Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | April 10, 2013

Japanese Professional Woodcarving Gouges

I just found this blog posting in my draft folder on my WordPress site.  Apparently, I forgot it was sitting there and it was never published.  So we are a little late with it….

Depending upon how old you are, you might remember when Japanese branding was not considered to be the greatest particularly when it came to tools.  Well, times long ago changed but one area where Japanese manufacturing has always been excellent is that of cutlery.  There are legends about the samurai swords and they are not unfounded.

Some years ago, I discovered Japanese Professional gouges.  Initially, I knew little about them other than they were danged sharp, comfortable to use and quite attractive and a little expensive.  Since then, I learned from Fred Damsen, the original owner of the Japan Woodworker that the specific tools that I was purchasing were hand made by a Japanese couple named Tanaka.  The Tanakas resided (and may still reside) in the 1300 year old Miki City, known for its legendary blacksmiths.  It also became obvious that these tools would soon become scarce as in 2006, when I made inquiry of Mr. Damsen, the Tanakas were in their seventies.  Today, the Japan Woodworker appears to have removed Tanaka tools from their catalog.  I recently inquired about them with the new Japan Woodworker (Woodcraft Supply) but they did not respond.  I can find nothing on the Internet about Tanaka tools.


Professional Japanese Gouges are hand forged from high-quality, high-carbon white steel (Shirogami Hagane) and forge welded to wrought iron.  Each tool is individually tempered to Rc64-65.  By comparison, most gouge steel is hardened to Rc58 or so.  A few, considered to be hard, are about Rc62.

These tools tempered to Rc64-65 hold a razor sharp edge for a long period of time. Normally, a tool tempered to Rc64 would be highly fragile and subject to fracture.  The process of laminating the high-carbon, white steel to wrought iron provides great strength.  Although, having said that, as the tools are so very hard, it is imperative that one never pries with them as they can chip.  I have found that on the more aggressive sweeps, it helps to place a micro-bevel on the inside of the edge.


The Tanaka tools are a medium-sized tool at about eight inches and comes with a beautiful and tough Japanese Red Oak (Akagashi) palm-shaped handle combined with a bolstered shank.  The shape of the handle make them a joy to hold for hand work and the bolster provides serious strength.  I see it as a perfect set up and consider them to be the finest carving gouges available.  I only wish that the Tanaka family or others made small palm gouges.  If you are into fine hand tools, you will want to hold one of these gouges and feel the magic that emanates from them.  Some where early on, I learned that the comfortable pear shaped handle was actually made for violin makers.  The pear shaped handle was designed for comfort in the hand and was not intended for mallet use.  However, I have used a light weight (12 oz) urethane mallet with them for years and have experienced no ill affects.  And, as I have aged, a comfortable handle has become important to me.


As I mentioned previously, Tanaka tools seem to have disappeared in the past few years.  There are other good brands available but I have found only one with that wonderful shaped handle.  These that I am referring to are Maru Nomi Gouges carried in the U.S. by Howard Core Company, a violin supplies wholesaler.  While they are wholesale, they will sell gouges retail.  Only one drawback here and that is that they import these tools from Germany.  So, they are made in Japan, shipped to and distributed through Germany, each with a stronger currency than the U.S. so the end price is pretty hefty.  The other thing to be aware of here is that the Howard Core write up of these gouges incorrectly states that the handles are unvarnished pear wood soaked in linseed oil when they are, in fact, Japanese Red Oak with a varnish finish… at least the ones I have purchased have been Red Oak… gorgeous too.

Japan Woodworker continues to offer a line of straight handled gouges (Takahashi) that seem to be of high quality but they lack that incredible pear shaped handle.  Many carvers feel that even these tools are too high priced.  Japan Woodworker does an excellent job of discussing Japanese  woodworking tools in their catalog and I think you would enjoy reading their write-up.

Japanese Professional gouges are danged expensive as compared to others but if you are a professional and love having the best, then I would argue that they are well worth the money.  They are my “go to” gouge.

The sweeps on Japanese Professional tools pretty much line up with the Swiss made tools.  However sweeps of 8 and 9 on the Japanese chart are more of a 7 and 8 on the Swiss chart.

Thanks for visiting, Stay sharp and be “Carveful!”

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