The Far East is Far Out!

Growing up, my buddies and I used to debate really Earth-moving stuff all the time. For instance:

Could The Flash outrun Superman?

Who was stronger? The Bionic Man or Spider Man?

Who did you think is cooler? Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

We thought we were so darned sophisticated, debating such highbrow stuff.

The best debate, however, went like this: In a straight up fair fight, who would win – Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali?

As any kid growing up in the western hemisphere, it was only natural that I put all of my ice cream money on the greatest boxer of all time – Ali. After all, he floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. It seemed to be a no-brainer.

“But,” my friends would remind me, “Bruce Lee uses all that mysterious kung-fu stuff.” And, yes, in those Saturday morning karate movies, Bruce and his enemies seemed to do a lot of floating and stinging as well.

Believe it or not, that was the first exposure I had ever had to Eastern cultures. From there, my mind was opened to these strange and mysterious things and practices. Chinese food (the kind we make here in the United States), Japanese cars (everyone remembers the movie Gung Ho, right?) and the martial arts took me to lands far away on the other side of the Earth.Chisels

What the heck does this have to do with woodworking?Well, when I was just starting out with the craft, my thoughts naturally went back to my dad’s tool collection in his workshop. Crosscut and rip saws, power tools, chisels, a Sears hand plane with a high black painted tote. In my mind, those were the images of what woodworking tools should look like, and, when I started my tool collection, my decisions were based on those tool forms.

That was until I got my hands on my first Japanese style handsaw.Japanese Tools

The simple act of cutting wood is a universal need. Cultures thousands of miles apart still had trees and a need for places to live. Thus, they developed similar tools to perform similar functions (cutting, shaping, jointing, etc.) But, while these tools are very similar, there was a mysterious (yes, that word again) feeling about these tools.

First of all, that new handsaw cut on the pull stroke. Wow. That took some getting used to, but it seemed to make so much more sense. I couldn’t get the saw to bind – something I had no trouble doing with my crosscut saw. The blade was ultra thin. I could flex the saw and cut plugs and dowels flush. For me, pulling seemed to be a more natural sawing motion than pushing.Wood Plane

One day, my neighbor Chris gave me his dad’s set of Japanese chisels. I was floored. It was quite an honor because my neighbor’s dad was a noted architect and had worked with George Nakashima, and Chris was very proud of his dad’s accomplishments. The chisels were a little beaten up, but, when I sharpened them, they honed to a fine edge. They have a very broad tip and a narrow body, which makes them perfect for cleaning up joints. When I need to do some very fine work, I find myself reaching for them a lot more frequently than my very nice set of western chisels.

Now, I am starting to get into eastern planes. Again, they do the same work that western planes can do, but these babies are pulled instead of pushed, giving a completely different feel. There are jointers, jacks, smoothers – all of the tasks that western planes are called upon to perform.

Every time I start working with those new form planes, I always make the comparison in my mind.Are the eastern tools any better than western ones? Define ‘better.’ Both give excellent results when sharpened, tuned and used properly. Both styles are the culmination of hundreds – if not thousands – of years of development by master craftsmen. Some may handle certain tasks better, but each is a solid performer in my workshop.

I guess both schools of tools would make for an interesting fight…

6 thoughts on “The Far East is Far Out!”

  1. Tom-

    I definitely think that superman would win any contest. Only because am a superman nut. But I also love Japanese chisels. They are so nice to use and you can get them into small places.

    As for Japanese saws, well that’s a different story. I love the fact that they have such a small kerf. But through my experience I have found that the thin flexible blade tend to want to follow the grain when cutting. Thus making a straight cut difficult. Maybe it’s just me, I have never used a Japanese plane before so I can’t comment.

    But they are really good tools to use.

  2. I had the same problems when I first started cutting with the Ryoba (backless, rip and crosscut saw in one) – the silly thing would wander all over the place.

    I saw someone do a neat trick with the cut that really helped me a lot. Instead of just marking a tick mark, he drew the cut line all the way around the piece. Then, he ‘nipped’ the corners of the cut, making shallow cuts on each of the two top corners to guide the saw. Then, he just rocked the saw while cutting so the cut was being made through three of the board’s faces. The cut was clean, and it has worked well for me.

    Hope that wasn’t confusing…

  3. Bruce Lee would win the fight. He had dirtier techniques at his disposal. 🙂

    I’m a convert to Japanese style pull saws, although neither of mine were actually made in Japan. The asia-pacific rim civilizations spent a lot of time studying how the body works, so it’s not surprising they found better control on the pull instead of the push. China / Japan / India all shared and stole knowledge from each other quite extensively, but as you point out — it came from a different mindset than the West’s. Being open to lessons from both Western and Eastern methodologies makes it easier to pick the best method for the task. One thing that Bruce Lee would point out is that what is “best” for you will be different than what is “best” for me.

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