Saya Nomi

A saya nomi is a Japanese-style chisel for making scabbards.

The basic shape is a curved chisel that can be pushed into the wood then pressed down to lever a little piece out. The outline of where the cut will be is traced with a utility knife, a kiridashi, Japanese scabbards (saya) are very precisely fit, the kiridashi and saya nomi are used with painstaking care to cut the wood so that the only contact-point with the blade is along its spine.

A Saya Nomi

I know I’m going to need one eventually, and I just made a nice bar of twisted medium layer 1095 and 15N20 – why not make one? I’ll put the pretty twist stuff on the top and the serious no-nonsense 1095 on the bottom and it’ll be really pretty with a two-tone look. It’ll be good practice with my hammer; shaping long tangs is a fun process. What you do is heat it, then use the rounding-face of your hammer to hit one side, turn it 90 degrees, hit the other, turn it, etc. The rounded face of the hammer drives the metal away from it, which means it stays rectangular but gets longer.

So I cut the bars and tack welded them together, then forged them into a rough chisel-shape. The Japanese saya nomi don’t have a tang through the entire handle, to keep an impatient scabbard-maker from tapping on the end with a little hammer, but mine will:

From there, it’s going to be a matter of cleaning the forge scale off, rough-shaping it, then quenching it and fine shaping it, making a handle and end cap, drilling it, threading the cap and peening it over. Piece of cake! By now you can walk through the steps in your sleep, too, right?

At this point it’s still soft(ish) metal; I can bend it in a vise or whatever. I will tweak it a bit more and next time I have the forge hot I’ll quench it. Before I do that, I’ll bend the chisel part to where I want it, and I’ll straighten the tang straight enough to make a machinist happy. OK, you can’t actually hand-shape anything that accurately, but maybe a machinist won’t wince visibly.

I think that looks pretty spiffy!

I want to see how spiffy it will be, so I decide to do a test etch. There’s no harm in that; all that metal will get ground off anyway. So I latch a magnet onto the tang and drop it into my Etch Tanks 2.0. Etch Tanks 1.0 were 4 feet tall and bolted to the floor; these are much more practical. Also, Etch Tanks 1.0 had a thin PVC ballast plug at the bottom, which turned out the bad the first time I dropped a blade 4 feet point-first onto the ballast plug and 2 gallons of ferric chloride dripped overnight onto the shop floor.

When that is done. I neutralize it with soda/water (right tank) and…

Uh oh.

No. No way that happened.Somewhen in the process of drawing out the tang I lost track of the rotational angle. The pretty twist damascus is not on the top where it’s supposed to be, it’s on the right hand side.

It’d still make a perfectly fine chisel except, instead of having a chisel where everyone will look at it and go, “that is a fine chisel” they’ll go “why did he do it that way?” and – more important – I will want to /facepalm, which is a bad thing to do when you are holding a chisel!

This is really awkward. I love fine tools and my plan was to make myself something I would enjoy using not something that will torture my aesthetics every time I look at it. I could put it on the Shelf of Shame and Woe. I could destructively test it (I already know it’s strong as steel). I could grind the tip into a point and put bevels on it and a handle and call it a “tactical samurai peanut butter spreader.” I could heat it and squash it from the other edge, which would almost certainly mess it up.

Unfortunately I have really got to stop messing around and get the doors and power set up in the hot metal shed. It’s getting cold and damp and I have to get some infrastructure work done instead of just messing with fun little projects. I’ve also got a couple of commissions I have to build, I need to make Death To Christmas(tm) holiday caramel corn, and more other things than I want to count. So the saya nomi issue will just have to wait.

I’m happy I can make mistakes like this at all, but it stings right now.

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The weekend of the 14th I will probably fall silent. My buddy Mike G, who is an amazing woodworker, is coming up to teach me some things and to show me what’s wrong with my design for the shop doors. Mike works wood as expertly and enthusiastically as I eat pizza. We’re going to try to get the doors onto the shop. In the meantime I’ll be doing a bit less blogging and a bit more electrical work.


  1. Jazzlet says

    Ow! At least when I screw up with wool it’s usually easy enough to fix, and if it isn’t I can always unravel the whole thing and start again..

  2. Bruce says

    Maybe make it into a less specialized item, such as a generic chisel. Then do another auction for FTB, of your “factory second”, so someone can own something with Damascus, even if they can’t win your top quality items.

  3. says

    I was thinking of doing a half dozen kitchen kiridashi, which would probably price cheap but they would be sharp and pretty. What do you think?

  4. voyager says

    I say, for now, shelve it and go make doors. When you can look at it again without bad feelings, you’ll know what it wants to be.

  5. kestrel says

    @Marcus, #4: I think it’s a GREAT idea. Please – DO IT. There are some of us who just simply don’t have a lot of money but would really love to own a piece of your work. Not all of us can be huge donors although we wish we could be.

    Please note: this is not a claim that I don’t own any of your work. **I DO** This is just to say there are many who read your blog who can’t win these auctions but wish they could.

  6. dangerousbeans says

    You could grind the 1095 off and then weld a bit in the right place. That would make it a fairly thin chisel though.
    Chop it in half and use it as san mai cladding?

  7. lochaber says

    oof, that would be rather frustrating. I have to admit I did slightly chuckle when reading the first two lines after that last pic.

    At least you did that test etch first, and saved your self a lot of even more frustrating labor.

    It shouldn’t be too difficult to straighten out the chisel offset, and turn it into some sort of narrow-bladed, rat-tailed tang knife, with the 1095 as the cutting edge, would it? Or maybe twist the hell out of the chisel end, and just make it a uniform damascus blade – the 15N20 isn’t exactly a bad steel, and the 1095 portions should more than compensate?

    Anyways, thanks for sharing, despite the frustration, I really enjoy your posts on your shop and various projects and such.

  8. Raucous Indignation says

    Um, the chisel looks like a very fine thing as it is. Your tortured aesthetics notwithstanding. Finish it; use it; live it; love it. Do not devalue the wonders of chance.

  9. says

    Raucous Indignation@#10:
    Um, the chisel looks like a very fine thing as it is. Your tortured aesthetics notwithstanding. Finish it; use it; live it; love it. Do not devalue the wonders of chance.

    Reading this comment made me realize something: I can polish it so that it’s still a perfectly good chisel but the twist damascus isn’t as obvious. I can use it and love it and it’ll be a subtle reminder.

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