Although most woodworking tools last a very long time, the blades for a traditional woodblock print carver's main knife wear down through use very quickly, and the (professional) carver is thus constantly purchasing new ones. Because of this pattern of frequent replacement, both myself and Tsunehisa Sato (the young carver who has been doing work for Mokuhankan) have been keenly aware of the current sad level of craftsmanship in this field. The blades we receive have been getting worse and worse over time, and in recent years the quality has dropped to a level where we find ourselves tossing out as many blades as we use.
I myself had simply been accepting this as a 'can't be helped' type of situation, but Sato-san was more persistent in his search for something better, and eventually located a workshop run by a blacksmith who 1) is not willing to let his quality follow that same downward path, and 2) is willing to accept customer requests for different steel formulations for specific purposes. They are a very small outfit, and because their prices are higher than other shops - a direct reflection of the materials they use and the time they take to make each blade - they are not having an easy time of it these days.
The workshop owner and Sato-san hit it off; the blacksmith was happy to have a (potential) customer who spoke the same 'language' and who understood the difference between good and bad blades (and who seemed willing to pay for it), and he made some samples, one of which Sato-san passed on to me for testing.
I was very impressed. The blade took an extremely sharp edge, and yet was not prone to quick breaking, as most 'sharp' steels are. It was also possible to work for much longer before having to put it back on the sharpening stone. As to how this magic is performed, there is really no particular mystery. The appropriate levels of carbon to be added to iron to create any particular type of steel have been known for a long time; as are the myriad details of the process: what temperature for the steel, how long to hold it at that temperature, how hard to strike during forging, how quickly/slowly to cool it, and a thousand other factors through all of the subsequent steps of annealing, shaping and tempering. These things are not 'secret', and the raw knowledge of how to select exactly those methods that will result in a blade that has the desired characteristics, are known. Any competent craftsman 'could' do this. But these days, few do.
After testing the sample that Sato-san brought me, I was no longer willing to accept what I had been getting from other blade makers, so he and I began talking about how to move forward with this. One thing led to another, and we thought that an obvious course of action to protect our own supply of knives moving into the future, would be for Mokuhankan - which to this point had been dealing in prints only - to become a tool supplier too. So we decided to take the plunge, and we are now announcing the first set of Mokuhankan carving tools.
The blacksmith provides the blades to us in 'raw' form - bare pieces of steel, formed and sharpened to our specifications, but otherwise unusable. We have designed our own handles for them, based on the traditional patterns, and are making them - right here in our own building - with a level of quality that we hope matches that of the steel itself. We know that tools are 'utilitarian' objects, but we want them to be beautiful too.
We use yamazakura - mountain cherry - for the handles of the tools. It is strong and beautiful, and we couldn't resist having the tool itself made from the same wood that is on the bench at the other end of the cutting action!
Our sets of tools come in a paulownia wood box, which we are making (of course!) A small booklet is fitted into a pocket inside the case, containing information on the tools, their background, and their maintenance. Each box has a label pasted inside the lid, on which is printed the maker's information, the date of manufacture, the name of the person for whom this particular set was prepared, and a serial number.
So there you have it. We are very happy to have found this workshop, and are very excited about being able to take their blades and turn them into beautiful tools for woodblock printmakers all over the world. We are extremely proud of these tools, are now using them ourselves exclusively in our daily professional work, and hope that you will consider giving some of them a good home! We are in the final stages of preparation, and the first sets will be available from our website 'any day now'!