Sunday, January 28, 2018

Middlebury College: Building the Japanese Boat

We are three-quarters of the way through our class, now committed to building two Japanese boats: one is the 21-foot Hozu River boat and the other is based on a rice field boat from Niigata. For the latter I am scaling it down slightly working from a photograph of the original. We don't have time to scarf our material into longer lengths, hence the shortened version.

A look at the bottom of our boat.

Our planking material is sixteen-feet long, so we have to scarf together and make longer lengths. Note the traditional scarf joint which is edge-nailed.

Students then start saw fitting small pieces at either end of our long plank to give it enough width at the ends.

Meanwhile, we've assembled the bow, bottom and transom, held together with props, and bent the bottom using the large post amidships.

Cutting nail mortises for the side planks.

Nailing the side planks together.

You can see the side plank and if you click on the photo to enlarge it and look closely you can count four pieces total.

Three nails came through the back of the planking. One we were able to tap back out and re-insert properly; one we just couldn't seem to get to work so we abandoned; and this one we decided to do a traditional fix by bending the tip back and mortising under the nail.

Then the tip is bent over...

...and pounded back into the plank like a clench nail. A plug fills the mortise.

Bending the side planks on the boat. I like teaching these river boats because most feature wide bows, thereby making the bending much easier. In sea boats planking has to be bent over an open fire, something that is difficult to accommodate in the classroom.

Students beginning to fit the side planks using handsaws. This may be the most difficult technique in Japanese boatbuilding, since you are working around a curve and its VERY easy to start sawing into the planking or bottom. It is also surprisingly easy to not notice you are doing this (often its only visible from underneath).

I tried to reassure my students that cutting into the plank is a mistake I've made, as well as my teachers. One of my teachers made me lay on the floor over a period of several days and just watch the tip of his saw and warn him if it wandered out of the seam.

My class convinced me to let them build a second boat, so a student got started fitting the bottom planks. Note she was using a kasugai, or staple set in the end grain to clamp the planks together.

Meanwhile I was cutting our fastenings for the second boat, oak dovetail keys.

Students chiseling mortises for the keys.

These fastenings have various names throughout Japan, but in the Niigata region where this boat comes from they are called chigiri.

Here is the backbone for the smaller boat. Its based on a photograph of a tabune, or rice field boat from Niigata. Locally these are called itaawase, which means "plank built."

My slightly scaled-down version was designed so our 16-foot long planks could work without scarfing. I think its going to be a very pretty little canoe-like boat.

Here is our bigger boat, with the small one in the background. We are three weeks in, with just one week to go until launching.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

2018 Middlebury College Winter Term: Building the Japanese Boat

For the third time in four years I am teaching a one-month Winter Term class at Middlebury College entitled Building the Japanese Boat. In this class fifteen students build a traditional boat using Japanese tools and methods, but mostly the class is intended to explore apprentice learning. We work largely in silence. It also includes readings, journals, and a final paper. I blogged about previous Winter Term classes here and here.

This year we are building a larger version of one of the boats we made in our inaugural class: a 21-foot long ayubune from the Hozu River near Kyoto. We are half way through the class as I write this post. If things go well this week I may decide we can build a second, smaller boat. On February 1st we will have a Shinto boat launching in the College swimming pool.

 Students beginning the process of fitting the planks for the bottom: planks braced overhead, they saw through the seam to create a tight fit, a technique called suriawase.

 Chiseling pilot holes for our edge-nails. Students have to chisel from the edge of the plank back to the base of the mortises they cut in the plank face using special chisels called tsubanomi.
 Two of the three bottom planks clamped together while students drive the edge nails. These are made of flat steel stock for us by blacksmith Jim Fecteau of Huntington River Smithy.
 Fitting the bow transom. The Hozu River boats feature wide bow transoms because this is a white water stream and the added buoyancy keeps the bow of the boat from burying when traveling downstream.
 A student finish planing our bottom.
 These boats are propelled by bamboo poles used aft, and short paddles used near the bow. Here a student shapes our paddle using the Japanese slick, or tsukinomi.

 We have begun scarfing together material for our two side planks using traditional joinery.
As of the midpoint of our course the backbone is complete. This week we will build and hang the side planks.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More Rhythmic Nailing

Various posts I've put up at Instagram and here on my blog with videos showing boatbuilders nailing have been popular. I was just sent a link to a boatbuilder I met last spring. His style is relaxed and subtle, but he too says this is essential to driving the nail when the risk of splitting the planking is high.

Enjoy this short video here.

This boatbuilder has invited me to come and help him build a boat in the early part of 2019. I blogged about him a bit here.

I am toying with the idea of developing this boatbuilding project into a workshop of some sort, allowing folks who are interested in participating in the building of a traditional Japanese boat. Drop me a line at if you are interested.