Watch This Beautiful Japanese Factory Manufacturing Hand Planes

If you’re a woodworker, you know the value of a good hand plane. A stout model will last a lifetime if properly cared for. [Process X] has now taken us behind the scenes of a Japanese factory that turns out quality hand planes to show us how it’s done. 

The video starts at the forge, where steel is attached to soft iron to form a blank that will become the hand plane blade. This is proper blacksmithing, with autohammers and flames akimbo. It’s also a woodworking story, though, with the hand plane bodies themselves carefully prepared for the years of faithful service ahead. We get to see the raw wood roughed into shape and put through the thicknesser, along with the more interesting machining steps that carve out the angled pockets and the blade slot.

The final assembly is great, too, particularly when the pins are nailed in to hold everything in place. The test is the icing on the cake, in which the hand plane peels a perfect contiguous strip from a long piece of lumber.

It’s still very much a manual process, with the workshop largely relying on classical machine tools. There’s not a hint of CNC control to speak of. For the Komori Small Plane Factory and the Koyoshiya Watanabe Woodworking Shop, though, the old methods are doing just fine.

Thanks to [Keith Olsen] for the tip!

21 thoughts on “Watch This Beautiful Japanese Factory Manufacturing Hand Planes

  1. There are a lot of neat videos of people making handplane bodies entirely with hand tools and then taking them to Japanese planing competitions, where they try to cut the thinnest continuous strip of wood. People are routinely cutting strips the full width and length of the sample wood that are only 5 microns thick, a small fraction of a human hair.

    1. no offense but i sincerely doubt your figure here. i know as a fact that even with the best of tools and the softest of wood cutting even 10 micron is a serious challenge. if that were true the scientific community would be using that since about 60+ years.

        1. Yeah, I’ve built one sometimes capable of 10 micron, but I’m nowhere near in the big leagues. I cheated on the blade, though, and used a fancy solid tool steel with a separate wedge.

  2. Yup on a nice adjusted really sharp plane on straight fine grained wood that i haven’t seen in probably the last 30 years. The precision and ethic is wonderful, however don’t see that in ‘Murica much anymore.

    1. It not only comes down to manufacturing but culture as well. The Japanese concept of “Wabi-sabi” embraces (and this is very broad I realize) the imperfections and impermanence of objects as well as their natural beauty, warts (or in this case, knots? burls?) and all. Our service-based, I-want-this-now-culture prompts wood companies to grow more cheap deciduous woods (pine, softwood, etc) and to make more plywood since it can be cranked out faster from whatever is laying about that can be slathered and glued up.

      1. Pine is not deciduous, it is coniferous. In fact, deciduous trees are frequently referred to as “hardwood”, because they are generally harder than coniferous trees. Maple is a key example.

        1. Balsa is also a ‘hardwood’.

          The fact is that there is nothing like old growth hardwood. The newer hardwoods didn’t grow up in shade, hence wide grains.

          Good source: Aircraft wood companies. The go to the ends of the earth to collect straight grained old growth hardwoods. How much per month can afford for this board? We can finance that, but it’s going to be 72 months.

      2. Japan has a service sector and consumer culture that might baffle even Westerners. For instance, there is such a negative connotation of used cars there that they depreciate tremendously. So much so that they’re often economical to export, shipping costs and all*. Wabi-sabi is undoubtedly a richly-developed Japanese aesthetic, but how it’s hard to argue it’s as significant feature of contemporary Japanese culture as it once was.

        *I’m sure the fact that laws were made to limit the number of miles a car’s engine could run, and still be able to be registered in the county. Nonetheless, the demand for new and perfect-seeming products is strong in Japan: you can do a quick search on sales figures of Western luxury goods in the country to get a sense, if you haven’t been there yourself.

  3. Somewhere I looked into these. Manufactured ones, despite the obvious care at the factory, are not ready to go out of the box and need a fair amount of fitting and adjustment by end user. Kinda how a “new” straight razor needs to be sharpened then stropped by end user. If you don’t you will be disappointed but if you put in the effort it deserves you will have a heirloom tool. I love this.

      1. You also have to maintain it. The edge needs to be restropped and rehoned as it wears. The sole of the plane will wear as well, making the mouth wider. A narrow mouth helps with tear out.

        You will see older planes with repairs just in front of the mouth. Some were made with a metal strip in front of the mouth.

        Western hand planes developed into metal versions which prevented this. They still make wooden planes because there are advantages. Wood on wood has less friction than metal and that reduces fatigue.

        1. I’m not sure how critical friction is a factor: whether wood or metal, it’s not uncommon to a grease or wax of some sort to apply to the sole of plane.
          However, wood planes also lighter weight, which matters less for smoothers but once you’re using something like a jack- or fore-plane (or bigger), the fatigue difference is real. That being said, wood planes get out of shape much more quickly, so need reflattening unless you keep them in a climate-controlled environment or live somewhere that experiences little change in humidity.
          Interestingly, metal planes took off because they were cheaper to manufacture. Plane making took real skill and labor, cast metal did not need this kind of skilled labor.

  4. Hi,

    thanks for sharing this video. It shows so much detail of the work, forging and wood work. I really enjoyed it!

    Concerning forging: diffusion welding, shaping, final forging in black heat, … the normalising and hardening seems to be missing (or was I not paying attention).

    Makes me want to go to the workshop.

    Looking forward to my next forging day. It is so much fun to work with good tools!


  5. I didn’t see mention of the variety of wood used for the plane body. Also, is there a particular type of wood that’s used in the planing competitions? I figured that “just any variety” wouldn’t do. That there’s a specific type that stays together in one long strip rather than breaking up into shorter chips. Anyone know?

    1. Traditionally kanna are made from Japanese white oak. I don’t know specifically what japanese thin shaving competitions use for wood, but it also looks like white oak.

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