Wood News Online Toshio Odate Tage Frid Highland Hardware Storefront
Tools For Woodworking Home Page Welcome to Highland Hardware your source for woodworking tools View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions

The following article was originally published in Wood News No. 16, Fall 1985.

Japanese Woodworkers
by Tom Frazer

In Kyoto, Japan, a few supreme artisans such as woodworker Isaburo Wada still ply their craft in a timeless tempo known as "Kyoto time".

For more than a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan. As such, her rulers attracted the most skilled artisans, and slowly, over the centuries, the city became a repository of the highest expression of artistic endeavor.

By good fortune, I was invited to Japan last fall by that country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was able to meet Wada and other Japanese woodworkers, as well as most of the master toolmakers of Miki City.
Traditional Hibachi
And indirectly from Wada, I learned the meaning of "Kyoto time". It went like this:
Wada is the sixth generation head of Enami Co., Ltd., a company that has specialized in textiles and traditional Kyoto joinery for 200 years. It is the oldest Kyoto joinery firm still in business. As he showed me through his multi-story workshop, a large, donut-shaped piece of wood caught my eye, and I asked Wada what it was.

"It's going to be a traditional hibachi," answered Wada. Then glancing at his homemade lathe, he commented, "I could have turned it on that machine in five minutes, but I wanted to shape the wood the old-fashioned way, by hand planing. But you must shave off only a small amount at a time. Otherwise, the wood will crack."
"How long have you been working on it?" I asked in all innocence.
"Ten years," responded Wada. "And the wood was aged ten years before I began work."

Wada, official boxmaker to the Emperor, thus knows how to work according to "Kyoto time", a timeless time in which an artist works to utter perfection, his attitude uncluttered by any other earthly consideration.

But don't imagine that Wada is simply a cobwebby throwback to yesteryear. He is a tireless experimenter, and uses everything from outdoor weathering to chemicals and a kiln to stabilize the shape and color of wood. Although he has achieved 20-year stabilization, Wada nevertheless is dissatisfied and says he is trying to do even better.
Wada Lathe
He is particularly proud of an elaborate wood lathe he designed and constructed of aluminum, welding it himself. The lathe is used chiefly for making wooden bowls, and because Wada wanted to make it easier for apprentices to duplicate a given shape, he designed his own screw-feed bit arrangement, very similar to that of a mctalworking lathe. Instead of employing a hand-held turning tool, an apprentice can turn handscrews to feed the cutting bit.

But Wada's crowning achievement with his lathe is his own novel design which permits the workpiecc to be held onto the chuck by vacuum supplied by an electric air pump. Without screws or chuck jaws, Wada pointed out, the wood cannot possibly be damaged.

Without doubt, Wada's dogged pursuit of artistic achievement resulted in his being designated a kyo-sashimono, or traditional craft joiner, by the Japanese government in 1977. Three years earlier, Wada made 36 boxes for the Ise Shrine, the holiest shrine of Japan's native Shinto religion. (Showing a spirit remarkably different from the builders of the pyramids, officials responsible for the Ise Shrine order the sacred wooden complex torn down and painstakingly rebuilt at 20 year intervals.)

Wada and his ten apprentices specialize in handcrafting exquisite small-to-medium sized objects of wood, such as intricate boxes, bowls, screens, trays, lamps, inkstone containers, spoons, tables, chests and shelves.

Wada and his craftsmen use some 35 varieties of hardwood and softwood, although he said about sixty percent of what he uses is paulownia. He described it as "the lightest and softest wood in Japan."

Years ago, Wada said, paulownia was exported to the United States where it was planted as a shade tree. But since no one used it for any other purpose, he said, the Japanese are now importing it back to Japan. "It has a cell structure similar to grass and only grows a maximum of about eighty years, like a human being," said Wada. "When it reaches forty to sixty years, that is the best time to take the tree - also the best age for a craftsman to produce his best work." said Wada.

The kyo-sashimono is so determined to preserve traditions that his workshop still can turn out an incredible 7500 different wooden objects of traditional Kyoto design. In many cases, the objects are made in exactly the same manner that craftsmen made them 1000 years ago. Sometimes, over the centuries, the designs evolved minutely. For instance, items made for the Ise Shrine included a box-like container crafted from peeled willow switches to hold cups and slippers. According to Wada, the original containers were tied together with strips of willow bark. Now he uses silk thread to copy the newer, current design.

Although Wada employs the use of some power tools, traditional Japanese hand tools account for the bulk of his shop's craftsmanship. His company possesses a collection of some 45,000 hand tools, among them planes between 200 and 400 years old.

Wada's apprentices sit at the lower end of slanted, thick cherry planks that serve as workbenches. Only a small wooden stop set into the plank at the apprentice's end adorns the workbenches. Traditionally, said Wada, craftsmen sat on cushions on the floor and bent over their work. But because bending for long periods can hurt the back, Wada has arranged for the workbenches to be elevated and his apprentices now sit on low stools.
Wada Apprentice
For himself, Wada reserves a small room for his private workshop. He sits on a cushion and works under a solitary hanging lamp. On the tatami mat within easy reach are a variety of marking gauges, chisels, saws and planes. More saws and planes rest in wall racks.

For an interested visitor, Wada will pluck several ancient tools from their special places and display them reverently. He explains that the small saw and the worn chisel were made from very special blue steels, which enable them to hold their sharpened cutting edges longer than the tools available today. Wada, a traditionalist, treasures their exquisite quality.
Kenkichi Kuroda
Another premier Kyoto woodworker is Kenkichi Kuroda, the teacher mentioned by Charles Roche, his former student who wrote about Japanese lacquer in the March '85 issue of Fine Woodworking. Thanks to Howard Lazzarini, another former student, I was able to meet Kuroda, who specializes in lacquered wooden trays.

Lazzarini, both guide and translator, explained that Kuroda is unusual in Japan because he both crafts the trays and applies the lacquer. Normally, he said, craftsmen concentrate on either one or the other.

A lacquered tray measuring roughly 12 by 18 inches requires an "absolute minimum" of a month and a half to complete, said Lazzarini, adding that prices run in the vicinity of $500 to $600.

Incidentally, Lazzarini recalled that during the first three months of his apprenticeship, he was restricted to sharpening tools. "Regular" Japanese apprentices, he said, begin by sharpening tools for six months before being allowed to move forward. During this time, Lazzarini said, he also made his own tiny finger planes, shaping the metal blades as well as the wooden bodies.

Kuroda often uses an elm-like wood called zelkova with a very pronounced grain pattern. Moreover, he clearly is a "wood freak" equal to any of us. In one room of his house he proudly shows off huge, thick planks of a wood that translates as "horse chestnut". It is shot through with a highly-figured, burl-like pattern. Looking fondly at his precious wood, he joked with a smile, "My friends say they are anxious for me to die."

Kuroda, according to Lazzarini, is a philosopher (or philosophizer) when it comes to wood. "He feels that there is a proper way to use wood. And wood from a 500- or 600-year-old tree should be used in a special way."

Speaking for himself, Kuroda said, "In today's Japanese society, it is important to have automated things. Japan is concerned with fads, and right now, handicraft is 'in'". But Kuroda warned, "That is not a good way to approach wood. It is better to really work with your soul - not because it is a fad."

Lazzarini recalled that during his apprenticeship, Kuroda "told us to treat wood with reverence. He told us that good pieces are rare." Furthermore, Kuroda rejects the idea that human beings are somehow "above" things such as wood, Lazzarini said. "Kuroda holds that wood also has a spirit and that people should treat wood with the same respect that they treat other people."

The lacquer traditionally used by Japanese craftsmen, incidentally, doesn't come from a can. It comes as thick brown sap from the Urushi tree, and frequently produces a rash like that caused by poison sumac. After someone works with the sap for some time, he generally becomes immune to it. But Kuroda said that even after years of using lacquer, he sometimes gets a rash on soft portions of skin, such as between his fingers and behind his ears.

One of Kuroda's prize possessions is a lacquer brush given to him by his late father, one of Japan's elite "Human National Treasures". The brush is 300 years old and is made from human hair. Kuroda confides that many Japanese lacquer craftsmen believe the best brush hair comes from fishermen. "But some argue for women's hair", he added. Japanese craftsmen seem to cherish such small points.

When I told Lazzarini that I found ripping with a Japanese-style saw awkward because of the shape of the teeth, he responded that Kuroda takes both his saw and the wood he intends to cut to a sharpener, and instructs him to sharpen the teeth appropriately for that particular type of wood!

Visit Highland Hardware to Subscribe to Our Newsletter   

Copyright © 2005 Highland Hardware, Inc.

Highland Hardware| 1045 N. Highland Avenue, NE| Atlanta | GA | 30306 | 404.872.4466