I managed to sneak in a few lessons between his busy production schedule with Yann Giguère of Mokuchi Woodworking in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, NY. Yann undertook a nine year apprenticeship in traditional Japanese carpentry with Dale Brotherton of Takumi Company, and there are few people more capable of teaching hand tool skills and passing on knowledge than Yann at the moment. Interestingly enough, Yann was also there in Iowa when Yataiki was teaching, and I heard about him from a traveling shakuhachi musician/carpenter Max Citron who visited with a trove of great photos and video from Takenaka carpentry museum while I was in Vermont.
What a great teacher! Like most of the people you’ll meet that work in this field Yann showed a total lack of pretentiousness or aloofness. You might imagine that we dived right in to the intricacies of koyabari, hip roof layout, and joked about the frustrations of kumiko-zaiku work. However, of far greater utility was working at the fundamentals of good carpentry; marking, sawing to a line, sharpening, and tuning kanna. I could have spent three times as long learning this and not have gotten it all.
For example, even more than discussing what a good layout looks like we started with exploring the sumisashi (bamboo ink brush). I’ve made a few of these in the past for marking logs to saw to boards, but approached their use with a admittedly western mindset, placing the bevel on the wrong side of the pen for right handed use. You see, I was assuming that the greatest accuracy came from holding the marking tool plumb against the straight edge. The reality of this is that you can’t very well see the line that you’re marking, and tend to draw less than straight lines. Ever wondered why your marks don’t come square around a piece you’re marking even though you know the piece is perfectly square? By holding the bevel edge of the sumisashi against the square you’re hand is out of the way allowing a clear view of the work.
And neither in this regard did Yann have a slavish attitude of adherence to one particular marking instrument. In his shop at the time was a bunch of white ash being joined into a low bed for tatami, marked with pencil because the ink might bleed into the open pores of the wood and require too much material be removed at finish planing to remove the marks. So too did I see a nice selection of left and right hand marking knives.
Next, having myself had the need to show the use of the hand saw, I was greatly impressed to see the ease and naturalness with which Yann let the saw work. We discussed the problems I’ve seen in my own work with producing flat sawn surfaces, mostly related with pushing the saw too hard into the cut and using too dull of a saw. You might expect that Yann used only the highest quality saws, but everything of what was demonstrated to me was quite intentionally with saws of the disposable blade variety. And he had quite a nice collection of hand made saws.
Including three maebiki-oga, one of which you can see in the background!
We covered snapping lines with sumitsubo, Yann demonstrating how, and why, to snap curved lines by twisting the ink line. Most of my last lesson was devoted to sharpening and tuning of kanna, which opened my eyes on what good sharpening looks like, and its not like I’ve failed to spend my fair share of time learning this skill. Will I be able to sharpen while squatting on the ground? Lets find out…
I feel ready to make my first foray into Japanese structural carpentry now, for better or worse, daiku means action and practice, and I can see the road ahead quite clearly.
Even in the short period of time I spent at Yann’s shop I learned more than could possibly be discussed in a simple blog post, and that would miss the point in any case. Having come from a fine music background previous to carpentry it was not hard for me to appreciate the relationship of student and teacher for the direct transmission of knowledge. Some things are still most easily communicated person to person.
Imagine then a gathering of many skilled carpenters! Kezurou Kai NYC will be held August 26-27, 2016 in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, NY. Last year Jim Blauvelt won the planing competition, and he not only cut the dai he used, but forged the kanna! Want to go?