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Getting started in woodworking: Tool selection with a Japanese flair

February 6th, 2012

I haven’t been woodworking very long and like most North American’s when I think of a saw I think of a traditional western push saw, and when I think of a plane, a picture of a Stanley #5 comes to mind.

As I dove into this new hobby a couple years ago I stumbled across a plastic handled Marples pull saw while perusing the aisles of my local Big Box hardware store. I’m not sure what possessed me to grab that saw instead of a more traditional western saw. I had no idea about the origen of a pull saw concept, so I can’t blame my decision on my martial arts background or my love of Asian aesthetics… There was just something about that saw that seemed to make sense to me.

It certainly wasn’t the greatest saw in the world, but more and more I found myself gravitating toward that saw over my circular power saw during every construction project.

As I’ve slid down this slope into a full woodworking obsession, finding English language info on Japanese tools has been a struggle. I scour the Internet and bookstores constantly looking for more information. Along the way one of my favorite resources has been Wilber Pan’s blog at http://giantcypress.net/.

So “Get Woodworking Week” is upon us and I feel the need to somehow contribute the the scant body of English language information on Japanese woodworking.

Let me start out with tool selection. Later this week we’ll dive into making a work surface.

Saw’s: Why a pull saw over a push saw?

Anyone that takes a look at Japanese joinery will instantly be stuck by the complexity and precision of each joint. The secret to this joinery (other can skill and time)? A tool  designed for precision joinery. By pulling the saw to cut the wood, vs pushing it, it allows the saw to be MUCH thinner and this allows the woodworker to be much more precise no matter what kind of joinery they are cutting.

The saw I started with is this one: Irwin Double Edge Pull Saw and it or this one: Shark Corp 10-2440 Fine Cut Saw can be found at most big box hardware stores. If your only option is a local store you can pick one of these up and get to work.

A step up I would recommend is that some Ace hardware stores in the western US sell saws by Kakuri. I picked up a 240mm Ryoba (double sided) saw and a 270mm cross cut blade a year ago and the 270mm is still my goto rough stock breakdown saw.

If you are willing to shop online, your saw options open up dramatically. My recommendation is to grab a Gyokucho Brand Ryoba in a 240mm length. This has been my goto saw for just about everything for years. http://www.japanwoodworker.com/product.asp?s=JapanWoodworker&pf_id=19%2E611%2E0&dept_id=13088 you can find them for under $40 many places online.

If for some reason you want to spend more… 🙂 the saw I’m currently lusting after is a Noko-giri Kobo Ryoba. Jay van Arsdale introduced me to that saw last year at Woodworking in American and it is a smooth cutter. They ware a bit harder to find and run around $75. http://www.toolsfromjapan.com/store/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=316_318_504



If you are sticking to hardware store options I would get a set of 4 or 6 Stanley FatMax’s (ok) Irwin Blue Chip’s (better).

If you want to start a collection of Japanese chisels go grab a couple of the Japan Woodworker house brand, 1/4″ and 1″ sizes. $43 for the pair.





This is an area where I know very little about Japanese tools. I still use western planes just because I managed to ammas a collection of nice old Baily’s from flea markets. If you are willing to take the time to learn about what is good vs what is crap you can find a some amazing deals at flea markets and yard sales.

Unfortunetly stay away from any of the offerings at the hardware store, they just aren’t quality precision tools.

If you are buying new, a decent low angle western plane block plane is the Woodriver from Woodcraft, $90 or if you can afford it the Lee Valley is really nice, $140.

If you want to go down the Japanese plane route: this is a good place to start 48mm 47-1/2º Hiroetsu Polishing Plane, $83


A few other tools you’ll need to start:

A hammer or wooden mallet, a tape measure, a drill, and an accurate 12” adjustable square (I find the PEC squares are a great quality and value). A couple of large clamps come in handy at times as well.

Later this week we’ll dive into our first project, a set of Japanese joinery sawhorses. They are a great first project and give you a work surface that will hold up the the abuse of years of hand tool woodworking.

Thanks to Wilbur Pan for a couple of the tool recommendations. If you have any questions about Japanese tools another great resource is Stu over at http://www.toolsfromjapan.com. He knows more about value and tool quality than anyone I know and is always happy to answer questions.

PS: sorry for some of the photo quality. My DSLR is down for repair, and I was shooting with my iPhone in a hurry.

Part two: Getting started in woodworking: Building a Japanese Workbench

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  1. February 26th, 2012 at 13:32 | #1

    Funny I recently used a Japanese saw in a class and really liked it. Even next to my LN dovetail saw. The kerf was so thin! This one had a backing, which I liked, as opposed to others I had tried in the past. Several years ago, as I as building my shop! I purchased a marbles back saw from HD for a specific purpose (cutting close to the floor). 1st time I tried to use it, the plastic handle broke apart it in my hand! Back to HD it went. Perhaps it’s time to try some others.

  2. Nik Brown
    February 26th, 2012 at 14:38 | #2

    Yea my goto dovetail saw is a Dozuki (backed saw) with rip teeth. http://www.toolsfromjapan.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=316_333_389&products_id=1116 I started cutting dovetails with a LV dovetail saw, but the pull saw always just felt more natural to me. I love my Dozuki; it’s great for ripping small pen blanks into plug material as well. https://twitter.com/#!/nikbrown/status/170221831150768128

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