Carving tools and materials

Click on any image to obtain a larger view of the corresponding tool(s) and/or material(s).

Character Reading Meaning Translation
han printing  
ki wood  
knife hangi-tō, meaning ‘‘woodblock carving knife’’

The first step in any classic Japanese woodblock carving project (whether it concerns the key-block or one or more of the colour-blocks) is to cut out its lines (if it is the key-block) or its colour outlines (if it is a colour-block). This is typically done with the hangi-tō or carving knife:


This carving knife can be obtained in a range of blade sizes, the hangi-tō shown here being of the standard 6 mm variety. Just like those famous Japanese samurai swords, Japanese woodblock carving knifes and chisels are made by welding and laminating two types of metal together: steel to obtain a sharp edge, and wrought iron to make the blade more solid and less elastic.

Character Reading Meaning Translation
asa shallow  
maru round  
のみ nomi chisel asagata-maru-nomi, which loosely translates into ‘‘shallow-round large-area clearing chisel’’
wasu put together  
のみ nomi chisel sōai-nomi, loosely translating into ‘‘bull-nosed large-area clearing chisel’’

The next step is to clear the large wooden areas further removed from these lines with the asagata-maru-nomi and sōai-nomi carving tools, usually handled with a wooden mallet:


The respective blade sizes of these asagata-maru-nomi and sōai-nomi carving tools are 15 and 24 mm.

Character Reading Meaning Translation
aida interval  
su(keru) leave a space ai-suki, loosely translating into ‘‘bull-nosed small-area clearing chisel’’

The third and final step consists of clearing away the smaller wooden areas remaining between the lines left standing and cut with the hangi-tō, and the large wooden areas previously removed with the asagata-maru-nomi and sōai-nomi carving tools. This is achieved with a range of aisuki carving tools:


The blade sizes of the tools displayed in this picture are 1 mm (top), 3 mm (middle), and 4.5 mm (bottom). As the bottom aisuki illustrates, the wooden holder of each one of these chisels can be opened in order to extend their use until the carving blade has been utterly spent, in which case it can be replaced with a brand new blade.

Character Reading Meaning Translation
shi serve  
a(geru) raise  
to sharpen shiage-to, meaning ‘‘fine whet-stone’’
chū middle  
to sharpen chū-to, meaning ‘‘medium whet-stone’’
ara rough  
to sharpen ara-to, meaning ‘‘rough whet-stone’’

All these carving knifes and chisels can be honed with the following dedicated fine (left), medium (middle), and rough (right) Japanese sharpening stones:

Sharpening stones

Character Reading Meaning Translation
yama mountain  
sakura cherry tree wild cherry

Especially when it comes to fine-line carving, woodblocks are preferably made from the wood of a special type of wild Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata). Japanese woodblocks are typically cut with the grain of the wood (and not against it). Here are two plywood blocks whose top and bottom layers consist of yamazakura, ready for carving:

Cherry blocks

Although not apparent from the image, the surfaces of these blocks are incredibly smooth: they have been chiselled and sanded so perfectly that when stacked on top of each other it takes some effort to pull them apart ...

Provenance of these tools and materials: the websites of McClains, Matsumura-san, and the Baren Mall

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