Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Two months and counting — a look from the other side of the pond

This is a post I never finished writing in Chile, so here it is: what I've learnt moving to a third world country with tools as your luggage, with some comments written now in italics. 

Call it the immigrant's tool list oder so:

in Graz, ca 1 year ago.

I was talking with a friend, about how this time here in Chile has been, and I was telling him that it's a bit difficult: there are no manuals to open a workshop in a third world country.

This doesn't mean that you cannot get things, but getting them takes you ages and the shipping is expensive, far more expensive than to the first world. I call them poverty taxes.

So, this is a list of what I have learnt in these two months, and what kind of tools I used most and which one haven't seen any use.


Everything I have in 55mm to 65mm is used everyday, changing only because one has been sharpened that day so the other pass to reserve. I have 6 planes on those sizes and I could use 3 more or so. That way I could have 3 sets of planes always sharp, and sharp roughly once a week for a few hours.

From the joinery planes only the internal angles planes have been used, a lot. I miss a rebate plane so at the moment I'm using the crappy grazian one I have here. At least has a laminated iron but the body is crap. I have also 2 metal bullnose plane but haven't got any paper to put under them.

No chamfer plane, moulding or rounding pl
ane has been significantly used. I haven't made any dai for all the blades I brought — correction I made one of chilean oak and didn't like it. That's because I haven't found any nice wood to make them. I payed 15usd for a piece of american oak with the right grain pattern but it's not too appealing. For that price I may get white oak from japan, I saw 2x2000yen in buyee.

Hammers: I have used all my hammers and constanly. I should make a bronze hammer in a squar-ish shape, the cross pein I got doesn't fit the style of the kanna (plus is not symmetric and it's too long/not heavy enough). I got a cheap genno here. I'm glad I bought the expensive hand made, they are so much nicer. Shorter handles are also a good idea. Don't waste your money in a cheap hammer, save your pennies and get a(nother) hand made.

Saws: Man, what a bunch paper weight I brought. Who needs 15 ryoba in the same size? Not me. The only handle I have made in these two months is the one for the madonoko, and took 15 minutes. (It cracked too.) If you bring saws, bring them with a handle. Also, get the biggest one you can get, the madonoko has seen hours of use, in fact, is the only one I had to re-sharpen in this time. The cross cut that arrived yesterday seems to follow the same path. So, big large saws and one or two joinery saws.

In general, an azebiki is nicer than a ryoba, and a dozuki is only for shoji. A disposable universal cut is good enough for almost anything. And you can lend it to people. Gosh, these people, they cannot saw and don't listen to you when you say don't push it, just do it gently. People do not get to touch hand made saws btw. I guess 5 saws would be a reasonable number to bring. And bring them with handle, you will be lazier, busier and tireder to make handles here.

BUY MARKING SUPPLIES. Seriously, you should have got all your marking supplies before coming here. Fixed that with 2 sashigane, a starret square, japanese mitre squares and ink line. 

Chisels:  Bring them ready to use, you are not going to make the handle here, see saws. From the ones that are functional 15 seems to see all the use. If you have two in similar sizes, the lighter one will be chosen 90% of the time. 3mm chisels are scarce. Paring chisels in 5 sizes. Slicks are not used unless you timber frame. They look cool though, and chicks dig them.

I need more starrett squares by the way. The 6in combination square is lighter than the 15in, thus I use it more.

Preston spokeshaves are heavy. Japanese spokeshaves get sharp(er, but actually sharp means japan sharp for me, so just sharp).

The sushi knife doesn't see much use without a wife to cook for. Marking knives haven't seen use. If you don't knife-wall your joints, they are useless. Can you live without knifewalling your joints? Maybe, but I haven't made anything real yet. They see lots of work in classes though, and if I want to make guitars, they will come handy. 

Sharpening gear: Get more red stones. Seriously. People will want to use your stones, you better have something cheap to lend them. Most of the time is spent in the lower grits, they wear faster than you thought. A kilo a year? maybe more... Need to think of a solution for that, one cannot sharpen a sharpening stone. I use all the stones I brought, plus the ones I had here, plus one I found. Buy more stones, they are like wine: eventually you will drink it all, and still you will be thirsty.

Files you can never have enough.

Did I say that metal planes are heavy and not pay they place in the bag? I'm not missing my record No4 but I do miss my rebate plane.

A good straight edge would be nice. Chinese rulers are convex in one side, concave on the other. Solved with a japanese ruler.

I should have brought at least 3 decent clamps. But they are heavy, so need to make them once I'm back in Chile. 

You will never find time, nor a excuse, to finish that roubo workbench. That's like 4 japanese workbenches worth of lumber, just on the top. If you don't have a warm shop, having a workbench is retarded. Unless you make some friends and do the glue up over a few beers, thanks Keiran!

A nail takes more than 2 months on growing back, so be careful. 3 months in fact.

A kanna can plane regardless to where gravity is pointing.

Inertia is a strong force, perhaps the strongest. Changing several things at the same time is a difficult process. Moving from place to place means changing your diet, light cycles, people you are around... if you woodwork after your 9to5, that means you are only trained to work after 5pm. Think about that. You only can achieve what you are trained to do, so you need to start by the simple fact of not being sitting in an office the whole day. It's not so easy, you will want to make more than what your muscles can take and you can injure yourself. So take it easy. You need to see the little achievements, a sharper blade, a straighter line, and you need to get faster too.

Beech gets dirty, japanese white oak shinny. Why?

It would have been different if I knew what I wanted to do here. Say, violin making. You know the tools you need, the space, the process. Finding 1 thing to do and sticking to that is reasonable. But I am not a reasonable man, thanks god. Moulding wood is nice, but working with other people's souls and bodies is way nicer. 

Most of the work is actually getting rid of stuff, not making new things. We live in the future of Keynes' grandchildren, and the economic problem is solved, even here in Chile. Our war is spiritual, or so they say. Who could have ever thought that there was people in this country who wanted me to teach them some japanese carpentry, and that actually they learn something here.

A dai is only a piece of wood as long as you have them around you. They are very very special pieces of wood. They don't grow on trees.


In "Just Enough", my bible on simple cool living, the author talks about location. "Location, location, location" he writes. The most important thing to build a house is where to put it, since it will determine everything. Where does the sun go, the winds, the water. For a tool list it's the same: location, location, location. Where are you moving to? Does it have electricity? Otherwise you don't want screws but nails. Do you have big trees lying around near you waiting to be turned into lumber? then get an a big whale saw. How wet it is, there is salt in the air, are there dogs eating your tools in your house?

Maybe a better way of putting is that you should bring your friends. Sharp and well set up tools are friends, rusty blades waiting for a dai are problems. You don't move with problems form one place to another, there are problems everywhere and you need friends to deal with them.

I moved with 75 kilos, and I guess that 50 would have done. Moving each extra bag was 80 euros and 160 the second, so you also can just ship the stuff directly to your arrival country from japan for that money. Now I that I know I would do the following. Order the sharpening gear again and ship it directly, also some big saws and axes. Take the small stuff with you, 20 kilos, and make do. You are moving to a place that has plenty of resources, just not the ones you are used to, or the ones you expect to find. So have fun, look around, observe. Meet people, locals and immigrants, one knows what it's there, the other wants to find out, you need both. 

Tools are important, but people are more. Go out, drink wine, coffee, have good talks. You are leaving your old country to find new things, and they are not going to come knocking at your door unless you put an ad in craiglist. 

 I just got a mail and I won the postdoc position I was applying in Chile. That means institutional support for 3 more years and this blog will continue running on my wallet. It also means I can easily put 100usd apart each month to keep the japanese tools coming at a steady rate or start organising my trip to Japan in 2016 and bring 20 kilos at once.



  1. An excellent retrospective, touching the heart and mind both.

    On a side note.....I just bought a cordless screwgun. Yeah, the battery powered kind. It is finally time to use some of those $200 worth of stainless steel screws that I brought with me to Hawaii, haha.

    My shame knows no bounds.

  2. Congratulations on the institutional support!

    1. Thanks! We will be able to afford the trip to america it seems :)

  3. Trip to America? Awesome! I hope it will involve time in Vermont.

    1. The visa lasts 3 months... so for sure I will drop by for a while.