An Embarrassment of Riches

The past couple of years in business have been sufficiently solid that I have been able to make investments in my shop infrastructure. Most of that has been by way of large woodworking machines, many of which were purchased used, some from reasonably near to where I live, and some from quite afar, including Germany, England and Japan. My business is important to me so I chose to take any extra capital that came my way and put it into my business, as opposed, say, to a new car, new clothes, heat for the shop….

Those have been big investments for me and I’ve made note of the new acquisitions as they have come about here on the blog. In terms of the big equipment, my shop is getting pretty close to where I want it, and a very much greater amount closer to what I want than the time I was working out of my kitchen on a sawhorse, which was when this blog first came about.

I feel blessed to have been able to make these investments in equipment, after having made do at times with a lot less, and having to rely upon the good graces of others at times to move projects along by way of equipment I did not have.

Along with the big lumps of iron that I’ve dragged into my shop, I’ve also been investing in all sorts of hand tools, most of which have come out of Japan. I don’t generally remark too much on those items here, though that does not mean they haven’t been incredibly important to me or that I do not treasure them, or that pictures of them haven’t appeared in past postings here and there.

It’s more I didn’t want to make this blog about ‘tool acquisition gloats’. I’m generally more interested in talking about the what/how/and why of the things I make and design, and a bit less about tools. I am however very interested in tools, and enjoy having discussions with other woodworkers about tools, so long as were talking about tools from the perspective of using them and not merely collecting them. Tools are the instruments of the craft and how could you be into your craft without similarly being interested in the tools which you wield to accomplish that craft? The funny thing is, I do meet and know quite a few woodworkers who churn out product without seemingly having much interest in their tools or anyone else’s tools. That’s a bit weird to me, but whatever.

Today a special package arrived from Japan, and I’ll break my normal practice and make some mention of them, as I feel very lucky indeed to have them.

It’s a set of chisels, 16 in total:

They range in size from 1mm on up to 60mm. All are White paper steel #1 – the blacksmith uses a special lot of white paper steel ingots, purer than usual, from the 1980’s if I am not mistaken. Japanese blacksmiths tend to hoard special chunks of material in the same way that woodworkers do.

These chisels are made by Watanabe Kiyoei, who makes chisels, and planes, under the brand name of Kiyohisa. He’s based in the heartland of Japanese blacksmithing, Yoita Village, near Tsubame City, Niigata. I’ve visited that village many years ago, though I met other smiths at that time not Watanabe-san.

I already have several tools make by Kiyohisa, including two planes and a few various chisels. I’ve found them to be exceptionally beautifully made, easy to set up, easy to sharpen and they hold an edge tenaciously. In my experience, Kiyohisa tools are among the best made, and I mean at any point in history. I’d put only a few makers in the same league.

Now, my experiences with Kiyohisa tools seems to have been widely shared by those who have acquired his tools, and as a result a waiting list has grown and the wait gotten longer to obtain them. I ordered a couple of fishtail chisels for a friend a few years back, and the wait at that time was supposed to be 3 years “or so”. Well, the “or so” measure now means that the wait for his tools is likely something like 6 years or longer. I don’t know exactly how long it is, but in general it is longer than I would be inclined to wait myself.

The Kiyohisa tools I have acquired in the past few years happened to have already been on dealer shelves or were regular-order items with a dealer and periodically restocked. In one case, I ordered a reverse trowel-neck chisel, or gyaku kote nomi, and after a year had passed from the order date the dealer offered to sell me one he already had in stock but fitted with a new handle to meet my specs. Otherwise I had all but given up on getting more Kiyohisa. Not that there aren’t plenty of other fine products from other excellent smiths available, but when you find something you really like, you kinda hope for more of it I guess.

So, I have sitting in front of me a 16-set of Kiyohisa ‘Kamon’ chisels, and these chisels are totally made for me, to my specifications, specification which included type, sizes, length of head/neck/handle, type of handle, type of ferrule, type of striking ring (kashira). I did not order these 5 years ago, but within the past 12 months. How did this come about?

It was pure happenstance really. A tool dealer mentioned about a year back that a Kiyohisa chisel set had been made for a customer but he had lost contact with the customer and if he were unable to locate the customer the chisels might be available for purchase. He thought I might therefore be interested. I did a bit of digging around and located an email address for the person who I thought was likely the customer, sent that along and lo and behold that turned out to be the connection to the rightful buyer.

While I was only trying to be helpful, the dealer felt obliged to me as a result and on his own impetus asked Kiyohisa if he could possibly fit a special request in to the production schedule. I didn’t know that could be even done, so I was unexpectedly faced with a special opportunity. That rare chance has materialized as this set of 16 beauties.

How about a closer look?


These chisels are a special configuration. They are longer than regular bench chisels, oi-ire nomi, and about the same size as mid-size striking chisels, chū-tataki nomi. They have flattened shanks, what are termed hiramachi style, except the proportions of handle, neck, and head are a little different than standard hiramachi chisels. The flattened shanks allow for deeper mortising, beyond full head depth, without risking that the shank will bruise the mortise opening as can happen with rounded shank chisels.

The handles are gumi wood (more on that below) and are longer than standard, since I have larger hands than the average Japanese carpenter. All the chisels have a single hollow on the back, though I had the option for multiple hollows on the larger chisels. I prefer the single hollow actually, and the argument usually advanced for multiple-hollows, that they provide better support when paring or chopping with a portion of the blade on the work, doesn’t amount to much if you have a good range of chisel sizes to choose from. The multiple-hollow chisels, as they have more cutting steel on the bottom contact surface, are somewhat harder to sharpen and keep flat than the single hollow kind.

As mentioned above, these are a special type of Kiyohisa chisel, the ‘kamon’ model, a term which means family crest. The Watanabe crest is three dots over a bar:

The three dots, or mitsu-boshi, refer to three stars, which is a reference to a constellation within Orion, one of the 28 Mansions in Chinese astronomy. In the west these three stars are known as the ‘three Kings’. They are in a line, hence the line under the three dots.

Specifically, kamon Kiyohisa refers to special edition chisels and planes which have received a low-temperature tempering. The usual minimum achievable tempering temperature is supposed to be around 160˚C, however Watanabe-san, through some alchemy (likely relating to special steps he takes in preparing the steel and its carbides  -it would be one of his secrets of course) is able to temper at lower temperatures than other smiths. He has produced chisels and planes with tempering temps ranging from 150˚C on down. I have a 150˚C plane and a 135˚ plane from the same maker (the tempering temperature is inscribed on the back of the tool).

These chisels I just received are all 100˚C tempered.

Several shops in Japan that carry Kiyohisa won’t sell the Kamon models out of the country, but, well, like I said before, I was lucky. Please don’t hate me for being in the right place at the right time.

I feel that I have quite possibly reached the end of the road in terms of chisels I would like to have, or dream of having, and I’m pretty much there as well with hand planes.  I’m looking forward to setting these new chisels up and putting them through their paces.

A few more pics now of these tools:


With a 16-set, I’ve have been able to add a bunch of chisels in those half sizes that I have sometimes wished I had on hand in the past.

Largest and smallest together:


Some forge weld lines to look at:


These chisels have a delicate feel, and yet are comfortable to hold:

Gumi is my favorite tool handle wood.

The gumi handles are cut out from branches, and thus the pith can be seen:

Gumi has been referred to by some as ‘Japanese Boxwood’,  however this is totally erroneous. Boxwood, as such, a genus of about 70 species in the family Buxaceae. Chinese boxwood, for example, is buxus sinica.

Gumi comes from the family Elaeagnaceae (try saying that three times fast; the scientific name is Elaeagnus), part of the plant order Rosales. It is a deciduous shrub getting up to 8m tall at most. There are some 50-70 varieties, however the wood used for utensil handles, gumi, associates to E. multiflora specifically.

The English name for Elaeagnus generally is Silverberry, with E. multiflora being termed ‘Cherry Silverberry’. The Japanese also call this particular species natsugumi.

A drawing showing parts of this plant:

Here’s a photo of the plant when fruiting:

Source: Wikipedia.

By accounts I have read the fruit has a sweet yet astringent taste, apparently a bit similar in flavor to rhubarb.

With 16 chisels to set up and sharpen, it will be a while until I have a chance to use them all, but I’m looking forward to getting to know them one by one, cut by cut.

All for this round – thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

28 Replies to “An Embarrassment of Riches”

  1. The gumi fruit looks very much like the autumn olive ealaeagnus umbellata I think. Some of those shrubs grow in my back yard. The stems would be barely big enough to turn handles. Enjoy your chisels I'm sure they are a pleasure to work with.


  2. Brian,

    I tell you, anything I've obtained from Kiyohisa nearly sets up by itself. I'm anticipating fairly smooth sailing in that regard. Thanks for the comment!


  3. Wow- you lucky guy! That was a really generous act on the part your dealer; sounds like a really great guy. I'm really looking forward to seeing these chisels in action! Is there any reason you opted against a mentori shape on these chisels?

  4. Good that you mentioned the head shape on these chisels, as it was something I overlooked in the post above. I opted for all the chisels to be in the kaku-uchi head form simply because of aesthetic preference. The kaku-uchi is the older, more archaic form. Often a kaku-uchi set will still have the largest chisels in the mentori head style, however I specified that all the chisels in the set would be kaku-uchi, what is termed a sōkaku uchi set. So yeah, the preference is entirely an aesthetic one, not for any technical or practical reason.


  5. Beautiful set of chisels! Did you also specify the wood type (Gumi) for the handles? If so why? Some people I've spoken to like the harder woods like ebony for their handles, some like the oaks, depending on the desired/preferred “feedback” when in use. I only have a couple of Japanese chisels, not of these quality of course. What stones/sharpening system will you use with them?
    Again, beautiful set! Good health with them. We're all jealous!

  6. I haven't taken anything you've put up as an acquisition gloat at all. Your writing is so informative and instructive that it illuminates my experience with my own far more humble tools, confirming what I've learned about their limits (as opposed to mine), and showing me what I might hope to move towards. This, for me, is what the WWW is all about. Thank you!
    Jim Dillon, Atlanta

  7. Hi Joe,

    I appreciate that you are a regular commenter here.

    I obtained a paring chisel many years ago which had a gumi handle. It wasn't something I specially ordered, it just happened to be fitted to the tool. I found I preferred the feel of the gumi handle to other handle woods, like white oak or read oak. Most custom chisels I have ordered in the past couple of years I have fitted with gumi handles – a personal preference.

    I don't have any chisels in my set with rosewood or ebony handles, and I haven't been thinking there was any particular advantage to those other woods for chisel handles over the standard materials. In fact, for striking chisels, my impression is that woods like ebony and rosewood are prone to chipping/fracturing when struck, more so than JP white oak, say. AND, as these handle woods are quite dense, they are trickier (i.e., less forgiving) to obtain a good fit with the striking ring and the rings tend to come loose more easily as well, from what I gather. Therefore, I would only consider ebony or rosewood as a suitable handle material for a paring chisel.

    I happen to have two specialized Konobu chisels on order which will be fitted with Shitan handles, just for the fun of it really. I doubt I'll ever get to work with Shitan otherwise, so having a shitan handle on a chisel at least gives me a chance to have feel for that material.

    As for sharpening, I won't be adding anything in that regard. I have lots of white paper steel tools already, and find my combination of ceramic and natural stones has worked well for those tools, which already include some Kiyohisa items. I'm sure that my stone selection could be improved and if a rock guru out there can suggest something truly ideal for WS tools, I'd likely give it a go. You can spend a lot on rocks however!


  8. Chris, these chisels are beautiful and from your description, sound like they will be awesome to work with. I am just starting to learn about the joys of working with nice tools.

    Since these are blacksmith made this question might be trying to apply some modern measure where it is unnecessary, but do you have any idea what hardness the steel is that he forged?


    P.s. I've sort of been a lurker…recently found your blog and have just been watching what you do. Keep up the good work!

  9. Jonas,

    well, i can read most of it…

    On the left is written “平成廿八年睦月”, which is the date (January 2016) in old style kanji.

    In the middle it says “家紋清久”, or Kamon Kiyohisa

    Just to the right of that in small print it says, “未知に挑む”, which means, curiously, 'challenging the unknown'.

    The writing to the right side, while I can read several characters, has too many cursive hiragana in there for me to read in its entirety.


  10. Brad,

    thanks for uncloaking from Lurkerville. Kiyohisa is considered a master of white steel forging and I believe he uses a diverse range of techniques, modern and classical. The low temperature tempering makes a few points of difference on the rockwell scale. From a Japanese page I read, white steel Kamon 100˚C chisels come in at about Rockwell 64~65.

    They seem quite hard to me and yet not prone to chipping and are easy to sharpen. A difficult combination to obtain.


  11. Re: your response to an earlier query from Joe about ebony or rosewood chisel handles: I had the privilege to assist Toshio Odate in a few of his classes down here at Highland Woodworking, years ago. Someone asked him the same question and his answer was almost identical to yours, only less polite.
    Jim Dillon, Atlanta

  12. How wonderful for you to be able to get that marvellous set of chisels! I would like to see what you use them for and why you chose the particular chisel that you do, for your work. Nice to be educated about “real chisels,” as I only have the generic type.

  13. Julie,

    good to hear from you. I wouldn't call these chisels any 'real-er' than other types of chisels, they're just what I thought would be an ideal chisel for my own work. I expect I'll still have uses for my other chisels –though we'll see what I come to prefer to use most of the time.

    I set hoops on 10 of the Kiyohisa chisels yesterday, and will continue setting hoops tomorrow. Then it will be sharpen, sharpen, sharpen.

    I plan to take every opportunity to use of these chisels, and will post up pics of course.


  14. Hi Chris,

    They certainly appear to be a fine collection.

    For the writing on the box lid, If you haven't nutted it out yet, my wife seems to think that it says “道具としての働きと目的を果すものづくり”. The reading of はた for 果 (in 果す) seems to be a less common way to write it.

    On the rare occasions I look at calligraphy, I get lost with the almost vertical squiggleness of と, ら, し etc all looking the same.


  15. Iain,

    thanks very much! Like you, I have trouble with the vertical squiggly cursive hiragana, and you're lucky to have a native speaker – your wife – to help out.

    For people reading these comments, the term “道具としての動きと目的を果たすものづくり”, as best I can translate, would come across as “This set of tools manufactured for special activities and purposes” or something to that effect.

    Does that sound about right to you Iain?


  16. Chris,

    Sorry, don't always get a chance to reply. Your Japanese is probably better than mine, but I think that translation seems reasonable. Perhaps the key is that the tools are made to be used.


  17. Hi Chris,

    Greetings from Germany. These are really nice chisels. Congrats.

    How do you make an order at Kiyohisa?

    What are the size of the chisels?
    And the length of the blade, shank, handle and total?

    Thank you.


    1. Hello Sebastian,
      This is Chris’s wife. Your comment was flagged as potential spam, so I just saw it a few months after you posted it. Sadly, Chris died last spring. Julio Alonso, who did guest posts about visiting Japan, may have an answer for you, and others who read this blog may as well. I am sorry that I can’t personally answer your question. Hida Tool in Berkeley, California, may also have an idea. Last I heard, Kiyohisa had a several year waitlist, so it may be worth looking at other options as well.

      All my best,

Anything to add?

error: Content is protected !!
%d bloggers like this: