Getting a handle on things…

Hello again faithful reader,

It would seem that when it comes to Japanese chisel handles, the truth is pretty rare to find. Hopefully, this little essay might shed some light on things.

Most Japanese chisels are supplied, by default, with Japanese red oak handles, aka; Akagashi (Quercus acuta Thunb), which quite literally means ‘red oak’. It may well be the perfect chisel handle wood being tough, durable, strong and with enough flexibility that it will survive for a goodly time, regardless of the punishment dealt to it as it’s calling in life as a chisel handle.

Japanese red oak handles.

Japanese red oak is not the same as ‘red oak’ found in other parts of the world however. The Japanese variety is ‘durable’, in that moisture does not adversely affect the same way that North American/European ‘red’ oak is affected. The reason for this is because the grain in the wood is ‘sealed’, where regular red oak has open vessels that allow moisture to readily travel into the wood and cause damage.

Suffice to say, Japanese red oak is tough stuff. Red oak from Korea and China is, for all intents and purposes very similar and displays similar properties, so much so that they are largely interchangeable.

A common option for Japanese chisels is Japanese white oak, aka; Shiragashi (), which again literally translates as ‘white oak’. Japanese white oak is not as strong as red oak, but displays increased flexibility and a propensity to ‘spring back’ after being pushed beyond its limits. This wood is most commonly seen in Japanese planes, where the unique ability of white oak to spring back (European/American white oaks also display this talent) means that a blade will not permanently deform the plane bed, and allows the blade to be removed and replaced repeatedly, without becoming loose.

'Cored' Japanese white oak handles.

Lesser quality Japanese white oak is a little less expensive, and is often found on lower grade chisels. However, premium grade white oak is also found on very high grade chisels, offering a softer transmission of force between hammer and blade edge, reducing the chance of edge damage due to shocks.

The highest grade white oak handles will also have the core of the wood running up the middle of the handle, making sure there is zero grain run out through the entire handle, reducing the chance that the handle will split in use to an extent that it might be considered impossible without breaking something else first.

Moving away from the oaks, the next most common handle material is visually identified by its light colour and smooth texture. These handles may be one of two different, but similarly behaving woods identified as ‘Gumi’ or ‘Japanese boxwood’.

The separation of these two woods is less by appearance and performance and more by geography. Boxwood is most commonly found on chisels manufactured in the east of Japan, Gumi is more commonly found in the west of Japan.

Gumi handles.

Whichever wood is being used, there are some important attributes that make gumi/boxwood the premiere chisel handle material for chisels that will be struck in use. They are ‘softer’ and have an elasticity that transmit the blow from the hammer in a gentler manner and are said to have a good ‘voice’ communicating what’s happening at the edge better than any other wood.

These woods are difficult to find in pieces large enough to make long paring chisels or shorter but heavy duty striking chisels, but the fact that they give a cushioned ‘hit’ makes them very popular for most regular chisels and lighter weight chisels that the user intends to give a hammer tap to frequently.

It is also said that once you use Gumi, you never go back to any other handle material.

Another commonly found handle material is ebony, usually in the form of Macassar ebony with its streaky appearance, offers visual interest to an otherwise potentially bland tool.

Ebony handles.

And that’s about the size of it really; the popularity of ebony is because it looks nice. The reality is that the wood is brittle, and not really well suited to striking chisels. The brittleness should restrict it to hand pushed chisels only, but it still finds itself on striking chisels where often the race between a snapped handle or a shattered edge results in a mutually destructive draw. However, with light taps delivered from a mallet or lightweight hammer, and consideration given to the fact that ebony is brittle, these handles can offer incredibly long life, and look good whilst doing it.

Rosewood is rarely found in this day in age, but offers similar performance to ebony being hard and absorbing little of a hammer blow, but adds significant resilience that prevents it from cracking in the same way that ebony is prone to do. Usually reserved for the very best chisels, and not likely to be abused because of this, rosewood handles might not ever need replacing.

Of all the handles fitted to Japanese chisels, the above are by far the most common, descending from the most popular to the less commonly found.

Almost any other wood used is chosen for visual interest, often with only secondary consideration to how it will perform as a chisel handle.

And that’s about it with regard to handle material for Japanese chisels. Aside from the appearance, there is a time tested reason for the wood used and the feel and action of the chisel can be tuned to what the ultimate user desires.

Did you only think it was a chunk of wood?

I hope that takes care of the dilemma of choosing a handle for your chisels. Myself, I like meat and potatoes and don’t stray from plain old red oak. :)


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