Highland Woodworking Wood News Online: A Weekend with Toshio by Jim Dillon
Highland Woodworking Wood News Online A Weekend with Toshio by Jim Dillon, June 2006

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A Weekend with Toshio

By Jim Dillon

A Weekend with Toshio by Jim Dillon You might think sitting in a demonstration class by a famous woodworker whose books and articles you're thoroughly familiar with wouldn't be worthwhile. The analogy is going to a concert when you already own all the group's albums, and they play the same songs exactly the same way they always have. But a truly excellent musician comes to the show with a new perspective, and new or unexpected material. A perceptive concertgoer will catch musical nuances and elements of technique unavailable on recordings. And at the very best performances, there's a palpable sense that artists and audience are feeding each other energy, almost collaborating.

That's how it was the other weekend when Toshio Odate came to Highland Hardware. In a very dynamic, give-and-take series of presentations, Toshio wowed us with material none of us had seen, adjusted his topics based on attendees' interests, amazed us with his hand skills, and left us all hoping he'll come back soon.

Odate's careers as a sculptor and academic have been on the periphery of the woodworking world's awareness: we mostly think of him as the single person who has done the most to make traditional Japanese tools and methods accessible to Americans. Friday evening's slide show and lecture/discussion changed our perspectives. Abstract expressionism, industrial forms blending modernism and pop art, conceptual sculpture, highly personal iconic architectural pieces, and large installations drawing on Japanese residential architecture: Odate has produced enough works in any of these styles to be considered a significant artist. (If you doubt me, check out the current issue of Woodwork magazine for an article summarizing Friday's lecture).

In Saturday's and Sunday's sessions, Toshio explained and demonstrated Japanese tools with flair, humor, and an infectious reverence for the materials, craftsmanship, and history that goes into their making. I found myself jotting down both nuggets of wisdom about the methods and attitude of the shokunin (craftsman) and humor, for example this paraphrase: "Americans love Gorilla Glue more than nails. They don't like nails at all. You shouldn't treat nails like measles!" which was followed by an enlightening demonstration of how to make the strongest nail joints possible. And I promise I'm going to give nails another chance!

What struck me hardest, though, was the amazing amount of information that can't be captured in books or photographs. Just a couple of examples: not just the grip used on the smooth plane, but the hand movements that produce the grip. How to elevate and angle the planing beam for your own comfort and efficiency. Bringing the mortise chisel back with the return stroke of the hammer to prevent it seizing in the wood (a movement almost too quick for the eye to follow). Every few minutes I had an "aha" moment as Toshio made something I'd struggled with look easy, and the other attendees made it clear they felt the same way. Even Toshio's longtime assistant, Leure Olender told me she continues to pick up new nuances in the use of the tools as she watches him work.

Sunday afternoon, tired by his performance as any musician I've seen leaving the stage after the last encore, Toshio left us with a beautiful redwood shoji, new or renewed respect for our tools and our calling as woodworkers, and most of all a thirst for more. Toshio, if you're reading this, how soon can you come back and teach us how to sharpen our chisels?

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