what makes japenese wood working chisels so $$$ ?

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Forum topic by Holbs posted 01-20-2013 03:06 AM 1869 views 0 times favorited 16 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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819 posts in 997 days

01-20-2013 03:06 AM

while cruising around for hand tools to purchase… i come across a set of japanese chisels.
$200 for a single chisel? $2000k for a complete set?
is this stuff made out of kryptonite or something?
how does a short length of metal and a short length of wood come to $200 for 1 piece?
i bought some beginner dewault made in sheffield, england 4piece chisel set for $40 or so, til I understand what to look for in the high quality chisels.
wonder what’s involved in making my own chisel..hmm..

16 replies so far

View Ripthorn's profile


1146 posts in 1953 days

#1 posted 01-20-2013 03:21 AM

From what I understand, they are completely hand forged (several times, once for the white steel, once for the wrought iron, once to bond them, once after they are bonded). Also, the steel is “cooked” for a long time prior to forging with the craftsman watching it the whole time to ensure it is just right. Then hoops are usually hand set, edges are hand ground, etc. I don’t have any (unfortunately), but I certainly respect all the work and experience that goes into these things. In the western world we are much more accustomed to a factory cranking something out. In the asian countries, many things are still done the traditional ways, making them much more costly. The Bali gamelan is a similar story (a set of musical instruments) all completely hand made by a very small group of very experienced craftsmen.

-- Brian T. - Exact science is not an exact science

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819 posts in 997 days

#2 posted 01-20-2013 03:31 AM

but why so costly for japanese? i’m sure there are american blacksmiths who could do this. the main chisel sellers that are predominately Lie-Nielsen, japanese, and the ones over in sheffield, england (not the dewault clones like what i have). i’ll have to look up some local blacksmiths and ask detailed questions.

who knows… this off the wall spur of moment interest of making my own chisels or such, could spin off the a side interest to my wood working desires

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#3 posted 01-20-2013 03:37 AM

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#4 posted 01-20-2013 03:42 AM

I own one Japanese chisel, it was $125 for one chisel; it is the best chisel I own; it holds its edge better than any other chisel I have. My “other” chisels are Robert Sorbey’s and Narex which are both decent chisel sets, but if I had the money to spend on even a cheap set of Japanese chisels, I’d spend it. It isn’t that you’re paying $2000 for a chisel set that simply holds its edge better than any other; a set of Japanese chisels made by a craftsman are a thing of mastery and beauty. Many people would pay thousands for a painting or a sculpture; I don’t have much interest in art, but I’d pay several grand for a set of beautiful hand crafted chisels if I had the money…

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

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819 posts in 997 days

#5 posted 01-20-2013 04:04 AM

i have a new found respect for japanese chisels now :) thanks, waho for the vid. an hour with all that pounding and shaping? i still wonder if possible to do this in the back yard

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6125 posts in 1545 days

#6 posted 01-20-2013 04:37 AM

Your welcome Holbs.

View Dave's profile


11231 posts in 1808 days

#7 posted 01-20-2013 05:06 AM

Holbs you have to look at the metallurgy of a chisel. A proper tool has different metals and different tempers at specific points.
A good knife is not tempered at the tang (handle), some tempering as the steel leaves the tang and a fair bit of tempering at the edge. That way the handle will bend, the knife wont bend or break easily from the handle and it will hold a good edge for a while.
A wrench is hardest at the ends and softest at the middle.
A Japanese sword is laminated and when quenched it arches up from the different metals reacting differently to the temperature change. At that point it will make or break the sword. A lot of tools are made today with one process to get a finished product. They will temper, anneal and quench the steel all the same way. There are subtleties that ONLY hand forging can give.
It takes an eastern artisan 3 days to just get the steel made from ore. He will sit and watch closely at the temperature and adding just the right amounts of carbon and other materials to get a billet he can start the forging process.
There is time, thought , sweat and honor in what they do. The train for years before they become a master and can write there name on a object.
The answer to your question is yes you can make your own. But if they have the same qualities you will have the same amount of time, labor and materials in it as they do.
You need an hour but this is worth watching
And this one as well.
They are now discovering states of steel that they are thinking they have invented.
True Damascus steel
Carbon nanotubes are no longer the proud boast of 21st century materials scientists. It appears their discovery was unwittingly pre-empted by mediaeval Muslim sword-smiths whose tough Damascus blades taught the Crusaders the true meaning of cold steel when they fought over the Holy Land.

Peter Paufler and colleagues at Dresden’s Technical University discovered carbon nanotubes in the microstructure of a 17th century Damascus sabre. Intriguingly, the nanotubes could have encapsulated iron-carbide nanowires that might give clues to the mechanical strength and sharpness of these swords.

To Europeans, Damascus steel blades seemed magical. Not only could they cut a piece of silk in half as it fell to the floor, they could cleave rocks and their own swords without losing sharpness. The problem facing sword smiths was how to produce steel that was both hard and malleable. Too much carbon and the steel is hard and brittle; too little and it is too soft and malleable to hold an edge when sharpened. Damascus steel blades were forged out of small pure cakes of steel containing around 1.6-1.7 per cent carbon, called wootz. Produced in India, wootz cakes were shipped to Damascus where expert sword smiths fashioned them into blades.

Steel that contains this amount of carbon forms plates of cementite (Fe3C) which, on its own, makes the steel brittle. However, during the forging process at around 800oC, small amounts of ‘impurities’ were added containing many first-row transition elements (such as V, Cr, Mn, Co, and Ni), tungsten, and some rare-earths. which together had the effect of forming the cementite into bands. This gave the blades great strength, malleability, and a distinctive wavy-band pattern known as a damask. The skill had been lost by the 18th century, when supplies of these ores and impurities ran out.

Micro-structural examination of the bands had previously shown they contained nanowires of Fe3C. Now, Paufler’s team has uncovered the presence of carbon nanotubes by exposing a small piece of a blade to corrosion by hydrofluoric acid, and examining the effects under a high resolution scanning electron microscope. In some remnants the researchers saw evidence of incompletely dissolved Fe3C nanowires, suggesting the nanotubes could have encapsulated the nanowires. This would not only have given the blades their renowned strength and sharpness, but also their characteristic banding pattern. ‘The nanotubes probably came from the addition of mandatory organic ingredients we know were added during wootz production, such as wood from the tree Cassia auriculata and leaves from Coltropis gigantean,’ said Paufler. ‘So, by empirically optimising their blade-treatment procedures, these craftsmen made nanotubes more than 400 years ago.’
That said. I would give the $200 for the chisel. And honor the zen in its beauty.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

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819 posts in 997 days

#8 posted 01-20-2013 05:15 AM

ah. dave, you made my head spin from the complexities of making a chisel. after seeing the labor involved (where to strike, how many times, how hard, etc), what material, when to quench, etc… ok. now it all makes sense as to why certain chisels cost the way they do.

it begs to ask… if the $200+ chisels are made with effort, care, etc… how are $25 chisels made?

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David Kirtley

1286 posts in 1966 days

#9 posted 01-20-2013 05:36 AM

Western chisels used to be made the same way (except for the hollowed back). I have an old laminated Isaac Greaves chisel that I love. The modern metallurgy is better consistency overall but the laminated chisels seem to me to be superior. They are just easier to deal with. The steel is generally left a lot harder than modern chisels and the wrought iron backing keeps them from being as bad at chipping. Also, the thin tool steel sharpens easier without spending forever grinding them. Well, once the back is flat. That takes forever. That is why the Japanese chisels are hollow in the back.

$200 is not bad for a couple days work at least by a skilled craftsman. Consider that a piece of fine furniture is made with $40-$50 worth of wood and might cost several hundred dollars as well.

People can and do make their own chisels. You can pick up 36in pieces O1 drill rod for a few dollars, a bag of charcoal, an anvil, and a hammer and have at it. It can be fun in its own right. I have made a couple. But remember, the time you spend doing that is time you are not woodworking. There are only so many hours in a day.

-- Woodworking shouldn't cost a fortune:

View Dave's profile


11231 posts in 1808 days

#10 posted 01-20-2013 05:47 AM

Holbs I own a $10 set and love them for what they are. I keep them sharp and use them.
Simply by machine with a particular steel and plastic handles. They have a place as well.

-- Superdav "No matter where you go - there you are."

View rockindavan's profile


292 posts in 1604 days

#11 posted 01-20-2013 09:20 PM

Id say that for every $200 japanese chisel someone has, they have at least 3-4 lower quality chisels of the same size. I have 4 sets all with different purposes and varying quality. When you buy a chisel of that quality, and cost, you can appreciate what it offers above the rest. With that said, there is a place for the $20 set of Irwin construction chisels for brad nail chopping.

View mtenterprises's profile


876 posts in 1661 days

#12 posted 01-20-2013 10:00 PM

(tongue in cheek) They are made in Japan, not China. I just couldn’t help myself.

-- See pictures on Flickr - And visit my Facebook page -

View MonteCristo's profile


2098 posts in 1157 days

#13 posted 01-21-2013 08:12 PM

Limited production, excellent quality, reputation, status . . .

-- Dwight - "Free legal advice available - contact Dewey, Cheetam & Howe""

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819 posts in 997 days

#14 posted 01-22-2013 03:49 AM

well above my pay scale for Japanese chisels. at this time, i can not justify $150 per chisel for a slightly better result than lee-nielsens or such. if i had the funds, i would buy them in a heart beat.

View waho6o9's profile


6125 posts in 1545 days

#15 posted 01-22-2013 03:59 AM

I purchased this set a couple of years ago for about 100.00, it has served
me well. Now they’re about 150.00 with free shipping, still worth it.

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