Essential Plaster Tools: Japanese Trowels

by ziggy on November 10, 2014 -- 6 comments -- Follow

Plaster Tools: Japanese Trowels

Japanese trowels are some of the most prized for natural plaster work (image source: JapaneseTrowels.com)

April thinks I have a compulsion for Japanese tools. I think she may be on to something, but I’ve got a pretty good excuse. Very generally speaking, Japanese tools are often well designed and manufactured, and the plaster tools are not unlike the acclaimed kitchen knives and woodworking tools. Japanese trowels are made with a careful level of attention in an incredible assortment of sizes and shapes, and different types of steel depending on the purpose.

Clay and lime plaster traditions go way back in Japanese architecture, so the craftspeople and blacksmiths there have had quite a bit of time to develop highly refined tools for the work of spreading and smoothing plaster. Today, Japanese trowels are quite popular amongst folks doing natural plaster work all over the globe.

Japanese Trowels: Some of the Finest Plaster Tools

Plaster Tools

The common ‘pointed tip’ style of Japanese trowel

Without going into too much detail, Japanese trowels are made of a variety of materials, including iron, carbon steel, stainless steel, and polycarbonate. They can be roughly divided up into application and finishing trowel categories. Application trowels are stiff and there are several varieties of steel with varying levels of “softness” used in the production of the tools. “Softer” steels will push and pull material around on the wall.

Finishing trowels are useful for polishing plaster and removing trowel marks. They are commonly available in stainless steel (which is relatively hard) and plastic. The flexible stainless trowels (some as thin as 0.3 mm thick) are especially useful for polishing work, as they gently hug the wall in ways that a stiff steel trowel cannot. You can apply a lot of pressure with these tools and avoid leaving trowel marks. The stainless steel varieties are easy to clean and maintain, and leave a clean finish.

Again, there is a bewildering selection of these tools, some designed with incredible specificity. I highly recommend reading Kyle Holzhueter’s Japanese Plastering website for more information if you want to geek out about the different grades of steel, etc.

Design Features of a Japanese Trowel

The appeal of these tools comes from the quality of the materials, the diverse selection, and the overall pleasing proportions and design. There are a host of trowels still made in the traditional fashion by blacksmiths with decades of experience. Japanese trowels are often quite comfortable to hold and use compared to the typical American trowel with its beefy, clunky handle. (My hand instantly cramps if a trowel handle is too large. I’ve not had that problem with the Japanese trowels in my toolkit.)

The ubiquitous pointed tip trowel is also very versatile, allowing the builder to approach corners and other challenging sections of wall with greater ease. There are shapes and profiles for every possible plastering scenario you could possibly imagine — inside corners, outside corners, tiny sculptural elements…

finish interior plaster

Applying finish clay plaster with a Japanese trowel and hawk

120mm Japanese Trowels

A few 120mm Japanese trowels, good for confined work

I have a few mini trowels from JapaneseTrowels.com for some of the awkward sections of wall in our straw bale house. They are very tiny (and thus very cute), and while their use may be limited, they are invaluable for pieces of wall that can’t be addressed with a bigger tool. I found them particularly useful in the sections of wall where the posts, beams, and braces meet (see right), and the tiny strip of wall above the beams and between the ceiling in our home.

Mini 120mm Japanese Trowel

Addressing an awkward section of wall with a mini 120mm trowel

Where to Learn More and Buy Japanese Trowels

For a look at some of the “essential Japanese trowels”, visit Kyle Holzhueter’s most excellent Japanese Plastering website, or specifically, this page here. Kyle’s shop is brimming full of useful information pertaining to traditional and contemporary Japanese trowels. You can totally geek out trying to memorize the differences between a jigane trowel and a honyaki trowel, and remembering how to say “motokubi.” He has the widest selection of high quality trowels available for sale anywhere (outside of a storefront in Japan, at least.)

JapaneseTrowels.com is a stateside retailer for a quality selection of trowels from a great couple based in New Mexico. They’ve got excellent customer service and will happily answer any of your questions.

Hida Tool has a small selection, but pretty good prices.

Last but not least… see this amazing photo of a Tokyo trowel shop. This is a good indication of the incredible diversity of trowels produced there, not to mention… a good indication that there’s a great community of craftspeople still doing this kind of work!

Trowel Shop in Tokyo

A trowel shop in Tokyo, packed to the gills with tools

Photo credits:

Selection of Japanese trowels – JapaneseTrowels.com
Pointed tip trowel & Tokyo trowel shop – 左官 Japanese Plastering
Tokyo trowel shop – Henderson Clayworks

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  • This is a great article. I am mad about Japanese tools. I buy my grass sickles from Hida Tools. My sickles are used hard, hold an edge for a long time and are easy to resharpen.

  • Ram Dev

    Where can I get Japanese Trowels online? I went on Japanesetrowels.com and send them an email, but could not get through. Is there an alternative?

  • Hi there — Hrm… it could be that Satomi (who operates the business) may be away. You can either wait and hope she replies, or try contacting my friend Kyle Holzhueter, who runs http://japaneseplastering.com/ — he sources some incredible tools that can’t be found anywhere else. Highly recommended.

  • Hi @disqus_WmgDvhnwu9:disqus: Try this email address: Satomi@landerland.com

  • Shravan Suresh

    Hey where in tokyo is this shop, could ypu please provide the address?

  • Shravan – contact James here! http://www.hcworks.org/

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