New Tools Rising
Recently a reader asked about a list of tools to buy for the beginning Japanese woodworker, and the process of cutting dovetails was mentioned. This sort of question is simultaneously easy and hard to answer. Easy, because the tool list for making a dovetail is actually pretty short. Hard, because which tools you get depends a lot on your priorities, budget, and personal circumstance.
The way that I’m going to look at this is to pretend that Sandy wiped out my house, and I had to start over from scratch in terms of putting together my tools. With the caveat that this is based on personal experience with these tools, and not based on an exhaustive tool comparison shootout review, this is what I would want for dovetails:
- A three waterstone setup for sharpening, at 1000/5000/12000 grits or so, and an Atoma 400 grit diamond plate for flattening the waterstones. Shapton Professionals, which is what I have, and Sigma Power are both great, and it’s hard to beat the package that Tools From Japan has. If you put together a set of Shapton Professionals and the Atoma diamond plate from Tools From Japan, it’s about the same price.
- 9 mm Fujihiro brand chisel, made by Chutaro Imai.
- Gyokucho #372 dozuki.
- 375g daruma style hammer.
- A marking gauge of some sort (here, here, or here.)
- Ishihisa 70mm smoothing plane. Or get a used Japanese plane on eBay, and tune it up.
(The links are for convenience only. I don’t get any kickback if you wind up ordering these tools.)
Here’s the long winded explanation of why I would pick these particular tools.
First, the sharpening system. With this particular list, the sharpening setup is the most expensive item, even more than the Japanese plane, which would cause many to wonder why should you blow so much money on a sharpening system.
In the context of Japanese tools, waterstones are the way to go. You probably could sharpen Japanese tools with oilstones and a strop or Scary Sharp, but I wouldn’t want to do so over the long haul.
But the main thing I keep in mind is that without a good sharpening system, you can’t keep your tools sharp, and if your tools aren’t sharp, woodworking is going to be a lot less enjoyable, if not impossible. The current cost of the waterstone set I linked to works out to about 15 cents a day if it lasts for five years, and I would bet that it will last longer than that. That’s a small price to pay for a tool that you will use every time you set foot in your shop. And yes, a sharpening system is a woodworking tool, and arguably one of the most important tools in your shop.
A 9mm chisel is a good size for making dovetails. You’ll be limited in the variety of the dovetails that you can make (no super-skinny houndstooth pins), but for good, basic, strong dovetails, this will be a good choice. The reason for my choice of Fujihiro chisels is that these are the ones that I have and use, and I’ve been very pleased with them.
When I was first looking to pick up a Japanese chisel, all I had were reports on the internet from users and their experience with various Japanese chisel makers. And although there were a lot of reports that Japanese chisels from many different sources were really great, there would be the occasional report that there were issues with chipping, especially with really inexpensive Japanese chisels.
At the other end of the scale, I would read about chisel makers like Tasai and Funahiro, who made what were by all reports phenomenal chisels, although out of my budget. I also read about Imai’s sword steel chisels, which were also not in my budget. But Imai does make a basic style chisel that I could afford. These also happened to be the least expensive Japanese chisels that I could find that had good reviews and no negative reports. So I gave the Imai chisels a try, and have been really pleased with the results.
The Gyokucho #372 dozuki is a great saw for cutting dovetails. Its teeth have a Japanese crosscut profile, but the profile is altered a bit to make it behave more like a rip tooth saw. The teeth are impulse hardened, so sharpening them is out of the question for most people, but the blade is replaceable.
Hammers and marking gauges are basic tools, with no need to get too fancy. A 375g hammer is a good weight for chopping basic dovetails.
The Ishihisa plane is a good plane to start with. I have and use a version of this plane with a different stamp on it (think Grizzly/Shop Fox), but the blade is otherwise identical. The blade sharpens up quickly, and holds an edge for a good long time.
Put these tools together, and you’ll be able to make dovetails. Even better, you’ll have a great base upon which to build your woodworking tool arsenal.
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