Japanese Planes


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While visiting another forum I was surprised to see how many wood workers have some mis-conception and great hesitation when it comes to buying or using a Japanese plane. Share your thoughts on the subject of Japanese planes here, pro or con. I'm very much for them, except for a couple Krenov style they are all I use. Years ago I sold my Western planes to buy more Japanese.

What are your thoughts?

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Dale,

I have some, but limited use with Japanese planes. I like how they feel and am comfortable with using them on the pull stroke, but I find them more difficult to set. I do use the tap-to-set method on a few of my planes, but I think what I don't like about Japanese planes is how the blades are tapered and actually wedge themselves in the body, making adjustments more difficult, in my opinion. I am also not very good at striking the wedge/cap iron well.

Bottom line, I like how they feel and perform, but I'm not so enthusiastic about the adjustments. Maybe I just need to spend more time using them.

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I only have 2 smoothers from Lee-Valley. I like them very much. When I consider buying more Japanese planes, I look to sites like Japan Woodworker, but the selection there is huge and it isn't always clear to me what the difference between some of the planes is. For that reason, I want to wait until I make a trip to the bay area to go try out the planes in person.

If you would have recommendations of which planes you prefer and why, I might talk myself into buying one based on a recommendation instead of waiting. I do pull Western planes often enough; does that count?

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I only have 2 smoothers from Lee-Valley. I like them very much. When I consider buying more Japanese planes, I look to sites like Japan Woodworker, but the selection there is huge and it isn't always clear to me what the difference between some of the planes is. For that reason, I want to wait until I make a trip to the bay area to go try out the planes in person.

If you would have recommendations of which planes you prefer and why, I might talk myself into buying one based on a recommendation instead of waiting. I do pull Western planes often enough; does that count?

Hi Paul

One recommendation I can give is purchase from Hida not Japan Woodworker: http://www.hidatool.com/ The 45 deg 70mm Ishihisa would serve you very well. I'm not saying Japan Woodworker is bad, there is just a better alternative. The Ishihisa blade comes fitted very well into a very good quality dai, the blades themselves also of very good quality. Really a great plane at a fair price.

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I really like using Japanese planes. I think they work very well. I don't think that they are necessarily better than, say, a LN #4. You can get an excellent result on a board with either type of plane.

There are four ways that I do think Japanese planes are better: [1] the huge blade is way easier to sharpen than the blades on western planes, [2] the ergonomics of pulling the plane, [3] the method of adjustment by using a hammer, and [4] the wooden body, which I think is much nicer to use than a metal bodied plane on wood. But these advantages are really a matter of degree rather than a quantum leap in performance, and I can see that not everyone will see these as being advantages. Many woodworkers would rather push the plane, use screw adjustments to tweak the blade, and prefer the advantages of a metal body.

What I don't really understand is that many woodworkers start off looking at Japanese planes by asking, "Why I should use a Japanese plane unless it's better?" I don't see why this should be a criteria for trying one at all. I have western planes that I use in my shop, even though I don't see why western planes are necessarily better than Japanese planes. I could take the attitude of "I won't buy a western plane unless someone can show me why they are clearly better than Japanese planes," and it would be very hard to convince me. There's nothing that western planes can do that I couldn't do with Japanese planes, except maybe recreating 18th century moldings. But if I don't want to do that, it's a non-issue. There's a lot of furniture you can build without using 18th century moldings.

But this attitude is, quite frankly, silly. To take another example, look at all the discussions about the pros and cons of bevel down vs. bevel up planes. People argue back and forth as to which one is "better" with a great deal of enthusiasm. But I would bet that there are very few people who have only bevel down or bevel up planes in their arsenal.

The thing that I find most bothersome about this attitude is that I think that there is great value in looking at alternative ways of doing woodworking. I have read many books and internet sources on western planes, even though I don't use them very much. Why? Because by studying western planes, I get insight into how Japanese planes work. Likewise, by learning about Japanese planes, I understand western planes better. I think this makes me a better woodworker. I don't particularly like Federal style furniture with all the inlays. But I've read up on it, and tried some making some inlays, again because knowing these things will improve my woodworking.

So the resistance to picking up a Japanese plane because it's not like the other planes that one might have is confusing to me. Maybe that's just how my brain is wired, or maybe it's because I'm a relative beginner compared to a lot of other woodworkers, but that's how I feel.

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Ichi Ban Pan San.

Like Eddie Rickenbacker, I'm a bi-planer.

I love Japanese, and other Asian, planes and they are more first choice. Four decades of immersion into Japanese culture gives me a preference for the Japanese pull-me versus the Western push-me planes. Generally, I'll pull a Western plane just from habit. With some little accommodations in posture and techniques, pulling a Western plane makes sense to me.

However, when it comes to buying planes I like to seek out Western planes at barn sales, collectibles shows and flea markets. So far, I've never paid more than $20 for a Western plane, but I've never seen a used Japanese plane at once of these venues. I tend to be frugal.

Recently, I tried a modernized econo-version of a Japanese plane, Kakuri brand, from www.JapanWoodworker.com that has a chip breaker with an adjusting screw knob. It works just fine as a smoothing plane once it is set up. This is the plane I've been using when I do demos at arts & crafts events.

It's fun to watch the look on consternation on the faces of westernized wood whackers when I use the plane the wrong way.

I'm just an old Kentucky gaikokujin playing like a shokunin. :)

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  • 1 year later...

So what is needed to tune a plane correctly. I read and have been emailed by supplies all different sort of options. I don't think my old hands can handle a card scraper to get the precision needed. The scraper planes are expensive and do they need to be set up too? Then I've been recommend special chisels for various purposes around the dai? I'm so confused now :( Looking around a tools, it seems like the floats that Lie Nielsen might be a good option?

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For tuning the dai, I suggest the Iwasaki files (available at Japan Woodworker and Woodcraft). A chisel is neat, but too aggressive for my taste. I figure the LN float is somewhere in between a fine rasp and a chisel, but never tried it.

For the sole, you don't need a scraper plane. A hand scraper will do the job, though it will upset the purists:

cheers,

wm_crash, the friendly hooligan

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If you're really in a tough spot with cash, go to Lowe's and get a 3" metal paint scraper. Just treat it like a scraper with a handle. It may not hold up as well as a cabinet scraper, and may not be the best against a hard oak dai, but you can get some stuff done. I like cabinet scrapers myself for this task. Do you have to tune a scraper plane? My guess is a perfectly flat dai on scraper planes is fine. The slight dips needed in the planes are needed to avoid the plane sliding on top of the wood instead of cutting (so I have read, can't confirm). But the scraper plane goes short distances and it goes crossgrain, so I figure it's not going slide, it'll just cut.

cheers,

wm_crash, the friendly hooligan

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Another question if you please. Both japan woodworker and lee valley sell an Americanized Japanese plane with a mass produced steel blade and thumb screw (Kakuri is the brand). Advantage to it is that it's less than $40. Would it be worth a go or should I save up for the 'real thing' with a Japanese laminated white steel blade?

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I never held a Kakuri in my hand. My advice is to look on eBay. The one thing to look for is for is no cracks in the dai and a good amount of blade remaining (my rule of thumb is that blade must stick out at the very least 1.5" above the dai). Rusty blades aren't that much of an issue, but it's better if they're clean.

The downside to eBay is that you'll most probably have to bid against me :) You'll also have to sort out through a bunch of photos of some Japanese airplanes, Japanese action figures, and a Japanese model/idol named Kanna Tsugihara - not a bad thing if you ask me.

Here is my eBay search string for japanese tools:

(japan,japanese) (kana,kanna,plane,chisel,oire,nomi,saw)

Slightly off topic: Japanese saws from eBay. I bought about 3 of them off eBay . . . they are a pain to restore but that may be just me.

cheers,

wm_crash, the friendly hooligan

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And since I am in the mood for sharing all my japanese tool related insider information, if you are looking for japanese natural whetstones, two reliable sources are :

Hida Tools

http://www.hidatool.com/

Chef Knives to Go

http://www.chefknivestogo.com/

Hida Tools are very good for the lower grit stones (Aoto Mountain and Amakusa), but kida pricey on the finishing stones. Chif Knives have the very coarse Ohmura (which I was unable to find anywhere else) and also the finishing stones are rather reasonably priced. eBay for japanese natural stones is hit and miss (a lot of miss) from what I bought there so far.

cheers,

wm_crash, the friendly hooligan

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For the sole, you don't need a scraper plane. A hand scraper will do the job, though it will upset the purists:

I often use a card scraper on the soles of Japanese planes. Also a wide chisel, a plane blade, and anything else that will remove wood. More information here. And here's where you can find a write up on setting up a Japanese plane.

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So, another set of questions to my endless string of questions on this subject (sorry but $200 to $300 is a big purchase for me right now :) )

Which is easier to use physically - Japanese or western (see disabled woodworking question)?

Asking the choir question: which will produce a better end result?

Finally (perhaps) will a hira kanna do a decent enough job on end grain?

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I think that Japanese planes are easier to use from an ergonomic perspective. As you pull a Japanese plane, you tend to start from a position with your arms outstretched and leaning forward, to a position where your arms are close to you and more upright, which is going from a relatively unstable position to a relatively stable position. It's the opposite for western planes. You tend to start with your arms close to you, and wind up leaning forward with your arms extended.

I think it's also more intuitive to use your legs and body with a Japanese plane, which puts more power into your planing stroke.

Before anyone says this is a bunch of zen mystical mumbo-jumbo, the idea of moving from an unstable position to a stable one is an idea that the woodturners use all the time.

As far as better end result, believe it or not, I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. So much depends on the woodworker.

Japanese planes will do a great job on end grain. Here's a post I did on using a Japanese plane with a shooting board: http://giantcypress.net/post/482930234/japanese-planes-and-shooting-boards

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Another question: How versatile is a hira kanna? Does it just do the smoothing job or can it be tapped out a little more to do some more aggressive leveling? It may just be hard for me to tell in this video (

) but I can't tell that he's using more than one plane as he does the planing on the first two videos on this.
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Japanese planes can be set up to take shavings as thick or thin as you want, much like you can have a jack plane for initial material removal, and a smoother to get you your final finish. The set up is much the same as it is for western planes: if you want to remove a lot of material, put a more pronounced camber on your plane blade, make the mouth more open, and project the blade more. For a smoother, have less camber, set it for a thin shaving, and have a tighter mouth.

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Japanese planes can be set up to take shavings as thick or thin as you want, much like you can have a jack plane for initial material removal, and a smoother to get you your final finish. The set up is much the same as it is for western planes: if you want to remove a lot of material, put a more pronounced camber on your plane blade, make the mouth more open, and project the blade more. For a smoother, have less camber, set it for a thin shaving, and have a tighter mouth.

If I am reading this correctly which I think I am (scratches head). You only need on block and multiple knives and cap irons (don't know the proper term)?

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Actually, you would more likely have three planes. One set up to take a thick shaving, one to take a thinner shaving, and one to take a ridiculously thin shaving. ^_^

Theoretically you could get away with one body and different blades, but ideally the body of a Japanese plane is custom fit to the blade. Also, with only one body you could only have one "setting" for the mouth, when ideally the mouth would be wider for a plane that takes a thicker shaving, and tighter for thinner shavings.

To me, it's sort of like talking about how a low angle jack plane is so versatile because you can swap blades in and out of it. If the "versatility" of a low angle jack was really all that great, where are all the woodworkers who have a low angle jack as their only plane? ^_^

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