Japanese Carpentry Day at the Portland Japanese Garden

February 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

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The Portland Japanese Garden (Garden) is one of the Rose City’s real treasures. This week the Garden is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, and as part of the festivities it’s holding a series of events each day to highlight aspects of the Garden and its history. Today was Japanese Carpentry Day, featuring a lecture and demonstration by the renowned Dale Brotherton, a woodworker out of Seattle, Washington who specializes in Japanese woodworking and carpentry.

Dale Brotherton owns and operates the design/build firm Takumi Company. His short Bio is here. Dale teaches a few courses each year at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, and this year is also teaching at EcoNest in Ashland, Oregon.

While he has focused previous lectures at the Garden on specific Japanese architectural forms, this presentation instead highlighted traditional Japanese woodworking and the tools themselves (I picked a good year to attend). He laid out for display his core set of tools and described how each is made and used, and contrasted them with their Western counterparts. The last 45 minutes of the presentation he cut and assembled a dovetailed joint to bring together two large pieces of cedar. While working he commented (though there was no need as it was readily apparent) about how the body is used while working. Nothing is clamped to the bench. Simply resting parts of the body on the piece keeps it in place. He recalled his mentors telling him that if the piece moves on the bench, something is wrong. Either your body isn’t positioned correctly or your tools aren’t sharp. (For planing he uses a planing stop on the bench – no way around that one). And of course some of the work is done closer to the floor and not on a bench. Working this way requires certain muscles to be in good condition – both strong and flexible. He showed us how he still squats on the floor to do all his sharpening – “it keeps the legs strong and in tune with the work”.

Pictures of the tools are below. One thing you immediately recognize is that these are the not the tools of a collector or a weekend-warrior hobbyist woodworker. These tools have been used day in and day out for years. Look at how far down some of those chisels have been sharpened. The wooden handles on everything are well patinated. Nothing fancy, nothing overly clean and polished, just great user tools that have literally built houses.

For the tool junkies out there – he did have these things to say:

  • He has never felt a need for “dovetail” chisels or fishtails or skews. He just uses some very small chisels to get into tight places and has also ground one of his chisels down to have tiny flats on the sides.
  • He uses a hefty hammer – 450 grams (16oz). Much of that is probably because he does larger scale architectural work, but for all work he likes the concentrated mass of a heavier hammer.
  • One of his favorite tools is a Japanese chamfer plane, and it’s one he recommends to students. It’s easy to use, and the chamfer is an integral part of traditional Japanese design.
  • While there are now modern equivalents, he still prefers a traditional sumitsubo (ink pot and line) and bamboo ink brush for laying out joinery.
  • White steel chisels. Not blue steel and not HSS. He likes white steel.

The event was held in the main pavilion building in the Gardens, and it was a packed house. A show of hands revealed that only about a third of us were woodworkers. There were students who were obviously taking notes for some class project of some sort, and probably a few people who sauntered in for the free tea. But everyone was enthralled by the work. The demonstration culminated by someone in the audience helping to pound the dovetail joint together with his huge black locust and ash commander. It was a good day.

More:
Jay Van Arsdale is another well-known West Coast woodworker specializing in traditional Japanese techniques. He has a few videos out, and though I haven’t seen them, I’ve heard good things about them. One is available at Popular Woodworking, and a few can purchased directly from his website.

Chris Hall writes the Carpentry Way blog, a terrific resource on Japanese woodworking. He is currently writing an exhaustive series of posts on Japanese Gate Typology. He’s up to 28 and counting.

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