By Rex Krueger
Rex’s YouTube Channel
Japanese or Western Tools: Which is Better?
People often write to me and ask my advice on picking tools, especially when they’re first starting out. They really get confused about saws. Even woodworkers who want to make Western-style furniture are often convinced that Japanese saws are “better” than Western saws.
I’ve experimented a lot with Japanese saws, and I understand the appeal. At the low end of the market, these tools really are better. A Japanese Ryoba or Dozuki saw costing around $50.00 will outperform a Western-style saw in the same price range. Tool manufacturing in North America and Britain has declined mightily in the last 50 years. Once-trusted companies now make low-quality tools or simply don’t exist anymore. High-end makers like Lie Nielsen and Veritas have stepped into the breach and now produce excellent tools in the medium and high-price categories. But for the beginner or those on a tight budget, the offerings are much more limited. A Western tenon saw costing less than $50.00 will require extensive tuning and restoration.
For the same amount of money, a beginning woodworker can purchase a Japanese saw that starts easily, cuts cleanly, and leaves a fine kerf. If you’ve struggled with a clunky, poorly sharpened Western saw and then tried a Japanese tool, you might have instantly converted to these effective, affordable tools.
But as you travel more deeply into the craft, these Japanese saws might give you problems you never expected. Japanese tools famously cut on the pull stroke, and while this is effective, it’s not very compatible with Western benches and work-holding. For months, I got mediocre results using my Ryoba in a leg vice, but I recently built a pair of low Japanese Sawhorses using my Ryoba with these little horses was an instant revelation. Suddenly, my body was aligned with the work. The line was clearly visible, and I pulled the saw through long rip-cuts that tracked as straight as a ruler. Japanese tools are impressive on their own, but when you pair them with Japanese work-holding, you really begin to understand how they work.
Tools Exist in a System
Just for fun, take a Western tenon saw and a piece of wood and try to cut a joint. You can’t use any work-holding beyond your own body. How did that work out? I imagine you didn’t get very far, and I wouldn’t either because these tools can’t be used alone. A tenon saw needs a bench, a vice, a hold fast, or a bench-hook. The work must be held steady, and it must resist the pushing force of the tool. Without appropriate work-holding, the tool is useless.
Japanese work-holding is more subtle and relies more on the body, but it’s just as present. The planning beam and planning board have built-in stops to resist the pulling force of saws and planes. The Japanese carpenter might throw a foot or a knee over the work, but every move he or she makes with a tool can be braced to stay steady.
When you bring the Japanese tool into the Western shop, things get a bit dicey. Japanese saws work well with a vise. The Dozuki, in particular, cuts lovely dovetails and isn’t much different from a Western backsaw. But with other Japanese saws, your bench-hooks are facing the wrong way. You’ll need to make new ones or hook them over the far side of your bench. You might have to lean at an uncomfortable angle. Your saw-bench might work well with a Ryoba, or you might find it awkward and build a pair of low Japanese horses. Many Western craftsmen use nothing but Japanese saws and achieve excellent results, but there is some cobbling together of jigs and fixtures for holding stock.
The truth is all tools exist in a system. No plane or saw works on its own. They all require appropriate work-holding, and each woodworking tradition gives us all the solutions we need for the pieces we might want to build. I honestly get a little irritated when people ask me if Japanese saws are better. The question isn’t which tool is better; the question is, what do you want to build?
Consider the green-wood chair-maker. He or she needs to split wood, rive it into sections, carve it, turn it, and mortise it. For these operations, the chair-maker has the block, the shave-horse, the lathe, the riving break, and perhaps a knee-height bench. No other fixtures are necessary. A traditional chair-maker might not even own a plane, so the question of Japanese or Western makes no sense.
Every woodworking tradition is optimized for the objects it produces. It’s when we cross traditions that challenges crop up. Ask a Shaker cabinet maker to produce a Japanese Shoji screen, and the results would probably be disappointing. Ask a Japanese shokunin to build a Windsor chair, and the results would be…honestly, I have no idea how that would work out.
From everything I’ve just written, we would expect woodworkers to be rigid traditionalists. Each one siloed away in his or her little universe of tools and techniques. Of course, the world isn’t like that. Open any of Toshio Odate’s excellent books on Japanese woodwork, and you’ll see some surprising nods toward Western tools. Odate’s book on traditional Japanese tools includes the English pattern try-square, which he praises for its compactness and ergonomics. Odate also pictures himself using a very Western coping saw.
In his book on tools, Odate stresses vise-less work-holding, where simple stops and the workman’s body keep the wood steady. Reading this book, one would think the master had no need for some clunky Western vise to hold work in an iron grip. But Odate’s book on making traditional shoji screens tells a different story. The pictures in this book show Odate using a cast-iron face vise to hold work for resawing as well as a small machinist’s vice to grip parts for delicate work. Even Odate, ever the traditionalist, sees the use of the screw-vise because vises are just awesome. For many operations, the steadiness of a good vise simply cannot be beaten.
While every woodworking tradition has all the tools and fixtures that it needs, some inventions are just better. Every style has one or two tools that are more accurate, more ergonomic, or more effective. I’m mostly a Western tool guy, but I can hardly believe the versatility of my Ryoba. This single saw handles big rips and fine cross cuts. It’s delicate enough for dovetails (yes, I’ve done it), and yet it flexes for flush-cutting. While the Ryoba may not be better than Western saws for any of these operations, there isn’t a single Western tool that can do so many things so well. I don’t know if I’ll ever get really familiar with Japanese carpentry, but I think I’ll always have a good Ryoba saw.
Mix and Match (but only a little)
When I ask new woodworkers what they want to build, most of them smile and say, “Everything!” I know how they feel. When I was new to the craft, each style was interesting in its own way. Surely I would make all of them eventually.
But now, I’m about a decade in, and some things just don’t interest me. I hate cabinet work. Building big boxes out of wood bores me (for now.) I don’t think of myself as a cabinet maker or even a maker of “fine woodwork” (whatever that is). Instead, I think of myself as a Joiner or maybe a Country Carpenter. These craftsmen built furniture “of the plainer sort” and simple objects for everyday life. I’m drawn to these traditions not just because I like their approach but also because I enjoy the things they made. I like post-and-rung chairs, staked stools, and boarded chests. So I use the tools that they used to make these pieces.
I mostly stick to the tools that these craftsmen used. It’s a small kit and not very expensive. Mostly, my hand tools are what you would find in any little shop in the mid-1800s. My bench and fixtures would be familiar to a carpenter from two centuries ago, and these tools cover the things I like to make. But there’s also that Ryoba, which I’ll always own. If you really want my opinion, I suggest you do the same. Pick a tradition and pick it based on the things you want to build. Get all the tools you need to make those pieces and get to know them really well. But also, experiment a little, too, because some other tradition surely has a tool that will blow your mind and make your work go faster, and finding these tools sure is a lot of fun too.