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Adventures in Japanese woodwork

Japanese woodwork has a very long tradition, and there are areas of Japan, such as Takayama in Gifu Prefecture, that are particularly renowned for their skill and precision at creating beautiful wooden art works and crafts.

Also, ancient and traditional style buildings were and still are built almost entirely of wood. The beautiful shrine at Ise in Mie Prefecture is a quintessential example of woodworking without a single nail being used to build the shrine and surrounding buildings for the Japanese goddess Amaterasu.

The Japanese themselves have such an eye for quality and craftsmanship that it almost seems that an amateur like me should not dare talk about it until I have spent many years under the apprenticeship of a woodworking master!

But here goes!

Chigiri joints - Wooden Plate Making Workshop

This was an amazing experience for me. I hadn't done any woodwork (and nil Japanese woodwork!) since I was in first year high school in 1987! Our teacher, Hiroshi, was excellent with his instruction and a watchful eye. 

Hiroshi Yamaguchi of Koitoya in Oaks Estate, Canberra, trained in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. Takayama is famous in Japan for its exquisite carving and beautiful woodwork. 

Twice per year in Takayama they have a festival where you can see the skilful carving on the the portable shrines (mikoshi) of the Shinto deities. Other examples of Takayama's long-standing skill with wood can be seen in the Old Town district.

The hardest part of today was making my choice of wood for the project.

Hiroshi gave us quite a lovely selection of timbers that he has prepared so that we would not waste too much.

I did like the Queensland maple I but was too slow in my deliberations to snap that one up! 

I ended up choosing a Japanese Maple (pale colour) with a Red River Gum in a kind of Japan-Australia kinship! Cute!

The two woods are shaped and glued together.

We went off to lunch while the two halves of the glued plates are clamped and drying together and it is with quiet anticipation that we will begin carving out the shape this afternoon! Hiroshi says we will be doing it by hand, not by lathe, so I am anxious that I have chosen a hard wood!

When we returned, the plates were still drying so Hiroshi gave us a very informative talk about how wood cures and moves over time depending upon whether it is a hardwood or softwood. 

Day 2 lunchtime.

I have been chiselling for 6 hours  now and am nowhere near close to finished! Panic has set in!

Hiroshi routes the plate to help me hollow it faster but I still doubt I will finish before the end of today’s workshop. Not sure how I would complete the projects at home though!

Feeling deflated, but with a newfound appreciation of the skill and patience of traditional crafts-folk!

Routed the wood out a bit, but still chiselling!

Ah ha! Little bit of cheating going on here. Hiroshi took my plate to the router and bore down a bit for me to help with the chiselling.

While it would all be done by hand if I had more time, I also used the angle grinder with sandpaper and smoothed out the inside of the plate much faster than trying to keep chiselling it out for the rest of the day.

I’m feeling much better about it all now, because this means that I can now cut my butterfly joint holes with the router and insert them.

Shaping the chigiri joints

Hiroshi has created his own handmade jig with the exact shapes and position needed to put the butterfly chigiri joints into the plate and give it a strong fixing. 

I route out the holes then take the plate over to the table to start shaping the sharp edges into it.

Japanese woodwork chigiri butterfly jointsBoth Chigiri joints are in

I’ve chosen blackwood chigiri joints because when the plate is finished they will oil up and give a striking contrast!

Chigiri joints in place and smoothed with a chisel.

Inserting the chigiri joints was reasonably straight forward although they are much tighter than I thought they should be. Hiroshi assures us that this is correct. 

Now that they’re in, I begin chiselling and shaping them down to the same depth as the plate.

Finished my plate, then I sanded and oiled it.

Selection of Japanese woodworking handsaws and planes. The planes were made by woodworking students at Koitoya!

Like to learn some Japanese woodworking too?

This Japanese woodwork class was held at Koitoya in Oaks Estate in Canberra, February 2018.

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