Saturday, May 25, 2019

2019 Bates College Short Term - Launching!

My Bates College Short Term class has wrapped up. I'll begin this post by sharing some historic photos of this type of boat. These were taken in Niigata Prefecture, probably in the 1950s.

These boats were all-purpose vessels used by farmers and fishermen in the large delta of the Shinano River. Here men are dredging sand, a seasonal job as the river channels constantly silted up. Large post-War drainage projects allowed roads to be built, which made most of these boats obsolete as farmers purchased trucks.

You can see the backbone of one of our boats and the two side planks. Each side plank was composed of four planks edge-nailed together.

Saw fitting the seams between the side and bottom planking.

The hulls complete.

A student fitting one of the beams. These have a half lap joint where they join the hull.

At the bow and stern blocking is installed to tie together the ends of the planking. Here a student does some creative clamping while scribing the shape.

Chiseling the notch for the beam half lap.

Someone suggested we check and make sure the boats fit out of our workshop space.

And so they did!

The last step was hand planing the sides and bottom.

The finished boats.

Final trip out of the workshop. The students are wearing happi coats and traditional Japanese jackets.

They carried the boats across campus to Lake Andrews, known on campus as the Puddle.

Our Shinto alter and our two boats. The ceremony was Shinto-based and featured a marvelous sailor's folk song sung by Ian Sawyer-Lee, a Japanese musician.

Boats in the water (on-the-water photos by Angela Robins

You can also see a short video of the launch here and Bates College published this article on the class and our launching.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

2019 Bates College Short Term

I have reprised my college Japanese boatbuilding class at a different school for a different time of year. Having taught this class three times at Middlebury College during Winter Term I am here in spring in Lewiston, Maine at Bates College. Bates runs a five-week semester called Short Term. Like Middlebury, students take just one class. We meet four days a week. My class of fourteen is divided into two sessions (too many students to keep busy at once) and we all meet once a week for a discussion of the readings, journals, and students' final papers. I am specifically working for an initiative called the Center for Purposeful Work as a Practitioner-Teacher. You can read the full course description here.

Had to amend our original boat design when I got here, saw the space, and realized we could never get the boat out of the room. Each section is now building its own 22-foot river boat from Niigata Prefecture. These were used by farmers for a variety of roles in an area of once-expansive wetlands.

Students begin fitting the bottom planks using handsaws, a key Japanese boatbuilding technique.

Some of our selection of tools.

Chiseling mortises for our edge-nails.

When not working directly on the boat, students are expected to be sharpening.

Piloting nails holes with special chisels called tsubanomi.

The first group edge-nailing their bottom planks.

The second group pounding the plank edges, the last step before nailing.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Tenryugawa Wooden Boat Symposium - 2

So my week here in Iida, Nagano has wrapped up. I spent almost five days working with the boatbuilders and then gave the keynote address at the symposium. It all went extremely well and I can say I made many new friends. It was also fascinating to take part in the construction of a river boat and I scrambled to take notes and measurements. The boatbuilder uses no drawings; only patterns.

We managed to get two strakes around the boat in less than a week's time. Now they have just one strake to go and the hull is finished. There's no internal framing except for two horizontal beams installed across the hull at the gunwale. Later the outside of the hull gets fiberglassed and two metal frames are bolted inside the hull to allow the boats to be lifted out of the water with a crane at the end of the downriver trip. They are then trucked back to the starting point.

A look at the scarf joint used to join planks. Each strake, or run of the planking, is made up of three boards scarfed together.

In lieu of angle measurements and plank widths, we used this pattern which contains all that information. The plank widths are marked and we set the plank angles to the pattern.

The boatbuilder here had an interesting process for cutting the mortises for the edge-nails. He was very fast so I wanted to document it. First he makes a relief cut marking the bottom of the mortise.

Then he makes a series of relief cuts marking the side of the mortise. Note the slight curve.

Then, angling the chisel steeply, he cuts the shape of the other side down to the bottom. The material breaks out up to the relief cuts on the other side. He free hands the shape of the right side, though I made a matching set of relief cuts to try and get a symmetrical mortise.

Then he cuts vertically down the left side. The chisel is angled steeply back, away from the camera, and rocked slightly as its struck. By the time the chisel reaches the bottom of the mortise the upper corner of the edge should have plunged to the full depth. The chisel is 8 bu wide (about 7/8") and laid over at 45 degrees it will have cut the proper depth.

The last pass is vertically down the right side, chisel still angled away from the camera.

The finished mortise. When we plunge the tsubanomi from the plank edge to the mortise to make the pilot hole it breaks out the waste in the center at the base of the mortise. We then use a small chisel to clean out the mortise right before nailing. This method is very quick.

My guest house for the week, a restored and converted 200-year old home. The young couple who run the place actually didn't buy it, but rent it for a very small amount. Some people simply can't part with old family homes but will rent them for very little money, knowing that an empty house can quickly succumb to decay. Please see their website:

The couple who run the guest house are part of a small, but growing phenomenon of young people heading back to the countryside and finding creative ways of making a living. In this case the woman was from Iida, but spent four years working for an architectural firm in Tokyo. After spending a year in Berlin with her husband they were inspired by the guest houses they say there and decided to try and replicate the concept in her home town.

The jackets are for customers to wear while lounging in the common spaces. It is a traditional house, therefore no central heating and no insulation. We had small, portable kerosene heaters, and plenty of quilts on the beds.

The inn has just a few private rooms and mostly dormitory-style accommodations, with each person getting a fully enclosed bunk-type bed. Its a bit like Japan's famous capsule hotels. The rates are less than thirty dollars a night and breakfast is about four dollars. They also do dinners.

Next door is the massive home of a former sake merchant. In the foreground is the kura, or fireproof storehouse. Iida has the biggest kura I have ever seen in Japan.

The day before the symposium we had a holiday so staff could set up for the conference. I took the day and drove two hours west to see my teacher from 2017, Mr. Seichi Nasu. He's finishing up a small boat he's built on speculation, and had another fishing boat he was repairing. I wrote a series of blog posts about that project beginning with this one.

At the symposium Yazawa san, the master boatbuilder, demonstrated his rhythmic nailing technique on the conference stage. I couldn't seem to upload the video to this blog but look for it at my Instagram page.

It was nice to see a brand-new set of nail chisels and a fresh box of new nails. I'd feared all the sources for these materials had all but dried up in Japan, but the folks here found a blacksmith in Sanjyo City, a very famous tool-making town in Niigata Prefecture, that has begun making boat nails and these specialized tools. The nails are about a dollar apiece, and the chisels are over two hundred dollars. They are all hand-made, however.

We had a tour bus visit the shop my last day.

A look at the bow with one plank remaining.

People here have said over and over how the local boatbuilding traditions came from the Kiso and Nagara River valleys to the west, where I worked in 2017. These boats show a definite resemblance to the boat I built there.

The Tenryu river flows due south out of the mountains to the coast and was a vital avenue for trade to and from the interior. The boats would sail back upriver with prevailing winds.