Getting Started With Your Japanese Chisel
Japanese chisels are wonderful traditional tools, quite different from Western chisels. The main difference is their use of laminated blades. The bottom layer is a hard high-carbon steel that takes a keen edge. Laminated to this is a softer but much tougher steel that supports the more brittle layer.
Like any edge tool, they benefit from some fettling before being put to work. In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to prepare and sharpen your chisel, and offer some tips for looking after it so it provides many years of service.
How should I prepare a new chisel before using it?
The entire chisel is lacquered to prevent rusting. At a minimum, this needs to be removed from the blade and tapered ferrule, but some woodworkers also strip it from the handle and hoop. Paint stripper works, as does a strong solvent, such as acetone. Be sure to wear gloves and eye protection, and work in a well-ventilated space. If you’ve stripped the handle, it’s best to refinish it to provide protection against moisture and help keep it from getting dirty. A drying oil or drying oil/wax combination is a good choice, as the handle does not tend to slip in the hand.
We’ve asked the makers of our Japanese chisels to pre-seat their handle hoops, saving you typically the most time-consuming and tedious preparatory step.
How do I sharpen the blade?
First, lap and polish the back of the blade, working your way up to the finest grit of your sharpening medium. One of the key features of Japanese chisels is their hollow-ground back, so this process proceeds much more quickly with some Western chisels.
If you will use your chisel for paring, consider gently removing the sharp arrises from the corners of the back.
The next step is to hone the bevel. Japanese blades are much thicker than Western chisels, so they’re easier to hone by hand because the bevel is a much larger surface; however, you can use a honing guide to take advantage of its speed, accuracy and repeatability, and a guide is certainly a help on narrow blades.
To begin, sharpen the chisel to its factory bevel angle and see how it performs. If you experience edge failure when chopping in hard woods, consider increasing the bevel by 5° for better edge retention.
Because of their laminated construction, Japanese chisels are sharpened to a single primary bevel. Subsequent honings require attention to the bevel only, until the edge reaches the hollow grind. At this point, the back should be lapped to re-establish a flat at least 1/16" wide at the cutting edge.
When should I resharpen my chisel?
You should hone the cutting edge before it gets completely dull, once you notice a decline in performance. Honing often to keep the chisel sharp requires less effort overall than having to rehabilitate a dull blade. A sharp chisel is also safer to use than a dull one because it requires less force to make a cut.
To check a fresh edge for sharpness, try slicing a shaving off the end grain of a soft wood.
Once your epoxy project has cured, it’s time to move on to levelling and sanding. We’ll follow this up with some useful information about how to store your resins to maximize their shelf life.
How should I look after my chisel?
Care should be taken to prevent chipping the edge. The laminated steel allows a superior edge, but this necessitates greater care because the extreme hardness will result in chipping rather than nicking if the tool is dropped (especially on concrete). Similarly, careless prying can cause chipping. In either event, the blade face should be lapped to restore a flat area behind the edge and the edge reground to a straight bevel.
Chisel rolls provide a safe and economical means of storing your chisels together. To keep rust at bay, wipe down the blades with a rust preventative or anti-corrosion oil after use.
Once your chisel is sharp and ready to go, it’s time to put it to work. In our next tutorial, we’ll show you how to use it safely and effectively.
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