Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Agano River Boat

From now until November 6th the boat students built in my 2016 Middlebury College Winter Term course Building the Japanese Boat will be on display in the main library of the College. I spoke to a class yesterday and we began my presentation at the boat. For more about its history and construction, see this blog post. For more history and background of this type, see this blog post. Looking ahead, I am planning to apply next year for an arts grant in Japan to work with probably the last surviving builder of these boats living in Niigata Prefecture, Japan. He is in his mid-70s now and built this type of boat professionally until about twenty years ago. He was the builder of the boat referenced in the second blog link, above.

These boats were built in Japan up to 35-feet long. I realized our classroom space wasn't big enough and luckily I had plans for a 27-foot version. Plenty big enough!

Professor Linda White's class on Globalization and Japan gathers around the boat.

Our launch last February in the College's pool, photograph by Trent Campbell of the Addison Independent newspaper.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Another Boat Launch

A week ago my students at the University of Vermont's Green House dormitory presented the boat they built last fall to Charlie Auer of the Auer Family Boathouse in Burlington. The boat is a replica of one of the businesses original livery boats, built by Charlie's mother over eighty years ago. This family business, which turns ninety next year, is a real treasure of Burlington's waterfront history.

I wrote earlier about this project here and here. All photos in this post were taken by Sean Beckett.

UVM's Rubinstein School just published an article about the project here.

One very important result of this project was a set of CAD drawings of the livery boat, prepared by my students from their measurements. Final layout courtesy of Jake Burnham.

Charlie Auer graciously accepts the return of his family's boat (foreground) and the student-built replica. Charlie's sister Christine, now 89, told us her mother built the boat for her when she was six years old.

Students rowing their creation after launch.

The Auer Family Boathouse is located right below the pedestrian bridge at the mouth of the Winooski River in Burlington, Vermont. 

Charlie took a turn at the oars. We will continue to do more of this work on traditional Lake Champlain boats as part of my research initiative with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, called In Champlain's Wake; The Small Boat Traditions of Lake Champlain.

Friday, October 7, 2016

High School Boatbuilding

This was the third year of my partnership with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History and the Hannaford Career Center, Addison County's vocational/technical high school.  We bring local historic boats in the Advanced Engineering class and students measure and draw the boats (lines-taking and lofting), then we build replicas. Later the students create detailed drawings of the boats using CAD. This is part of an ongoing project of mine documenting the historic small boat traditions of the Lake Champlain region.

 One of our historic boats was an odd duck. Note the raised oarlocks on posts and the thwarts are mounted at the gunwale. I borrowed this boat from the Intervale, a Burlington, Vermont non-profit. They are housed in the former Calkins Farm on the banks of the Winooski River and this boat was found in the farm barn. No doubt farmer-built for fishing in the river.

 This trapping boat was built by Panton dairy farmer Gerald Hatch in the 1950s or 60s. Hatch and his sons trapped muskrats seasonally on Dead Creek, which ran behind their farm. Hatch built half-a-dozen trapping boats in his life, all of which still survive.

 Laying down the lines full-size of the double-ended trapping boat.

 Measuring the Calkins boat. I have the students record the dimensions right on the lofting.

From the lofting we derive the mold shapes we use to build the boats.

Cutting the stem rabbet on the table saw. We derived the stem shape from the lofting.

The Calkins boat planked up. Both boats are planked with a single wide pine plank on each side.

A view of the Calkins boat from the stern.

The fit of the Hatch trapping boat at the stem. Note the plank ends lie on the same line. Typically the plank edges would be at right angles to the face. I believe Hatch pulled his planking together and then planed the two plank edges together to even them up. I can't think of any other reason for this otherwise unconventional detail.

The planking of the Calkins boat pulled together and carefully clamped, waiting to slip the stem in.

Bending the trapping boat planks using hot water. We draped towels on the planking to help hold the heat. Hatch built his boats using just a single center mold. The student at left is planing the edges of the planks to even them up.

Planking the bottom of the trapping boat. Both boats were cross-planked, which lets the builder get away from finding long lengths of high quality lumber. 

We used the jointer to put on a caulking bevel of 7.5 degrees.

Planking the Calkins boat.

The Calkins boat had no chine log, so the nails had to hit the 3/4" side planking. I had the students carefully drill a pilot hole using a gauge so the angles were consistent with the side planks.

The Calkins boat planked up.

The oddest feature of the Calkins boat was the side planking extended 1/2" past the sides. My guess is the builder was afraid of the nails near the edge splitting the bottom planks, so a little extra material would lend some added strength. We used this gauge after the boat was planked up to mark a line for us to cut this edge.

The Calkins boat bottom finished.

The trapping boat comes off its one mold... does the Calkins boat.

Old and new, side by side.

Students, original boats and the replicas.

The trapping boat upon launch.

The Calkins boat.

We were joined by a trapping boat built by last year's class.

And cool photography from the class' drone.

To see similar working I have done, go to these older posts:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Lectures and Demonstrations

Since getting home from Japan I have been on a road a fair bit, first to Rockford, Illinois and the Anderson Japanese Garden.  I built this boat. for the garden two years ago.  I was invited back to speak in their summer lecture series.  Tim Gruner, their horticulturist, suggested I also lead a demonstration of Japanese boatbuilding techniques before my talk.  These are all Tim's photos.

After Rockford I traveled to Connecticut for the WoodenBoat Show at Mystic Seaport.  I did the same talk/demo combination.

My goal was to give participants an overview of how Japanese boatbuilders fit planking with handsaws and then edge-nail planks together, both techniques unknown in the West.

I had just a pair of eight foot planks that I propped in place.

We had about twenty people crammed into the Garden's maintenance shop for the demo.

Here I am pounding the plank edges after fitting with the saws.  Readers of this blog will recognize all these techniques.  Note how the low sawhorses, which have a slot in the middle for the saw blade to pass through when fitting, become vises holding the plank with a wedge.

The tsubanomi or chisels for piloting nail holes.

My boatbuilding saws, plus a model one of my teachers gave me.  At both my demos I mentioned that I may be able to source these saws from a saw shop in Kyoto (one I have written about several times in this blog).  Thus far thirteen people have said they'd like to buy one of these saws.  If any readers here are interested please email me at  These are all rip saws and the back curving to a tip is a shape unique to boatbuilding.

A selection of Japanese boat fastenings, including bamboo nails, wooden dovetail keys, iron and copper nails, and a large staple.

Chiseling the mortise for the nail.

For a very quick demo the fit of the seam isn't bad.  On the left is a nail mortise plugged and trimmed flush.  If you would like to host a demo or lecture about my work please get in touch.  If you are part of a Vermont non-profit you can apply to the Vermont Humanities Council's Speaker's Bureau for an honorarium to bring me to make a presentation.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Kyoto, Takamatsu, and Tools

We are back in Kyoto and squeezing in some final sightseeing before heading home.

Right before we left Taiwan I bought a few souvenirs at a tool store (where else?).  The handle mounted on the plane is common to mainland Asia but not Japan.  All the planes I've seen in Korea also look like the Japanese versions.  I bought the little spokeshave because it was so cheap (just a couple of dollars) and because the blade was not in a mouth in the tool body, it was mounted just behind the wooden sole.  I am curious to see how this works.

The tape measure is what really interested me, however.  The top scale is exactly the same as the Japanese shaku-sun-bu scale, and used by Chinese carpenters.  The next scale is another traditional Chinese scale and note how dimensions are in red and black.  These denote lucky (black) and unlucky (red) numbers, so if you are building something you try to make sure all dimensions land in the black.  The third scale is for dead things, such as measuring a dead body or building a coffin.  Again there are unlucky and lucky values.  You might think a dead body is the personification of bad luck but the idea is you can make one last kind gesture by building a "lucky" coffin.  The fourth and final scale is metric. 

My first full day back in Japan I traveled to Takamatsu and Ritsurin Koen, one of Japan's most famous gardens.

There I had a meeting about building the garden another tour boat sometime next year.

Its obviously a pretty straightforward design, but these tours have proven popular so the garden wants to expand the fleet.

I was taken on a boat tour and it is a very nice way to see the garden.  Ritsurin Koen is backed by a large hill which gives it a wonderful wilderness backdrop.

I think I got all the information I needed to start planning this boat.

A reader of this blog asked about the saw sharpener's vise and I paid Mr. Nagagatsu Shoichi a visit yesterday.  His vise is hard oak and those are machine screws that pass through steel bar stock.  Note the saw clamped in the vise and held by the wedge driven in on the left.

A closer look at the machine screws...

...which are threaded into a bar on the other side and ground flush.  I expected this to be a looser connection but its actually quite tight.  The jaws only have to open a fraction to admit a saw so there really isn't much play at all in this assembly.

Nagagatsu's apprentices just prop their vises against blocks on the floor, but the master has a custom-made vise to hold his (he works seated on a chair).

Nagagatsu san told me he had some gifts for me.

Three beautiful boatbuilders' saws, each with finer teeth.

We talked about what these are called: ara, or rough cutting, chyuu or middle, and sai or finish.

Note the apprentice's vise and the damage caused from pounding in the wedge.

Yesterday we visited the Sagawa Art Museum in Shiga Prefecture.

I am normally not a fan of concrete buildings but the finish of these structures was striking.

They have a gorgeous modern teahouse built out on the water feature that surrounds the museum.

This gallery of raku pottery and stone sculpture is underground, lit by skylights in the pond above.