Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Two Boats, Two Coasts

I've been teaching four and five-week Japanese boatbuilding courses at Middlebury College and Bates College, respectively (you can read about my Bates class at the previous posting), but I've long wanted to try a week-long workshop so I could expand this teaching to craft schools and other venues. This summer I've taught two such workshops: the first at the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine and just last week at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, Washington. For my Bates class and these two workshops we built slightly different versions of a type of river boat found in the delta of the Shinano River in Niigata, Japan. Japanese river boats tend to be simpler than sea boats, but they give students a chance to try all the skills of Japanese traditional boatbuilding: fitting seams with handsaws, piloting special edge-nails with unique chisels, hardwood dovetail fastenings, etc.

I was confident my workshops could build these boats in a week because in Japan that's how long it took solitary boatbuilders to make them! On that score, I am headed back to Japan this fall and will be working with two boatbuilders. One is the last builder of this type of boat in Niigata, now eighty-six, and then another boatbuilder on the Sea of Japan in Himi, Toyama. This is part of a larger research collaboration with the Apprenticeshop. We hope to create a boatbuilding exchange program with Japan. For more information and to help, please see our crowdfunding page. This campaign ends the end of October, 2019.


Historic photo showing one of these boats, a smaller version than what we built. Note the intersesting cutout in the sheer just forward of the beam.

The drawings these class boats are based on. I found some errors in the dimensions and the name of this boat, "nofuninawase" is itself interesting. I translate it as "farmer-built" though I could be wrong. The boatbuilder I am slated to work with calls these boats "honryousen," which means "typical boat."

Piloting nail holes with the sword-hilt chisel.

Edge-nailing the bottom planks.

The joint between the bow and stern planks in these boats is a tongue-and-groove. My Bates students cut this by hand, but feeling pressed for time I elected to use a router to cut grooves and then we splined this joint. Boatbuilders will be amazed at such a simple joint with no knees or any framing backing it up. There are no nails used here either; the joint is held together by the fastening of the side planking to the bottom and ends.

Laying out for the assembly of the side planking.

Side planks seams being fitted for fastening. The backbone of the boat is visible in the center.

Nailing pattern for our scarf joint in the side planks. All our material was 16-foot northern white pine.

Side planks propped in place and saw-fitting to fit to the bottom.

A single beam, along with the seat, holds the planking apart. The beam fits into shallow mortices. This boat was finished with the minimum of internal framing (which you can see from historic photos). This was due to time constraints. I had just five students in this workshop working for five days.

The completed boat. Note beams at the hood ends of the planks fore and aft.

All five students in the boat.


Preparing the bottom planks in Port Townsend, which were Ponderosa pine.

Nailing the bottom two planks together.

 Cutting mortises for edge-nails.

Riley McMath, boat shop manager, did double duty as our workshop's blacksmith.

He made all of our nails in his small forge.

Once again a router, this time a trim router balanced on the edge of the plank.

The assembled side planks propped against the bottom ready to be traced for shape. Note the use of weights amidships to hold the assembly. Our ceilings were 13-feet tall which was interesting, using very long props.

Planing the flying surface on the side planks.



Saw-fitting the sides.

Note the angle cut in the end of the side planks. The beams at either end have a matching notch so the beams, which are only fastened from underneath, trap the plank ends and hold them.


We installed two beams in this boat, both with half lap dovetails at the sheer.

A look at the layout of the beam joint.

I followed another boatbuilder's tradition and had the student sign their names to the underside of one of the beams. One student carved the Chinese character for her name.


Class photo.

Once again, everyone aboard. A bit scarier with nine students.

The sculling paddle is used with a notch in the aft beam. In fact in Japan I've seen boatmen scull facing aft like this student.




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