Friday, August 21, 2015

A BIG madonoko saw!



So here is one of the saws that I have recently received.....a monster madonoko ("window saw", I believe....referring to the deep gullet that were cut into the saw plate to better facilitate chip clearance).


The original auction photo from Yahoo Japan auctions.



If you want Japanese tools, GREAT tools for WAY cheaper than anywhere else, it's the place to go. One small problem though....basically every seller will only sell within Japan. You need an agent. You can choose the official option, Buyee, but you will pay through the nose for the privilege, both in shipping and in associated incidental fees. A slightly cheaper option is to use.....


Murakami is THE MAN! and is a great guy, completely honest/truthful/helpful....the honourifics can go on, but he is a decent person. Be aware, though his English is good, it is a bit limited (although compared to my nonexistent Japanese....). He will find the cheapest options for shipping, advise on quality, and take a stab at what an item might sell for, so that you can best decide how much to bid. When you do bid, it will be a "sniper" bid, the only sane way that anyone should bid these thing, so there will be no foolishness about escalating bid wars. Just decide what you are willing to spend and call it good.


If you miss your chance, don't worry, because there will be MANY more opportunities. These old Japanese tools sell shockingly cheap (compared to if you buy your tools from catalogs), and there are LOTS of tools out there still. Also.....the general quality of the tools in the auctions will be much higher than most of what you can buy new. Hand crafted tools were the norm until just a few decades ago, so if you want a kanna that has a blade that was forged by an actual human being, sitting in front of the charcoal fire,'s not that hard to find.


The same goes for the Japanese saws. All the best saws are hand forged, have scarfed, forge welded tangs, and have been carefully shaped by hand, using a Sen. If you can, buy one new, because there are only a handful of guys who still know how to do that and we all need to encourage the preservation of knowledge, and.......SECRET......You can buy a decent, hand made saw for under $100 usd. Even I consider that an insane bargain.


If you are poor like buy old tools at auction, through Murakami. The standard disclaimers does apply here, though. Expect the worst, and you will probably be pleasantly surprised.




So, it arrived. got here in only 5 days! It's a big honking saw!


It came with an awesome wooden sheath (although the sheath needs some repair).



It's one of the bigger madonoko that I've seen come up at a auction.


It's in excellent straight condition, and sharp as hell. It continually amazes me how the old American tools you buy will be trashed and abused, while the Japanese tools are almost exclusively sharp and ready for use.


There must be a message there.



Signatures galore, but no idea what they mean. I should've asked Murakami how the kanji reads. Kanji is tough though, and many Japanese people can only recognize a relatively few characters, the others having fallen by the wayside hundreds of years ago. The hand carved kanji would be especially tough to decipher.




The flip side has more info, but the part I like.....that's the beautiful nearly-but-not-quite straight forge weld of the body to the tang. Evidence of the makers hand.


Really nice work. Maybe someday I can do half as well. Also interesting....notice the differing rates of corrosion, soft iron and hard steel.




This saw takes big bites, And is by far the largest saw that I've ever used. It has a pronounced tendency to dig in if you get the cutting angles wrong, so there is a level of skill to be learned. Once you get going, the sawing itself is easy. It's the holding down of the workpiece....that's the challenge.


The saw "dust" isn't actually dust per-se. It's more like long curled ribbons of planed wood.


You know that sound that a well tuned kanna makes as it rips off a perfect shaving? That "Skriieeench" sound? This saw sounds just like that, when things are working perfectly. I attempted to keep the cut on line, but I had to keep reminding myself not to pull too hard with my right arm, to balance the pull between both arms. The saw tried it's best to make up for my lack, but it was severely challenged.



The hardest part was the holding down the workpiece. The saw cut pretty fast, considering my struggles with jumping logs and my poor form. It took about 1 hour to rip cut this very hard and dense Ohia member. The cut was roughly 8" x 42" long. If I had a proper grip on the work it probably would've only taken 20 minutes.


I had made a saw horse for Renee, but the thing turned out so monstrously heavy that, rather than make a second "too heavy" saw horse, I took the one that was already constructed, ripped the thing in two, then cut some additional legs. That conserves resources, and the saw horses were too damn heavy to begin with.



I found it QUITE interesting, that despite my extremely poor form in using the monster madonoko, the surface that it left is generally smooth. Shockingly, considering how course the tooth pattern of is. The surface feels planed, or maybe more like sanded, about 60 grit.




The sawing itself was wonderful, much like working out on a rowing bench. For some reason, I've been craving exactly this type of movement, so not only will I be getting some much needed excercise, I'll also be gaining some wonderful new lumber. Productive excercise!


There is much skill hidden in this simple seeming task, so I expect to be writing more shortly. There are a few aspects of the madonoko saw design that I had been questioning, and even with my brief exposure to this saw, I'm getting it. If you look at the teeth of this saw, you will notice that the primary tooth pattern is two alternating knife-like teeth that score the wood fibres, followed by a third raker tooth that removes the waste. The deep gullet that gives this style of saw its name is necessary because the saw cuts so aggressively, it removes a lot of wood with each stroke and the waste needs somewhere to go without getting in the way.



At the front and rear of the saw though, the tooth pattern is the more standard Japanese crosscut design. That there are no raker teeth at the heel of the saw makes sense, because this is where you are starting the cut from. Rakers would make starting the cut nearly impossible. But why do you see the same thing at the front of the blade? Well, I ended up "steering" the cut quite a bit, using the front of the saw. Also, when there was something hanging up in the middle of the log, something that I couldn't see, I could pull most of the blade out and only use the nose to get the offending area worked down.


I have been holding off on buying a big "whale-back" Maebiki-oga (a special purpose rip-cut saw for big timbers) because I have been wondering if this style of saw would serve both purposes, cut both rip and crosscut. It's looking like it might work that way. This saw weighs about 7 pounds. A heavy maebiki might ultimately cut faster. What do you think Gabe? And what do your Maebiki-oga weigh?


I still want one though.

Oh crap, almost forgot. This saw cost about $40 usd, not including shipping (about $60 there) and there were no other bidders. Imagine what this monster would go for new.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rainy day projects.....a good day for rust.



This is getting to be a common theme I know,'s raining again.


The rain comes down here, nearly every day, but the last few hours have been heavier than the daily norm. It must be due to the tropical storm that just curved around to the south of us and though this isn't a direct hit, it still is dumping out.


The ever present humidity here on the east side of Hawaii is a killer on tools. I am continually presented with reminders to take better care of my tools, ironic, as so many of them came to me in somewhat neglected and rusty condition. The tools that see regular use aren't much problem. After use, they get a quick trip to the stones for a brief hone, then a good wipe with the macadamia nut oil that I've been using for rust prevention. The problem is storage. Put the tools in a box for a week and.....


I might as well put this humidity to good use. A good thick film of oil is the best prevention that I've got right now and a rust blackened finish is ideal for holding oil. Rather than watching stuff rust for all the wrong reasons, I might take advantage of the situation instead.



A little bit ago, Sebastian sent me a wonderful tsuki-nomi, knowing how valuable it would be for my impending journey into timber frame construction. The big 48mm nomi that he sent is the uppermost big guy, right under the iPhone.


The tsuki-nomi is great....really, really nice, but it wants to rust at the drop of a hat. The original forged black finish has worn away through the years, most notably in the areas where you anchor the blade using your left hand as a pivot.

I've written about rust blackening steel tools before, but repetition is something I'm good at (just ask my family, haha). Mostly, I just want to show off Sebastian's giant chisel!



Before I begin, I try to do something to protect any edges or surfaces that I don't want to rust. I used some good Tyvek tape to cover the bevel and back of the blade. Make no mistake, this is REAL rusting here, although it is shallow and doesn't cause pitting or anything.


I put a spoonful of regular salt in a glass or plastic container, then add some hydrogen peroxide.


Mix it up, wipe it on and let it rust.....Then boil to convert the red rust into black iron oxide. It's simple, satisfying magic. Or basic chemistry, take your pick.


The exact measures don't matter. The hydrogen peroxide will only dissolve so much (unless you use heat...then you can form a supersaturated solution, but I find its not worth the extra work), but the extra salt wont cause any trouble.



The only real rule for rust blackening steel is....cleanliness. Wash, degrease, wash again, and then maybe degrease again, it isn't too much work. I sometimes get better adhesion of the rust film if I first give the tools a short soak in a phosphoric acid wash. This gets into the tiniest pockets of rust and also seems to "activate" the surface of the metal.

This chisel was a bit of a bear and didn't want to hold the blackening very well along the upper ridges on the blade, nor along the shaft. When that happens, I wash some more, using good dish soap and some steel wool to micro abrade the surface. Then......the trick. I use the cheap chemical blackening agent, Birchwood-casey Super-blue. If you've ever used the stuff, you know that it might make the steel black, but it will also INSTANTLY rust. The combo of rust-bluing and Super-blue, a match made in heaven. I forgot to take a picture....sorry.


So Birchwood-casey, then more rusting/boiling will eventually build up a nice even coat of black oxide, so much so that the salt/peroxide solution stops rusting the metal. Then, with the metal still hot from the pot, dry it off and wipe on as much oil as it will take.



The cycles of caustic chemicals and boiling water are tough on the tape. It's better than nothing though. Now I need to sharpen this beast and put it to work.



Ellie is already busy today, sharpening stuff.

She just came in from the rain, looking all surly and mean, and figured it was time to put a good edge on the arrow that Brandon sent her. She's working on a chunk of Boiler Bay sandstone that we brought over from Oregon. Good girl.....she favors the natural stones.



Earlier that morning (it was sunny and hot until noon), I took this picture of a little canal that we drive over every day. Usually it is completely dry, but it's been raining a lot recently.




Later in the day, after only two hours of heavy rain.....




They issue flash flood warnings for this part of the island, when it rains heavy like this. Only 4 miles away, it hadn't rained at all. It is the deterioration of this exact drainage channel (and loads of irresponsible development) off of South Kulani road, that leads to notable occasions like this one in 2008, a few miles away, at the intersection of 39th and Pohaku.



We sure are glad that our realtor steered us away from that particular property, haha. See the guys in kayaks?





These rainy days are also good for other ongoing projects. I'm still working on a couple of different saws, slowly learning the art of "hizumi", which I understand as the straightening or massaging of tired and bent saw blades. This particular saw feels like a lost cause however, the rusty little ripsaw kataba/Hawaiian find.



The frustration of this is that at a number of different points I've gotten the blade very close to being good, but then I go a little too far and....damn. The mess really started after I got the blade straightened on the anvil, but then tried some light adjustment on a wooden block.


It's amazing how different it can be, the same steel, but using two different work surfaces. In a series of saw sharpening videos I watched, the presenter talks of preferring a mild steel block for certain procedures, as it "gives" more than the anvil. I would like to try that myself. I also need to polish up a nice block of this hard Ohia. It should make an excellent wooden anvil.




As I've been working this blade, I've been treating it as very much the learning experience, making the blade remarkably distorted, then bringing it back to (nearly) normal. These pictures show a couple different potato chip iterations.


The difficulty with this particular blade lies in the softness of the steel. The temper is just too soft, and the blade grows ever more distorted as I work on it. The steel is just too soft to make a good saw and when I bend the blade into an arc shape, on release it still retains some of the bend. That's not good.




I've learned some, but there is still a lifetimes worth of experience to be gained, many in fact. One of the greatest difficulties lies in finding someone to teach this stuff. Mark Grable has been very, very helpful in sharing his experience, but he's half a world away. I need something to to compare my efforts to.


Two weeks ago, this lot of dozuki and kataba saws came up on Yahoo Japan auction.



The detail photos showed that the saws looked to be old, but high quality. Some of them are missing a few teeth, but that's not my focus here. What really interested me was that there is ample evidence of the saws having seen the attention of a metate, some of the blades being dimpled as the surface of a pond. My thought is that if I examine these saws carefully, I might actually be able to learn something myself.






They arrived a few days ago.



I got a big saw, too.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

More books....."Japanese Woodworking"

"Japanese woodworking" by Hideo Sato

This book was originally published in Japan in 1967, but was translated into English for this 1987 publication. The book is now out of print, but that's OK, because it has been combined with another work, "Japanese Joinery" by Yasuo Nakahara, creating......
"The Complete Japanese Joinery" book, available on Amazon. As far as I know, when they combined the two works, they left the original form intact, so you get a two-fer, but I prefer buying the used original editions.....recycling, don't you know.
Anyway, "Japanese Woodworking"........

Where the previous book that I was reading, "The Japanese House", was a scholarly exploration of architecture and design, more akin to a college text, this book is more of a technical manual. It strikes me as something that was intended to be used in practical manner, a trade school text. "The Japanese House" tells why the house is built a certain way, while this book.....this book actually tells you how to build the thing. This book is only about house construction, so folks looking for more general woodworking information need to keep looking.

The text is clearly written (At least compared to the Google garble that I've gotten used to reading) and the book is profusely illustrated. There are instructions on basic layout techniques and common trade practice.

Some of this information, the most basic and rudimentary practices, would've been helpful to me last year. I had to figure most of this out on my own, piecing bits together from multiple sources. I could've just bought this book, but the book alone might not have been enough.

The first few chapters deal with the working area, some background information, and basic tool maintenance. Be aware that the treatment is very broad, covers a lot of ground, but at little depth. A beginner using this as their sole source of information might get awfully discouraged, as some of the information seems too vague to be very useful .... if this was combined with an instructor actually showing you......? That might work.

My desire to participate in the Project Mayhem joinery practice stemmed partly from my inexperience cutting the more complex joinery that is one of the hallmarks of the Japanese style construction. When presented with a picture of some amazingly intricate joint, it is hard to know where to actually start. I mean, you've got all of those lines and it seems like there must be a "proper" way to go about cutting the joint, right? Well, this book holds your hand for some of the basic joints, says cut here....then here....chisel out some waste.....then cut here....

This works well for me as a beginner, and once you cut a few different joints, you begin to understand the reasoning that is behind things, why things are cut in a particular order. Cutting a new joint isn't an intimidating prospect anymore.

Unfortunately, it is the drawing of the joint that is now the most challenging, and this book doesn't really help you there. They walk you through construction of 6 different joints, step by step, but each explanation begins...."First draw the shape or cut lines", and that's it.

It seems that there IS NO EASY SOLUTION, haha. I need to practice, actually cutting the damn things rather than just thinking about them!

Ultimately, this book is about practical MODERN construction, and while the author doesn't stoop to using plywood, he does mention it's use. In the other book, "The Japanese House", Heino Engle makes much of the notable lack of diagonal bracing used in house construction. Evidently that's no longer an issue, because this book shows the ample use of diagonals.

They also illustrate the use of many different types of metal fasteners and reinforcements.

It seems unfortunate that steel fasteners are required to make the joinery strong enough to meet Japanese building code approval, but at least traditional wooden joinery is still allowed. This is how tradionally styled houses are actually built today.

Japan has been the world leader in exploring the use of novel building techniques, designs that can survive the catastrophic seismic events that are part of life in many parts of the world. Practicality dictates that a uniform material be used, something that can be quantified by an engineer. That generally means steel. Safer perhaps, but unsightly.

The Japanese government has funded numerous studies to determine the ability of traditional building practices to withstand seismic events. This YouTube video is interesting. Two test houses are placed on a giant shaker table, one built using techniques that were common up to 1950, the other house using more modern methods.

The tradionally built house, ummmm......

Siesmic standards are probably a good idea.

The amado screens that I am so enamoured of are briefly explained here. I had seen these diagrams previously, and they do give the right idea of the construction, but some details seem to be missing. The grooves don't line up as I would expect them to. How many screens per wall can be accommodated? Perhaps if there was a description of how the amado are used......

I suspect that if this was your sole source, you would end up with something that looked approximately correct, but didn't function the way it was intended. That's a common risk when working only from drawings and pictures.

Lots of fasteners.

As an introduction to the trade of building Japanese houses, this book probably serves it's function, but for someone who is interested in Japanese tools and just wants to build some stuff, there isn't much of interest here. I'm glad that I bought it (I'll gladly read ANYTHING that relates to Japanese tools!) and it was an enjoyable read. But what did I gain?

  • The book describes a location on a house frame, say a mudsill (the bottom most course of the wall). They generally offer up two choices of joint, the good enough and the higher quality /fancy option. It is good to see how these joints are ranked by people with actual experience (but an explanation of why might be nice).
  • The step by step instructions for cutting the commonly used joints are a nice way to build confidence.
  • The book has clear illustrations of how the shoji screen sills and headers are properly attached to the frame, something that I've been searching out.
  • The focus of the Japanese style construction is on practicality foremost. This style of building construction is still being used.

So, not bad overall, and certainly not a waste of time. It will be interesting to see how this ties into the other half of the book, "Japanese Joinery", by Nakahara.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Japanese woodworking books....."The measure and construction of the Japanese house"



Tools tools tools......I love 'em, but the #1 tool, bar none, is your head. Knowledge.


For the last 3 years I have immersed myself in the "how's" of fixing and using Japanese tools (and recently, the more complex joinery), but an important element has still been missing. There is now ample information about setting up a kanna (though next we need to work on the finer points of using one, but that will come), Project Mayhem joinery practice is helping us to figure out some of the finer points of cutting the more sophisticated joinery, and Sebastian has made great inroads into teaching us how to sharpen the saws, but still essentially what we have been doing is making attractive and educational display pieces.


The most commonly available books on Japanese woodworking will help you build shoji screens, but you are on your own when it comes time to mount them. The other books will give you ample inspiration for improving your own joinery skills, but provide little in the way of how to actually cut the many exquisite examples, being little more than picture books. I love seeing the many examples of joinery, but even an enthusiast like me wonders....where does this fancy stuff fit? What's the big picture here?



Big picture.

Hilo public library had a copy of "Measure and construction of the Japanese house ", by Heino Engle, sent it right over to me in Mountain View. You got to love the interlibrary loan program. I didn't even have to go into town (not the big town anyways ).



All those complex joints that we have been marveling at and cutting our teeth on? Here is how they are actually used, in the wild as it were.



Two pages of pictures, from an old instructional Japanese carpentry scroll. Azby Brown makes mention of these instructional scrolls, in his book "Just Enough", saying that the 1800's Edo Japanese government produced many of these, sort of a public service outreach program. Our departments of agricultural, forestry, and building agencies have done the same over the years, but seeing these 200 year old joints, and actually trying to replicate some of them, really gives me a thrill.

These examples have shown me something else. The joinery that we are now working on is challenging, but this stuff is significantly more so. Another interesting thing is that many of these examples show only 1/2 of the joint. Who needs to see both sides, really?



Foundation details!



This goes here, use that joint over there....




That awning that I made a few weeks ago? If I had waited just one more day, I would've seen these many, excellent examples.

That might have inspired me to step things up a notch in my own design.


God knows, I've looked at hundreds of Google images online, but didn't see much that was of interest. Most of what we build is just streamlined copies of what other people are making, and everything is designed for simplicity and efficiency. Certainly not beauty.



There is an entire chapter on "Movable space controls", being the shoji and fusuma screens.


Dimension standards, joinery and other construction details, also how the screen track ties into the structure as a whole.

Odd though this might sound, I'm actually not a huge fan of Japanese style living spaces. I like having lots of my crap around, and I just find the traditional Japanese house far too spare for my liking. What I do like, is the convertible nature of rooms that is enabled by having sliding wall panels. Try to find good information on sliding doors/walls in house design. Maybe you'll have better luck than me, but I found almost NOTHING , aside from basic shoji and a ton of pocket doors. That's not what I'm looking for.


In trying to design our "Hawaii dream home", I keep coming back to the desire to have walls that disappear, or turn into screened panels when it's hot, but then can be closed up for the colder periods. In our last home, I incorporated a ton of French doors to give a similar effect, but here that would be too much, too heavy, and not what we are after. I want old school, simple and lightweight. I didn't find anything, because I didn't know that what I REALLY want is the Japanese shutter system that used on the traditional house. I want "amado", wooden Japanese shutters, I just didn't know it.


There is an entire chapter dedicated to "house enclosures", the sliding shutters and doors, latches, joinery, sliding windows and much.



The amado are stored in a wooden closet of sorts, attached to the exterior of the house. I was previously aware of the shutters and their storage, but I was missing many of the key details of their design.

God is in the details, and here they are. Now I know exactly how to build what I've wanted all along.

This is a book that I was able to check out from the library, which is great, because this library book is only an extremely abridged version of the original, "The Japanese House" (now out of print ). I didn't know that I would find anything of interest, but within 30 minutes of opening the cover, I had seen so much information that I had found nowhere else, I immediately ordered the original, unabridged version. I ordered on Friday morning Hawaii time, and by Tuesday (Freaking amazingly fast shipping by the seller! Carefully wrapped and a hand written note, hoping that I would enjoy it, it must have been a personal copy. Incredible.....4 days to Hawaii!)


The abridged has no pictures, only engineer style diagrams. The original has many pictures, pictures that try to conveigh some of the beauty and aesthetic behind the traditional house design.




The book is only in part about the actual construction of the house. The majority deals with design and culture, why things are as they are, and how it all relates to the people.





This book kind of tied things together for me. The key details are in the abridged version, which is widely available, and would be perfectly adequate for most anyone. The original is special though. The original has so much more. Stone, tile, paper. Recipes for the mud used in the wall structure. Tatami mats, garden and space, family and seclusion, climate, philosophy and religion.....these are just some of the different chapters that are from the original.


Heino Engle was a professional German architect who travelled widely before settling in Japan, teaching at Kyoto University for 3 years (1953-56). While this book offers glowing praise of the remarkably thoughtful and refined design inherent in the traditional Japanese house, he also offers some critical commentary of his perceived deficiencies. This is good, because it shows the full depth of his study and admiration (and make no mistake, he admires it greatly), but proves that he is not a blind fan-boy.



In the forward to the original edition, the publishers write.....






Well....Maybe a bit of a fan-boy. It's certainly not for everyone, haha.