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Toshio Odate Japanese Tool Seminar

Tohio Odate Japanese Tool Seminar Notes
Tohio Odate

Notes from Toshio Odate seminar at Highland Woodworking 1982.
Always an honor to host a weekend learning and practicing with this eminent master,
written by Zach Etheridge.

Originally Published Wood News No. 8 Winter 1982

When Toshio politely refused to let me carry his suitcase full of tools from the airport baggage claim area to the parking lot, I began to realize that be felt something more than simple respect for those tools--but still I had no idea of what was really going on. Later, during the weekend seminar, he said "Each tool is made from someone's soul--and it should be used from the bottom of your heart." That may not sound exactly appropriate for your big box file or router; it's hard to feel the soul in a mass-produced tool. But when you hold in your hands a saw or chisel or plane iron on which is etched the name of the individual craftsman whose lifetime of care and experience has gone onto the making of that tool, you can indeed begin to understand the reverence with which such a thing should be owned and used. Here in the states we do experience pride in ownership and respect for good tools, but humility and reverence are as foreign to us as Zen or the Samurai tradition.

The weekend with Tohio Odate exposed everyone involved to a radically different and fascinating approach to the whole business of tools and their use, and in fact to a whole cultural matrix that most of us never really understood. Toshio told of his years of traditional, strict apprenticeship in Japan under a master craftsman: "He was a very kind master, except when working. He had not a speck of patience, but everybody forgave him. In spite of hitting the apprentices and throwing things at them. there were no broken necks, no injuries...maybe he knew how to hit." The emphasis places on speed as well as good craftsmanship was central to the ethic of the shokunin--one could not be really good without also being swift. Toshio proved that his apprenticeship was successful by producing an example of a traditional shoji screen in under six hours during the final day of hos visit--and demonstrated the pride of a master craftsman when, upon completion of the screen, he promptly knocked the frame apart and ordered it destroyed because "it wasn't good enough".

During the Friday night lecture Mr. Odate promised us that the rest of the weekend would be non-stop hard work, and it was, though there was no hands-on work at all for the student. On Saturday we were introduced to an immense array of tools, each with its history, a demonstration of techniques for use, and usually an instructive anecdote from personal experience. We witnessed the construction and use of the Japanese craftsman's workbench, consisting of an eight-foot 4x4 beam with one end supported by a lightweight triangle of small sticks---"it takes three nails to make the Japanese workbench". this unusual but highly useful device was used almost exclusively for planing operations, with other functions such as measuring, sawing, chiseling and sharpening being performed on a tatami mat on the floor. Though I've not yet removed the workbench from my shop, I was quite impressed with the advantages of working on the floor: one's working surface is as large as the room, and has no edges for things to fall off; one is working "in the round", with room for practically eveyr necessary tool and material within arm's reach; and body position over the work can be superb. Incidentally, the floor makes the least expensive work surface I've heard of yet.

Of the tools, Mr. Odate advised: "First get modest tools and learn to use them properly. Buying the finest tools first leads to frustration, damage, and discontent." Having already broken off three teeth from my professional quality (and quite expensive) Dozuki, I agree. Most Japanese edged tools are two-steel laminates: an extremely hard steel at the cutting edge, backed by a milder steel bulk to absorb impact and cushion against cracking of the brittle edge. In the case of saws, the whole blade is hardened, and dependnig on the intended purpose of the tool, its hardness (hence brittleness and fragility) increases in direct proportion to quality. therefore the best tools, such as Mr, Odate's $500 plane irons, require the utmost skill and delicacy in handling--they are supremely durable and precise only if not ruined by one careless or untrained move.

There is one species of Japanese tools, however, which is more forgiving in nature and in which good quality is both accessible and reasonable for the neophyte as well as the master: the water-lubricated sharpening stone. These stones were originally cut from solid blocks, like our familiar Arkansas stones, but due to the increasing rarity of large, sound blocks the waterstones available in this country now consist of powdered stone which has been fused with heat and pressure into uniform blocks. According to Mr Odate the resulting waterstone is at least as good as all but the finest of the old natural stones. He certainly proved the worth of the man-made stones with his own tools, moving quickly from very coarse to very fine stones and achieving a razor edge in minutes. He agreed with the opinion held by many of us who have lately begun using these waterstones: they cut much faster and produce a better edge than is possible with Arkansas oilstones.

In summary, Toshio Odate's seminar on Japanese woodworking was one of the most successful and certainly one onf the most challenging educational experiences we've had here at Highland. the participants learned at least as much about cultural relativity as about woodworking techniques; the most valuable new ideas might have been about learning through careful observation rather than about building shoji screens in a day. One familiar and extremely valuable impression all the participants took home with them was the sense of having been in the presence of a master, a man whose dignity and energy and skill are as fine as any of us could hope to achieve.

Zach Etheridge, Wood News No. 8 Winter 1982

Other resources:

It was just after giving his first class here in Nov. 1981 that Toshio began work on his first book, Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use, which has become an enduring classic both here and in Japan. In the decades since this first seminar, we have welcomed Toshio, now renowned author, craftsman and sculptor for many other delightful and meaningful visits.

While many Japanese woodworking traditions remain elusive to the western world, their specialized woodworking tools are available to enrich your path while becoming a master woodworker. Japanese Woodworking Tools.

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