Occasionally, I get asked by people wanting to get started in Japanese woodworking what tools they should buy first (or ask for for Christman). While I’m sure there will be some disagreement, this is where I would and did start.
Four or five bench chisels in the 1/8″ – 1″ range is a great starting point. They don’t have to be the best you can find, but shouldn’t be the cheapest either. A nice middle-ground brand will be your best bet. They won’t frustrate you by not holding an edge as is common with cheaper chisels, and you won’t be (quite as) heartbroken if you drop and chip one that cost a couple of hundred dollars.
The same holds true as with the chisels – aim for middle ground, maybe $100 – $140 for your first one. Although I have a couple worth several hundred dollars, the one I bought ten years ago for about $80 continues to be a favorite. Look for something in the 50-65mm width range. Also not a bad idea to pick up a dai conditioning plane (Dai-noshi-kanna), $99, while you’re at it. It is used to properly flatten the bottom of the plane so that it takes nice shavings and leaves a silky surface. I know, a plane to plane a plane. Sounds crazy, but a little recursive nuttiness will make your kanna using experience a better one. While you’re at it, also pick up a conditioning plane conditioning plane (dai-noshi-noshi-kanna-kanna)… Just kidding.
The choices are vast as is the price range. Natural to ceramic, synthetic to diamond, the options are endless. Read around and see what seems to make sense to you. My first stones were made by King in 800, 1000, 1200 and 2000 grit (if memory serves) and they worked fine for many years. Natural stones are nice and many people swear by them, but they tend to be spendy and sometimes inconsistent. I think for starters, man-made stones will be most forgiving and allow you to hone (HA!) skills, and better understand the process before choosing a more expensive stone. Unpictured: Honing guides. Mixed feelings here. I relied on them when I started, and that was nice so that I could spend more time concentrating on woodworking and less on sharpening. Knowing what I do now and understanding that sharpening is the very bedrock of woodworking, I wish I had weaned myself away earlier. I would say they are OK in the beginning, but don’t allow it to become a crutch. Practice freehand sharpening! A lot.
Two or three replaceable blade saws will get you by for a long time. From top to bottom: Ryoba – Two blades, one saw. For timber/carpentry size work, go for sizes up around 270 – 300mm, for furniture size work, 180 – 240mm. Dozuki – For super fine cuts. If you’ve never used one before, you will be amazed at how fine. 240mm is good. Kataha Yokobiki – General purpose saw. 240mm is a good here as well.
For driving chisels and adjusting planes (although a wooden mallet is sometimes preferred for the latter). As you go deeper into this craft, your hammer collection will inexplicably grow. I’ve lost count of how many I have now. I think I might have become a hammer nerd. You should see the the one I just got! It has a solid copper head! Anyway, I have found a 375g hammer to be my go-to favorite, but for heavier joinery work I like 570g. Shape is optional but I find the longer head shape to have more general usefulness than the barrel shape.
Part of making tight, accurate joints is to use a sharp knife to mark your lines instead of a pencil. Most marking knifes are beveled on only one side and come in right and left bevel versions. To start, I would go with either a right bevel one (if you are right handed), or a spear tipped, two-bevel one. More sharpening practice, too!
The notoriously difficult to photograph Japanese square is another important element to traditional woodworking. It’s thin flexible blade is the perfect compliment to the sumitsubo and sumisashi. Since they come in inch, millimeter and shaku (traditional Japanese measurement system) be sure to select the one right for you.