Sunday, November 26, 2017

Building a Japanese Tub Boat at Lowell's Boat Shop

Last winter I lectured at Lowell's Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts. The lecture poster showed a photo of a Japanese tub boat (taraibune) and a donor saw the image and asked the Shop to commission a boat for him. So I returned in November and built one over a two-week residency. I brought northern white cedar from Vermont and we ordered excellent quality timber bamboo (madake, or phyllostachus bambusoides) from the Big Bamboo Company in Dudley, Georgia.

First, a bit about Lowell's. Boats, principally dories, have been built on this site since 1793. The shop was in continuous operation until the late 1980's when it began to transition to its current status as a non-profit museum, boat shop, and school. In its heyday thousands of dories were built here to supply the New England fishing industry.

Dories and other boats are built for customers in the high school apprentice program.


The museum has an interesting collection tracing the 200+ year history of the shop.

Tub boats are still found in use today on Sado Island, part of Niigata Prefecture. Primarily used by women, these boats survive because they were cheap and durable. This woman is shown fishing using a wooden box with a glass bottom. After sighting shellfish or seaweed she uses a wooden spear to gather the catch. Also visible is the paddle used to propel these boats. I apprenticed with my teacher, Mr. Koichi Fujii, in 1996. At the time he was the last professional builder of these boats and I was his only student. After his death a foundation supported the publication of my first book detailing how these boats are built. Now a new builder on Sado is making tub boats again. This boat was the sixth tub boat I have built: four in Japan and two in the United States. Last January I met a very interesting group of young Japanese teaching themselves coopering. I blogged about them here.

I began building the tub boat by joining the bottom planking and then tracing the shape using a compass.
My drawings of my teacher's tub boat here shows how the bottom is shaped. All dimensions are in shaku, the traditional measuring system. One shaku is 11-15/16 inches.

All planks, or staves, are joined with short bamboo nails inserted in hole made with a special boatbuilder's chisel called a tsubanomi.


Each stave is tapered slightly, and I made a two-step taper jig to cut them on the tablesaw. My teacher used to do this by feel, just taking a few extra passes with the plane near the bottom edge.

I flipped each piece and cut the second edge. Note the notch in a slightly different place for the second cut.



My teacher's tools, most of which his were given to me by his widow after his death. He built about one hundred tub boats in his career.

Each stave has to be planed inside and out, concave and convex.

The classic Japanese cooper's pattern is used to check. The inner edge is being used here to check the outside curvature of the stave while the outer edge is shaped to the inside curvature of the inner face of the staves. The corner of the pattern (can be seen better in the previous photo) has the proper angle for the edge.

A look at a finished stave. The tub boat is oval, so there are two patterns used: one for the ends and one for the sides.

The tub boat I built in 2001 at the Peabody Essex Museum was outside swelling up. Also see our fifty-foot lengths of timber bamboo on the dock.

I have to carefully fit the staves around the bottom, making a custom stave or two to close the oval, then begin assembling them.

A pair of bamboo nails holds the side staves together.

I used a ratchet strap to hold the sides together as well as a pair of braces. My teacher did neither; instead he would quickly braid a temporary bamboo hoop to hold the assembly together.

The first hoop slipped over the strap and I pounded it tight to the hull. The hull is tapered and the hoops have to be braided exactly the right size so they fetch up in the right location.

The sizing takes place when the initial foundation hoop is first made. Once the bamboo is braided it locks together and the hoop's size cannot be adjusted.

The bamboo is first split into four strips, then again to make eight. Each hoop is composed of four strips.

A photo of my teacher braiding a hoop. He's using a homemade fid to open the braid.

The steps, from left to right, showing the braid.

Hoop #2 on the boat. The hardwood punch and mallet are visible. 

People always ask if the bottom is set in any kind of groove or rabbet. Japanese barrel makers do this but my teacher believed it was better for the tub boat's bottom to simply be a press fit. He thought the bottom could be then be pounded deeper inside the hull as the bottom edges of the staves wore off in use.

The finished tub boat. My thanks to the wonderful staff at Lowell's Boat Shop for making my wife and I feel welcome and I certainly hope I can return and build another boat there in the future.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nailing (with video)

A reader asked if I had video of someone using the nail chisel and I can dig around for that (I've been meaning to get a YouTube channel up but I still need to digitize a lot of research video). I post the video below at my Instagram page where it received 10,000 hits. I hope this works posting it here in the blog. 

This shows my most recent teacher in Gifu, Japan driving a nail in the bottom of our cormorant fishing boat. Note that he runs the nail through his mouth, something he insisted we do for each nail (900 in all). He claims this gives the nail a better grip in the hole, because the wet nail grabs the sawdust.

Of more interest is the percussive method he uses to drive the nail. I'd say about a quarter to a third of Japanese boatbuilders do this. Most I have talked to don't have a specific name for this technique, but some craftsmen call it uguisu no tani watari, which means  "the bush warbler flits from one side of the valley to the other." This songbird makes multiple nests, and can be heard busily flying about, so the bird's frantic song is being compared to the rapid syncopation of the hammer.

The explanation boatbuilders give for using this technique is that edge-nailing is very risky and its easy to split the plank. So the playing of the nail is a way to control the effort and slowly set the nail. Note here that Nasu san is using a wooden mallet. This greatly reduced the force we could apply to the nail and was a sort of control in itself. I was surprised, frankly, at how little these nails were set relative to my previous experience in Japan. Also, the nails fetch up very quickly. You really are not driving them through the wood to any great degree. Again, it would be easy to split the material so careful setting of the nails is crucial.


I should add when there is a crowd this nailing draws a lot of attention, and I have heard other boatbuilders tell me how nailing would attract spectators to their shops. I feel like another reason boatbuilders did this was simply for the sheer fun of it (with 900 nails to drive, why not make it fun?) but no boatbuilder I've talked to will ever admit to that.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Tools and Techniques

Of the sixty-odd boatbuilders I have met and interviewed in Japan, all spoke confidently of distinct differences between boatbuilding and other woodworking trades. This centered on tools and techniques which, they assured me, were practiced by no other craftspeople in Japan. The two most prominent were fitting planks using a series of saws and edge-nailing planks using flat, hand-forged nails. The former uses a special type of saw that is referred to in Japan as a boatbuilders saw. The latter requires a special set of chisels called tsubanomi, or sword-hilt chisels, to cut the rectangular pilot holes.

A cutaway model I made showing how planks are edge-nailed.

Japanese boats are generally built with no caulking whatsoever. Normally boats are caulked when they get old and start to leak and the caulking is inserted from inside the hull. This is at odds with western caulking, which is used in most boats during construction, and inserted from outside. Caulking in the west is usually cotton, while in Japan its the inner bark of the cypress tree (there may be only one vendor in Japan at this point still making it).

To make seams watertight boatbuilders prop the planks together and run a series of saws back and forth through the joint. With each pass the planks can be tapped together and the fit become progressively tighter, though at the end the saw blade is run along the face of the plank rather than in an up and down sawing motion. The belief is that scratches from the teeth running across the edge will channel water into the boat, so these must be rubbed off. Moving the saw parallel to the plank leaves longitudinal scratches down the edge which don’t channel water. It is from this unorthodox sawing motion the technique derives its name: suriawase, which mean rub-fit or reconcile. In parts of Japan it is also called surinoko and toosunoko.

My Tokyo teacher fitting two planks. Note the overhead props and the mortises pre-cut for the nails.

The two side planks of the cargo boat I built with my teacher in Tokyo are each comprised of three pieces. All the seams were fit with handsaws and then the edges carefully pounded before being edge-nailed together.

My teacher in Aomori sawing the seam between the first plank and the keel plank. The keel is securely fixed with large props, while the side planks are braced top and bottom and to the sides.

One side has been fastened and my teacher and I fit the seam for the other side plank. My teacher is working the seam in the stem rabbet.

The saws used have a long tapering point. The narrow tip is necessary to fit the saw in tight places such as the stem rabbet. These are all rip saws and some of my teachers had saws in three gradations from rough to fine, moving through all three in the process of fitting a plank. Needless to say these saws have become rare, but just recently I met a boatbuilder in Japan who buys home center saws and simply cuts the backs to the curved shape. (I have facilitated the purchase of boatbuilding saws so contact me via my website if you are interested).

A set of old boatbuilder's saws.

A note about props: boatbuilders don’t use clamps, instead relying on creative ways of propping planks in place or clamping them to low horses on the floor from heavy overhead beams. Clamps would get in the way of this sawing technique, though my most recent teacher used metal dogs to clamp our planking and we had to work around those.

The boat I built with Takumi Suzuki in 2014, showing how complicated it can get propping a plank in place (and yes, breaking with tradition we used one clamp). Moving around the work becomes a real challenge.

After seams are fitted boatbuilders pound the edges with a round faced hammer, depressing the center of the edge while leaving the corners untouched. This technique is called kigoroshi, literally killing the wood. The idea is when tightly fastened the planks will squeeze together and crush the unsupported corners and eventually the wood fibers in the center will bounce back forming an even tighter seal. In the old days some boatbuilders used to put raw lacquer in the seams as a kind of bedding compound, but after World War Two they started using waterproof glue. What they are after is a filler. My teachers all insisted to me glue was absolutely no substitute for craftsmanship and they insisted we create a wood-to-wood watertight fit.

My apprentice Takumi Suzuki pounding a plank edge. Note the nail holes have already been cut.

The goal is to make the edge slightly cupped, and not touch the corners with the hammer. This technique is surprisingly hard, physically and technically.

I have also noticed how my teachers placed different emphases on either suriawase or kigoroshi when fitting planks. Some would do very little saw fitting, concentrating much more on a careful pounding of the edges; some would do the opposite.

Japanese boats for the most part are built without frames. Most fastenings are an ingenious system of edge-nails. Nails enter one plank near the edge through a shallow mortise and pin adjacent planks together. The nails have to be curved slightly and boatbuilders have a curved chisel to align the holes.

Sword hilt chisels and one flat steel boat nail. A boatbuilder needs a large selection of these chisels to fit different sizes of nails.

After the mortise is cut for the nail head a rectangular hole is chiseled from the plank edge to meet the bottom of the mortise.

The curved chisel can be used to clean this out.

A pilot hole is chiseled in the adjacent plank and then the two planks are stacked vertically for nailing.

We used a white glue between planks. One needs a long nail set to set the heads in the base of the mortise.

A view of the head of the nail fetched up tight in the base of the mortise.

Plugs are cut for the mortises. Most boatbuilders don't use any glue on the plugs, since the grain runs at right angles to the planking they will swell tight in the plank.

The plugs are then adzed off and the plank planed by hand.

A view of the finished seam. The thicker plank was planed flush.

The hilt on the chisel allows the user to back the chisel out after its been pounded into the wood. I have never seen these chisels for sale in a tool store. Rarely I have seen them in flea markets and antique shops. As mentioned above all my teachers insisted this technique was used by boatbuilders only, but I have seen these tools on display in museums exhibiting temple carpenters’ tools. These craftsmen used square shank nails in roof framing and used this type of chisel to make pilot holes. Coopers use small versions of this tool for the bamboo pegs which hold barrel staves together.

Making both the flat steel nails and the sword-hilt chisels are well within the skills of a blacksmith. These techniques and many more are explained in much more detail in my book Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding, available from my website.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On Apprenticeship

The typical boatbuilding apprenticeship in Japan lasted six years. I interviewed one boatbuilder who told me he started working with his master at age ten and did not graduate until he was twenty. The system took young people who had absolutely no experience, and often apprentices spent their early years cleaning the shop or performing other basic tasks. Many were unpaid but most received room and board from their masters.

As of this writing I have studied with seven different boatbuilders in Japan since 1996, building eight types of traditional boats. I have built aother eight designs of based on my own research. I am the sole apprentice for six of my seven teachers, all men in their 70s and 80s when I worked with them. “Apprentice” is a misnomer of sorts, because I worked with my teachers for just the construction of a single boat (and in one case, two boats). These time frames ranged from just two weeks to six months. Given the nature of craft training in Japan, however, there was no other word to describe me but deshi, or “apprentice.”

I first went to Japan in 1990 and during that first trip I met Mr. Koichi Fujii, the last builder of tub boats on Sado Island. I was captivated by the boats he built and also shocked to discover that he’d never had an apprentice and that he worked largely from memory and there was no documentation of how these boats were built. I came back in 1992 and 1994 and took an interpreter with me to Sado specifically to interview Fuji. I learned about his life and background but when it came to boatbuilding he would fall silent and just demonstrate different techniques. On my third trip he braided the bamboo hoops that hold these boats together. He worked quickly and silently and there was no way I could understand how it was done. It was at that point I realized the only way to document the craft was to work alongside a master. Luckily right before I left Sado Fujii invited me back to work with him.

Photo by Kazumi Muraki

Two years later I returned and while I knew only rudimentary Japanese it didn’t matter because Fuji, like all but one of my teachers, demanded absolute silence in the workshop. I had to learn entirely by observation. This teaching style is common in Japanese crafts, and very high-pressured. All of the responsibility for learning is placed on the student and there is absolutely no room for excuses.

The author and Fujii san in the tub boat we built.

During those early trips to Japan I was also actively looking for other boatbuilders. A marine photographer introduced me to Mr. Kazuyoshi Fujiwara of Tokyo and Mr. Nobuji Udagawa of Urayasu. Fujiwara was very engaging, inviting me to his home where he brought out tools and began to demonstrate techniques (he had lost his shop in a fire and retired). Udagawa was completely dismissive of me when we met. He was busy building replica boats for the new Urayasu Museum. After coming home I sent translated letters to both men, and followed up with articles I had published on Japanese boatbuilding.

In 2001 I received a letter from the director of the Urayasu Museum saying the new museum had a boat shop and for the opening Mr. Udagawa had agreed to build a boat in front of the public. However, he told the museum director he insisted on teaching me. With just three weeks notice I flew to Japan and built a traditional seaweed boat under his direction. Udagawa could not have been more welcoming, engaging and concerned about my training. I couldn’t reconcile his support with our first meeting, but he told me I had shown perseverance and that had convinced him to take  me on as his apprentice. Years later he told me, laughing, that when we were first introduced his initial thought was, Doko no uma no hone, or "Where is this horse bone from?"

The author and Udagawa san, courtesy KAZI magazine.

A year later I received a large research grant and contacted fifteen boatbuilders and museums from among my contacts, proposing a boatbuilding project which would allow me to document their work. Only a handful replied, among them Mr. Fujiwara from Tokyo, who agreed to build two boats with me. The Michinoku Traditional Wooden Boat Museum in Aomori arranged to have me build a fishing boat with Mr. Seizo Ando. Neither man had built a boat in twenty-two years; both had been pushed out of business by fiberglass boats. Fujiwara told me our first day working together that he decided to do this “because you had a good reason.”

Fujiwara san and the author in Tokyo.
Ando san watching the author.
Ando san and the author working in Aomori.

Looking back on these early experiences from almost twenty years I see how strange it must have been for my teachers to meet a foreigner fascinated in their work, and proposing to record their techniques. On Sado Island, Mr Fujii described me as "the crazy American" but he was eager to teach me. I think the timing was critical: each of my teachers had reached a point in their lives where they realized their knowledge and skills were about to be lost. Fujiwara was a fourth generation boatbuilder and fiercely proud of his family’s skills. All my teachers were of the post-War generation and by the time their own sons came of age (they all had children my age), Japan’s burgeoning economy offered many job opportunities as well as smothering competition from mass-produced boats.

The author and Ryujin Shimojo in Okinawa. This blog started chronicling my apprenticeship with him in 2009/2010.

On an interpersonal level, I know my seriousness made a tremendous difference to them. Frankly, it took me years to fully appreciate this. Professional craftspeople in Japan make an enormous commitment to their work: it is not something they do, rather, it is part and parcel of who they are. As such they have no interest in working with anyone whose level of commitment does not match their own.

Sometimes people contact me asking if I can “set up” an apprenticeship for them in Japan. Instead I tell people the only realistic way to get an apprenticeship is to meet a craftsperson and start to form a relationship with them. Once a sense of trust has been established, and the apprentice has demonstrated their commitment, then a working relationship might be possible. Furthermore I’ve spent decades now meeting and getting to know boatbuilders throughout Japan. It is a peculiarity of Japanese culture, but if I recommend a stranger to one of my contacts in Japan, I am responsible for their behavior. I admit it might be hard for westerners to understand this, but its this sense of responsibility which explains the reticence of Japanese with regard to strangers. Face-to-face meetings are crucial to the Japanese, particularly the older generation. For over twenty-five years I have sent cold letters and emails to curators, boatbuilders, and others and the rate of reply is well under 5%. If I show up in person they'll happily say, "Oh yes, I remember you well. I got your letter ten years ago!"

While Japan's younger generation is known for its trend-setting, craftspersons in Japan are from a very different generation, one steeped in formalities layered in ways even I probably don't fully understand. I am well aware of how my foreign-ness allowed me to circumvent some social rules, but I do not see how anyone is going to come into a working relationship with a craftsperson without meeting them in person. This isn't something you sign up for online and show up on the appointed day.

As for boatbuilding, there are now very few craftsmen left who have any work. As mentioned above, most of my experiences have come via foundation-sponsored projects where we commissioned the boats, in two cases bringing my teachers out of retirement so I could work alongside them (the resulting boats were donated to non-profits). In all but two cases, however, I had known my teachers for years before they agreed to work with me. In fact, at the outset of my most recent apprenticeship a in the spring of 2017, my teacher pointed out we had known each other almost twenty years! I had regularly visited him over those years and always expressed my interest in studying with him. He always said no, until late 2016. At the outset of our project a friend showed me an interview with him published in 2006 in which he said, "Someday I have to teach Douglas Brooks." At that very same time he was telling me he couldn't work with me. Its a strange journey...

I do not want to dissuade anyone from studying crafts in Japan, but I will say boatbuilding may be one of the more difficult crafts at this point to find a teacher. I now try to include students in my projects as often as possible and I am always seeking venues to teach Japanese boatbuilding. Looking ahead, I believe what Japan needs is a boatbuilding school, and this is something I am working toward.

The author's first apprentice, Taka Higuchi, building tub boats together in Niigata.
Photo by Noriko Nakayasu.

Japanese, young and old, are also struggling with finding ways to learn traditional crafts. There are some very creative groups in Japan engaged in craft work. One good example is a yearly gathering of people dedicated to learning traditional coopering. I blogged about them here. There are also traditional apprenticeships here and there, but one should be prepared to commit to years of study for little or no pay. This cooper and this saw sharpener both have apprentices. There are also more and more school programs and workshops based on Western models of craft training, though the overall number of such schools is minuscule compared to the west.

Probably the most likely avenue for training in woodworking in Japan is in construction. Probably most westerners who have succeeded in apprenticing in Japan did so working for shrine, temple or house carpenters. These trades are very much alive yet their training is still conducted on a rigorous apprentice model.

I regularly receive emails from people who want to learn boatbuilding in Japan, and I consciously wrote this blog post so I could refer people to it and help them understand what I went through. I find many westerners, particularly the young, can't understand why they can't seem to find resources on Japanese apprenticeships. Trust me, the craftspeople I am describing are not linked via the Web, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, craft magazines, or clubs. It is our own western prejudice that makes us think they can be found that way.

The best advice I can give is to do as much research and soul-searching as you can and determine what particular craft you would like to study. Then use all the resources you can to try and locate as many practitioners of the craft as possible (I just read a great article in the Japan Times about one of the country's last makers of shamisen). Depending on the craft it may require going to Japan (it did in my case) and looking for them. Try to learn as much Japanese as you can and start practicing/studying tool use. It could take multiple meetings with a craftsperson to convince them you are serious. Again there are also more schools, workshops and volunteer associations trying to revive and maintain traditional crafts.

I am happy to give what advice I can to readers and encourage them to study and perhaps build Japanese boats. More on boatbuilding can be found elsewhere in this blog and in my book, Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding.