Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Kezurou Kai mini 2017

As mentioned in my last blog post, I headed to Brooklyn last week to attend the 2017 KEZ event sponsored by Mokuchi Woodworking. I was invited to do a boatbuilding demo and give a slide talk on my research in Japan. It turned out to be a great event and I was so impressed with the participants' talents and camaraderie. The culmination was a planing contest but while there may have been an undercurrent of competitiveness I didn't feel it. Instead I saw experienced woodworkers advising and helping new woodworkers, and a genuine collaboration of ideas and advice. Yann and his partner Margaret were wonderful hosts.

A national meeting is schedule for this October in Oakland, CA and if you are interested in Japanese tools I encourage you to attend one of these events. Visit the KezuroukaiUS website.

During my talk I spoke quite a lot about apprenticeship in Japan and the nature of this kind of training. Several participants had also apprenticed with Japanese craftsmen and it was great fun comparing notes, though overall we all had very similar experiences with our teachers. As it happens, there is a fascinating article in today's New York Times on a related topic. Well worth a read.

A few participants had set up tables showcasing their work. Here are kumiko, the delicate lattice work found in transoms, made by Jon Billings of Big Sand Woodworking.

Here a Jim Blauvelt carefully checks for twist in the sole of his plane. He corrects any problems using the Japanese scraper plane, a smaller tool with the blade mounted vertically. Jim has won this contest using a plane blade he forged himself.

Jim also had a purpose-made straight edge for checking the flatness of the bottom. Actually the bottom of a finely-tuned Japanese plane should only touch the wood at the nose and just ahead of the blade in order to make the finest shaving. If you too want to hone these skills Jim has a workshop coming up:

Kanna Clinic: tuning session & discussion
Led by Jim Blauvelt
NYC KEZ 2015 winner, Jim has well over 2 decades of experience using Japanese planes. He is owner/operator of Bluefield Joiners specializing in custom Japanese carpentry and shoji making.

And here Andrew Ren of Ottawa makes a test pass. Eventual contestants in Saturday's contest spent most of Friday tuning, psharpening and practicing on some yellow cedar beams.

Friday Joshua Villegas demonstrated how to cut a plane body, or dai. A graduate of the North Bennett Street furniture program, he did a six-month apprenticeship in rural Japan with a furniture-maker and learned how to make plane bodies, or dai. I really enjoyed sharing stories about apprenticeship with him. He hopes to move back to Japan to continue his work.

Brian Holcombe trying his hand with a western plane. In fact he had installed a hand-made Japanese blade in this tool. I have Brian to thank for learning about this group, as he invited me to do a guest blog post a couple of years ago and he introduced me to the New York City Kez folks.

Yann Giguere, our host, led six participants built over a 3-1/2 day period before the event cutting a timber frame, and then erected it Friday afternoon. The quality of the joinery speaks for itself.

Please visit Yann's website and see his portfolio of work.

This is just a fraction of the material left on the floor after a day of practice. The shavings are so thin the yellow cedar timbers didn't seem appreciably smaller!

My friend Dane Owen arrived on Saturday with tools and furniture hardware from his store Shibui in Brooklyn. 

A chest full of planes...

...and two drawers full of ink lines. He also had antique worker's coats and aprons, along with some big timber saws, axes, and adzes. Search around his website for more or contact him directly. Dane has probably the best collection of antique Japanese furnishings in North America.

Andrew Hunter designs and builds furniture in the Hudson Valley and he exhibited his planes and examples of his joinery. Enjoy looking at his work at his website.

photo courtesy of Andrew Ren

I did my demo on Saturday morning, I set two cedar planks up on traditional low sawhorses and showed participants how boatbuilders fit the seam between them by running a series of saws through the joint. I won't belabor the details (which are many) but you can learn more about this by looking at my website and blog

Yann led timber work in the courtyard, splitting a large log as well as sawing with the maebiki. He also let participants try the yariganna, then ancient precursor to the Japanese plane. Here he shows how its done, and then folks try for themselves.

In the planing contest everyone gets four passes, then shavings are measured for thickness with a micrometer (winners are translucent, about half the thickness of a human hair), and they are also judged for being a full-length, full-width shaving. Here Yann is making some judgments on shavings of the same thickness. The winner was Jon Billing, the young man in the brown shirt to the left. He won a $450 plane donated by Hida Tools of Albany, CA.

Yann also had fine tools for sale at the event. He also teaches workshops.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


By the way... I'll be demonstrating boatbuilding techniques next Saturday at this event in Brooklyn:

We had a unique opportunity, thanks to Masashi san, to visit a traditional hand-painted flag factory in Gifu City. These flags, called tairyoubata, are used in celebrations of all kinds. Fishermen traditionally bought them to decorate their boats at launchings and New Years. The bulk of this company's work are hand-painted banners presented to sumo wrestlers by their fans and sponsors.

Twenty staff work here designing, painting, and sewing these flags. The company's president is the sixth generation of his family to run the business, which has been making flags for 140 years.

Bamboo poles keep the fabric stretched tight.

Workers ink the outline of the calligraphy, which has been sketched on the cloth using a water-based ink which will wash away.

Partially completed banners hang to dry. Nagoya is one of the venues for Japan's six major sumo tournaments and with one coming up the company was busy. The owner told me he has plenty of work, saying enough other traditional flag makers had quit leaving plenty of work for the remaining firms.

Workers infilling the calligraphy.

A completed long banner. In wintertime these are sometimes washed in the nearby river.

Amazingly the owner gave me this flag, saying it was a reject (you find the mistake!). I especially like it because the two motifs of the crane and tortoise are the same typically carved on the carpenters' inkline. They are common symbols of longevity. Amazingly, these banners average just $250. I am stunned at such a low price for such amazing work.

Post-Launch and the Tenryu River

A couple of photos here of our last view of the cormorant fishing boat. After the launching we helped the new owner take the boat upstream to his landing, where he will be using if for a combination of commercial fishing and public programming.
We lashed the boat alongside the owner's outboard-powered fishing boat and motored upstream. In the rapids we were forced to pole and push.

The boat's new owner is in the white shirt. Satoshi san, our student, looks back at our boat.

One last look.

I then traveled to the Tenryu River, Nagano Prefecture, to visit the Tenryugawa Kudari, a downriver boat company which still uses traditional wooden boats. Believe it or not, they've experimented with a form of log raft tourists can ride (note the grab rails and bench). Taking passengers down a white water stream on something like this seems risky, but there is already a company in Wakayama Prefecture that does it.

The river has a long history of tourism. These boats look not too dissimilar to the cormorant boat we just built.

Lots of commerce historically ran downriver, and boats used the prevailing winds to help get back upstream.

Boarding the boats.

The bowman operates a long paddle like an oar.

Entering one of the rapids.

The next day the firm's boatbuilder took me to see a storage shed where usually every winter he builds one new boat for the fleet. These are the tour boats outfitted with shelters for winter work.

His saw was interesting in that it had a cutout, which is said was to reduce surface area and friction. Its the first time I've seen this.

He claimed he region's boatbuilding techniques came from the Nagara River where we'd just built our boat, but he used the more stranded flat-steel nails and also the typical chisel for piloting nail holes.

He uses no drawings, relying on memorized dimensions and this set of patterns. He won't be building a boat next winter but definitely the winter following. I have an idea it could possibly be a workshop for those interested in learning traditional Japanese boatbuilding. We'll see if the company would be interested in such a partnership.

Bailer, Boatyard, and Old Boats

Here are some shots from our last week in Japan. The very last work I did on the boat was build a bailer, something Nasu insisted I make for the boat's new owner.

Here is Nasu san, seated, having a laugh with the owner. He'd brought in a bailer based on the local style.

I decided to build a variant I'd seen when Nasu san took us to Seki to study the cormorant boats there. I need a thick piece of wood in order to bandsaw the curved bottom, so I laminated two pieces of our scrap koyamaki together. Here is the bottom, planed.

The feature of this bailer is its long handle. It might seem bizarre but when you consider the ease of bailing from a standing position it makes a lot of sense.

It turns out this type of bailer is not traditional. Nasu san said a Seki customer asked him for one so its a design a cormorant fisherman came up with.

Then we visited the Gifu City shipyard, where they build the tourist boats which watch the cormorant fleet fishing. Very similar to what we did on a much larger scale. They were finishing the bottom when we arrived, building it on the vertical just like we did.

The facility is fantastic, with a large space, overhead crane, machine rooms. etc. Just a handful of workers build these boats. Production is about one new boat a year so the boatbuilders also work as boatmen for the tourist fleet.

The boatbuilder didn't own any purpose-built boatbuilding saws, so he took standard ripsaws and cut the backs to give them the same tapered tip. 

He also had a machine shop grind standard drill bits to make large tapered bits. He pre-drilled holes and then used the moji to finish them. Like us, he was looking for ways to get around the slow process of piloting holes with just the moji. I asked him if he'd ever thought of screw fastening the boats. Years ago one tourist boat was built with screws as an experiment and the boat is still going strong, but the boatbuilder had a theory the hulls need a certain amount of flexibility and he felt only nails provide that.

Look closely here and you will see the shipyard's updated take on the sagefuri. The plumb bob and string swing against a plexiglass window with the proper angles for the string pre-marked. Very slick.

We used bamboo wedges to open our seams when sawing through the joints; the shipyard uses aluminum wedges. Again, very smart as there is much less danger in damaging the teeth of the saw if you inadvertently hit the soft aluminum.

He used the nata, or hatchet, to rough out his plugs. Nasu san used an axe.

The tourist boats have steel transoms through-bolted to the hull.

Just down the road from the shipyard is the Gifu City Museum, where the curator showed us two cormorant fishing boats in storage. There were slightly shorter than our boat, but with significantly thinner planking. It was unclear exactly how old they were, but at least forty years old. Nasu san later explained the boats got heavier scantlings after the fishermen adopted outboard motors.

Note how the center plank of the bottom flares at the transom. It might seem like unnecessary extra work to fit those seams but when you do this with a handsaw rather than a plane it doesn't really matter.

Note how the edge of the side planks form a slight lip, which acts as a kind of rubbing strip for the bottom. Nasu san explained to us as this material wore down he could pull the nails in the center of the boat, push the bottom up and re-nail, creating a renewed lip. It seems like an extraordinary amount of work, but Nasu san rejected the idea of simply adding a rubbing strip.

We visited a local museum and measured two boats: first a small fishing boat from the Kiso River...

...and an agebune, or "hanging boat" a type kept hanging in barns by rice farmers for use during seasonal floods.

The museum also had a small tabune, or field boat, basically a sled to pull your gear through the rice paddy.

At Nasu san's house we measured one of his small fishing boats, one he built for himself three years ago.

The inner plank on the rear deck is removable, so Nasu san could clamp an outboard to the transom.

Finally, we traveled upstream to a restaurant to measure the smallest of Nasu san's fishing boats. The restaurant commissioned Nasu san to build this for its rental fleet. The owner told us the boat below was built by Nasu san's father fifty years ago. It was configured exactly like a cormorant boat only it was just fifteen feet long.

A view of Nasu san's little fishing boat. Interestingly though this boat is quite small, the planking was the same thickness as in the boat we built. Except for the transoms, Nasu san used one thickness of material exclusively. Our student Satoshi san now plans to build one of these with Nasu san's help.