Don’t know about you but I like Japanese tools. I suspect I’m not the only one. There is an elegance to their simplicity which really speaks to me. That said, getting the best out of them can seem rather bewildering. Japanese handplanes are a good example of this. They seem so simple yet as we all know even before we buy one, they have to be seen as more of a “kit” than a finished item.
On a recent trip to Japan I found myself in quite a few tool shops staring at rows of what looked like identical oak handplanes. The only difference between them that I could see was the price. Cheap ones could be had for £30, and planes which looked almost the same could be £1000.
I took some advice from some Japanese luthier friends and settled on a plane which looked much like all the others but was (I hoped) a good compromise between price and quality at around £150.
But how do you set the thing up?
Well, I knew you had to “condition” sole of a Japanese plane (kanna) so the next job was to buy another plane on eBay to do just that. Fortunately these can be bough quite cheaply.
I started to do some research on the web. For many of us, YouTube is the first port of call. So I sat through a few videos.
One young man has posted a pretty useful series on his YouTube channel. But nothing against him, I struggled to “click” with the stuff he had to say, but that might not be the case for you – check him out – it’s free.
So the search continued which led me to come across “Japanese Handplanes – The workings and wonder of kanna ” A DVD by California based woodworker Jay van Arsdale, author of “Sholi:How to Design, Build and Install Japanese Screens in Your Home.”
The 2 DVD set covers everything you need to know to get going. The video has a nice feel about it, very much like you’re in the class with Jay as he starts at the beginning and takes you through to the end.
He’s a very practical chap is Jay, very matter of fact about things and tells you what you need to know.
DVD 1 mainly consists of an introductory talk – telling us of the different parts and different types of kanna. It’s useful but it wasn’t until we got down to the practical part that I felt I was coming across material that was new to me. But that’s ok – that’s what introductory talks are about – not only to inform you but for us to get used to our new teacher, to get used to their way of talking about things. so in that sense we’re well prepared for the work to come.
DVD 2 deals with the nitty gritty – I found the hand sharpening section very useful. I was taught to sharpen with a jig, and still do most of the time but Jay stresses the importance of doing this job by hand so as to feel what’s going on. It would have been good to know a little more from him about the many types of natural stones he was using, but I suppose if it was that important, he’d have said. What did come across was the importance of looking, listening and feeling needed to sharpen a Japanese plane blade by hand. I’ve watched an old friend of mine, Davey Mann, a violin maker hand sharpen many times, but now when I do , thanks to Jay, I can see more clearly the subtleties of the body mechanics involved: the different role each hand plays, and the connection between the two required to adjust in order to get the best result.
Now I know how to read the scratch lines the blade shows, how to listen for effective cutting, how to avoid wasting my sharpening stone and how to use body mechanics to avoid rounding the blade.
Having prepared the blade, Jay goes on to explain is simple terms how to prepare the body (dai) This seems simpler than the free info I found on YouTube yet more effective. Like sharpening, the dai prep is done in real time. That in itself gives a certain degree of reassurance that this task is certainly achievable. You just have to follow the steps and keep paying attention. Jay explains how much to alter the dai to allow for lateral adjustment of the blade, how to fit the dai bed to the blade and how/where to hollow the dai sole to achieve a beautiful burnished finish on our timber.
Having prepared the dai and fitted the blade we’re taught how to adjust the blade and understand the body mechanic of using the plane which is (like a Japanese saw) pulled towards the user rather than pushed.
Finally Jay deals with the rather unnerving process of “tapping out” the blade in order to fine tune, condition and prolong it’s use. Again, not only do we learn what to use, but how, utilising our ears, our eyes as well as our hands.
If you are interested in hand planing your soundboards, or you’re interested in learning more about Japanese handplanes I can think of no better place to start or finish! There is only so much a teacher can say or do before you have to have a go and find out for yourself and Jay van Arsedale’s guide is as complete as you’re going to find.
At $50 + shipping ($6 US, $10 international) Japanese Handplanes – the workings and wonder of kanna with Jay van Arsdale offers excellent value for money.
Maybe think of it as a private 1-to-1 you can watch over and over…