Thursday, September 10, 2015

Japanese carpentry books....."The Genius of Japanese Carpentry"



More books to share.....and a note.


These aren't meant to be reviews per se, but a brief glimpse of some content and photos. All books are good books, but it might be nice to have known which of these would've been most helpful to me as I am learning, particularly when dealing with a subject matter as obscure as Japanese carpentry. Support your library system and borrow first! The library system here in Hawaii isn't all that large, so I have only been able to borrow a few pertinent titles, but that has saved me a few buck right there. The other books I bought used through for about $60 (shipping included), about the cost of two nights of take-out dinners.....not that we do that sort of thing, haha. I know where the true value lies. The only knowledge wasted, is that which isn't shared.





"The Genius of Japanese Carpentry ", by Azby Brown.



Courtesy of the Hawaiian state library system, this large format 2013 hardcover is a second edition color revision of Azby Brown's original 1995 work. The new edition has new material and revised text, as well as more pictures, color at that. I flipped through the original ages ago so I can't say for sure, but I suspect that this new printing would be an improvement. It's a very pretty book, very nice to look at. A coffee-table-y kind of book.







Interspersed throughout the book are little woodworking koans, quotes from the masters mouth, that are very good reading.




Really, this book is about a man who has dedicated his life to his craft, master carpenter Tsunekazu Nishimura.



Azby Brown was fortunate enough to spend much time over the course of numerous years observing and learning from this dedicated craftsman. This is a man who sees himself as an extension of a continual line of stewards, working to preserve these temples that are over a 1000 years old.



Yakushiji temple, was dedicated in 697 and finished in 698 (!!!), and then had to be dismantled and moved to a new location 20 years later. Just another benefit of joined timber construction, yes? Over the course of time, these structures get burned down during periods of civil unrest, or just fall out of favor. Buddhism loses it's once popular status and devotional money just isn't there anymore so buildings quickly degrade. I've read that small local temples were often completely disassembled and rebuilt every 20 years, but that would've been a local concern and responsibility.


Yakushiji is the main temple for an entire sect of Buddhism, so it was of a national importance. Burned down, rebuilt, redesigned, then ignored, it was evidently ready for a face-lift. The principles couldn't aquire government funding or they just wanted to keep things pure, but in any event, the rebuild has been financed through prayer donations. Very cool. Nishioka was part of the rebuilding of the East pagoda, then took detailed measurements to use in building an identical West pagoda, which burned to the ground 1000 years ago. He helped build the Golden Hall in the 70's (burned 500 years ago), and designed an entirely new lecture hall, a structure that wasn't completed until after his death. Talk about dedication.





The temple grounds and the buildings within are built to a grid design. The columns are proportional.



So, lots of temple design, but where's the woodworking part of the book?


Some rules of "proper" construction. Let's start with wood selection.




Trees grow differently, based on climactic and local conditions. North facing slopes promote slower/stronger growth. Trees that grow in warm lush valleys make for attractive wood, but tend to be weak structurally.


We get this one page. It's a short section, piques your interest, but that's all you get.




"Fabrication" shows some great shots of guys working.



Power tools are used, but are tucked away for pictures, haha. You can see the piles of shavings that you get from a power planer, everywhere. Hand tools are used for the finished surfaces.






Some really nice working stock. Huge logs! And the guy on the right.....that's how I feel when I'm doing layout. I think of this guy, I want to be like him.



Some REALLY scary power tool use.



And a guy showing just how fun it is to use a kanna. Really! When you get it figured out, it's a blast!




More carpentry knowledge.



Wood compresses as it ages, so you should allow for settling in the design phase.


So much for that chapter. That was it. Not many secrets in this book.




There is a brief chapter detailing some of the different tools used by the temple carpenters.



This was one of my favorites (not surprising, being the tool guy that I am) because we get a glimpse of the masters own tools, near as I can tell. I love the stacked tool boxes in the background.....this one for these chisels, that box has detail and moulding planes....this box is for yari-ganna.



You know what gives me the fuzzies? Most of my tools look old and well cared for, just like his. You see the evidence of use everywhere, and you know that every blade is sharp. His saws have been used, repaired, tuned and sharpened. The similarity is mostly because I try to buy decent (although not fancy), well used tools, and most of what I've learned so far has been from examining the best of what I've got.







Finally, some meat. "Making a joint".


The ubiquitous Koshikake kamatsuge, the stepped goose-neck splice, start to finish.




I love to see this guy's layout, and this instruction would've helped me greatly during our Project Mayhem #2.





You'll notice that he uses a big drill and spiral bit to remove the bulk of the waste from the mortice. Smart man.



The remainder of the book deals with the design and erection of the new picture hall.





I like this image, showing how the spliced timber sits in relation to the round post, being just enough to the side that it gains support from the post, but not in direct compression from the timbers that will set atop.


Also, we see that the rectangular beams are joined within the round posts, making round scribe work unnecessary. Practical.



There is some detail on the construction of the massive doors and sills.


Assuming that in time the 500 lb. door will sag, or that the sill will become worn, the parts and pieces have been made to be disassembled as reasonably as possible. I like that.



And the roof. Japanese temple roofs are incredibly complex, and this book goes into quite a bit of detail here.


The photo on right is one of my favorites, the long, graceful curve of the fine.



Another interesting detail pointed out here, is that the granite paving stones that surround the structure are layed on a levelled bed of primarily dry mortar mix.


Evidently, a ladle full of water is poured in the center, the stone is carefully placed and leveled, then water would be gently applied after all of the stones are set. A gentle mist would seep through the joints, and any remaining dry mortar would soon cure by absorbing moisture from the subsoil and ambient humidity. Fast, clean, and easy, I love it! I've done the dry cement thing when setting fence posts, but it never occurred to me to try the same thing when setting pavers.




After the ridge beam is placed, there is a traditional ceremony of honour and dedication.




This brief chapter describes the ceremony in some detail. The carpenters represent the more anamistic Shinto faith, dressing as priests to honour the forest spirits, then entreating them to leave the new temple peaceably and with great thanks.



After this, the true Buddhist priests enter to complete the dedication ceremony......then everyone involved goes off to a nice restaurant and have dinner and more than a few drinks. Carpenters are the same everywhere, haha.




I enjoyed reading this book, the pictures are beautiful and Azby Brown's writing is very enjoyable. That said, there is almost no practical carpentry here, under 10 pages in all. With this book, you are getting a glimpse into how an exclusive tradition has developed and been maintained for centuries, and there are certainly a few valuable pointers. It will give food for thought, but it's not going to help you build anything, cut the joinery or even use the tools.


It will definitely foster humility. These guys are amazing.


  1. spoiler alert? That's a great summary of the book, I had it, I gave it. Don't have a coffee table yet.

    It's funny, I was seeing those pictures today at Jose's house, one of the first students. He bought it for 5usd in ebay. He also bought a set of kanna, unused stuff. Very lifeless and cheap stuff, I was sad he didn't get one of those old beauties that teach us so much. Oh, and I also have a small review to make of the cheap chinese aluminium oxide stones, more on that later.

    1. When I first got interested in the Japanese tools thing, I knew that I couldn't afford to buy good new tools, so I started at eBay. I was afraid to buy internationally, because all you hear about are the horror stories that some fool experienced, expecting that it would be like buying something off the shelf at Home Depot. " Aaagh! The dai was cracked!.... blades didn't doesn't work was too tight, unusable!.....", little did I know that they are all like that, often even the new ones (but I can read, so I had a hint). You hear about waiting 3 months, never getting what you bought, etc.....

      So....I was only bidding on the domestic auctions, and I was looking for stuff that looked as new as possible, preferably unused. Who wants a crummy old, weird looking kanna, right. Well, the first 3 auctions I lost, thankfully, because I soon realized that the kanna I had been bidding on were extremely mediocre, and too expensive as well. My 4th auction, I figured that I'd roll the dice on a real Japanese tool, from Japan, and it turned out to be just a fantastic beauty. Like $50 total and I had a tool WAY nicer than I deserved, and would've been $400+ had I bought retail. I was hooked. There are killer deals on Japanese tools (as you know), so it seems a shame that people might be spending more than they need to.


      Even the simple tools can be awesome.

  2. That table saw cut, the man I bought my saw from had the same technique.

    Very quick, he was extremely familiar with the saw, it's vintage to me but he bought it was new!

    Those pictures are very well done, it looks like a lovely book.

    1. It really is a nice book, definitely worth a read. I wouldn't buy it to learn anything about Japanese carpentry though.

      The picture that REALLY scared me was the guy pushing that monster beam over the jointer! Yikes! One eats your arm! That's just my imagination running wild though. You'd have to be quite the fool to hurt yourself, jointing big stuff like that, it's not like it's going to run away on you, slide too fast. For tablesaws, I get spoiled from using crosscut sleds for so many operations. Easy peasy, but I'm sure that guy is about 2,000,000x better at anything than I am, tablesaws included. He knows what he's doing.

      I miss my old saw, though. I get lazy sometimes, haha.


Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.

Thanks, Jason