Sunday, January 29, 2017

Himi and Beyond


I took the train from Takamatsu to Kanazawa, on the Sea of Japan. There I met my friend Genki Terauchi, an oceanographer who also builds wooden surfboards. I stayed Friday night at his place, a modern house sitting next to his parent's traditional home.


Genki agreed to drive me to Himi Saturday morning, but he asked if we could stop for an hour so he could surf! 


Actually this region has a warm current so water temperatures are about 50 degrees. But to see people surfing with snow on the beach was something else.


On our way into Himi we stopped at the boat shop of an 88-year old retired boatbuilder. He makes models now, spending his days hanging out in his former shop.

Then we went to see Bansho san, Himi's younger boatbuilder (in his 70s?). He's got a boat underway right now for a museum. He built fiberglass boats during his career, after briefly apprenticing in wood. He's been pretty busy the last few years building boats for museums and non-profits.

The boats in this region feature a unique bow construction, a kind of box keel just at the bow. It actually makes the bending of the garboard really easy, as its mostly flat. I've never tried this construction but I would like to.

Banco san's next project is a half-size replica of a double, a famous type of semi-dugout that were used to tend huge fishing nets. They were basically barges, manned by many fishermen.

The side planks are practically half logs, and then the bow is an entirely different plank construction. The main fastening are dovetails keys.

Dobune used perhaps the strangest looking sculling oars in Japan. These are massive and I suspect were wielded by more than one person.

Me, Genki, and Bansho san, hanging out at the wood stove in the boatshop drinking coffee. Doesn't get any better than this, does it?

Later I met friends at the shoe-making shop of our friend Ai chan. She was pretty excited about a gift of real Vermont maple syrup.

She works in leather, of course, as well as fish leather. These are fish leather sandals but she makes shoes out of it too.

I was in Himi to speak at a TEDx talk. It was incredibly well organized and attended, and also one of the most nerve-wracking things I've done recently. I spoke in English (thank god!) while getting a simultaneous translation the audience could access via headphones.

Some of my fellow speakers and one of the volunteers. The speakers were three Americans and five Japanese. When it was over I was so relieved I went out for a run and then took a long soak in the hotel's onsen overlooking Toyama Bay.

View of the Japan Alps (Toyama and Ishikawa Prefectures) from the hotel.... Not a bad view to contemplate from a hot spring bath.  That's about 30 miles across Toyama Bay.

Planking the Hull

I am off to Himi, Toyama where I built a boat a year ago (a project I blogged about: check posts from last winter) where I am giving a TEDx talk. From there its on to Gifu, in the mountains, where I have a meeting regarding my next project in Japan: studying with one of the last builders of cormorant fishing boats. So I am off for the next four days, but to catch up to where I have left the project, I got the planks hung on the boat and I have begun fitting the interior bench seats, etc.




Some of the company’s staff stopped by this week to see my work. They are the youngest employees except for the man in white who is the company’s senior employee; he’s been with them over forty years. I am working in a satellite building used for lumber storage, about a 2 minute bike ride from the main shop. The staff only sees me in the morning and when I pop in with some materials to mill on their machines. I have just my hand tools and hand power tools on site and occasionally I need their bandsaw or planer.

The work I am doing is very, very different from their cabinet work, so we had a good conversation about tools and techniques. They were quite taken with the label on my large bottle of Gorilla Glue. From previous projects I’ve found out its almost impossible to buy in Japan and phenomenally expensive.



I am using two types of traditional nails on this boat. The small-headed one is for edge-joining the sides and bottom. The large-headed nail is for fastening the sides to the bottom. I use the same tsubanomi (“sword hilt chisel”) to cut holes for both. I have to carefully determine how deep to chisel so the nail is not too loose and I mark the chisel with a piece of tape.




If I had a proper workshop it would not have a concrete floor. At the very least it would be wood, but one often sees in Japan dirt floors. This is to provide a grip for the props used to hold the planks in place. In my case I strengthened the trestle the boat is resting on and screwed a long scrap to the base. To that I screwed wood blocks to set my props against. You can see I also used clamps, something my teachers would not have done.


We all make mistakes: of 30 nails used to fasten the sides one missed its pilot hole and came out through the inside of the boat. I will carefully chisel a mortise around it, clench it back in and fit a plug. It just happened to come out through one of the plugs in the mortise for one of the edge nails fastening the bottom.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

From Boats to Barrels

Putting up two blog posts in less than an hour. On my second day off I went to Shodoshima with two friends from Takamatsu. I had been invited by a group of people learning traditional barrel-making. They belong to a group called KiOke, which means "wooden barrel."  See their website here.

They had discovered my first book on making tub boats on Sado Island, which is essentially barrel-making, so it was fun to meet them and be energized by a group of enthusiastic young Japanese committed to learning a traditional craft.

They have one key person with experience. They've been gathering every January for the last four years at Yamaroku soy sauce factory and building the company new barrels.

Shodoshima coming into view from the ferry. Actually the island fills my horizon where I am living and working right now.

The entrance to the company, which is over 150 years old.

They were signing the bottom of their latest barrel when we arrived.

This man is making a shallow groove as a rabbet for the bottom of another barrel.

The new barrel.

A mother inked her baby's foot and signed.

The braided bamboo hoops used to hold the barrels together. This is the trickiest part and it was really interesting talking to the cooper about the difference between the hoops he makes and those I made for tub boats.

To give you a sense of the size, I am standing next to a barrel made last year.

Volunteers wrapping strips of bamboo in rice straw rope. This is slipped inside the hoop and pads it out. The hoop is braided of what is essentially a flat material, so it has a convex cross-section.

You can see the padding inside this hoop.


They store their bamboo, cut last month in the soy sauce warehouse where its cool and moist.

What it looks like on top of the barrels. This is where the soy sauce maker works. This company has sixty barrels and just one maker.

You can see a pair of the bamboo nails that holds the sides planks together. Also, the signing along the edge is a traditional among coopers. My tub boat teacher did it too, writing sayings of good luck for his customers.

The oldest barrels on the premises are 150 years old. Hoops don't last that long and have to be replaced every decade or so. The spores or bacteria (or yeast?) that allows soy sauce to ferment quickly grows on the exterior of the barrels. The maker explained that each soy sauce has a different flavor because of the environment in which its made.

He said the warehouse building is 200 years old but the timbers were obviously recycled. He suspects they came from an older soy sauce factory because the spores invade the beams, therefore they are very valuable to reuse.

As soon as the new barrel was moved they started assembling another one.


The head cooper started braiding some hoops.

He's very fast. Again, it was great talking to him. One thing I noticed immediately in conversation was his terms for coopering were different than the terms I learned from my teacher. He's from Tokushima, quite a ways from Sado Island.

One of the friends who accompanied me on this trip, David Billa, offered to take me to Ogijima in two weeks. This island has only 200 people, but is up from a population of just 120 thanks to a concerted effort to encourage immigration. I am eager to visit another island in the Inland Sea.

Finishing the bottom

With the bottom assembled and bent to shape, it was time to pick up my plugs which were mass produced at the main shop and plug all the nail mortises. That was fifteen cedar plugs in each side plank and sixty hinoki plugs in the bottom.




It was quicker to just saw off the cedar plugs with a handsaw then hand plane them flush. I had asked the owner of the company if he could find an adze so I could quickly cut down the hinoki plugs but he couldn’t get one, so I used my large chisel and cut them close to the surface, then used an electric plane, and finally my hand plane. I went over all the surface quickly with a sander when I was done.






I am using the same method used on the previous garden boats and through-bolting the transoms straight down. This mean I had to cut a pocket in the transoms.



The boat has three bench seats, each supported by a pair of bulkheads. The seats are just set on top of the bulkheads so the space under the seats can be used to store life preservers. I put in the two middle bulkheads, lagged from below through the bottom.



With transoms and center bulkheads installed, I bent the two planks around the boat. As you can see it was a creative use of clamps, though in truth I did most of the bending with a rope; the clamps are just holding the planks in place. I wanted to line the planks up and then I can mark where to trim the planks off as well as mark the fastening locations. I will be using traditional flat-steel nails along the bottom and long lags at the transoms.