Handmade Japanese Chisels: Guided by the Masters’ Hands

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Talented woodworkers, carvers and furnituremakers create amazing works of art with their skills. But sometimes, the tools themselves are the art. Case in point: handmade Japanese chisels.

The thought of handcrafting chisels in today’s techno society may seem like a step back in time to some. But a tool that has been personally created by a Master Blacksmith’s hand from start to finish is a fine craftsman’s treasure. Woodcraft product manager Kent Harpool said, “Each maker puts a bit of themselves in their work. All of the chisels are forged and heat treated by hand. That is part of the Blacksmith’s art and is done by eye—meaning they use the color of the heated steel to get just the right temper. For the woodworker who desires the very finest chisels, those made in the Japanese tradition are superior.”

THE MASTER BLACKSMITHS

MATSUMURA

The Matsumura family has been producing woodworking chisels for well over 200 years. Mr. Shigezo Matsumura began his apprenticeship at the age of 15 and exhibited such skill that he was able to open his own workshop by age 25. For more than 60 years, Mr. Matsumura has made chisels one at a time in the old tradition, preferring to use charcoal instead of gas in the forging and tempering process. He personally makes each Matsumura tool in his one-man shop. He also uses only the finest white and blue steels for the cutting edges, which are laminated to wrought iron for strength. All of his cutting edges are tempered to HRC64 and sharpened for immediate use.

Master Blacksmith Shigezo Matsumura

USUI

Master Blacksmith Yoshio Usui from Yoita, Japan, is a fourth-generation chisel maker, starting his apprenticeship with his father at age 15. Since 1962, he has been making chisels one at a time, working alone to perfect his craft. Mr. Usui has developed a shrewd insight into chisel making, using a mixture of handwork and machines. His preference for High-Speed Steel (HSS) provides a more consistent chisel that sharpens easily and stays sharp a long time.

TASAI

Master Akio Tasai, probably the most famous Japanese chisel maker, uses a Japanese metalworking procedure called Mokume or Mokume-dane, which produces a mixed-metal laminate with distinctive layered patterns. Mokume translates to “wood grain metal” or “wood eye metal.” Mr. Tasai began his apprenticeship at age 12 and now has over 48 years of experience as a master blacksmith. He has developed a special high-carbon blue steel which he feels is ideal for cutting North American hardwoods like walnut and maple. He forge-welds this steel, which forms the cutting edge, to a backing made of multiple layers of hard and soft steel, and twists the backing material to form the shank. He then individually hand tempers each chisel to HRC65. Mr. Tasai and his son Mitio, a master swordsmith, are renowned chisel makers from Sanjo City in Niigata prefecture. Their mokume-shiage (wood grain finish) chisels are well known throughout the world. Tasai handcrafted chisels are highly valued, and demand often exceeds supply.

Master Blacksmith Akio Tasai

SHIBANO

Master Takao Shibano is a third generation blacksmith, beginning his apprenticeship under the tutelage of his father when he was 20 years old. Unlike many of his fellow blacksmiths who favor either gas or coal, Mr. Shibano uses an oil fired furnace to work his steel. His Takaushi brand of chisels are all created in his one-man shop, making every tool his own personal work.

Master Takao Shibano

IKEDA

Samurai Blacksmith Yoshiro Ikeda uses age-old methods and precision handwork for creating his bench chisels. He forms and forges his blades from the best quality Yasuki high-carbon steel to a backing of soft low carbon steel. All of the chisel shaping is done by hand with a hammer, leaving the marks on each blade. Hollowing of the back of the blade is done using a special hand file called a Soto Sen. This is exacting work, and only one other chisel maker uses this technique. But the benefits are easier sharpening and longer lasting chisels. After the blades are tempered and hardened, Mr. Ikeda personally sharpens each one to a razor-like edge.

HANDMADE CHISELS

All but one of the chisel sets presented by Woodcraft are made in the Japanese tradition, which is a hard steel forming the base of the chisel which is forge-welded to a softer steel forming the top and the shank of the steel extending into the handle. The hard steel forms the cutting edge while the purpose of the softer steel is to add strength and shock absorption to the tool. They are made from Aogami (Blue Paper Steel) or Shirogami (White Paper Steel), or in the case of the Sukemaru set by Master Blacksmith Usai, a specially formulated, fine grained Japanese High-Speed Steel.

Hizoka Namaji Japanese Chisels – This 5-piece set handcrafted in Japan by the Matsumura family is a rare find, made from the finest white paper steel wrapped with Namaji Steel that comes from old railway rails that are very difficult to find. Most rails have been recycled, so it is quite uncommon to have access to this virgin material. It has a very characteristic texture, best described as molten steel, and a slight hint of silver color. The octagonal ferrule is unique to these chisels, which have dark sandalwood handles that feel comfortable in your hand. The 5-piece set includes 9mm, 12mm, 18mm, 24mm, and 30mm sizes, with 8-5/8" overall length and 2-3/8" blade lengths. Also available individually with additional sizes of 15mm, 36mm and 42mm. 

Matsu Blue Paper Steel Chisel Set – These extraordinary chisels are made by the Matsumura family from the finest Hitachi Blue Paper Steel. The shorter lengths give the craftsman more control but with greater results due to the quality steel. Mr. Matsumura personally sharpens each blade to a razor like edge. The ebony handles are a bonus, giving the user strength and comfort. The 10-piece set includes 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 25mm, 30mm 36mm, 42mm with the approximate inch equivalents, and comes in an attractive box that is signed by the maker. Chisel overall length is 5-3/4", with blade length of 1-5/8".

Sukemaru HSS Japanese Bench Chisel Set – This 10-piece set is crafted by Master Blacksmith Yoshio Usui from Yoita, Japan. The specially formulated Japanese HSS is fine grained making these chisels more consistent, easy to sharpen and able to hold an edge for an extended time. The set includes 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 42mm chisels, each fitted with an ebony handle. Chisels are 8-5/8" long, with blade lengths of 2-3/8".

Mokume Damascus Japanese Bench Chisels – Master chisel maker Akio Tasai hand forges these coveted tools from a special high-carbon blue steel. These chisels are made to stand up to the heaviest work in any wood, and the handles are crafted from the best quality Japanese Red Oak. The set includes 10 chisels: 3mm, 3.5mm, 9mm, 15mm, 12mm, 18mm, 25mm, 30mm, 37mm, with overall lengths of 8-1/2" and 2-3/8" blades. Comes in a wooden box signed by the craftsman himself.

Tasai Damascus Pattern Blue Steel Multi-Hollow Back Japanese Chisel Set – These beautiful Tasai chisels feature hand-selected Ebony handles, mokume-shiage (wood grain finish) from the finest blue paper steel and have multi-hollow backs. The blue steel is much harder than Western versions, so Mr. Tasai and his son Mitio, a master swordsmith, perfected a special forging process to sharpen their chisels more easily. This Tasai 10-piece set includes 4mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 19mm, 25mm, 31mm, 38mm, 51mm and comes in an attractive Paulownia box that is signed by the maker. Overall length is 8-5/8", with blade lengths of 2-3/8".

For a more in-depth overview of the Tasai Damascus Pattern Blue Steel Chisels, check out this video from product manager Kent Harpool.

Shibano Umeki Chisel 10-piece Set - Japanese Umeki Chisels feature a crown or ridge down the center of the chisel that is equally sloped away from the ridge towards the sides of the chisel, thinning as it goes. With this side relief, these chisels can make cuts in tight places, which is why they are known as dovetail-style chisels. Master Takao Shibano uses specially selected Aogami 2 Steel for the cutting base, which he then forge-welds to a softer iron to form the top layer of each chisel, extending it into the shank and up into the tough White Oak handle. Includes sizes 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 15mm, 18mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm and 42mm and comes in a signed wooden storage box. Chisels are also sold individually. Overall length is approximately 8-3/4", with blade length of 2-1/4".

Shibano Oire Chisels – These Japanese Oire Nomi (Standard) Chisels with single hollow backs are made from scratch by Master Takao Shibano using specially selected stock. Like the Shibano Umeki Chisels, Aogami 2 Steels serves as the cutting base for these chisels, which is then forge-welded to a softer iron to form the top of the chisel, extending to the shank and up into the handle. Each chisel is finished with a tough White Oak handle with a shank ferrule and top “hoop” or ferrule to keep the handle from splitting. This 10-piece set includes 2mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm 15mm, 19mm, 24mm, 30mm, 36mm, and 43mm. Overall length is approximately 8-3/4", with blade length of 2-1/4".

Kunikei Hand Hammered Japanese (Uchi Dashi) Chisels - Samurai blacksmith Yoshiro Ikeda forms the blade of these chisels by hand-forging the best quality Yasuki high-carbon white steel to a backing of soft low carbon steel. Like old time chisels, all of the shaping is done with the hammer and the marks are left on the blade. Rather than using a power grinder, Mr. Ikeda hollows the back of the blade using a special hand file called a Soto Sen. Each chisel then goes through a rigorous tempering process and is hardened to Rockwell HRC64-65. Mr. Ikeda personally sharpens each blade to a razor like edge. The handle hoops are hand hammered, and the handles are made from best quality Japanese Red Oak, Hon Akagashi. The 10-piece set includes 3mm, 6mm, 9mm, 12mm, 16mm, 19mm, 22mm, 25mm, 38mm, and 51mm and comes in a wooden box signed by the maker. Overall length is 8-9/16", and blade length is 2-1/4."

OWNING THE WORK OF A MASTER

A handmade chisel is more than a woodworking tool. It imbues the spirit of that Master Blacksmith and his heritage. It represents hours of the maker’s focused energy and the work of his hands. It carries on the Japanese toolmaking tradition. Those things cannot be sought through a mass-produced instrument. The discriminating craftsman should own at least one handmade Japanese chisel (or a set!) in his or her lifetime.

Due to the nature of handmade chisels and the dedication required to produce each one, the supply is limited. Your local Woodcraft store can check the supply for you and help you select the best hand tools for your needs, as well as any other supplies. You can also shop online at woodcraft.com or call 1-800-225-1153 to speak to a member of Woodcraft’s order entry team. We’re here to help!

We hope you’ll be inspired!

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