Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rainy days getting you down? Build a Japanese blacksmithing bellows!

Thinking rationally for a bit, I realize that it doesn't REALLY rain every day here but… feels like it's been forever since we last had a solid day of sunshine. Rainy days are particularly bothersome for us in our open-air lifestyle ie: no windows that close, no doors and certainly no heating or dehumidifiers. Everything here is out in the open, and while that is nice when the weather is beautiful and sunny, wet days kinda suck. Three weeks of rain REALLY sucks!

There is a goodly long list of things that need doing ( replacing our sketchy tarp roof with real roofing, building a new bedroom addition for our soon-to-be teenage daughter, etc,etc,etc…..) but some tasks are better off being confined to drier days. Wooden body kanna tend to swell a bit in high humidity and can get out of whack. Lumber twists and warps, not a big problem for framing, but definitely a bad day for finer furniture projects. I don't know about you, but I hate working out in the rain anyways, so framing is out. Finish applications are verboten in this weather but given that I haven't built anything finer than a plywood box in God knows how long, that's pretty much a moot point. I can dig stuff up using the  backhoe, as long as it's not raining too hard. Sharpening tools is a good rainy day project. Working at the forge is a great thing to do on cold and dreary days. Now, if only I had set up the forge sooner……

I bought the materials for putting together a forge blower using a bathroom ventilation fan, oh, two years ago I think. Ventilation fans are high volume, low pressure, pretty much the opposite of what you really want in a forge blower, but since I'm doing all my forge work using charcoal, the bathroom fan is adequate. Best of all, it's really quiet. The thing that I DON'T like about using an electric fan is that, unless you install a momentary-on foot switch, you are burning up fuel constantly. When you are producing all your own charcoal, that's a real concern. A human powered forge bellows only makes air when you need it.

When working tool steel at the forge, temperature control is crucial so you need to regulate the air supply to make the fire hotter (or less so). You can install an inline gate valve to restrict the air volume, but the simple shaded pole induction motors used in small bathroom fans don't really like the increase in back pressure. You can wire in a rheostat, but they don't really like that either. Either of these means will work, so if that's all you got, work with it, but it's not exactly ideal. Bathroom fans use electricity of course, and that's something that is in short supply in our off grid lifestyle, so although that's another factor for me, it's probably not so much of a concern for you, hahaha.

So…'s raining again, and everyone needs a rainy day project, right?

One of things holding me back from building said forge is my oh so strong desire for a proper Japanese blacksmith bellows ( 鞴 [ふいご (fuigo)). You know…..that funny wooden box that you see sitting to the left of the forge in nearly any Japanese blacksmithing video.

I've been wanting to build a true Japanese fuigo for a long time, pretty much as long as I've been interested in forging tools. One slight hang up though, is that there are very few resources for the details of their construction. Search the internet in any language you choose and you'll find a few examples of fuigo that others have built but they have been, shall we say...simplistic in design? A traditional Japanese fuigo box bellows IS a simple thing, being essentially a box (duh!) and piston, with a few flapper valves that keep the air moving in the direction you want to it to go. There are a few hints of construction to be found that indicate that the Japanese fuigo has some details that aren't obvious to the casual observer.

Here is a couple of links to a repair that was performed for the Miki city ancient rite preservation society.

Fuigo repair (1)

Fuigo repair (2)

The fuigo being repaired had been used by one of the most highly regarded Japanese toolsmiths, Chiyozuru Sadahide I, a name that is well known to any Japanese tool aficionado. It's hard to find a more legitimate example of fuigo construction than this, and those blog posts highlight a few interesting details.

  • The long sides of the fuigo are bowed inward in both height and width (although just how much isn't specified) to better resist the force of air pressure.
  • The flapper valves are tapered, thin at top and thicker at the bottom, and are covered with rice paper to provide an improved seal. Dave Friesen of Island blacksmith did an excellent write up of this detail here……making-valves-for-fuigo-box-bellows
  • The long side panels of the fuigo are only about 9mm thick and are made up of two planks of cedar glued and reinforced using iron pins (like brads or dowels, but I can't find any pics of that detail).

Some interesting clues, to be sure. But that's not all…..

This YouTube video highlights a reproduction fuigo, skillfully built by California craftsman John Burt.

Making a Japanese box bellows

This reproduction fuigo was built for the upcoming United States visit of another well known Japanese blacksmith, sawsmith Miyano Dai Endo, better known on this side of the ocean as Yataiki (You can read more about Yataiki at the Daiku dojo website

The YouTube video mentions the bowed sides of the traditional fuigo, but also says that the bellows is tapered in length, a full 5mm from one end to the other. That's interesting……I wonder what else there is to learn here.

A few years back, Gabe Dwiggins of Granite Mountain Woodcraft wrote up the best fuigo build ever.

To top that off, the next year he drove all the way across the country to visit with Japanese saw metate Mark Grable and while there, took detailed and meticulous measures of a REAL Japanese box bellows.

There are clues here, to be sure. More than clues actually, because Gabe was able to get accurate measurements.


Ironically, this fuigo is the exact same bellows that John Burt copied in that YouTube video... cool! Small world, isn't it?

Gabe, being the awesome guy that he is, took it upon himself to draw up detailed plans, then shared this hard earned bit of intellectual gold with others. It's taken me far too long to get going on this project, but it's finally time to build this sucker!

I'm not going to give a step by step build log, because I suspect that Gabe has one of his own in the works (and if not…...hint hint!) , plus he will do a much better job of detailing this important tool build, far better than I ever could. I am just digging the opportunity to build something I've wanted for quite some time and didn't even need to do the difficult design work. I can't think of the last time I got to built something to a plan, haha.

Easy peasy. I owe you big time, Gabe!


Starting these types of projects, I start to remember certain things. Things like……

I dislike gluing up large stock and….

....I hate yellow glue ( but I'm also leary about using hide glue in this warm and humid Hawaiian enviroment).

The prospect of gluing up the various sizes required for this project was probably the single greatest obstacle to me not building this thing sooner.

I love working with different species of wood, especially when they agree with my kanna.

Most of this fuigo will be constructed of your basic western red Cedar, but when I didn't find any 20mm thick stock hidden in my lumber stash/treasure hoard (and felt too lazy to head over to the lumber yard), I decided to use this mystery wood. Harder than cedar, I suspect it's some species of mahogany. I've got a fair bit Honduran mahogany buried in my lumber pile, but this isn't it. Spanish cedar? Toon? Nope, not Toon (Australian cedar). Whatever it is, it's got a nice reddish hue and it works nicely with my edged tools, not something that I can say about the many varieties of eucalyptus we have here in Hawaii.

Doesn't matter what kind of wood it is, pig loves to dig in and take a nap.

The list of stock thicknesses for this project are various : 9mm, 18mm, 20mm and 25mm. Convert these measures into the old-school Japanese shakkanhō (尺貫法, "shaku–kan system") measurement units of bu (3.03mm=1bu), and you've got some readily available stock that conveniently matches your chisels… least if you are in Japan, haha. I'm making due with what's more commonly found in his part of the globe.

There is one final hurdle for me, concerning this build. If Gabe went through all the effort of making detailed measurements of an honest-to-god Japanese fuigo, it would only be fitting that I should make my reproduction as authentic as possible. I've already fudged some stock thicknesses to what I had on hand, but not by any huge amount, ditto the wood species. My hangup is the nails used to fasten the sides of the fuigo.

These forged nails have a head that is first flattened, then rolled back on itself. Way cool, and there is even a YouTube video showing them being forged.

Forging traditional Japanese nails

This would be another ideal and appropriate little side project…...if I had a fuigo, haha.

Chicken or the egg….chicken or the egg…...

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Building inroads

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, this place in Hawaii where we have come to live started out as a blank slate for us. I mean, REALLY blank… buildings, no electricity, and no driveway (unless you count the well established pig trails).

Our first steps in making a survey of possible building sites necessitated cutting my way through the fern and guava tangle using that mainstay of all jungle explorers…..the machete. Next, pick a route, any route, make your best guess as to where you might end up, then cut down anything within reach of the chainsaw.  Now it's time to bring out the big guns….the backhoe.

Having a machine like the backhoe to do the heavy lifting (or digging, as it were) has been an immense time and labor saver, although all that easy access to dirt moving muscle makes it somewhat more likely to bite off more than you can chew. A backhoe is a sort of jack-of-all-trades, able to do many things, but it's not necessarily the perfect tool for the job. The smart people hire a bulldozer and get the job done in a few days rather than fiddle around for a month, picking along with the hoe. To use this one machine as the sole means of building a road or leveling a house pad is folly so, of course, that's exactly how I choose to go about the task. It works for me, but it's not what I recommend to others, haha.

Try to choose a path that will entail the least amount of material removal, then muck out as much as you can.

I filled the deepest holes with a combination of rocks and old tree stumps, but the style credit goes to Renee. Some sections of the drive remind me of the Inca trail, with carefully placed basaltic lava filling and leveling things out as much as possible.

Unfortunately, this is only a foundation course. The next step buries all that excellent rock work underneath a bed of red cinder, the go-to choice on a volcanic island with no gravel deposits.

The cinder is the highly aerated ash and molten rock that gets blasted out of a volcano during eruptions. It's lightweight and very friable, crushing down to fill in the nooks and crannies amongst the larger stones. It looks cool and comes in either red or black, although red is harder and is the more preferred for roads. Some of the black cinder is light enough to float on water and it makes a popular growing medium.

Red and green….looking a bit like Christmas last winter.

As we wander over the land, we are trying to maintain a particular vision in how we are altering the landscape. Ellie had her eye on this naturally wet spot as the perfect site for digging a pond.

And after a few hours of digging, she was finished.

Next comes rock work, plantings, and the addition of some mosquito fish to keep the biting insects in check.

After 500’ of road building fun, we reached to a tolerably level area, a good enough spot to build a quick and dirty shelter.

What's that? You hear banjos?

Building here has been a trial all my own. I've had such grand ideas and desires, clever solutions and design/build concepts to explore, none of which have happened yet. I'm embarrassed to say that expediency has been the primary motivator, just trying to get a better roof over our heads. This area was only intended to be a dry spot to work but, as these things tend to go, we've been living in this shed for over a year now. Time for a real roof, ya think?

Stay on the trail a bit longer and the guava eventually thins out, getting replaced by Uluhe ferns and sparsely placed native Ohia trees.

Some date palms, a few soon-to-be monster Albizia trees, Hapu'u tree ferns and sunshine.

The perfect place for another structure, lightly built and none too well at that (although I'm far from being finished). I lugged in every stick, on my shoulder the entire way, so some big concessions were made in material choices and dimensions.

This too was intended as a quickly built and dry place to work, the primary building site is even further down the trail. We'll see how that plays out. In the meantime, it's a nice place to string a hammock.

The sunny spots attract a different kind of wildlife.

I swear, most of what we are building here ends up being taken over by the critters.

Her favorite nesting spot.

Eggs and tools, two things that might be better off separated, but at least we are getting the eggs more often than the rats do. Finally, somebody is earning their keep!