Kanna in Bushwick

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit NYC with my lady and as part of that trip I got in touch with Yann Giguere of Mokuchi in Brooklyn, Bushwick to be precise, to see if I could spend some time learning about the Japanese smoothing plane or Kanna. Yann offers classes on several different aspects of Japanese woodworking throughout the year and for a few years now, I’ve been really wanting to get a decent grasp on the mechanics and usage of Japanese planes and this was the perfect chance.

During the class it became apparent that one could spend many, many years learning the fundamentals of using a Japanese plane and that my short time with Yann was just the beginning. That being said, having a true teacher, someone who is a master of their craft spend just a couple days showing you how to get started is invaluable.

The goal was to get a good shaving using only the dai or wooden body of the plane and the plane blade itself and without the use of the chip breaker to start things off. We did eventually get to the chip breaker but as Yann explained it is not necessary to use it and until the plane iron and plane body are properly prepared no use of a chip breaker will correct any deficiencies.

The details are too many to cover here, suffice to say there are many steps and getting to a good shaving that first time around takes some serious preparation. That being said, tuning the Japanese plane is not necessarily any more complex than properly conditioning a Western plane. It’s just a different set of steps that with enough practice become regular habit.

The shots below are the first pile of shavings that I got from on a stick of Alaskan Yellow Cedar. As I get more practice I’ll move on to different woods, particularly the ones that I use for my own projects which are Walnut, Cherry, and QS Sycamore.

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Here’s a quick shot of my smoothing plane after the class. When I got home I actually made a few more modifications per Yann’s instructions to get it into proper shape including sanding the top down by about an 1/8″ to allow for proper sideways adjustment of the chipbreaker and soaking it in stable oil (olive oil in my case) to further protect and condition the dai.

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And here’s a small box of my first shavings. Not something you’d find on everyone’s mantel but I think I’ll build a nice simple box to hold them and of course finish plane it using the Kanna above.

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Forward Motion

From this…

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At this point I’ve got all the pieces milled and cut to working size. You can see from the above image there are 2 rails, 2 stiles, and 7 kumiko. In Van Arsdale’s Shoji, he lays out plans for creating 4 screens. The screens are the same size and are intended to work together as an entire unit. I’ll be building this first one as a trial and if all goes well, end up with two workable screens to create a simple, single, sliding unit.

One completed screen will be approximately 2’x3′. That puts the working size of the rails at 25″ x 1 1/4″ x 2 1/2″, the stiles at 37″ x 1 1/4″ x 1 1/2″, the horizontal kumiko (4) at 22″ x 1/4″ x 3/8″, and the vertical kumiko (3) at 32″ x 1/4″ x 3/8″.

My rails and stiles ended up being somewhat thinner and narrower, based entirely on my inexperience using a hand plane to joint to square and plane to thickness. I can’t see that this will cause much of an issue in the long run-we’re talking maybe 1/16″ to 1/8″ less than the specified plans. Which means on the following screens, during the power milling process, I’ll leave more room for error, I mean practice.

For those who are interested-I used a table saw (one could certainly substitute a good band saw here), chop saw and planer to get everything to the rough measurements. From there I’ve moved to hand tools. I’m mixing Eastern and Western hand tools for a couple reasons. I feel comfortable using Japanese saws and chisels. However when it comes to planes, I have little to no experience with the Japanese variety. They remain that mysterious dark space in my time spent woodworking. I would very much like to explore Japanese planes further, and in fact while using a #4 bevel-up smoothing plane, especially on the longer stiles, it seemed it would have been easier to pull the plane rather than push. But I am also frankly out of shape when it comes to the motions needed for good planing practice-it is no doubt a good workout. For now I really want to make the best possible Shoji that I can-perfection is the goal.

I’ve also been using a low angle block plane. My strategy at this point has been to take off a bit of a thicker shaving with the #4 Smoother and when I need to work on truing one particular place on a rail or stile I bring in the low angle block which is set to take a very thin shaving. This lets me spend a lot of time taking thin passes, checking the work for true and then move back to the smoother for a final pass. Prior to final assembly I will go over everything again with the #4 and take the thinnest shaving I can manage. One trick I learned for a final burnish is to take a handful of those fine shavings and rub down the planed piece. It creates a lovely, smooth sheen.

The other technical note is that of sharpening. Everything I’ve read about issues that come up with using hand tools have all emphasized one thing-keep your tools sharp. I’d like to add my voice to that chorus. The moment things start feeling wonky, out of wack, etc., go sharpen your tools. And that is an entirely different beast, but one well worth exploring. I’ve been using Japanese waterstones with a grit of 1000 and 6000 and an Atoma diamond lapping plate at 400 grit to keep them flat. And a honing guide does wonders for the novice. There are numerous resources out there explaining the process; a little research and a lot of experimentation will pay off in the end.

As the kumiko are still “roughly” milled, I need to design a jig to allow me to hand plane them. Which might sound easier than it actually is-the kumiko are only 1/4″ x 3/8″ making them quite vulnerable to damage. Once I figure that out, it will be on to cutting the tenons and then hollowing out the mortises in rails & stiles respectively.