Tag Archives: japanese tools

Japanese Burnishers, Part Two

Part One of my investigation into Japanese Burnishers concluded by mentioning the next step would be to make a larger version with a Delrin sole.

After testing this new iteration for a couple of weeks, I find the larger size much more useful for the way I work, perfect for high pressure/ low friction applications. Paper conservators may find the smaller, more precise tool desirable. Both sizes have a plum wood handle which is attractive and has a silky smooth feel. They are easy to make in five steps.

The sequence of making a Japanese style burnisher.

The basic premise is simple: all you have to do is remove everything that is not the final shape of your burnisher.

  1. Rough out the wood with a bandsaw, a turning saw, or coping saw using the template below, or one of your own choosing. Fruitwood is ideal for this, at least 5/4 thick.
  2. Refine the basic shape using a carving axe.
  3. Smooth the axe work with a spokeshave and define the inner curve with a half-round rasp.
  4. Sand everything smooth and add a Delrin (or material of your choice) sole. Screw into place.  Tips on shaping Delrin.
  5. Finally, apply a coat of your favorite wood finish. I like Watco Danish oil finish for this purpose, which in this case darkens the plum wood beautifully.

The template shape I like to begin with. Make it comfortable for your own hand!

I keep finding more uses for this tool, most recently while laminating museum board to make wooden board thickness boards for a rebinding. It is also great for smoothing linings on the inner trays of drop spine boxes, or other operations where a lot of pressure is necessary. The heel of the sold is rounded in order to apply extreme pressure. The raised handle makes it easy to pick up, and it looks quite attractive sitting on my work surface. Even a client has commented on it.



Eat Craft

Soba kiri, or soba-giri bocho, a Soba cutting knife. 

There are many noodle restaurants near me in the East Village of Manhattan. What is different about Sobakoh is that the noodles are cut by hand. And you can watch them being cut by a master soba maker, Hiromitsu Takahashi.  Japanese food + handcraft = I’m there.

Sobakoh has been making hand cut soba, from organically grown sobakoh (buckwheat flour), since the mid 2000’s. Nozaki’s book on Japanese kitchen knives mentions soba was originaly a kind of fast food in Japan, beginning about 300 years ago. [1] Hand cut soba is called Teuchi-Soba to differentiate it from the machine cut variety.

A special purpose knife is used to cut the soba: a Soka Kiri. Takahashi’s knife, above, is a beautiful example. Note the straightforward contour of the scales as they transition to the blade and graceful curves on the blade. If you look at the two spots of light reflection towards the left of the blade, you can see the secondary bevel where it is sharpened.  The knife is not over finished, or excessively polished in one area or another, but is well integrated, especially with the functional, lightly varnished (?) handle. [2]  I’m becoming more and more a fan of wood handles with little or no finish on them: although they get a dirty, stained or develop a patina quickly, the feel of the uncoated wood provides unparalleled tactile feedback and comfort. Any surface coating changes this, to a degree.  Obviously, different woods feel quite different,  from silky smooth swiss pear wood to a almost rough feeling burl. The handle on this knife knife is similar to a bearded axe; an old form, supposedly dating from the 6th century. This handle position allows a high degree of control of this hefty knife which weighs about two pounds and has a blade length of about 12 inches, since the placement is directly behind the blade. The weight of the knife does most of the work: the soba master places it and slides it downward in a diagonal. Slicing in a diagonal, like a guillotine, lowers the effective cutting angle of the blade, giving a cleaner cut. A clean cut preserves more of the food’s visual integrity and umami.

But as I was inexpertly slurping my soba, occasionally with the noodles slapping up onto my glasses, I wondered if these hand cut soba noodles tasted better because they were hand cut, or if it were due to other factors:  the broth, the fresh buckwheat, the slightly irregular size, the knife used, the cutting board,  etc….  Or is it because I naturally value the work of the hand more than that of a machine.  Was I subscribing to a cultish adulation of  handwork?  What I respect in David Pye’s work is his refusal fetishize handwork. [3]  Pye has a craftsman’s take on the philosophy of handwork that lead him to emphasize the rational, aesthetic and practical advantages over machine production. But Pye also has a great respect for well designed machine craft.  Soetsu Yanagi, who is Pye’s more romantic Japanese craft/philosopher counterpart, has a more dichotomous view, linking machine work – science – the head, in opposition to hand work – religion – the heart. “Moreover, the nature of machine work is such that its products are standardized and thus monotonous and cold, ill-fitted to serve as man’s companions in his daily life.” [4]  Some of the heart, in this case, is reflected in the small variation of noodle width and thickness. Yanagi has an entire chapter on the beauty of irregularity.

Sobakoh – Soba Master

So to return to my question; why does handout soba taste ‘better’ than machine cut, other factors aside? I think it does, although I haven’t done a rigorous, side by side blind taste test.  Is it only the subtle irregularities in size of the noodles (sabi?) that identify them as handmade, and therefore are perceived as better than a machine made noodle?  These variations in size are extremely small. If you watch the video of Takahashi cutting the soba, he works in a highly methodical, almost machinelike manner, moving the wood cutting guide (komaita) a small amount with each precise cut.  His foot positions steady his entire body and notice the way he holds the knife: it is not his arm the guides it downward, but his shoulder and upper torso.  Even his surroundings emphasize his machine like nature. He enclosed in his small soba room, like a motor encased in a machine, on display.  He is the first thing you see from the street as you walk into the restaurant, so you know these noodles are handmade.

Or could it actually be that this physical action of his hand, done with a careful movement by a skilled master who has trained in the tradition of the soba craft, that somehow affects, almost inexplicably, their taste in a way that no machine can replicate? Is this the taste of craft?


[1] Nozaki, Hiromitsu. Japanese Kitchen Knives: Essential Techniques and Recipes (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodanasha, 2009), 131.  There is also a nice closeup showing hand and body position while cutting soba on page 130.

[2] Pye, David. The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Bethel, CT: Cambium Press, 1995), see Chapter 9.

[3] Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship,  23-29.

[4] Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty (Tokyo, New York and London: Kodansha International, 1978), 107.

[5] Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman, 108.


Hera are Japanese bamboo spatulas.  There  can be made in a wide variety of sizes for numerous purposes; lifting, stirring, folding, smoothing, mechanical removal of backing material, marking for wet tearing, etc….  They are typically owner made, and can easily be customized with a knife or chisel– ie. making the blade slightly more flexible (by thinning) or less flexible (by shortening), making it smaller to fit a specific purpose, and making it sharper or duller.  In fact, since the edge is very delicate, it is almost necessary that the owner be able to repair or reshape them.  Recently, I became interested in them thanks to Robert Minte, conservator at the Bodeleian Library in Oxford, UK, who showed me some examples he made when he was studying scroll mounting in Japan.

Fig. I.  Examples of several hera I have made.




Fig. II.  Close up of a single hera, showing the flexible curved blade, transition from the handle, and the typical placement of a growth node near the end of the handle, on the right.


Hera are quite easy to make and another useful tool in a conservators arsenal. Small, thin ones as pictured above are useful for backing removal. I’ve even used some stout ones for lifting weak, deteriorated book cloth. Some conservators find them useful when removing pressure sensitive tape.  Thicker pieces, with more of a knife shape, after soaking in water, are an effective tool for wet tearing, since they slightly abrade the tissue as well as wetting it. The strength, flexibility, and smoothness of bamboo is unique among materials.  They are also very fun and highly addictive to make.

Bamboo.  I found some bamboo at a local hardware store/ garden center.  Larger diameter bamboo permits making a wider tool- a 3 inch diameter piece yields about a maximum .5 inch wide tool. There are over 1200 kinds of bamboo, but traditionally the best for hera is susu dake, or soot bamboo, which is very hard.  According to Thompson, “Soot bamboo is so called because it was reclaimed from the roof beams of old Japanese houses.  Other bamboos are perfectly acceptable but the slower grown (the hearly growth nodes should be as close together as possible) will produce more durable tools as the structure of the wood is more compact.” (1)

I cut the bamboo to the desired length with a coping saw.  It is best to cut the pieces longer than required, then adjust the length after preliminary shaping.  After cutting to length, it is easy to split into desired widths with chisel, then to pare them into rough square of rectangular shapes.

Fig. III. Splitting the bamboo with a chisel.

Working on a small block of wood to protect one’s work surface, the chisel was then used to square up the sides to the desired width, clean off any of the thin, soft inner lining of the bamboo, and smooth any rough corners.  Mainly the soft interior of the bamboo is shaped– the cutting edge (the outside of the tool) is the outside of the bamboo.

To shape the blade, I found it easiest to clamp the handle of the tool and working with the bevel of the chisel, gradually shape a graceful transition.  Bamboo is very easy to split and shape.


Fig. IV. Shaping the blade

Once the blade is at the desired thickness, it can be chopped to length with a quick chisel blow.  At this point the bamboo is fairly brittle (2) so it is safest to continue to shape and refine the edge with sandpaper or scrape it.  Caution: as it gets thinner, it can get sharp enough to easily puncture flesh. A progression of 150 US grit followed by 400 US grit worked well for the initial shaping.  Final polishing consisted of a using 3M Tri-M-Ite  polishing paper of 1200 then 6000 grit.  A thin coat of Renaissance wax gave it a nice look and  feel.

(1) Thompson, Andrew.  ‘Japanese tools for conservation’ in The Paper Conservator, Vol. 30, 2006. (Pp. 65-72)  There is a picture of a variety of sizes and shapes of hera in the article.

(2) In fact, it occurred to me that bamboo is much like the structure of a Japanese chisel– there is an extremely hard cutting edge (the outside of the bamboo), supported by a softer backing material (the inner pith) that adds flexibility and strength.