Captains of Industry by Janne Moren

the perfect tool

It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature” – in the
Preface: “In making the handle of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand. –
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool

Gary Snyder, Axe Handles

Myself was formed – a Carpenter –
An unpretending time
My Plane – and I, together wrought
Before a Builder came

Emily Dickinson, Myself Was Formed – A Carpenter

He that sees a Sail first, shall have the best Pistol or Small Arm aboard of her.
The pirate code of Captain Edward Low, Article VIII

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.
Steve Jobs, interview in Playboy, 1985

A saw seems like a simple tool. But there are a lot of complicated questions. What is the best angle for the rake of the teeth? How many teeth should there be? How much should the teeth splay out to the sides? That’s called the kerf. Is the sawdust removed efficiently? There is a whole specialized technical vocabulary. That’s like the martial arts.

A little while ago I had to cut down a tree in my garden. We only had a handy folding saw so I bought a sturdy new saw for the job. It’s a Japanese saw. Japanese saws are different from western saws. They take opposite approaches to the problem of designing a tool for cutting wood.

In western saws the hand position is almost at a complete right angle to the saw cut. But the main difference is that western saws cut with a pushing action. That means that even inexperienced carpenters can cut with power by using their body weight to thrust.

In Japanese saws the handle is in a straight line with the blade. Or curved slightly down like a pirate’s pistol. So you hold it almost like a kitchen knife. Japanese saws cut with a pulling action. It is difficult for beginners to generate power but expert carpenters can cut effortlessly. The saw is connected through the arm to the centre of the body. So Japanese carpenters cut with their centre. That’s like the martial arts too. Everything is done with your centre.

Some people say that the differences symbolize the different philosophies of east and west. Pulling in. Pushing out. One day an engineering genius might design a combination saw that cuts on the pull stroke and also cuts on the push stroke. East meeting west. The perfect tool.


poems and quotes
Gary Snyder, Axe Handles

Poems by Gary Snyder

Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, The Art of Writing

Emily Dickinson, Myself Was Formed – A Carpenter

Poems by Emily Dickinson online

Poems by Emily Dickinson – free e-book from project gutenberg

quotes by Steve Jobs

saw on wiki
Japanese saw on wiki
Japanese carpentry on wiki
Japanese carpentry museum site
the pirate code on wiki

period photo Sawing Wood from A Davey
and interesting photostream of photos taken in Japan in the early twentieth century

This post is published simultaneously on the aikido site aikiweb

my columns on aikiweb:

Aikido Teaching Information Silence
Aiki and Kokyu Ryoku
Martial Arts in Manga and Anime
Indigo Blue
Improvised Weapons No.1: The Umbrella
Unbalance – Feet of Clay
Half a Tatami
Zen in the Art of Aikido

I have an essay in a charity e-book put together by some writers and photographers to raise money for victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku on 11 March 2011. It costs $9.99.

© niall matthews 2012


  1. niall

    Hey thanks for taking the trouble to let me know. I’ll try to check that out and fix it.

  2. niall

    Thanks Carina. Yeah I thought that was a very interesting cultural difference. Well the tree has gone now. I don’t think I’ll have a chance to use the saw again for a while. Who first could have thought of using a saw to make music?!

  3. Thank you Niall for this interesting post, so east is teaching us to use our center in martial arts and with the saw, the union is strength in everything also using the body more than only our arm. Here are two videos from east and west, both use the west saw to make beautiful music.

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