Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not a Japanese Hand Tool experience

So I was starting some detail carving on the solid-body uke and I dropped by the hardware store to look for a spokeshave. They didn't have one, but I picked up a new chisel and a small plane, and a woodcarving blade for my Xacto knife.

And then, while getting some substitute brótchen at Acme, I realized I was in the neighborhood of Hida Tools. And, yes...I should have stopped there first. I should have remembered. Picked up a carving knife for under twenty bucks, and haven't touched the new chisel or plane since (the latter didn't work very well anyhow).

My first Japanese Tool experience must have been encountering a draw saw. And realizing instantly that cutting on the pull made so much more sense...ever since, ordinary wood saws have struck me as odd and backwards. Plus the thing was thin enough to trim off a dowel flush without cutting into the surface. And of course was gorgeous.

My next Japanese Hand Tools were hammer and niwatori. Nothing unusual about the hammer -- not a traditional Japanese style hammer, but just a mass produced steel framing hammer with a cushioned grip. Except for this; when I picked it up, it fell in line with my arm and as I gave it an experimental swing, the head was perfectly aligned. No need to twist the wrist and eyeball the head and compensate during the swing; it just fell into line with that perfect balance of a well-made weapon.

The big Japanese Hand Tool experience was actually with a new cooking knife. My old knife had finally died. I went to Hida and spent almost an hour trying to find one that was as close as possible to the same shape. Until the epiphany hit; trust the tools. So I stopped looking for what I thought a cooking knife should look like, and picked up what THEY thought a cooking knife should look like. And it, again, fell into my hand and I've been cooking with it since.

Of course the other side of Japanese Hand Tools is they are very fine, hand-made pieces of craftsmanship. You need to take care of them -- you don't just throw them into the tool box. The raw wood and metal need to be carefully oiled and treated lest they crack and rust. And they are also expensive. Hoo boy are they expensive!

And there's the side effect of getting sucked into a whole philosophy of woodworking, and traditional ways, and fine woodworking and theater props making are not exactly bed-fellows.

But you don't have to buy a set of finishing planes. You don't have to start learning how to hang shoji. You can select, generally towards the more mass-market (such as my hammer, which was not all that much more than a hammer from Sears), and towards those tools that are general-purpose and robust.

My new wood carving knife definitely falls into that category. I think I may be reaching for it as often as I reach for the venerable Xacto knife.

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