve seen and guessing. With two sides cut away, it looked like this:

I cut out these sections with my larger rip saw. It would have taken forever with anything else. Then I used a block plane to smooth around the oval. I nicked the blade of the plane against the chisel bolster doing that. Boo. Grinding that stuff out is always such a pain.

Following the plane, I used a spokeshave to further smooth the oval shape, then, finally, progressive grits of sandpaper on a block to do the final smoothing. This sequence was quick.

A couple of oil/varnish blend applications later, along with the requisite sharpening, it was ready to use. Here it is with its first test mortise-and-tenon joint (upper left, not that stuff to the right):

It’s a lot of fun to use. Best of all, it’s fast.