By Robert Kroll
You can always tell when you’re in the presence of a Japanese woodworker: They usually have ten fingers. They have ten toes. (This woodworker has nine toes, but that’s another story.) But their hands and feet show the inevitable effects of their efforts to turn wood into comfortable furniture: cuts, scrapes, abrasions, blisters—painful. The woodworker, not the wood, should be feeling pain. A woodworker heals. Wood does not.
The key difference between Japanese and Western woodworking is the sharpness of Asian tools. A Japanese woodworker spends as much time sharpening the chisel as chipping away with it. The tools become mayhem makers. No matter. Better than harming wood. You don’t want a surgeon with a dull scalpel. An American woodwright sharpens the blade three times a year whether it needs it or not.
A Japanese chisel is designed to produce strong joints just as a nail is designed to produce strong joints. The difference is that a nail is mean; it cracks through wood and harms it. Splinters fly when a nail is driven. No splinters are produced by a razor-sharp chisel, just a clean cut.
A Japanese joint involves only wood. Two or more pieces are fitted together, female and male, using only friction and a tight fit. A hole, or mortise, is cut and a rectangular wooden object—a tenon or peg—fits into that hole. The tenon, precisely cut, penetrates the hole under the force of a mallet so that it won’t withdraw or split the female piece. A permanent, often exposed, harmonious union is the goal; whether for a stool or a Shinto temple, the technique and theory are identical. The width of a Japanese chisel often determines the dimensions of the joinery. The hammer-and-nail system is more flexible if less elegant and composed.
Three main tools make up the Japanese carpenter’s arsenal: the plane, the saw, and the chisel. A Japanese tool company product developer, Darin Lawrence, tells us, “A hand plane is a specialized tool designed to hold a sharpened blade to accomplish a specific woodworking task. It is usually pushed or pulled along a surface to cut or smooth a piece of wood.” That’s it. Now use it, carefully. Alternatively, the joint can consist of a “hand shake,” as shown in the accompanying photo.
A chisel performs delicate surgery and brutal cutting and carving, says Robert Kroll, Jewish-American Japanese woodworker—me. The saw, in Japanese joinery, allows one to both shorten and elongate wood slabs. If it takes more than four minutes to elongate your slab, call your doctor. You are bleeding. More on elongating next time.
End of lesson. Next month: Knowing when to pull out.