Sunday, July 30, 2017


By the way... I'll be demonstrating boatbuilding techniques next Saturday at this event in Brooklyn:

We had a unique opportunity, thanks to Masashi san, to visit a traditional hand-painted flag factory in Gifu City. These flags, called tairyoubata, are used in celebrations of all kinds. Fishermen traditionally bought them to decorate their boats at launchings and New Years. The bulk of this company's work are hand-painted banners presented to sumo wrestlers by their fans and sponsors.

Twenty staff work here designing, painting, and sewing these flags. The company's president is the sixth generation of his family to run the business, which has been making flags for 140 years.

Bamboo poles keep the fabric stretched tight.

Workers ink the outline of the calligraphy, which has been sketched on the cloth using a water-based ink which will wash away.

Partially completed banners hang to dry. Nagoya is one of the venues for Japan's six major sumo tournaments and with one coming up the company was busy. The owner told me he has plenty of work, saying enough other traditional flag makers had quit leaving plenty of work for the remaining firms.

Workers infilling the calligraphy.

A completed long banner. In wintertime these are sometimes washed in the nearby river.

Amazingly the owner gave me this flag, saying it was a reject (you find the mistake!). I especially like it because the two motifs of the crane and tortoise are the same typically carved on the carpenters' inkline. They are common symbols of longevity. Amazingly, these banners average just $250. I am stunned at such a low price for such amazing work.

Post-Launch and the Tenryu River

A couple of photos here of our last view of the cormorant fishing boat. After the launching we helped the new owner take the boat upstream to his landing, where he will be using it for a combination of commercial fishing and public programming.
We lashed the boat alongside the owner's outboard-powered fishing boat and motored upstream. In the rapids we were forced to pole and push.

The boat's new owner is in the white shirt. Satoshi san, our student, looks back at our boat.

One last look.

I then traveled to the Tenryu River, Nagano Prefecture, to visit the Tenryugawa Kudari, a downriver boat company which still uses traditional wooden boats. Believe it or not, they've experimented with a form of log raft tourists can ride (note the grab rails and bench). Taking passengers down a white water stream on something like this seems risky, but there is already a company in Wakayama Prefecture which does this.

The river has a long history of tourism. These boats look not too dissimilar to the cormorant boat we just built, and the firm's boatbuilder claimed the Tenryu River's boatbuilding traditions came from the region where I was just working.

Lots of commerce historically ran downriver, and boats used the prevailing winds to help get back upstream.

Boarding the boats.

The bowman operates a long paddle like an oar.

Entering one of the rapids.

The next day the firm's boatbuilder took me to see a storage shed where usually every winter he builds one new boat for the fleet. These are the tour boats outfitted with shelters for winter tours.

His saw was interesting in that it had a cutout, which is said was to reduce surface area and friction. Its the first time I've seen this.

He claimed the region's boatbuilding techniques came from the Nagara River where we'd just built our boat, but he used the more standard flat-steel nails and also the typical chisel for piloting nail holes.

He uses no drawings, relying on memorized dimensions and this set of patterns. He won't be building a boat next winter but definitely the winter following. I have an idea it could possibly be a workshop for those interested in learning traditional Japanese boatbuilding. I've spoken to them and the company is interested in such a partnership. We'll see about putting a program together.

Bailer, Boatyard, and Old Boats

Here are some shots from our last week in Japan. The very last work I did on the boat was build a bailer, something Nasu insisted I make for the boat's new owner.

Here is Nasu san, seated, having a laugh with the owner. He'd brought in a bailer based on the local style.

I decided to build a variant I'd seen when Nasu san took us to Seki to study the cormorant boats there. I need a thick piece of wood in order to bandsaw the curved bottom, so I laminated two pieces of our scrap koyamaki together. Here is the bottom, planed.

The feature of this bailer is its long handle. It might seem bizarre but when you consider the ease of bailing from a standing position it makes a lot of sense.

It turns out this type of bailer is not traditional. Nasu san said a Seki customer asked him for one so its a design a cormorant fisherman came up with.

Then we visited the Gifu City shipyard, where they build the tourist boats which watch the cormorant fleet fishing. Very similar to what we did on a much larger scale. They were finishing the bottom when we arrived, building it on the vertical just like we did.

The facility is fantastic, with a large space, overhead crane, machine rooms. etc. Just a handful of workers build these boats. Production is about one new boat a year so the boatbuilders also work as boatmen for the tourist fleet.

The boatbuilder didn't own any purpose-built boatbuilding saws, so he took standard ripsaws and cut the backs to give them the same tapered tip. 

He also had a machine shop grind standard drill bits to make large tapered bits. He pre-drilled holes and then used the moji to finish them. Like us, he was looking for ways to get around the slow process of piloting holes with just the moji. I asked him if he'd ever thought of screw fastening the boats. Years ago one tourist boat was built with screws as an experiment and the boat is still going strong, but the boatbuilder had a theory the hulls need a certain amount of flexibility and he felt only nails provide that.

Look closely here and you will see the shipyard's updated take on the sagefuri. The plumb bob and string swing against a plexiglass window with the proper angles for the string pre-marked. Very slick.

We used bamboo wedges to open our seams when sawing through the joints; the shipyard uses aluminum wedges. Again, very smart as there is much less danger in damaging the teeth of the saw if you inadvertently hit the soft aluminum, though the same is true of the bamboo wedges.

He used the nata, or hatchet, to rough out his plugs. Nasu san used an axe.

The tourist boats have steel transoms through-bolted to the hull.

Just down the road from the shipyard is the Gifu City Museum, where the curator showed us two cormorant fishing boats in storage. There were slightly shorter than our boat, but with significantly thinner planking. It was unclear exactly how old they were, but at least forty years old. Nasu san later explained the boats got heavier scantlings after the fishermen adopted outboard motors.

Note how the center plank of the bottom flares at the transom. It might seem like unnecessary extra work to fit those seams but when you do this with a handsaw rather than a plane it doesn't really matter.

Note how the edge of the side planks form a slight lip, which acts as a kind of rubbing strip for the bottom. Nasu san explained to us as this material wore down he could pull the nails in the center of the boat, push the bottom up and re-nail, creating a renewed lip. It seems like an extraordinary amount of work, but for some reason Nasu san rejected the idea of simply adding a rubbing strip.

We visited a local museum and measured two boats: first a small fishing boat from the Kiso River...

...and an agebune, or "hanging boat" a type kept hanging in barns by rice farmers for use during seasonal floods.

The museum also had a small tabune, or field boat, basically a sled to pull your gear through the rice paddy.

At Nasu san's house we measured one of his small fishing boats, one he built for himself three years ago.

The inner plank on the rear deck is removable, so Nasu san could clamp an outboard to the transom.

Finally, we traveled upstream to a restaurant to measure the smallest of Nasu san's fishing boats. The restaurant commissioned Nasu san to build this for its rental fleet. The owner told us the boat below was built by Nasu san's father fifty years ago. It was configured exactly like a cormorant boat only it was just fifteen feet long.

A view of Nasu san's little fishing boat. Interestingly though this boat is quite small, the planking was the same thickness as in the boat we built. Except for the transoms, Nasu san used one thickness of material exclusively. Our student Satoshi san now plans to build one of these with Nasu san's help.

The Bucket Maker

I am home from Japan now and due to a computer glitch I wasn't able to download photos my last few weeks there. So now its time to catch up and offer some blog posts on a few interesting things we did our last few weeks.

I visited the shop of Mr. Shuji Nakagawa, a well-known bucket maker just outside of Kyoto. It was the day after he'd had an open studio but he met us there regardless and was very generous with his time. His father is a National Living Treasure for his sashimono, or small wooden objects. You can find his Facebook page here.

A look at his main studio space and a wall full of some of his planes.

Very interesting "bench." Nakagawa is wearing a wooden block. This is called a hara ate and my tub boat teacher had a gorgeous one. Bucket makers use this to back up their work while shaping with drawknives. Nakagawa is kneeling on another bench that traps the other end of the workpiece.

The classic patterns used by bucket makers. The cutout reflects the outside curvature of the stave and provides the proper angle for edge. My tub boat teacher's patterns the outside edge was shaped to the curvature of the inside of the staves. Not sure why Nakagawa's patterns don't have that.

Various sleds meant to hold stave material for running through the tablesaw.

His joiner plane is ingenious, a type common to bucket makers, a long hardwood block with an insert in which you drop a normal hand plane.

Here Nakagawa is assembling the staves, using tiny bamboo nails like dowels, to one of his signature pieces.

Here is the vessel. Nakagawa is one of a handful of Kyoto craftsman working with a European designer on a project marrying contemporary design with traditional Japanese crafts. The initiative is called Japan Handmade and you can see Nakagawa's work at their website here. He's garnered a good deal of deserved notoriety for his work.

Another of his piece's derived by bucket techniques.

Another rack of planes.

Some of his tiniest planes, sitting on the sole of a normal plane gives an idea of scale.

Nakagawa holding his grandfather's ripsaw. He currently has two apprentices working with him. He's adamant about maintaining these traditions and supporting the craft. I blogged about one of his former apprentices who set up his own shop in Kyoto. See that post here.