Woodworking in Vietnam

The Tools

In Vietnam, labor is cheap, wood is plentiful, and tools are expensive. As a result, craftsworkers make a lot of their own tools and only buy what cannot be made. Most of the planes I saw in use were made out of scrap rosewood. In use they are not of top quality,but they do the job. Working tropical hardwoods is difficult and the planes are set heavy with wide mouths to cut as fast as possible. Since most Vietnamese furniture is either painted or carved, there isn't a need for a pristine surface. Heavy planing, even if it tears out, is fine.

A Fine Woodworking profile of a Vietnamese woodworker that appeared in the 1980's made a similar point. The article noted that the woodworker's tools had "wide throats and poor-quality-steel irons" that didn't cut very cleanly. But this did not present a problem because, "[his] ordinary furniture didn't require highly finished flat surfaces, and the frame-and-panel construction of his ornate pieces was carved and embellished with split turnings." According to the article, the Vietnamese woodworking tradition used planes were used to "rough out the framework and panels, and to cut moldings. When flat, unblemished surfaces were required, they were scraped." ("Vietnamese Planes: Cong Huy Vo Turns Scrap into Tools," Fine Woodworking, March/April 1982).

Dovetails are seldom used in Vietnamese furniture. Instead, mostly mortises and tenons are used. Consequently, the beveled bench chisel that is so common in the West is nowhere to be found. What woodworkers use instead is what we would call a firmer chisel, with straight sides that taper from the width of the cutting edge to the bolster. On the better chisels, the blade also tapers in thickness, much like a carving firmer.

The quality of the metalwork on Vietnamese tools is very good. This makes a lot of sense. If you earn your living carving, you need a carving set that works. You may not be able to afford fancy, but you do need good. However, since everyone makes their own wooden parts, I found it impossible to buy any wooden tools of even usable quality. In the shop in Hanoi where I purchased several fine sets of chisels and plane blades, the pile of plane bodies were all unusable. In Hoi An, where I met with a toolmaker who did extremely fine quality metalwork, the handles he supplied were pretty bad and the plane bodies he supplied were unusable.

Click on any picture to enlarge

ffff Jointer Plane
A fine, well used jointer plane. Like most of the planes I saw, it had a rosewood body and a narrow blade.
Jointer Plane
A fine, well used jointer plane. Like most of the planes I saw, it had a rosewood body and a narrow blade.

Bench Chisels
The smaller sizes of a set of chisels. These chisels come from the tools maker whose forge is shown on the toolmakers page. When I bought the set they were unhandled as the set shown below. The set was handled at my request. The narrow chisels are very similar to sash mortise chisels because this is primarily what they are used for. Asian woodworking as a whole uses incredibly complicated joinery but not too many dovetails. Most of the joinery is mortise and tenon, with some very fancy permutations of the basic joint. Splines or locking wedges are commonly used. As a result, the thin bevel- edged bench chisels that are so important in the west aren't made here. The blades taper slightly from front to back and extensively in thickness from tip to tang.

(Blade length approx 5". Overall length approx: 10.5". Steel blade, copper ferrule, miscellaneous local hardwood handles.)

Bench Chisels
The wider sizes of a set of chisels. While the fan shapes of these chisels is typically associated with Chinese and Vietnamese tools, the shape is the same as early hand forged Western tools. Mechanick Exercises (a woodworking manual published in 1678) shows a set of similar chisels from about 1700. The key point here is that the parallel shape of Western chisels is more a function of forging machinery than anything else.


Bench Chisels - Detail of Cutting Edge

As the chisels get wider in width, they thin down considerably. On this hand forged set, all the blades have a hand filed and scraped finish. The backs are pretty flat, but required a fair amount of hand work on a water stone.

Bench Chisels - Details of Several edges, including Gouges

Common Bench Chisels
Unlike the fancy chisels above, these are basic factory-made bench chisels that are widely available. They are all sold unhandled, about 5" long edge to tang. The backs are moderately flat but requre a good bit of hand work.

Carving Tools
The same maker in Hoi An who made the set of chisels illustrated above also made the carving tools illustrated at left. This is a fine set, carefully forged and filed to a bright finish. The full set is pretty large, although the range of sizes that exists in the West isn't found. The set was sold unsharpened and would require a fair amount of honing before use. Length of the widest gouge shown in the illustration: 4 1/4" edge to tang.

Mallet - 15" long.
When I first saw cabinetmakers hitting a chisel with a chunk of wood that looked like an old chair leg, I thought it was a shame that they didn't use a proper hammer. Then I saw other craftsman do the same thing and I realized that a tapered block of wood is exactly the thing everyone uses to hit a chisel with. Later on, when I was buying chisels in a hardware store, I motioned for a hammer to hit my newly bought chisels. This mallet is what the proprietor sold me. It's not a bad design and it certainly is a lot easier to make than a fancy mallet or steel hammer.
Jack plane - 1 3/8" blade x 14" long
This is the classic form of Vietnamese planes. The handle in the back helps give a longer and more powerful stroke. This is important because the woodworker is seated on the floor and planing away from him or herself. This particular speciman isn't usable. The wood was warped, checked and isn't fit correctly. Shorter planes will sometimes also have a push rod, but a the long jointer planes I saw did not. With a long plane, you must work standing and move with the plane or otherwise you cannot plane a long piece.
Smooth plane - 1 3/8" blade x 6 3/4" long
This plane is as purchased and is so bad as to be unuable. I didn't see any usable wood planes for sale, but every cabinetmaker I saw had an identical one made out of rosewood. Wooden rabbet planes are also sold but are unusable. I did not actually see any planes in use except for various lengths of bench planes.

Bow Drill
The only drills I saw in actual use were hand held electic drills or western eggbeater style drills. However, the toolmaker in Hoi An showed me this very nice bowdrill and a set of very fine hand made bits. The fishtail end of the bit is held in a wedge cut in the drill shank .The bit is wedged in place and a forged ring keeps it from splitting. The top part of the drill has a hole in it so that you can grab solidly on the upper part of the drill shank and saw away with the bow. (Length of bow: 24".)

Bow Drill Bits

Hand forged drill bits for a bow drill. Approx. 6 1/2" long.

Marking Gauge.
Identical to the Western version, this marking gauge locks the beam with a wedge. A simple tap on the thick side and it locks; a tap on the thin side and it unlocks. It works well, is very simple and has no metal parts. This one is brand new and doesn't have a nail in the head of the beam - that you would have to add yourself. I did not see any mortise gauges.

Bow Saw

Everywhere I saw a cabinetmaker, I saw a bow saw such as this. The blades look like they were made out of a piece of bandsaw blade tensioned by a nut welded into a handle at the end. The stiles on this saw are mortised into a rail at the top. In less expensive saws, a steel band is used instead. The center piece is free floating and is held in place by the tension of the entire saw. The major difference between these bow saws and their Western counterpartst is that Western saws are tensioned by a twisted bow at the top and these use a screw on the blade. This particular blade has no set for ripping. Other saws have teeth set for crosscutting. (Blade length: 20".)

Sharpening Stones 6 3/4" x 2 3/8" x 1 1/2" , 5" x 1 3/4" x 1"

Tools are sharpened with natural waterstones. These are very fine stones with a grit approaching about 4000.

Hammer Heads
These hand forged hammerheads are used primarily for nailing. Like Western hammers, they come in several weights, depending on use.
Sissors Sets
Not woodworking tools per se, but these hand forged sissors are a pleasure to use.


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