Sunday, May 28, 2017

Mino, Opening Day

Mino is famous for washi, traditional Japanese paper and with our half-day Saturday holiday we visited the Washi Art Gallery where they display contest winners from a yearly competition of paper art. This post shows how the winning pieces are displayed at night along one of the historic streets.










Our teacher, Nasu san, made this paper-making box for the gallery, and he's made several for paper makers locally. The rectangular tub holds water while the paper is made over the frame.
Non sequitur: We found this old Honda covered in a thick layer of dust in a downtown parking garage. I'm pretty tall but this thing makes me look like a giant. The four flat tires do make it look smaller.
 Marc is a fly fishermen and he keeps spotting fly shops. It turns out today was opening day of fishing season and the river was packed. In the shop we asked about the amazing long rods we see fishermen using.
 The shopkeeper got out a seventeen foot road that telescopes out from a case about 18" long.

Bamboo conical fishing hat with fish motif, available with a waterproof cover.
When we arrived she was making a 1 meter by 9 meter fishing net.

Out on the river.
In the tackle shop they had rods up to 28-feet long.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Planking the Bottom

Almost the end of our first week building the cormorant fishing boat. Nasu san told us he considers the bottom to represent 30% of the total work, so Marc and I are eager to beat his estimate of two weeks to build it. I am not sure we will but we're trying.

At a pre-project meeting Nasu san sketched out the bottom plank layout on a white board. I am used to working with extraordinary wide material building boats in Japan but this is my first apprenticeship with a river boat builder. Typical of these boats are very narrow planking on the bottom, to facilitate repair, since these boats sometimes operate in white water. Nasu san numbered the order of construction.

We also saw a film shot thirty years ago of Ando san, Nasu's predecessor building cormorant boats. The researcher who shot the film showed us one of Ando san's patterns, a piece of wood with bevels recorded on all four faces. I am not sure even Nasu san could definitely interpret it. He uses a different style of pattern.

Our first day and Nasu san is choosing planking for the bottom. We are working under a temporary tarp-roofed structure at Gifu Academy, right outside their woodworking shop.

My first big surprise came when I pulled out one of my saws in preparation for fitting the first planks (readers of this blog will be familiar with the method of fitting planking with a series of handsaws). My saw is on the right and Nasu san's is on the left. He rejected it immediately for obvious reasons. He fits the planking with a finer saw than even the finest finish saws of my previous teachers. The one on the right is my medium saw.

Nasu san uses bamboo wedges to open the planking for sawing.

After the saw fitting we do kigoroshi, literally "wood killing," pounding the edges to get a concave shape. All of my teachers used these two methods with emphasis on one or the other. I'd have to say Nasu san relies more on kigoroshi than almost anyone else I've studied with.


Next is drilling for our edge-nails. Nasu san is the only boatbuilder in Japan I've met using the momjiri, an ancient form of chisel drill from China. Our nails are square in cross-section as is the tapered chisel.

He inserts a wooden handle, then hits the head of the chisel with a wooden mallet and makes two to five swings of 180 degrees on the handle, then repeat.

He enjoys telling us we have to lick the nails thoroughly before inserting them in the pilot hole. He dipped one in and pulled it out to show us how the sawdust clings to the saliva. This is a good thing and he always adds that the nails taste delicious anyway.

Later, connecting the sides to the bottom, we will use these special nails with an angled head, called kasakugi, umbrella nail.

Our bottom is thirty-six feet long, each strake composed of three pieces scarfed with this joint. All our clamping is done with dogs which are used in creative ways. Here you can see dogs pulling the two pieces together both vertically, horizontally, and at an angle.

Nasu san brought in some caulking to show us, some made from the inner bark of makihada (the wood we are building with) on the left, and typical caulking made from cypress on the right. Nasu san said his wife prepared the makihada caulking. Japanese boats are typically not caulked when new; boatbuilders rely on a wood-to-wood fit.

The end of our fourth day, today. We've almost got the three center planks completed. We are gluing between planks in addition to nailing. There will be about one thousand nails in the boat.

A street scene in Mino City. The town is famous for paper making as well as a nicely preserve neighborhood of traditional houses. Historically there were many wealthy merchants and makers in the paper industry.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

It Begins

We start tomorrow, Monday, building the cormorant fishing boat. Last week we built our shelter structure, a project started by one of the furniture students at the Gifu Academy of Forestry Science and Culture. He's going to be joining us on this project. Also working with me is Marc Bauer, a naval architect from California, whom I worked with on several projects with Tri-Coastal Marine.

And while mentioning links, Masashi, Kutsuwa, head of the furniture program at Gifu Academy, is posting photos here.

As mentioned in an earlier post last January, we will be building a cormorant fishing boat like this one, working with Mr. Seichi Nasu. 

Our framework, necessary for propping boat planking into shape, with its tarp roof, on site at Gifu Academy.

A new nail alongside some old nails. Nasu uses a unique nail called an umbrella nail (top). We ordered a local blacksmith to make us several hundred nails. The middle nail Nasu salvaged from an old boat, something he was forced to do when his blacksmith passed away.

Nasu soaks his nails in brine to get them rusted. He believes it gives them greater holding power.

From left to right: Masashi Kutsuwa, head of the furniture program at Gifu Academy; Satoshi, our student apprentice; Nasu san; me; and Marc. We are all wearing hats I designed and produced with the characters for "cormorant boat" in Japanese, an item we'll be selling to raise some extra funds. This project is funded with a generous grant from the Freeman Foundation of Honolulu, Hawaii. We are currently negotiating with Tobunken and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs on a possible partnership on a publication (stay tuned), and we will hear soon about additional funding from the Asian Cultural Council of New York. We also received a generous donation from Mr. Georg Hinteregger of Hope Valley, Rhode Island.

Our workshop is right next to the furniture workshop. The new program started recently and students have been studying sharpening. Masashi has an interesting device to check the work.

He bought a 100-power magnifier for his iPhone camera and he photographs the tool edges to check for sharpness


Here is a local fishing boat Nasu san built. Boats in this region are sized by the length of the bottom (not uncommon in Japan) and this boat is about twenty feet (bottom) long.

Our first day off Marc and I went to Kyoto and at the end of the day stopped in to see Nagatsu Shoichi, a saw sharpener I have blogged about several times. His apprentice had just finished grinding gullets into some saw blades.

Nagatsu san sharpening an azebiki he gave me.

The waters of the Nagara River and its tributaries are incredibly clear, and we see sport fishermen all over the river. We have the hot summer approaching and this spot, about a half mile from the temple where we are staying, is going to be my swimming hole.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Now in Gifu, Japan



For the last month I have been working on a boat commissioned by the new Japanese garden at the Frederick Meijer Botanical Garden & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, MI. They had a restricted space for a boat so I chose a design of a river boat I had studied on the Hozu River in Kameoka, Japan. This type, called an ayubune, features a wide plank bow, like a pram, which gives the boat more volume for a given size. That construction was required on the Hozu, which has stretches of white water. The wide stem give the bow more buoyancy and resists burying navigating white water.



I built the boat using southern cypress from stock I bought years ago from a mill in Virginia. The bottom and side planks were all edge-nailed using hand forged nails made by blacksmith Jim Fecteau of Huntington, Vermont.




The wide bow also facilitates bending the side planks since the curve and twist is less severe. I did make one center mold which is not traditional to Japanese boatbuilders, but I wanted to ensure the two side planks stayed at the same angle, and it simply speeded the process along.

When I was in Kameoka researching these boats I had the opportunity to interview the last man who built them. His father had spent his life building boats and the son (my age) apprenticed with his father but spent most of his career building fiberglass boats. He told me the bow/bottom and transom/bottom connection was a tongue-and-groove joint. I mimicked what he described, but used a spline instead of a tenon. I routed a groove in the edges being joined and then inserted a spline when I assembled them. It was easier to make the joint more precise this way and I could gain some strength by having control over the grain direction in the spline.





The decks fore and aft are let into the side planks and the beams fasten with a half lap dovetail joint. There is one floor timber that is connected to the beam with a vertical plank. I made a twelve foot sculling paddle which can also be used like a pole. On the Hozu most small boats like this one were poled with bamboo push poles.






In Kameoka I was able to measure historic ayubune in 15, 18, and 24-foot lengths. If I teach my Winter Term course in Japanese boatbuilding at Middlebury College again next year my plan is to build the largest version with students.

I dropped the boat off Saturday at Adirondack Guide Boat in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont for shipping to the customer. I am writing this post on the plane to Japan. As I mentioned in a blog post last January, I am going to be building a cormorant fishing boat in Gifu, Japan with Seichi Nasu, an 85-year old boatbuilder. This project has been years in the organizing and fundraising, so stay tuned for regular posts chronicling the construction of this very unique boat.