Monday, August 11, 2014

Scotland and England

Readers of this blog may remember last February I received an award from the American Craft Council honoring my work in Japan documenting traditional boatbuilding.  The award, the Rare Craft Fellowship, was sponsored by the Balvenie, a Scottish distillery that prides itself as a producer of craft-made whiskeys. 

Here's my previous posting about the award and the other finalists:

And Balvenie and the American Craft Council's websites:

Balvenie generously invited me to the United Kingdom for two weeks, specifically to show me their operation and have me meet two award-winning craftsmen in England.

The week in the Highlands was wonderful for my wife and I, staying first in a cottage at the Glenfiddich Distillery.  The countryside is beautiful, stunning, mysterious, and steeped in history.

The Balvenie introduced me to every step in the whiskey-making process (save for sowing the barley).  Because of my own experience studying Japanese coopering I was most interested in the distillery's cooperage, where most of the work involves repairing bourbon barrels, readying them to hold whiskey for up to 21 years.

The process is both highly mechanized and traditional, with a giant pneumatic press used to push the hoops on the barrels, but also coopers using crozes - a truly ancient tool - to rabbet for the barrel ends.  The coopers were fascinating craftspeople to talk to and I shot so much video with my camera I am at a loss to find stills shots for this blog.  I am coming home determined to figure out how to post videos to a YouTube channel....

Balvenie arranged a canoe trip down the Spey for us.  Our guide Dave Craig runs Spirit of the Spey river trips and we can recommend him highly.  On our way down a 15-mile stretch we passed many ghillies (guides) and salmon fishermen (fishers).  I insisted we come ashore to inspect a traditional Spey coble.  The older ghillies still use them in quiet stretches of the Spey, setting an anchor and paying out the line to position the boat at the right spot in the river.

Balvenie then flew us to London where I spent two days in the studio of David Antony Reid, a luthier.  It was a fascinating session with an incomparable craftsman.  He builds custom guitars, largely from reclaimed wood, and has innovated many techniques to enhance sound quality.  

One thing I learned from David was the use of a toothed plane blade for working highly figured, difficult grain.  I noticed he had a commercial plane blade which was toothed, but David showed me how he also files notches in a blade with a diamond file to get the same affect.

The results are amazing.  He planed African blackwood for me and the shavings came out as narrow ribbons.  Working with a series of narrow cutters keeps the grain from tearing out.  Later he finishes all his surfaces with scrapers.

From London we traveled to Henley-in-Thames and the shop of Lucie and Colin Henwood of Henwood and Dean Boatbuilders.  They build and restore classic boats in a region with a long tradition of fine yachts.  

Colin and I outside the shop office.  The shop is located in some old farm barns, and Colin has several employees doing fantastic work.

Lucie and Colin were amazing tour guides, enthusiastically showing us the sights.  This is a new maritime museum housed in a 17th Century barn not far from Henley.

We had a picnic on the river aboard their electric powered punt.

Our trip via the Balvenie ended in Henley, but we came back to Scotland's west coast to visit a friend who has a home in Kirkudbright.  A lot of history here, including an old Annan smack in the harbor.

And the wreck of a wooden ship on the mudflats.  All in all an unbelievable trip that makes us both eager to get back over here, but also inspired by the scenery we have seen and the people we've met.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Anderson Japanese Garden Tenmasen

For the last several months I have been working off and on building a small Japanese boat for the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford, Illinois.  The Garden looked at the various boats I have built in Japan and chose the tenmasen I built with my teacher in Tokyo in 2002.  That boat was about eighteen feet overall but the Garden wanted a boat less than fourteen feet so I redrew the lines.  I maintained the construction details of the original, including the use of copper plate for nail covers and covering the stem.

I built this boat out of southern cypress, and sourced my boat nails from my friend Tengu Shibafuji in Kochi, Japan.  He is an avid researcher and amateur builder of Japanese boats and has been buying nail stock from former boat shops.  His own blog is well worth a look:

The bottom complete with extra material where the stem is joined.

These boats are somewhat like prams, with wide stem timbers.

A friend who is a blacksmith made my copper clench nails for the rub rail.

These boats feature lots of copper plate, covering nail heads and wrapping the stem.

The boat is framed with horizontal beams.

I hope to get some photos of the boat in the garden which I will post.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Saw Sharpener, again

This is now my third blog posting about Nagatsu san, the saw sharpener in Kyoto, but he remains such an interesting part of my travels I can't help but write about him again.  Two weeks ago when I first arrived back in Japan I stopped by his shop to give him a gift: an antique Disston handsaw.  He seemed to appreciate it but a few days later when he attended our boat launching I was stunned as he handed it back to me.  He had cut entirely new Japanese-style teeth on the saw!  AND they cut on the push stroke!  It was absolutely stunning.  He handed me the saw and told me to try it out and come see him again.

I got back to his shop my last full day in Japan and indeed the saw works beautifully.  However, he didn't like how the end of the blade vibrated, so he spent about fifteen minutes hammering the saw with various hammers.  I don't know how this works, but it stopped vibrating.  Then he gave me the saw, saying that he had enough stuff.  I asked him how many hours it took him to re-cut the teeth and he said it was two sessions of four hours each.  He also surprised me by saying he thinks the Western idea of push-style saws is superior to Japanese pull saws.  His reasoning is that pushing a saw requires just one arm.  One is generally working downward at a sawhorse or at a bench.  With Japanese saws the leg is involved holding the workpiece and the saws generally require two hands.  He thinks this is just more cumbersome.  I can't say Western-style saw teeth come anywhere near the quality of cut of the multi-beveled Japanese teeth, so what Nagatsu san did to this Disston is truly the best of both worlds.

He also had an interesting plane made in traditional Japanese style with a throwaway blade.  I've seen Italian planes with razor blades and actually have an old American plane with the same idea, but nothing quite like this.  He said it could be sharpened a couple of times before discarding.

Finally, a few shots of Murin-an, a villa in northeast Kyoto featuring a teahouse and garden.  It was very pleasant and one of those rare Kyoto sights not overrun by tourists.  There were no more than five people there when I visited.


I made a brief trip to Okinawa, in order to conduct some interviews for a future article on the sabani, the traditional fishing boat of this region.  I was here in 2009/2010 apprenticing with one of the last three builders of these boats (see my blog postings from those years).  Sadly, he’s now 85 and I learned he was in the hospital during my visit.  I had hoped to visit him but I learned he wasn’t seeing anyone other than family.

In Itoman, the largest fishing port in Okinawa, the city government funded an expansion of the fishing museum.  They now have a marvelous building in which to display their collection, which includes boats, fishing gear and boatbuilding tools.  The old museum building has been converted into a working boatshop where Mr. Kiyoshi Oshiro is building sabani.  He may now be the last builder of these boats, and his clients are the teams that now race these boats.  

Here is a shot of Zamami Island, which lies offshore the capitol city of Naha.  Zamami is where the annual sabani race starts, an open water crossing to Naha.  The race is held every June and this year marked the fifteenth race.  Over forty teams now participate in races throughout Okinawa.  The phenomenon of the sabani race is unique in Japan: the conversion of a fishing boat into a yacht, which has spurred the preservation of boatbuilding and sailing skills.  Sabani were last built for fishing around 1960, when they were replace by Japanese-style boats of wood and fiberglass.  A generation passed before the early racers began ordering sabani again.

Sabani are semi-dugout construction, and with very thick hulls they last a long time.  It is not hard to find old sabani lying around the harbors.  This powered sabani features wooden planing boards, necessary when marrying an engine to what had been a sail and paddle powered, narrow hull.  

A boat similar to the sabani is the hari.  These are festival boats, and have been raced for hundreds of years on Okinawa.  They are the dragon boat is this archipelago.

My teacher retired after finishing the boat we built, and I heard that another builder retired.  If so, then Oshiro san is the last professional builder of sabani.  He told me he has orders one year in advance. 

I got to sail one afternoon in a six meter sabani with its owner, Mr. Tsugaru Ryosuke, and his business partner.  We had a light breeze and later the young woman went out by herself in a four meter sabani.  These are smaller than boats that were ever used for fishing (the consensus seems to be the smallest fishing sabani were five meters).  So this is almost like a kayak.  I measured it as fourteen feet long and two feet wide.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Last week we had a formal launching of the ayubune I built last May (see earlier blog posts).  Ms. Riko Okuyama, the director of the Mizunoki Museum of Art, gave a short speech and then I officiated the shinsuishiki, or launching ceremony.  This was Shinto-based.  

I had met an elderly boatbuilder in May who told me in this area sake was poured on the bow and stern of a new boat.

These small boats were poled only, and let me tell you this is a lot harder than you might think.  Its a bit like the J-stroke in canoeing, where you have to compensate for moving the stern from side-to-side.  Add the current of the river to this and you have yourself a challenge, as I found out.

Luckily Mr. Hiroshi Yamauchi, a sendosan, or boatman of the scenic tour boat company (their boats are visible in the background), was on hand to lend his expertise.  He was kind enough to spend over an hour poling boatloads of onlookers in our new boat.  As with anything, seeing an expert in action is a real pleasure.

I finally got the hang of it, sort of.  Our boat is going to be used later this summer by the Hozugawa NPO.  They have moved from activities cleaning the river to teaching children how to fish for ayubune.  I am very glad to know this project has created a boat that will continue to bring people to the river and a deeper understanding of this community's culture.  The Museum's exhibit on the boat is open until October.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Back to Japan

I returned a few days ago to Kyoto for the opening of the exhibit on the boat I built last May at the Mizunoki Museum of Art.  Yesterday was the opening and today I am conducting a Shinto launching ceremony as we float the boat in the Hozugawa.

I visited the saw sharpener again to pick up the boatbuilding saw I purchased from him last May, plus I bought two more boatbuilding saws.

At the shop he demonstrated how he fine-tuned the edge of a saw, by hammering carefully at various points in the middle of the body of the blade.  This stretched the metal and changed the contours of the edge.  He used a wide variety of hammers, from flat-headed ones to ones with sharp points.  He had me use the saw before and after and indeed, it cut much smoother when he was finished.  We chatted for quite awhile about what he had done but as far as asking how he knew where to hammer the steel, he laughed and told me, "That can't be taught."

He used a long keyhole saw to adjust the opening of the saw handles for my three new saws.  I admired the saw so much he promptly gave me a new one.  

On the way home I found a hole-in-the-wall tool store full of phenomenal tools at sky-high prices.  One of the sharpening stones was $3,000.  Then I saw these two planes that had curved blades.  They were a type of moulding plane and cut a concave shape.  I was briefly interested in one of the cheaper planes he had, but it cost $200 so I passed.  I didn't even bother to ask the price of these amazing planes.

The exhibit features some of my drawings of Japanese boats.

Visible is the lofting of the ayubune.

Books for sale: the three on the left are mine; on the right is Mystic Seaport's Building the Herreshoff Dinghy by Barry Thomas and a Japanese translation of the book by my friend Koji Matano, who was also the translator, editor and designer of my newest book on building the Okinawan sabani.

The exhibition opening and gallery talk was attended by about sixty people.