Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Last night we had a keel-laying ceremony for our boat, exactly one week after starting.  Mr. Orino, curator of the Seto Nai Kai Museum (one of Japan’s best maritime collections) had researched the traditions for this ceremony.  He bought a large sea bass and a bottle of sake, and we supplied a dish of rice.  Boat ceremonies come in all forms and he acknowledged that every boatbuilder would have some individual tradition.  

A Shinto priest could obviously officiate, and I have taken part in ceremonies involving priests, but the boatbuilder can also conduct the ceremony.  It was very simple: I was to remove my shoes and kneel on the keel and facing forward pray for the success of the project.  Then I was to pour sake on the keel plank at the middle, port and starboard in that order.  That’s it!  

I had invited the two Bengali shipwrights to join me and I said if they wanted to offer a prayer I would be honored.  They responded by doing a simple ceremony they sometimes conduct at a point in the boatbuilding.  The head shipwright dribbled water on the back of our stem, carefully rubbing the entire surface.  He then cut three horizontal lines in the back of our stem with his chisel.  Touching his forehead to the spot he stood up and touched each line with his finger and then brought his finger to his forehead.  The second shipwright did the same, touching his lips.  One is Muslim and the other Hindu but I don’t know if that explains the slight difference.  

I was told by their interpreter that all Bengali ceremonies focus on the bow, or the head of the boat.  The significance of three lines is that boats are invariably “even” meaning they are built in twos and fours (two of each plank, and so on).  Cutting three lines avoids the same numerical pattern as the construction, therefore concentrating the symbolism.  

Friday, July 26, 2013


We fastened the transom in a rabbet across the back of the keel plank.  At the bow we connected the stem to the keel with the kama tsugite, which is locked with a wedge.  The kama is a curved sickle, and the joint looks like two interlocking kama.  The basic backbone of the boat is now finished, and we will have a ceremony called a kawarazue on Monday at 7pm to celebrate this stage of the construction.

Like many Japanese boats, the tenmasen's keel plank rises aft, and the bottom is bent at a single joint.  This joint can also be kama tsugite, which is how my Tokyo teacher made it, or it can be made by a process called kirimage, or "cut bending."  I cut a dovetail groove across the bottom 1/3 the depth of the plank and a kerf across the top the same depth.  We then poured boiling water and slowly lifted the transom with a car jack.  As the top cut closes we recut it to relieve the opening.  Eventually when we are done we will insert a dovetail wedge across the bottom to lock the joint.  My teacher in Aomori used this technique.  

My Tokyo teacher was adamant that this method was a bad practice, and I could tell from the looks on the Bengali shipwright’s faces that they agreed.  I told their interpreter that it was okay if they wanted to disapprove and he said that, indeed, their first reaction was that this looked inherently weak.  They use a joint similar to the kama to scarf the rubrail and sheer planks on their boat.  This method is relatively quick, however, and the local maritime museum curator assured me it was the joinery Setouchi shipwrights used.  

Soon I've got to get a blog post up about their boatbuilding....

Tricks of the trade

All boatbuilders in Japan are familiar with this trick, which we used to align the stem and keel plank.  We stretched a string from the top of the stem on the centerline down to our centerline on the keel.  Then I hung the sashigane (square) from the string so the corner hung just above the line.  It makes an interesting plumb bob for lining these parts up.  

The sashigane is much lighter than a Western square and extremely flexible as well, two qualities that come in handy in many situations.  The scarf between the stem and keel is locked with a hardwood wedge.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Visiting Craftsman

Across the Festivale grounds from our shop are a pair of Bengali shipwrights.  They brought with them to Japan a twelve-foot dinghy.  The first day I was here it was intact, and the next time I came by it had been disassembled.  They are now slowly putting it back together as a demonstration.  Its a remarkable boat and they are amazing craftsmen and I hope to devote a blog post to them later.

They have been very interested in our work and the day we nailed the two boards together for the bottom we invited them over.  They enjoyed nailing and afterwards the lead carpenter said if I gave him a hardwood block he would make me a traditional Bengali hand plane.  

Then yesterday an older Japanese man stood watching us.  I could tell by his weather beaten features that he was working class, and I suspected he might have been a carpenter.  Sure enough, when I asked him he said he had built houses.  I would guess he is in his eighties.  I invited him into our shop space and he walked over to my tools, picked up one of my planes, took the blade out and sat down at our sharpening stones and began to sharpen.  I have always really enjoyed this kind of informality in Japan, where the dominant culture is so obsessed with politeness and formalities, but here is a guy who, like the Bengalis, happily pitches in immediately.

Monday, July 22, 2013



The photos here show our temporary shop structure at the Port.  Mr. Koji Matano, a glass artist and builder of Western boats, was the coordinator of our project  (minamiizu.net).  I have a Japanese apprentice, canoe guide and canoe builder Takumi Suzuki (www.hacarame.com).  You can see him with his wife Yoshiko and a drawing on the boat we are building.  We worked with an 84-year old craftsman, literally the last boatbuilder of the region, for information on this boat.  A local shipyard donated some nails to us from stock they had not used in many years.  Mr. Tengu Shibafuji of Kochi City gave us over 250 hand-made boat nails that he got from the family of a desceased boatbuilder.  

We started by laying out he lines for our bottom plank, called kawara, and then fitting the seam using a series of handsaws.  Those readers familiar with my blog may remember this technique, which may be unique to Japanese boatbuilding.  Finally, yesterday we chiseled the mortises for our edge nails which will join the two planks together.

The Festival

The Festival

I am working this summer building a 20-foot workboat as part of the Setouchi Festivale, an international art event centered on five islands near the city of Takamatsu, Japan.  My project takes place in the Takamatsu Port, where craftspersons are working at a variety of traditional arts.  There is a huge contingent of Bengali craftspeople, from metal workers to potters to boatbuilders.  

You can learn more about the Festivale here, and I will be keeping a special blog on my project, which is in English and Japanese.  I suspect this blog will have more text and information than that one:

Setouchi International Art Festival:

Our project blog:

A good friend of mine wrote a nice article about the art and the islands.
James Jack article: