If you want a fine chisel to work with, a Japanese chisel is an excellent choice. Although western-style tools have a wide range, Japanese tools can add to the value of your woodworking toolbox.
When we consider Japanese vs western chisels, Japanese chisels have a few notable advantages over their western counterparts. The Japanese style of woodworking calls for high-precision tools in line with the fine work that this type of woodworking involves. The notable feature of Japanese chisels and other tools is the high grade of steel used.
There is a general consensus that Japanese tools are superior to western tools. They are no doubt more expensive but you will find that these tools are by far more efficient and precise than western tools.
One of the main features of Japanese chisels is the high carbon content in the steel which makes harder blades. The result is that the blade of a Japanese woodworking tool retains its blade’s sharpness much longer than a conventional western chisel. But a downside of Japanese chisels is their tendency to chip due to their extreme hardness.
Japanese chisels last longer than Western chisels. They are not only made of extremely hard steel but also have the narrowest kerf.
Another interesting fact about Japanese chisels is that, unlike western chisels that are solid, Japanese chisels are laminated. The harder steel is combined with the softer steel supposedly to absorb the impact of hammers and mallets. But you still have to take care not to drop Japanese chisels or misuse them because they will chip easily.
Types of Japanese Chisels
There are quite a few differences other than the general differences that we have described above between Japanese and western chisels. You may notice the word “nomi” as the second part of each chisel’s name. As you might have already guessed, “nomi” means chisel in Japanese. Let us first take a closer look at some specific Japanese chisels:
You can consider Oiire Nomi as a common bench chisel that the Japanese use regularly. It has the most resemblance to western chisels. The sizes may range between 3mm to 42mm. If you buy a chisel set with a wider range of sizes, it can even extend between 1.5mm on the lower end to 48mm on the upper end.
You can make good dovetails with Shinogi Nomi but the main purpose of this type of Japanese chisel is to cut a mortise’s sidewall. These chisels are quite similar to the Oiire Nomi but they are a bit narrower.
Ichou-gata Nomi chisels are fishtail chisels. You can use them to make a half-blinded dovetail. The blade of this chisel is shaped like the tail of a fish along its length.
You can use a Mukoumachi-Nomi chisel to cut rectangular slots as in a mortise. You should not lever on these chisels like the way we do so with western chisels.
Sokosarai Nomi & Kama Nomi
We use the Sokosarai Nomi chisel to scrape mortise bottoms. Therefore, these chisels have a long bevel for this purpose. They come in various widths depending on the size of the mortise you are working on. You can use Kama Nomi chisels to cut the insides of corners.
We use the Fukamaru Nomi chisel as a gouge. They are good for carving and you get a very vast range of sizes in this category of chisels.
You can find Tsuki-Nomi chisels in three orientations – the Tsuki which is for paring, the Usu that we use for fine paring, and the Hon-Tsuki which are extremely wide chisels. If you look at the Hon-Tsuki chisel it looks almost like a small shovel. We use this type of chisel for rough timber paring jobs.
Kote Nomi chisels have a cranked neck. It means that it looks somewhat like the crank starter handle of a vintage car. It is useful for smoothing the surface of the wood with a flat action without the interference of your hand.
Tataki Nomi is again for rough timber work. You will find this type of Japanese chisel being used for framing work. These chisels come in various sizes depending on how light or heavy the timberwork is.
Types of Western Chisels
As we mentioned above, the difference between Japanese vs western chisels is that Japanese chisels are laminated which means that they have two layers. In the early days, even all western chisels were laminated. Today they are made of solid metal.
You will see many similarities between western and Japanese chisels. The main difference between both types is the material. Perhaps, we could say that Japanese chisels are a bit sleeker than their western counterparts.
Here are a few of the major types of western chisels :
Because chisels used to be made of steel laminate, this is one of the earliest chisels that came in solid form, which is why we call it a “firmer” chisel. It is a useful chisel for creating 90° corners on wood.
The bench chisel is a multipurpose chisel that is of medium length. The edges may be straight or beveled. The chisel may have a tang or it may be of socket-type construction. The cutting edge can be between 25° to 30°.
This chisel gets its name because we use it to create recesses for installing butt hinges to doors. It is a short-bladed chisel and you could consider it a shorter version of a bench chisel. Butt chisels come in the straight-edged or bevel-edged form.
As you may guess, we use mortise chisels to create mortises. It has a thick but long and narrow blade. These chisels may have a metallic cap or hoop on the top of the handle. It is so that you can strike it with a mallet or hammer without damaging the wooden handle. The bevel angle of a mortise chisel is between 20° to 30°.
A corner chisel helps us trim corners. It is a chisel that has a cross-section of 90° but this angle sometimes varies.
You can do paring jobs with this chisel. It is long and thin with a tang that connects to the rather large wooden handle. A paring chisel is always used by hand. You will not find it possible to strike it with a mallet or hammer and you should not do so.
We use a paring chisel to clean up the rough surfaces of wood and to take off the leftover wooden chips and excess glue on a joint. The bevel angle of a paring chisel is usually 20° to 25°.
A slick chisel is constructed like a paring chisel but much wider. Here again, we use it for trimming wood. The bevel is between 20° to 30°.
A dovetail chisel as the name suggests is for making dovetail joints. Here also, the chisel has a long blade and we use it for cleaning the edges of a dovetail joint.
Framing chisels have an extra-wide blade and the handle is reinforced with a steel hoop or cap to take heavy blows by a hammer or mallet. We use framing chisels for heavy timber work. The bevel angle varies from 25° to 30°.
Here we have a chisel with a cranked handle. It looks like the crank handle of a vintage car. This chisel is created so that you can hold the chisel on a flat surface without your hands getting in the way.
We use this chisel to make a clean, flush surface rather like the action of a planer, sliding the tool parallel to the wood surface.
In addition to the various type of western chisels we have mentioned here, western tools have several types of gouges. They are specialized chisels for carving purposes. A gouge typically has a curved cutting edge. Each type of gouge is named after the shape of its profile.
The typical western woodcarver, like their Japanese counterpart, uses a variety of gouges for wood carving. A western woodcarver will have some regular chisels, but the focus would be more on these particular wood carving chisels and gouges.
Japanese vs Western Chisels: Comparison Chart
|Blade||Laminated steel||Solid steel|
|Hardness||Extremely hard||Softer than Japanese Chisels|
|Durability||Highly durable||Moderately durable|
|Price||Most expensive in the market||Cheaper than Japanese chisels|
|Maintenance||Need to sharpen less frequently||Need to sharpen more frequently|
|Resistance to Damage||May chip easily if dropped||Will not chip readily if dropped|
|Level of precision||Highly precision-oriented||Less precision-oriented|
In our discussion of Japanese vs western chisels, we cannot positively conclude that one particular type is better than the other. If you are a Japanese woodworker engaged in Japanese woodworking, you would necessarily possess all the Japanese types of chisels along with other Japanese tools.
As a western woodworker, you will have most of the western tools of a standard western woodworker’s toolbox. But having a few of these fine Japanese tools including chisels is not a bad idea. It can help you get more from your woodworking endeavors.