Friday, February 2, 2018


We launched our two Winter Term boats in the College pool yesterday, after a traditional Shinto ceremony. I'll recap with photos here showing the whole process, ending with shots of our boats in the water. The process is explained in more detail in my two previous posts.

Cutting the nail holes with special chisels to edge-nail our bottom planking.

Edge-nailing the bottom.

Planing the bottom smooth. Its comprised of three planks.

Shaping the oar using a Japanese slick, actually a temple carpenters' tool not seen in boatbuilding in Japan.

Bending the planks.

Fitting the side planks to the bottom using handsaws. This is probably the trickiest technique of all, because the builder is working around a curved surface and its very, very easy to run the saw out of the seam and into the planking. I reassured my students I had made this mistake, and so had my teachers.

Fitting the bottom planking for our second boat.

Chiseling mortises for the dovetail keys which fasten the bottom together.

Pounding the plank edges before gluing and fastening.

The backbone of the smaller boat set up. Note the use of staples to hold the transoms in place. Japanese boatbuilders have dozens of these, using them in lieu of clamps.

Our small boat in the water.

Our larger boat (about twenty-one feet long) holding all fifteen students.

My students were inspired by a custom I told them about from Gifu, Japan, where new boats are capsized three times (a lucky number) at the launching. The belief is a boat capsized upon launch will never capsize again.

Our boats are on display in the Winter Term Student Art Show in Johnson Hall until February 15th. Then we are moving them to the College's Davis Library where they will probably remain on display for the rest of the school year. Check them out!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Middlebury College: Building the Japanese Boat

We are three-quarters of the way through our class, now committed to building two Japanese boats: one is the 21-foot Hozu River boat and the other is based on a rice field boat from Niigata. For the latter I am scaling it down slightly working from a photograph of the original. We don't have time to scarf our material into longer lengths, hence the shortened version.

A look at the bottom of our boat.

Our planking material is sixteen-feet long, so we have to scarf together and make longer lengths. Note the traditional scarf joint which is edge-nailed.

Students then start saw fitting small pieces at either end of our long plank to give it enough width at the ends.

Meanwhile, we've assembled the bow, bottom and transom, held together with props, and bent the bottom using the large post amidships.

Cutting nail mortises for the side planks.

Nailing the side planks together.

You can see the side plank and if you click on the photo to enlarge it and look closely you can count four pieces total.

Three nails came through the back of the planking. One we were able to tap back out and re-insert properly; one we just couldn't seem to get to work so we abandoned; and this one we decided to do a traditional fix by bending the tip back and mortising under the nail.

Then the tip is bent over...

...and pounded back into the plank like a clench nail. A plug fills the mortise.

Bending the side planks on the boat. I like teaching these river boats because most feature wide bows, thereby making the bending much easier. In sea boats planking has to be bent over an open fire, something that is difficult to accommodate in the classroom.

Students beginning to fit the side planks using handsaws. This may be the most difficult technique in Japanese boatbuilding, since you are working around a curve and its VERY easy to start sawing into the planking or bottom. It is also surprisingly easy to not notice you are doing this (often its only visible from underneath).

I tried to reassure my students that cutting into the plank is a mistake I've made, as well as my teachers. One of my teachers made me lay on the floor over a period of several days and just watch the tip of his saw and warn him if it wandered out of the seam.

My class convinced me to let them build a second boat, so a student got started fitting the bottom planks. Note she was using a kasugai, or staple set in the end grain to clamp the planks together.

Meanwhile I was cutting our fastenings for the second boat, oak dovetail keys.

Students chiseling mortises for the keys.

These fastenings have various names throughout Japan, but in the Niigata region where this boat comes from they are called chigiri.

Here is the backbone for the smaller boat. Its based on a photograph of a tabune, or rice field boat from Niigata. Locally these are called itaawase, which means "plank built."

My slightly scaled-down version was designed so our 16-foot long planks could work without scarfing. I think its going to be a very pretty little canoe-like boat.

Here is our bigger boat, with the small one in the background. We are three weeks in, with just one week to go until launching.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

2018 Middlebury College Winter Term: Building the Japanese Boat

For the third time in four years I am teaching a one-month Winter Term class at Middlebury College entitled Building the Japanese Boat. In this class fifteen students build a traditional boat using Japanese tools and methods, but mostly the class is intended to explore apprentice learning. We work largely in silence. It also includes readings, journals, and a final paper. I blogged about previous Winter Term classes here and here.

This year we are building a larger version of one of the boats we made in our inaugural class: a 21-foot long ayubune from the Hozu River near Kyoto. We are half way through the class as I write this post. If things go well this week I may decide we can build a second, smaller boat. On February 1st we will have a Shinto boat launching in the College swimming pool.

 Students beginning the process of fitting the planks for the bottom: planks braced overhead, they saw through the seam to create a tight fit, a technique called suriawase.

 Chiseling pilot holes for our edge-nails. Students have to chisel from the edge of the plank back to the base of the mortises they cut in the plank face using special chisels called tsubanomi.
 Two of the three bottom planks clamped together while students drive the edge nails. These are made of flat steel stock for us by blacksmith Jim Fecteau of Huntington River Smithy.
 Fitting the bow transom. The Hozu River boats feature wide bow transoms because this is a white water stream and the added buoyancy keeps the bow of the boat from burying when traveling downstream.
 A student finish planing our bottom.
 These boats are propelled by bamboo poles used aft, and short paddles used near the bow. Here a student shapes our paddle using the Japanese slick, or tsukinomi.

 We have begun scarfing together material for our two side planks using traditional joinery.
As of the midpoint of our course the backbone is complete. This week we will build and hang the side planks.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More Rhythmic Nailing

Various posts I've put up at Instagram and here on my blog with videos showing boatbuilders nailing have been popular. I was just sent a link to a boatbuilder I met last spring. His style is relaxed and subtle, but he too says this is essential to driving the nail when the risk of splitting the planking is high.

Enjoy this short video here.

This boatbuilder has invited me to come and help him build a boat in the early part of 2019. I blogged about him a bit here.

I am toying with the idea of developing this boatbuilding project into a workshop of some sort, allowing folks who are interested in participating in the building of a traditional Japanese boat. Drop me a line at if you are interested.

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.