2.10.12 (Language and teaching)
Learning woodworking here’s my first experience learning in a language I don’t understand. It’s humbling. Unlike literature and writing, unlike music, I can’t characterize myself as a good student by talking or by asking interesting questions, so I have to rely on my work to communicate that I’m serious.
It takes a long time to ask a question, and it almost always feels embarrassing. I know intellectually that language isn’t transparent and that generating language means creating a system of meaning that goes past your ability to control it, okay, okay—but here’s the first time I’ve felt that, really felt it. Like, before I ask a question I have to make sure it’s going to be comprehensible. That’s never been a consideration for me before. The best example so far is: I tried to ask Mr. Toyama where he gets his lumber from and he thought I was pointing to a telephone pole and saying, “What is that?” He was kind and gracious, and explained what a telephone pole does—but that kind of miscommunication feels sad to me, I felt isolated. It also puts me on my guard all the time I’m not at home. That’s a positive side I guess: I’m always engaged and awake, nothing gets taken for granted, everything’s deliberate all the time. Another positive side is that there’s always huge uncertainty about understanding anything, even the simplest situations, like buying a thermos—everything feels unfamiliar and slow, fascinating, even though it’s stressful too.
Then, all the information in the posts I’ve been working on gets communicated to me mostly through gesture, drawings and a little bit of language, mixed Japanese and English. It’s amazing how little you need language. When English is involved, or when I speak Japanese, mostly it’s nouns and noun phrases, a verb or two, rarely, never adjectives or adverbs. Words get juxtaposed and for connections between words, the body takes over. A facial expression, a hand gesture will do for “not”, “bad”, “good”, “can”, “dangerous”, “impossible”, “sound”. Pound said, “Syntax is the measure of a man’s sincerity.” Here, that feels true. You have to act out your own syntax.
That feeling’s been getting into poems too I guess a little—I only started realizing it today, so I’m not sure how it’s working yet, exactly. The last year, a lot of what I’ve been writing’s done what Adam called sketching (helpful helpful, thank you!—…). Like, each word or piece of a sentence adds a little bit, like a new stroke in a drawing. There’s a line in Bishop’s “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”: “…with outstretched arm and hand / points”. First the outstretched arm, then the hand, then the pointing. She builds the whole feeling and the whole gesture up, you see and feel each part in the order it happens. That’s the technique I’ve been trying to learn and it feels like it’s getting more accentuated in what I’ve been working on (…way less awesome than Bishop though…) the last two months, here’s part of a draft: “…on the new snow. / Slow, covering the men / running in baseball outfits / together. Receding, flecks.”
3:45 am • 10 February 2012 • 1 note
2.9.12 (Tools: Toolchest)
All the carpenters in the shop have a rolling toolchest, about waist-high, with little drawers for tools and a flat top for drawing and reading and writing. It’s a lot like having an R2 unit.
I had one too, bright red. It was amazing. Then, the workshop hired another professional carpenter so now I have a great box on a rolling table. I like my box and table setup but I’m hoping I’ll get to make my own toolchest soon.
Inside the my box I have all the tools the carpenters have though. Everything you need to make whatever you want (can?) by hand. First there are the saws. I have a ryoba noko (“double-bladed saw”). It has, well, two blades, and it’s bendy. The blades are called the tatebiki and the yokobiki. “Biki” means “pull”. “Tate” means vertical and “yoko” means horizontal, but in this case, “tate” means ripcut and “yoko” means crosscut. My teacher’s name is Tateshita-san but all the carpenters call him Tate-san: “Mr. Ripcut”. It’s the most excellent nickname ever.
A ripcut goes along the grain, in the direction the fibers lie. Each tooth of a ripcutting saw (on the right in the photo above) looks like a tiny chisel: sharp, flat blades, with cutting edges perpendicular to the direction of the cut, that “rip” the fibers up in long strips. The ripcutting saw’s teeth are set slightly off-center, alternating to the left and to the right. That’s so the cut’s width (the “kerf” in English, maybe the best word of all the words) will be slightly wider than the saw—otherwise, the saw would get stuck in the kerf
A crosscut goes perpendicular to the grain. Each crosscutting tooth (on the left in the photo) looks like a tiny knife, cutting edges parallel to the direction of the cut. The crosscutting teeth slice the fibers. They’re set off-center too, more dramatically than the ripcutting saw’s are, and for a different reason: the reason is that it takes two teeth to slice a tiny segment out of each fiber, one cut on the left and one cut on the right. A crosscut is many, many of these tiny segments, sliced out of the fibers all the way across and through the board. That means the crosscutting saw makes much finer sawdust than the ripcutting saw.
My second saw is called a dozuki noko. It’s a crosscutting saw with finer teeth than the yokobiki side of the ryoba noko. “Noko” means saw and “dozuki” means a tenon shoulder (that’s a tenon and in the photo, the chisel’s on the shoulder). So, a dozuki noko’s a saw for cutting tenon shoulders. Tenon shoulders have to be super precise and neat or the joint’ll look messy and won’t fit. That’s why the dozuki noko’s teeth are finer than the yokobiki’s, and why the dozuki noko has a metal spine that keeps the blade straight. The spine’s wider than the blade, though, so you can’t use the dozuki noko to make through-cuts in boards that are thicker than the blade is wide—that’s what the yokobiki’s for.
That’s what’s so exciting about the ryoba noko! To make through-cuts in boards that are thicker than the width of the blade, the blade needs to be thinner than the width of the saw’s tooth setting. Otherwise, the blade’ll get stuck in the kerf and the cut will stop. No spine—so the blade’ll be skinny and flexible. Perfect for two sets of teeth! American saws just use one side for teeth. I guess you could use the flat side as a straightedge, as long as it’s really straight—like, mark then flip the saw ninety degrees and cut (you could even maybe have a handle that works like a square and keeps the flat part of the blade perpendicular to the board’s edge while you’re marking). Dangerous though because when you put the saw down on the piece to measure, the teeth might scratch the surface.
Okay, enough about saws. My toolchest also has chisels in all different sizes and a bunch of kanna—two finishing kanna (I don’t need two, I just have an extra), a roughing kanna and a kanna with an adjustible base for making various shapes on a board’s edges. There are also two kanna (“kiwa kanna”) with diagonal blades that stop at the base’s edge, instead of in the middle. These kanna are for internal angles in joints—they make rabbets, tongues and tenons: the base meets the shoulder, keeping the blade perpendicular to the shoulder, and the blade planes all the way to the corner.
There are also two hammers (“ryouguchi genno”, double-sided hammer—it’s the one all the way to the left), large and small. One side of the hammer’s head has a curvy face and one has a flat face. There’s a nail set too (“ponchi”). I have wirecutters (“kuikiri”), for removing nails. The wirecutters have a curvy nose you can use to get good purchase for pulling a nail out, works just like a hammer’s claw. Then there’s a kind of gimlet called a “yotsume giri” (second from the top in that image). Its tip has four faces that end in a point—head-on it looks like a square-based pyramid. It’s for drilling. You hold the yotsume giri between your palms and rub your hands back and forth, moving them down the handle. It looks like you’re trying to stay warm or like you’re using an electric hand dryer or like you’re starting a fire with a spindle. The yotsume giri’s handle’s angled away from your body slightly when you’re drilling, so you’re pulling the drill into the wood as your hands move down the handle.
I have a few measuring tools. There’s the “kebiki“—literally, “hair pull”, for making lines parallel to edges and for drawing tenons, and the “shiragaki”, a marking knife. I also have a small steel try-square, for right angles and checking that surfaces are flat, and a carpenter’s square (“sashigane”). The sashigane’s incredible: on one side, the numbers give you the length you’re measuring but on the opposite side the numbers give you the length times root two, so you’re measuring the leg of an isosceles right triangle but you’re reading the length of that triangle’s hypotenuse. All I can say is: holy moly. There’s a wonderful website about Japanese tools (a few of the links on these posts send you to its images) called dougukan.jp, the website of the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum. Here’s an excerpt from the page about the sashigane:
“Japanese carpenters elevated its usage to a systematic theory called kiku-jyutsu, which allowed carpenters to deal with complex angles in rooftop corners. Its mastering however was extremely difficult, and the saying ‘carpenters and sparrows cry in the corners’ comes from this.”
9:18 am • 9 February 2012
2.9.12 (Techniques: Sharpening 2)
Each blade type has a unique edge shape. The shapes are super-subtle though, almost impossible to tell the cutting edges aren’t just straight across. Sharpening certain areas of the blade more than others makes the bevel uneven, so the changes have to be tiny tiny.
The plane iron’s blade curves down slightly at the ends. That’s so the right and left ends of the blade don’t cause jagged scratches when you plane: the cut will always start between the blade’s extremest points. You make that curve by sharpening just the left and right sides separately, on the edges of the sharpening stone. Left end of the blade on the right edge of the stone, and vice-versa. That’s tricky, though, because it means less surface area to stabilize the bevel and because the rest of the plane iron, hanging off the waterstone’s edge, is heavy and tends to pull the blade down while you’re sharpening it.
The chisel’s blade curves up at the ends. Chisels “walk” on the wood—to position the chisel at the place you need it to cut you rock it back and forth on the blade’s corners, moseying—and curving the blade up at the ends makes two tiny feet. The foot shape also guarantees the chisel will cut sharp corners. The process for shaping the chisel’s blade is basically the same as the process for shaping a plane iron but it produces an opposite curve. You sharpen the center and the left edge on the right side of the waterstone, and the center and the right edge on the left side of the waterstone. That way the blade’s center gets twice as many hits on the stone as its ends.
The shiragaki’s a knife for scoring cut lines. After sharpening, you turn the shiragaki over and give its back two hits on the finishing stone. That’s so you can pull the knife blade along a metal ruler without slicing the ruler or dulling the blade. It’s a change that’s so slight you can’t see it. You can feel it though, using it.
4:25 am • 9 February 2012
2.9.12 (Techniques: Sharpening 1)
Tool sharpening is the first technique I started learning. It’s difficult and I have a long way to go. I like sharpening a lot! Here’s a long post about it.
It’s all waterstones. There are three waterstone grades: rough, medium and fine (or “finishing”). Our workshop’s stones are green, red and yellow, respectively, meaning that a totally awesome stoplight situation’s getting missed out on. There’s a great system set up for sharpening, one whole room. You have a long, thin metal sink you can fill with water and then wooden blocks with stops screwed at either end for holding the waterstones. You wedge the waterstone between the stops and wedge the block the short way across the sink. The water from the sink is for wetting the stones and cleaning slurry off the blades. The workshop only has a little gas spaceheater, so it gets pretty chilly—the presence of hot water in the sharpening room is an *excellent* motivation to sharpen your tools often.
The waterstone is made up of sharp grit that abrades the blade’s steel. As the grit abrades the blade the blade also wears grit off the stone’s top. Two great effects: 1. fresh, sharp grit is exposed, and 2. as you sharpen the blade a thick slurry of steel particles and grit and water builds up that speeds up sharpening and polishing. The word for that slurry in English is “swarf”. One bad effect: the grit wears off where you sharpen the blade so it’s easy to end up with a cupped stone. Next to the sink is a glass panel secured in a removable wooden frame, glass for flatness. The carpenters wrap the glass panel in 100-grit sandpaper. You can flip your medium-grit waterstone over and flatten it out on the sandpaper if it gets cupped. You can use the medium-grit waterstone to flatten the fine-grit waterstone. I guess the dream though is to change where the blade meets to stone so that the stone wears evenly. Expert sharpeners don’t have to flatten their waterstones. Concave waterstones make convex bevels.
I’ve been looking online for the reason why waterstones need to be wet. One site (thank you, thank you!) says that the water “increases the range of effective cutting angles for each particle of abrasive”, but I’m having a hard time understanding how that works. That site also says that water’s surface tension keeps the swarf from filling the spaces between the stone’s grit, binding the grit under a hard, flat surface and rendering the stone unusable.
(Here’s a picture of a Japanese chisel (“nomi”). There are two almost-parallel surfaces connected by a bevel. The bevel makes the cutting edge. The cutting edge is pointing to you in the picture. It’s the lighter steel at the bottom.)
The rough-grit waterstone isn’t used much. It’s for taking a lot of steel off fast: when you need to change a bevel angle, or repair a tool after a serious mistake, like dropping a blade and chipping its edge. You repair a chipped edge by holding the blade perpendicular to the stone and abrading the blade’s edge until it’s worn down past the chip. That leaves a flat face where the sharp cutting edge should be so the next step is to sharpen the bevel until it meets the bottom face (in Japanese, “ura”, “back”) at an edge again. That whole process happens on the rough-grit stone and then you move to the medium- and fine-grit stones, like you would to sharpen any other chisel.
Getting a sharp edge with waterstones is easy but getting a good bevel is hard. The bevel has to be perfectly flat or the blade’ll cut badly: as the bevel angle that’s in contact with the wood changes, the direction and location of the blade’s edge change too. Sharpening the blade means many passes over the stone, so subtle changes in the angle you hold the blade at, in pressure, in the flatness or cupping of the stone itself—any variation at all, however slight an effect it might have on a single pass, gets, like, projected over hundreds of passes on the stone. That can throw off the bevel badly, fast. Limiting the distance you move blade to sharpen it helps. The guideline my teacher gave me is: move the blade back and forth a distance equal to two to three times its bevel’s width. Larger bevels are easier to work because a larger surface area is in contact with the stone—there’s more stability and variations in the blade’s motion are easier to feel.
Most difficult is keeping the bevel perfectly flush to the stone’s surface all the way through each push or pull. As you move the your hands and arms forward and backward, all the joints in your arms, from your shoulders to your fingers, are moving. It’s easy to wobble. You can’t keep everything still because all those joints have to move to move the blade—plus, tension means wiggling. It’s a weird and great body problem: you have figure out a way of moving that maintains stillness. Keeping the blade still moving in one direction is hard enough but keeping it still through a change direction is even harder. There’s a tendency to pivot the blade down as you start to pull back, and to pivot the blade up as you start to push forward. How you hold the blade makes it easier to avoid this pivoting. You want the largest possible surface area in the direction the blade moves.
The rest is feel. The R.H. pointer finger and the L.H. pointer and ring fingers rest as close to the blade’s edge as possible. The thumbs interlock, left over right, and rest on the blade face closer to the handle. The rest of the fingers, as many as feel comfortable, hold the blade secure. The R.H. middle finger’s in danger of getting sliced on the edge of the waterstone so it’s important to watch out and also bevel the waterstone’s long edges. On smaller blades, it’s just the two pointer fingers, either next to one another or L.H. closer to the edge and R.H. further up the blade. Whatever there’s room for. For me, it works well when the wrists are still but not tense and most of the motion’s in the upper arms. The elbows are kind of, like, along for the ride. I like to go slow and pause at the end of each pass: reset, then change direction. That’s the way I made my first flat bevel, after two weeks practicing. It took me all afternoon but it was flat.
How to knowing what’s happening is interesting, like diagnostics. The fingers on the blade are good for telling whether the bevel’s flush to the stone. Your fingers feel, too, the wobble that means the bevel’s curvy. As I’m sharpening it helps me to feel like the blade’s sending messages up through my fingers and arms and into my brain. My body tells it where to go and it tells my body how it’s doing, sharpening-wise. Movement’s transmitting shape info.
How the blade sounds on the stone is helpful, too. When Tateshita-san or Shimura-san sharpen, it’s silent. The blade’s flush to the stone the whole time. No waver. Going slow my sharpening’s silent but as soon as I pick up the pace it sounds like, well, the image I sent Taylor is a toboggan down a gravel hill. Sound variations mean angle variations. The finishing stone’s the hardest to work with because it’s extremely quiet.
You can look at the blade too. Good sharpening and the bevel will have a mirror finish. Bad sharpening and horizontal lines will show up in the mirror. Each pair of lines marks a flatness but at a new angle. Looking at the edge head on’s helpful too. A white line means the blade isn’t sharp enough. A sharp blade’s edge shouldn’t be visible.
As the medium-grit stone flattens and grinds down the bevel it also leaves a tiny, invisible, wiry curve off the blade’s edge. It’s like when snow on a roof starts to melt and slide off the roof but freezes overnight mid-slide. It’s called a burr in English and “hagaeri” in Japanese. You leave the burr until the finishing stone and then, every so often, you flip the blade over and run the back over the finishing stone, to grind down the burr. You can’t see the burr, you have to feel for it. An burr that’s uneven across the edge means that the blade isn’t meeting the waterstone correctly—either the bevel’s crooked or you’re handling the blade unevenly.
Hm, tip, I guess now? The carpenters never submerge the blade in the water. They splash handfuls of water over the blade instead. I guess that’s because the water gets cloudy, full of grit and steel—so you can’t see where the bottom of the sink’s trough is and you might chip the blade (Oh! No! No!), or I guess you might cut yourself too.
The blades are scary, especially the plane blades. Dropping one at the wrong angle would mean no toes. The plane blades are wedge-shaped though so hopefully they’d like flip over maybe on the way down? Oof.
How the carpenters do the sharpening’s amazing to watch. Everyone’s body style is unique. One of the carpenters is elegant and fluid. It’s a crazy kind of concentration to see: relaxed but engaged—not quite detached, more like total sensory awareness without trying. With another, the effort’s easier to read in the body. It’s more muscular, you can see that the work is happening, the movement takes over everything, dancing, and the face is grim, but the motion’s just as precise.
Correct body movement is: the face goes over the center of the waterstone and the eyes look straight down, without moving. Maintaining the blade’s alignment happens through feel and sound, it’s not visual. Looking’s for checking. Left foot forward. Right arm close to the body moving as little as possible, left arm moving as much as the right arm’s movement requires. Straight back but leaning down slightly. You never breathe. Tateshita-san said: “No breathing, no dreaming. Concentration.” I breathe in and hold my breath while my arms move. Then, I stop and breathe out, breathe in and start again. I feel like it breaks up the action long enough to refocus. At first it was confusing and I hyperventilated for like an entire afternoon but after a few days I started to get the hang of it and now the breathing pattern feels natural.
2:03 pm • 8 February 2012
2.7.12 (Techniques: Grain)
Learned first from Taylor that grain can be thought about like a drawing. It can work like directions for where to look or it can depict a motion. It can also work like a structural drawing. Grain is stronger lengthways and weaker across. That means paying attention to how grain is positioned can give a reading of a work’s structure: where the stresses are, where warping or snapping could happen. It tells you what does what and why. It also tells you how the tree grew, what tree it is and where it came from, how the board was positioned in the tree before it was sawn, how it was sawn.
The carpenters here think about grain like a drawing too. Flatsawn board faces have these long c-shaped curves, one inside the next. The rule here is: when flatsawn boards need to go vertically (cabinet sides or doors for example), place the boards so the grain “opens” down (it looks like a stack of chairs) because that way the finished piece will look like a tree. Finding that out made me extremely excited: metonaphor! When the boards need to go horizontally (drawers, cabinet tops), there are two options. The first is to alternate grain direction, left right left right. Maybe you have an odd number of drawers though: that’s okay, the center board should be a board where the grain changes direction in the middle. The second option is to place the grain so that it opens to the right mostly. In Japanese calligraphy, brushstrokes finish to the right, and the drawn mark thickens where the brushstroke ends. That means that for Japanese people, according to my teacher, thickness on the right feels like completeness or stability.
Then, I learned two words to describe grain with. One is “shizuka”. It just means “silent” and you use it to describe unobtrusive, regular grain. Then there’s “urusai” means “noisy” and it’s for crazy lookin’ grain.
There’s also the edgegrain. It’s nested c shapes too, cords of the tree’s growth rings. The board’s face that meets the edgegrain at the c’s curvy side—that’s toward the tree’s bark—is called the “kiumote” (“surface wood”). The c’s open side—toward the tree’s center—is the “kiura” (“back wood”). The wood tends to warp away from the center of the log: the kiura ends up convex and the kiumote ends up concave. The best scenario for constructing a case is to put the kiura on the outside. That way, when the boards warp, they’ll warp outwards and the case will get slightly larger. Gaps might happen but at least the drawers will still pull. The kiura’s grain (the grain that goes outside) is also supposed to be more beautiful than the kiumote’s grain, so putting the kiura out works out w.r.t. beauty too. Sometimes you need to combine multiple boards to make a single face, though, maybe a big cabinet or a door, for instance. In that case, you alternate kiura and kiumote, with more kiura when there’s an odd number of boards: the idea is that warping in two different directions will cancel out.
2:04 pm • 7 February 2012