Friday, March 20, 2009

The difference the wood makes

I was talking with a friend about mortising last weekend while we were both in the process of cutting them for different projects. He, not having a mortising chisel, was taking a very long time cutting a slot for a Japanese plane blade which got us talking of woods and how they respond to the magic of Japanese Woodworking.  
I use redwood primarily since I have a ton of it, and it being the majority old growth it has its own issues compared with new growth.  That said, often we see the classic mortise that is so beautiful and really clean cut by the Japanese carpenter.  But often the quality of the wood and type really allow the worker to shine more than if they were trying to cut and plane oak.  Now I do not mean to seem like the wood makes you a better woodworker, but when you try to plane port orford cedar and it has this great straight grain and the plane shavings come off like art in itself, it can make you feel like your such the champion, then you chisel and pare and have a similar result.  Wow you feel like your doing it right!  Then you grab some redwood that when you strike it with your chisel it compresses really unevenly inside the mortise, but you are still pretty happy with you planing though the shaving does not come as clean as with cedar.  The old growth tends to be brittle but burnishes really well with the hand plane. 
When I made instruments many years ago for a bass maker, we used a ton of hardwoods: purple heart, wenge, cocobolo, maples, and exotics that had their issues.  But when using machine tools you do not get the same feeling of this change as with hand work.  Sure you feel the drag of the cutter as it works through the wood, the hardness, and the pinch of carbide on your wallet.  Really some of these hardwoods should have little to do with the Japanese hand tool craftsman due to their difficulty.  Almost purely for the amount of hair you will pull out just in working with them.  
You find you would like to have a plane blade angle that is different, a saw that is more akin to hardwoods etc.
Often I find many of the people who are interested in the Japanese woodworking (by hand) have not a lot of experience with hand work, I still feel that way as well.  Even when you have the right tools, and the right wood (something nice and straight grained) it still can be difficult to even saw straight, but just keep working at it and keep in the cedar family, poplar and pines especially at the beginning and you'll feel much better about your progress away from the machines.  

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