“Satin sheen.” “Smooth finish.” “Polished veneer.” The woodworking section of any home improvement store will have you think it’s a menu for a car wash. With sandpaper that ranges from 60 Grit (coarse) to 320 Grit (x-fine) and a whole range of varnishes we’re led to believe that the best recipe for finishing wooden furniture is sandpaper, vacuum, urethane, sandpaper, vacuum, urethane, repeat. Then repeat again.
But we’re doing it all wrong. At least according to Toshio Tokunaga. “Sandpaper rubs away the natural pattern of the wood, leaving behind a smoothness that is artificial and which obscures the tree’s innate characteristics,” says the craftsman and founder of Tokunaga Furniture.
Before designing any furniture, Tokunaga designs tools. And most important – the tool responsible for the studio’s ultra-smooth finishes – is the kanna, a plane crafted using blacksmithing techniques that have been passed down in Japan for thousands of years. And every single one of their tools is handcrafted in the traditional Japanese style by a master smith by the name of Ohara Yasuhiko.
The kanna-making process utilizes exactly the same metallurgy technique that is used when making the katana blade—i.e. nestling the harder, more brittle (but deadly sharp) tamahagane steel in a softer metal to prevent it from shattering.
“Here at Tokunaga Furniture, we believe that trees are elusive life-forms, beings of many expressions,” says the craftsman, who operates his studio with 4 apprentices. “Just as soon as you think you’ve understood them, they reveal a completely new side to themselves—one that had hitherto been completely hidden.” For this reason, all of Tokunaga’s furniture is finished with the kanna. There is no need for any extra layer of varnish over the wood.
Tokunaga Furniture is trying to champion this alternative technique in opposition to the sandpaper finish. Mr. Tokunaga’s personal mission, we’re told, is to demonstrate to the global woodworking community that sandpaper destroys the natural grain of the wood (whereas the kanna preserves it) and to help spread this pure kanna-finish technique worldwide with the hope that, one day, it will become the new norm.
“The message to us humans,” says Tokunaga “seems to be that no amount of time or study will make [wood] truly knowable, but our goal is to get as close as humanly possible in spite of this.”