by Matt Connorton (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol. 3, 2016)
The matter of how best to do a thing, any given thing, seems to come up quite often. In almost every walk of life, even regarding the most mundane things, most of us have fairly strong opinions as to the best, or right, way to do almost everything. As a young martial arts student I struggled to practice form in the precise manner that my masters insisted, sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes with less than satisfactory results. At that time most styles were taught in a very rigid, systematic manner and deviation from form was considered failure. The same could be said for a wide variety of activities or pursuits, even today. When I began using Japanese tools and techniques I was still of the mind that there would be a right way to work using them and set about to find it. I never did.
The Japanese handplane, or kanna, is a simple looking arrangement of two irons (usually), a metal pin to retain them and a block of wood. What could be simpler? As it so happens, almost anything. I bought my first kanna, a 42mm wide plane made by Tanaka Sho Ichi Ro, and started to learn how to make it work. I was also able to have the benefit of instruction from a few wonderful Japanese craftspeople who visited my tool vendor one summer and put on a three day seminar. There were many participants and a fair number of them were making a living at our craft, and we spoke at great length with each other, as well as with the craftspeople (through a translator). It did not seem much of a surprise to me that many of my fellow Westerners had differing opinions as to the best angle to sharpen the main blade, or the relationship of the chipbreaker to the main blade, or the tuning of the dai. What did surprise me was that the master carpenter demonstrating technique and the venerable master dai maker demonstrating how to make and tune a dai had such vastly different methods of tuning a kanna, and both insisted that their way was the right way.
In the following years I travelled to Japan and had the good fortune to visit with these same masters and many others, and I found that asking ten masters how to properly tune a dai and sharpen the blades would result in ten quite different answers, and each master, as before, would insist that theirs was the right way.
You are probably a lot quicker to see things clearly than I am, and so you no doubt immediately came to the realization that there are many right ways to do a thing. I have to honestly say that when this finally came to me it was nothing short of a revelation.
Speaking from my own experience, I can remember having a vastly different sharpening program twenty years ago than I do today and am quite certain that the one I use now is far more reliably effective than what I did before. I expect that ten years from now it will be different, and I hope more effective still. This is normal and natural in all lifelong practices, that it evolves as we come to greater understanding and become more familiar with the acts we perform, as well as incorporate better tools and techniques. As a sometime teacher of woodworking technique I have learned to correct only methods that seem likely to result in injury or that clearly result in damage to the tool, work, or both. As a result I have had the benefit of observing others practice various techniques and some of these observations have be- come new ways of approaching my own work.
Anyone who has made it through one of my discussions about nomi will recall that there is only one instance that I have identified as being the single “right way” at anything – setting the iron hoop on a nomi handle – but the singular method rule begins and ends there. I respectfully encourage everyone, from the fresh beginner to the venerable master, to take the sage advice of the great Bruce Lee: “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own” in our individual practices. After all, there is no right way. There are many.