WoodCentral's video reviews

Japanese Hand Planes:
The Workings and
Wonder of KANNA

by Jay van Arsdale

California Daiku Productions: 2009
2-DVD set, 2 hrs., $50.00

    First, a note about the author: Jay van Arsdale is a legend in his own time. A building contractor in Oakland, CA, with an MFA degree, he received his early training in Japanese tools and joinery from the great Makoto Imai, the master temple carpenter. Since the 1980s, Jay has taught Japanese joinery and tool use to hundreds of students in the San Francisco Bay area, at Laney and Merritt Colleges and the Arques School of Boatbuilding in Sausalito. He is known to wider audiences in North America and Japan for his book Shoji — Designing, Building, and Installing Japanese Screens, (1986: Kodansha), his video Introduction to Japanese Woodworking (1987), and his contributions to The Complete Japanese Joinery (1969: Cloudpress). His magazine publications, seminars, and television appearances in the US and Japan are too numerous to list here. Jay is also the founder of Daiku Dojo, a Japanese woodworking group. Information about Daiku Dojo can be found at http://www.daikudojo.org.
    In this video, Jay gives us a structured series of lessons on how to set up and use a Japanese hand plane. There is no feeling of being in a formal classroom; this is a perfectly informal experience, as though we just happened to walk off the street into Jay's shop, and found him there in his usual work clothes, and he begins to instruct us in how to set up and use the new hand plane that we just bought. Jay has a calm, matter-of-fact enthusiasm. He becomes more animated the more he gets into the nitty-gritty details of how to set the plane up: how to do it, what to look and listen for, how to know when you're finished; he covers everything you need to know, and he convincingly imparts the experience of doing it, so that you can easily visualize yourself doing it as well.
     Jay provides quite a bit of background on the Japanese hand plane (kanna) and related tools, such as the early use of ax, chona (adze), and yariganna (spear plane), and the Chinese handled push plane, which was the precursor to the Japanese pull plane. He also talks about the introduction of the double-iron plane from the West, and numerous other points that lend perspective to his subject.
    But, the heart and soul of this video is the hands-on demonstrations where Jay shows exactly how to flatten and sharpen the blade, how to modify the dai to provide a perfect fit for the blade, how to prepare the chipbreaker so that it fits correctly, how to scrape and tune the sole of the dai to the correct configuration for a smooth plane, and the scary procedure — for beginners, at least — on how to tap out a blade. The remainder of this review will focus on these hands-on demonstrations. They convey all the essential techniques as well as the confidence and conviction which comes from watching someone who is an absolute master of his craft. Jay is completely convincing, and each operation is shown to completion. You learn how to use the hammer and the other familiar tools used with kanna. This video will be priceless to those--even experienced woodworkers--who are beginning their journey with the Japanese hand plane, and wish to develop proficiency as quickly as possible.

The Key Insight
    Early in the video, Jay states the keystone of all else that follows: He says, in essence, "There is no mechanical way to sharpen, to fit, to tune, to set up planes. Every step is built on the human senses." This is a principle to which he returns again and again, and which he makes real to us in each of his demonstrations. On first hearing this mantra, we think, "yeah, yeah, got to use our senses." But, as the lessons sink in, we begin to understand that we are going to return to a method of working that was developed "apart from science" as Jay says. We are going to learn to read scratch patterns from stones, and listen to scratch sounds; we are going to look at exactly how light reflects off the bevel to know if the bevel is flat; we're going to read light reflectance off the stone to know if it is flat; we are going to use pencil transfer from blade to dai to test fit of the dai to the blade; we link our two hands together in a particular way during sharpening to sense when we are rolling our wrists and rounding our bevels; we listen to hammer taps to understand the fit of the dai to the blade. It's all about the senses.
    Jay teaches us what to watch for and what to listen for, as when the sound is wrong (e.g., the hammer makes a ringing sound when tapping out). He teaches us how to read reflectance off stones and blade bevels — the stone or bevel is flat if there is a quick reflection then extinction of light as the object is rotated; if there is a rolling reflection, the surface is rounded. Jay has an infectious way of making these things real and tangible to us, and this is the great value of this video.

Focus on Subsidiary Functions
    The second key idea is that the Japanese plane, for all its apparent simplicity, is not simple at all. It has several components, but the components will not be seen by the newcomer. That block of wood called the dai is not actually a rectangle; its sole is shaped into a wave form, and the interior surfaces in the throat must be individually shaped and adjusted to fit the blade. The blade appears to be a heavy chunk of steel; one is impressed by its heft. But, the blade is a subtle piece of smithing that has almost no square or flat surfaces anywhere on it. It is a tapered wedge fitting into wedge-shaped abutments; and it rests on a convex bedding which must be scraped to fit the hollow on its front.
    Jay starts with a beginner-grade hand plane, or kanna, and explains up front that none of these planes — even the expensive ones — arrive ready for use; they have to be adjusted by the user. Jay proceeds methodically through each of the components, showing us how to sharpen the blade and flatten its back, how to condition the sole of the dai, how to adjust the internal dai surfaces to receive the blade in a good fit, how to fit the chipbreaker, and how to tap out the blade. And, just as importantly, he shows us the correct order for doing these steps.
    One of the most impressive and convincing parts of the video is that the camera is not cutting in and out of these key sharpening and fitting procedures and just showing us the highlights of each operation. We are seeing all the work performed in real time, and in the full amount of time that it takes to do the fitting, or flattening or sharpening. This approach of showing all the work is important, because you get a feel for the iterative nature of initial blade sharpening and flattening and the initial plane setup. You work the back of the blade on the coarse stone for a while, then look to read the scratches; then you work it some more and re-read the scratches. You're done when the scratches are uniform across and extend to the very edge. You flatten your stone with another stone, then plunge it into water and read the reflection off the face. The face is flat when the face retains water due to surface tension and reflects in a certain way; you use trial and error to get to this point.
    When Jay shapes the dai bedding to receive the blade, he does it in three iterations — pencil the blade, insert the blade, remove the blade, scrape down the high places in the dai which are showing pencil. Now re-pencil and re-insert the blade and do it again; after three iterations, he has a perfect fit. (Incidentally, there is a wonderful East-meets-West moment in this dai/blade fitting procedure: Jay uses a Clark & Williams plane float to shape the dai bedding.)

Specific Impressions
    About 15 years ago, I bought my first Japanese plane, and, with no instruction, set out to get it to work. It's about impossible to do properly without hands-on or video instruction. Someone tells you 'have you tried this?' — you try that and it helps, but it's still not right. Someone else reminds you to do this other important thing, and Odate's book brings out another point; they help a little, but you're not sure which action is getting which result, or how much adjustment is enough — and the shavings are still funky. Plus you begin to try things and make changes out of order, so that each new action is modifying the last thing you did. The frustration can be endless.
    If I had had this video 15 years ago, it would have meant so much to me. Because this video takes you through every step, and shows you the entire step, including how much to take off, what it should look like, what it should sound like, what a mistake sounds like, how it should not look, when you're finished and ready to do the next step.
    Sharpening and Flattening. Jay shows you exactly how he holds the blade, and how he controls the blade, including fine tuning. How he varies pressure on the bevel to maintain flat contact, and how he links his hands so that he can sense — and avoid — rolling and rounding the bevel. He shows how to use the whole stone, and he brings out the key point that it is reflattening that wastes the stone (not use), and if you use the whole stone, you will minimize reflattening and waste. He shows how to read the wet bevel in raking light to judge optical flatness, so as to avoid rounding the bevel. He shows a similar procedure to read the optical flatness of the wet stone. Numerous important fine points, such as avoiding breaking off the burr after the coarse stone, but rather wait and polish it off on the next stone.
    Dai Adjustments. A critical step which is frequently omitted in anecdotal instruction I have seen, is how to widen the blade slot to provide lateral adjustment — and by how much. I have never received a dai, even an expensive one, which did not require this step to be done. It goes against the western mind to start doing surgery on a dai you've just taken out of the box, but that is what must be done. Jay shows in exact detail how to widen the slot to provide lateral adjustment, and it is a very neat method.
    Another high point of the video is the great sequence on pencilling and scraping the bed of the dai, so that the blade lets in and reaches a good fit at cutting depth. You can clearly see the pencil transfer from the blade to the dai bed, and the action of the plane float in removing it. Three iterations and there is a perfect fit. The incidental lessons are innumerable, such as how to use the hammer, and how hard to hit — both to drive the blade into the dai, and to remove the blade from the dai!
    A third critical lesson is precisely how the sole of the dai is to be shaped, using straight edge, winding sticks, and scraper plane. Jay shows how — and how much — to scrape between mouth and toe, and also behind the mouth so the heel is slightly in the air. Jay particularly focuses on a thing that in my experience will happen nearly every time — the tendency of the blade, at full cutting depth, to create a bulge in the dai right behind the mouth. This happens because a wooden plane, bedded at a low angle (~40 degrees), will have a thin section right behind the mouth. This bulge is a frequent source of misery to the beginning user. Jay shows how to deal with it. Again, one of the beauties of this whole dai-adjusting sequence, is that it is uncut; you're seeing and hearing the entire process, including all iterations, at close range, and you're seeing how the sole should receive a final recheck even after it's 'done' and you're taking shavings.
    Another source of frustration for the beginner is shavings that do not clear properly. Frequently this is because the clipped edges of the blade are not ground properly. Jay demonstrates this important step, after he has fitted the blade correctly to the dai.
    The Chipbreaker. Jay shows precisely how the chipbreaker must be fit to the blade. This is important because frequently the chipbreaker will either rock on the blade, or else it will not make a light-tight match where it meets the blade edge. Also, Jay explains that the chipbreaker will not be breaking any chips unless it is set very, very close to the blade edge. Jay makes clear that the plane should first be set up without the chipbreaker, and indeed, can be left that way for most purposes.
    Tapping Out (Ura Dashi). This is another great sequence that you see from beginning to end. Jay demystifies the whole process. He discusses the choice of anvils, metal or wood, and he shows that there is considerable choice in the weight and type of hammers that can be used for this. He demonstrates how the hammer tap should sound and feel, e.g., there should be a dead sound and no vibration. He shows how an off-center hit sounds: a bright "ping" and vibration up into your hands. He shows how to hold the blade so you can feel whether the hit is right or not. One of the key things I appreciated was that Jay showed the correct angle of attack, which is important from the standpoint of effectiveness in moving metal, as well as in protecting the blade from a missed hit. Another thing the beginner will appreciate is seeing the exact pattern of dimples that should result from the hammer, and also how to test the blade to see whether you've accomplished anything. This tapping out sequence is another excellent and satisfying lesson on the DVDs.

The Verdict
    The heart of this video is the hands-on instruction in plane and blade setup which begins toward the end of Disc 1 and continues for the entirety of Disc 2. Jay takes a new plane, right out of the box, and sets it up for us. It's like it is your new plane. Jay has an open, informal, and unselfconscious manner that eliminates the distance between you and him and the work that he is doing. He is entirely convincing, and this lends confidence that you will be able to replicate his results. The set tends to run long because of the long, uncut sequences; but this is a major plus, because you need to see the whole operation to get a real feel for it, and to be able to see yourself doing it. Nothing is left out, and Jay points out the nuances of the process as the details reveal themselves in these uncut sections.
    I would advise anyone, even someone of great experience, but who is new to Japanese planes, to avail themselves of this superb instruction. Jay doesn't just cover the basics; he shows you the zillion details and nuances that flesh out the real experience of setting up a Japanese plane and blade.

. . . Wiley Horne