Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Building Japanese Boats at Middlebury College

Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont offers a one-month Winter Term each January.  Students must take three of these classes in their four years at the College.  This year I taught a class entitled "Building the Japanese Boat" in which I led fifteen undergraduates in the construction of two traditional river boats, one from the Hozugawa near Kyoto and the other from the Kesengawa in Tohoku, the center of the region struck by the 2011 tsunami.

The goal of the class was to both build the boats, introducing students to the tools and techniques of Japanese boatbuilding, but also talk about apprentice learning as it is practiced in Japan, with its roots in Zen Buddhist training.  My students said they were interested in working with their hands, trying something non-academic, and getting exposure to Japanese culture.

One boat was a five meter version of the six meter ayubune I built last spring in Kameoka, Japan (see 2014 blog posts).  While in Kameoka last spring I found an original boat and measured it; this class then built a faithful replica.  Our other boat was designed from lines I received from a class at Wakayama University in Japan that found them on a volunteer trip to Tohoku.

Students wrote papers on different facets of the project, and its my hope to bring this work together into the beginnings of a manuscript on how to build these boats.  One student also produced CAD drawings of the two boats.

Our boat nails.  The scale is metric and shaku.

Our wood was a single, large cedar log cut and milled by Currier Forest Products in Danville, Vermont.  We used some white pine for additional lumber we needed.

Our boat nails were made my Jim Fecteau, a blacksmith in Huntington, Vermont, who was kind enough to let the class visit his shop and learn how these hand-made nails were produced.

Fitting seams in the bottoms using a series of special handsaws.

Cutting the pilot holes for our flat nails using a special chisel.

Dovetail keys used on our Kesengawa boat to join the bottom boards.

Adzing the joint in the joint in the bottom.

Fitting a transom using a handsaw.

The Kesengawa boat getting her side planks.

The beams of the Hozugawa boat featured half-lap dovetails let into the side planks.

Our pattern records the angle of the transom on the right and the angle of the planking on the left, typically all a Japanese boatbuilder might use to build a boat.  All the principal dimensions would be memorized.  In our case we used plans drawn by a researcher, and in fact many of the dimensions were in easy-to-remember whole numbers.  The planks widths were one shaku, for instance, measured inside.  All the work was done in the traditional measuring system of shaku-sun-bu. 

We covered our rubrail nailheads with copper plate.

Mortises cut for our edge-nails.

The class.

Detail of the bow of the Hozugawa boat, awaiting the foredeck and forward beam.

Students fitting the seams of the Hozugawa boat's side planks.

Like Japanese boatbuilders, we worked on the floor, propping materials overhead to hold things in place.

Our launch, in the College swimming pool, began with a traditional Shinto blessing.

Both our river boats were propelled by bamboo poles.

While building these boats I began a conversation with the WoodenBoat School in Brooklin, Maine about the possibility of a summer workshop in Japanese boatbuilding.  Hopefully we can put together a two-week class and teach this type of boatbuilding there next year.

In a very big surprise, in addition to local news coverage a story about us appeared on the front page of the Kyoto Shimbun, one of Japan's biggest newspapers (circulation nearly one million).

Lake Champlain Trapping Boats

This past fall I worked with the Henry Sheldon Museum of Middlebury in partnership with the Patricia Hannaford Career Center, on a research project working with high school students.  As part of Hannaford's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) class, taught by Jake Burnham, students studied the local traditions of trapping boats in the Champlain Valley.  I brought two historic trapping boats into the class, both from Addison County, Vermont, and I led students in a lines-taking project, measuring the two boats, and lofting (drawing) them full-size.  The goal was to provide the information we needed to both produce measured drawings of the boats using CAD and also build two replicas.  The third boat we lofted was a trapping boat I found in Putnam Station, New York.  I could not bring it into class but I did a quick measurement on site and students then lofted the lines in our workshop.

We also interviewed trappers to gain a better understanding of the culture of trapping as it was once practiced, the use of theses boats and how they were built.

My co-teacher Jake Burnham put together this nifty video overview of our project, complete with a snappy soundtrack.

I began this work a few years ago with some Middlebury College students.  The culture of trapping and boatbuilding in this region is fascinating and heretofore unstudied.

Student measuring a fascinating derelict trapping boat from Ferrisburgh, VT, built by Harold McDurfee.

We measured the boats and transferred the measurements directly to the lofting table, where we drew the boats full-size.

Greg Sharrow of the Vermont Folklife Center led students in an oral history workshop, then facilitated one of our interviews.

We visited a muskrat trapping camp, where men in the Smith Family would spend several weeks during trapping season.

The Putnam Station boat, measured at the owner's home, then lofted and replicated in our workshop.

Jake Burnham (left) Hannaford's STEM teacher, with Pat Hatch on his family farm in Panton, where we looked at six trapping boats his father had built.

Bud Smith of Middlebury leading students to his family's trapping camp.

The Putnam Station boat fully planked up.  Local trapping boats featured single-plank sides and cross-planked bottoms.  Most Vermont trapping boats were built by their owners, but the Putnam Station boat was originally built by a professional boatbuilder.

We built our boats around moulds, but from our interviews it seems clear most local builders used just a single midships mould when building trapping boats.

Our double-ended boat revealed a sophisticated plank shape.  In previous research we had found that trapping boats were planked in parallel-edged planks.

Students work will be on exhibit this spring at the Henry Sheldon Museum.