My First Kanna

by Andrew Hunter (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 6, March 2017)

I wanted to write to the newcomer to Japanese woodworking, the folks who attended the Kezurou-kai event last fall and saw for the first time Japanese woodworking tools in the hands of masters. It doesn’t feel that long ago I was standing in those same shoes. Attending my first Kezurou-kai, 15 years ago, was a pivotal point in my learning process. Since then, each Kezurou-kai I have participated in has left me with the same feeling of connection and inspiration as the first.

I was in my twenties when I took part in the first American Kezurou-kai in 2001 at The Crucible in Berkeley, CA. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a furniture maker and work with my hands, but had only just discovered Japanese woodworking. My interest was sparked by Toshio Odate’s book Japanese Woodworking Tools. His vivid descriptions of his apprenticeship in Japan inspired me to buy a ticket to fly from the east coast to attend the Kezurou-kai event in California.

Andrew Hunter holding a rather large Japanese hand plane (ooganna) while standing outside next to a building.

Andrew Hunter is a professional furniture maker based in New York’s Hudson Valley. His work and more information can be found at Fine Woodworking Magazine where he is a regular contributor.

I could not believe what I saw there. It was everything I loved about the craft of woodworking, but done at a level I didn’t even know existed. I am not being overly dramatic when I say that event changed my life. Masaru Kamijo was there with his array of hand planes. I had never even seen a kanna in person. I was taken by their subtle beauty, and to watch a shaving pour from one was like magic. I was also struck by the way Kamijo-san moved his body. He was always balanced and in control and made pulling a 6” wide plane look effortless. Yuji Funatsu was also there. He forged a plane blade right in front of us where we could see his personality emanate from his work. The importance of the relationship between the toolmaker and woodworker had never been so clear to me. I could feel the spirit that went into the tools.

Needless to say, a week later I bought my first kanna. I didn’t buy an expensive one. It was a plane for me to learn with. I knew there was a lot I needed to understand before I could make it shine and there was always the chance I might bugger it up along the way.

At the time, I didn’t know anyone in my area using Japanese tools that I could learn from. But really, I had everything I needed to get started. I had a beautiful plane, instructions on how to set it up and most importantly the inspiration from my weekend at the Kezurou-kai. I was in my shop armed only with my Odate book, with a blade and block that didn’t even fit one another. I was shaking in my shoes.

I took my time with the set up. I must have read Odate-san’s descriptions a hundred times before beginning. The craftsmen at the Kezurou-kai had shown me what was possible with these tools. I knew I just needed to be patient; to devote my time to using them and learning from other craftsmen.

It didn’t take long for me to become hooked. Japanese tools just made sense to me. Despite my eagerness, I moved forward slowly. I would sharpen the blade, then go at a board until the blade was dull. Then I would practice sharpening again. Sometimes I would have problems. The wood and I would clash. Or worse, no shaving would come from my plane at all. So, I would scratch my head and go back to my book. I would take a deep breath, inspect my plane, and try to chase down the problem. It was mostly a matter of focus. Issues arose if I forgot a step or didn’t check my sole profiling well enough. The solution was always there if I took the time to look for it.

I bought one new tool at a time. Only after I felt completely comfortable with one, would I move to another. Each tool needed its own special attention and it takes time to build any good relationship. Even today, as a professional furniture maker trying to make a living, I still take the time to love and enjoy my tools. Even if on some days in the shop, all I make is a pile of shavings.