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Week 3 - Hugh Miller In Search of Lightness

Chris Roberts

A theme present in the philosophy of many of the makers I interviewed in Japan was a search for lightness in their work. Sometimes this was through the material used, sometimes it was due to the construction details employed, and sometimes it was a careful arrangement of form that achieved the desired effect.

Lightness has an important role for makers in Japan. It is, in part, a show of respect for the value of the material - making things as light as possible leads to a more efficient, economical use of timber. It also speaks to the sensibility in Japan of having a light touch on ones environment. This can be seen in the formality and respectfulness shown in many social interactions, but is also evident in the making. A common thread was that the craftsmanship should add to a clients home in a harmonious way, rather than stand out from it. The search for lightness, in this context, is the search for a harmonious complementary addition to a space.

A fantastic example of this concept of lightness is embodied in a chair by master furniture maker, Daimon Takeshi. The piece, called ‘Wood Spring Chair’, was designed in 2002, and beautifully combines lightness of weight, lightness of touch, and master craftsmanship within a single design.

Lightness in Material Choice
The chair is made of two types of wood. The frame is Maple, a strong and hard timber with tight grain and blond colouring. The tightness of grain is important here as the components within this chair are delicately proportioned, so a less dense timber could crack around the joints. The seat is made of Kiri (桐) otherwise known as Paulownia, a very light, fine-grained, timber. Making this part of the seat from Maple would have doubled the physical weight of the chair.

Kiri is an interesting choice as it has a special place in Japanese society. It is the symbol of the office of the Prime minister, and a dresser made of the timber is a traditional gift at Japanese weddings. The choice of Kiri could also be a show of deference to Japan’s heritage. Within the context of a contemporary chair, itself a relatively recent addition to the Japanese home, the choice of Kiri is respectful to Japan's woodworking traditions.

Lightness in Construction Details
The master stroke of this chair is the way that the natural flexibility of the timber is used to strengthen the joints. The rails between the legs are constructed of impossibly slim 30mm sections of Maple, insufficient if used as a single piece. But here, saw cuts have been made which allow small lathes of timber to be bent away from the main stock. This makes the timber act like a piece two or three times as thick, in a similar way to how the webbing in a steel I-beam prevents it from bending.

The separated lathes are then jointed independently, reducing the pressure on the mortise within each leg. A circular hole drilled at the terminal of each cut prevents the rails from splitting along their length under the tension.   

A variant of this style of joint is used to create the backrest, where saw kurfs are used to make a kind of finger joint. The back legs are bent at the top during the glue-up stage which angles the backrest to a comfortable sitting position. This bend also puts the back legs in tension, and so reduces flex when the chair is in use.

Lightness in Form
The choice of materials and masterful detailing make this chair very light. It weighs maybe one third or one half of a traditional timber chair. However, it is also the form of this chair that lightens it’s appearance.

Reducing the backrest to a slim bar allows the spaces between the timber to take precedence. These gaps and spaces are continued into and through the joints, as can be seen in the side rails and at the top of the back legs. The careful notching and carving in the seat panel, make this a reductive element rather than the slab of wood it can so easily become. The small radius at the base of each leg is the final move, appearing to float the chair just above the surface of the floor. It almost appears as if the timber elements in the chair frame the air that surrounds them.

Daimon’s Wood Spring Chair, as a case study, might appear an odd choice for a blog about Japan. It is a far cry from traditional Japanese woodwork, and might appeal more to European tastes than those in its home country. However, I think it perfectly embodies the combination of careful material selection, master craftsmanship, and lightness of touch that weaves through so much of the making in Japan. It is also, in my view, a piece of world-class design that deserves international recognition.

Hugh Miller - Week 2 The Control of the Pull-Stroke in Japanese Woodworking Tools

Chris Roberts

Hugh Miller continues his guest blog of his time in Japan...

It is well documented that Japanese tools are used largely on the pull stroke, rather than the western-favoured push stroke. Kanna (鉋),wooden bodied, hammer-adjusted Planes, are pulled towards the user to make a cut, and nokogiri (鋸), Japanese saws, have teeth angled towards the user so that they cut the timber fibres on the pull stroke.

Saws:
In the case of saws, the pull stroke has profound effects on the anatomy of the tool. Western saws must resist the buckling forces of cutting on the push stroke through thicker and more malleable blades and a heavy spline added to the top edge. The act of pulling a Japanese saw through the cut, however, results in the blade naturally tensioning itself. The benefits are eloquently described by Toshio Odate in his book, Japanese Woodworking Tools:

‘The pull stroke prevents the blade from bowing, so a thin, brittle steel can be used; because the steel is so thin, the blade cuts a narrow kurf, and the saw cuts down the wood fast. The thin blades also enhances accuracy – just as people often react to the sensitivity of a fine pen point by writing smaller, more delicate letters, a fine blade encourages delicate, precise cuts.’

The speed of Japanese saws, combined with the precision of the cut, promotes wider use of hand-sawing. The flexibility of cutting joints by hand, as opposed to the sometimes-laborious job of setting up machines, is infused through Japanese making, and often leads to unexpected, quirky details.

Japanese planes are very special pieces of technology, and various aspects will be discussed in more detail in later blog posts. However, the act of pulling the plane towards the body is fundamental to it’s success as a tool.

Japanese woodworkers traditionally work on the floor, and pulling tools were preferred as they allowed the maker to generate more power from a seated position. However, it also fosters a more controlled, careful engagement with the timber. The act of pushing a tool through a material requires an explosive burst of force. As the plane moves away from he body, the control the user has over it diminishes. It also becomes harder to physically see what the plane shaving is looking like – an invaluable measure of the quality of cut being achieved. As Japanese planes are drawn towards the body, the cut is under ever-increasing control, and the shaving is constantly visible.

The wooden body of the plane also provides tacit knowledge to the user. Chatter, timber density, and difficult grain can all be felt more accurately through the body of the plane.

Although Japanese saws and planes are well known, it was a surprise to see the same pull-stroke employed in the use of knifes. A technique used extensively in the preparation of bamboo for basket making requires the knife to be held firm against the user’s knee while the bamboo is pulled past the blade. A block of wood is used to support the bamboo, and helps to maintain a constant thickness to the remaining material.

This most traditional of techniques has influenced a whole suite of processes that are combined in preparing bamboo lathes for weaving. Having tried these techniques first hand,  I can say that there is something very different about pulling the material through a blade, rather than pushing a tool over it. For a start, it allows for thinner, more delicate material to be processed. Secondly, it focuses the users attention on the exposed blade edge where all the action is, rather than on the inert body of the tool. Lastly, by holding onto the material, the maker can feel the stresses and strains that it is being subjected to, and alter their technique accordingly.

The pull stroke is one of the key differences between Western and Japanese woodworking. It is all-encompassing in it’s ramifications – in the anatomy of the tools, in how the tools are used and experienced, in what kind and size of wood is processed, and in what information is fed back to the maker during use.

Having now experienced the Japanese ‘pull’ techniques, I have been convinced that the pull-stroke allows for more control, offers increased accuracy, requires less effort, and provides more nuanced feedback. I’m a convert.

Hugh Miller meets woodwork master Suda Kenji

Chris Roberts

Last year Hugh Miller was awarded a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship in order to travel to Japan to research, document and report back on their unique woodworking culture. We asked him to share his experiences and here is his first meeting with the brilliant Suda Kenji.

"Suda Kenji is a woodworking genius, known for his incredibly intricate boxes. The boxes, quite small in size, are a treasure trove of incredibly precise, perfectly executed detail. In 2014, Suda was made a Living National Treasure, by the Kogei Association of Japan's, for his woodwork and box making.

I was made aware of Suda's work by the bamboo master Fujinuma Noboru, and I have been reading Suda's book, published in 2014, which I'd recommend to anyone interested in Japanese craftsmanship. There's an excellent English translation alongside the Japanese.

I visited Suda on a wet November day at his home and studio in Gunma Prefecture, two hours west of Tokyo. He is a warm, humble man, who has craftsmanship running through his veins, and comes from a long line of woodworkers.

The first piece he showed me was a long, slim box with an abrupt 20 degree angle in it's plan a third of the way along it's 45cm length. It sounds quite an odd shape to describe, but is instantly charming in real life. At the point where the angle changes, the box can open with the help of a hinge on the back side. Inside the box is a set of four drawers, two each side of the hinge.

The box is made of the most beautiful ripple sycamore which glints in the light, and is contrasted with a central strip and corner detailing of a black-coloured timber that I can't pronounce. Inlaid into the black timber, are circles of gold and silver.

As well as being a master woodworking, Suda taught himself to work with precious metals, and makes all the metal work on his pieces. This includes the hinges and the exquisite 'shrimp' lock that secures the box when closed.

The drawers inside the box are made from cherry, and are also inlaid with silver. There is not a single visible joint on the entire piece. In the tradition of Japanese cabinetry, joints are carefully hidden as a demonstration of skill and to allow the beauty of the wood to be paramount in the aesthetics. This was eloquently described to me by another maker as 'the absence of noise'.

However, this is no veneered block of MDF. This is a solid ripple sycamore box, with perfectly cut hidden mitred dovetails on ever corner. The same joint is used on the corners of the drawers. I studied these joints for some time. They are perfect.

There is another reason, however, that Suda prefers this style of jointing. If they were joined with half-blind dovetails as in the Western style, changes in moisture content could result in the joints protruding slightly on wetter days. This, Suda says, is no good. The fit of the drawers could become too tight or too loose. By hiding the dovetail in the mitre, this can't happen. I'll take his word for it because the drawers were the most perfect piston fit I've ever experienced.

There is also a very special piece of construction inside the walls of the box. In order to prevent the mouth of the drawer box from swelling and shrinking with changes in humidity, a cross grained piece of sycamore is carefully inserted into a groove in each wall. This construction is hidden by a capping piece made of the black timber with a lambs tongue bead, and which fits perfectly into a matching groove on the opposing side of the box.

It's worth pointing out that the tolerances here are hundredths of a millimetre. And the details are being machines into panels of sycamore only 7mm thick.

Another detail is that the drawers are set into their boxes with a 0.5mm rebate taken out of the box wall thickness where the drawer pulls out. This is so that the drawers, as they are used, do not scratch the surrounding aprons of timber. It's a very small detail and incredibly difficult to produce accurately. As with all the other details, I studied it and it is perfectly executed.

Suda is fastidious about moisture content, and conditions the timber he uses constantly. He has a dehumidifying room where he takes air-dried timber down to around 11% moisture content. Each component, when not being worked on, is placed in specially made peg stands and put back in the dehumidifier. A pinless moisture meter is used to measure the results.

Another example of his brilliant joint cutter is this sake cup. It's made of a set of five beautifully jointed pieces of sycamore. Suda assembled them into a sake cup, and poured water in to demonstrate that it was watertight. It was. He drank the water and handed me the cup. The jointing is perfectly hidden within mitres on all sides and faces, including the bottom. And this is with no glue or clamps. It's just perfect. Suda then dismantled it, wiped with a towel and put away. Amazing.

When looking at my work, Suda asked me about my use of exposed jointing. The Japanese tradition of hiding the joints has always been an slightly uncomfortable thing for me. I like to show that the piece is made in solid timber, and I like to articulate the jointing process that has been used to create it. Suda mentions that the name for a dovetail joint in Japanese is 'ari tsugi', literally translated as 'ant joint' in reference to the widened portion at the rear of an ants body. As a description of the different ways he and I, East and West, use this joint he says 'there is a great deal of difference in scale between a dove and an ant.

Towards the end of my visit, Suda explained why he uses a special animal glue in his projects which is imported from Canada. It's because, with the application of heat, the glue can be softened and his pieces can be taken apart. This means they can be repaired easily. He justifies it this way - The timber used in his projects has taken maybe 200 years to grow. He has then worked it for many hours to produce the piece, and he hopes he has given that timber another 200 years of life. Making the repair easier to complete means that his work may last far longer than this.

The legacy of his work is a serious consideration for Suda. Pieces are now held in collections around the world, and one of his boxes has just been added to the British Museum collection. His dedication to quality and precision extends far beyond the bounds of his studio and even beyond his own mortality. He is quite simply the best maker I have ever had the privilege to meet."

Find out more about Hugh here: www.hughmillerfurniture.co.uk

Doing things properly - Good Measure

Chris Roberts

The dark nights had set in and there was the ever present Manchester drizzle in the air. It was a school night when we entered the Beagle pub in Chorlton to meet the guys from Good Measure which seemed entirely fitting as it was a Chorlton Pub where the brand discussions first started.

It was Fred who noticed us first as I was proudly wearing my M21 - Shirley Crabtree from Good Measure. John and Carl joined us moments later. The three of them had been friends for over 15 years. They have all worked for companies, and later for themselves in the fashion and engineering industries. Three things they all had in common was an appreciation for good quality beer, good quality chat and good quality clothing. Fred said “It’s Carl and me that have the background in the fashion industries but it would always be John who would mention some obscure Japanese fashion brand, or a unique weaving pattern he’d come across.” It was these discussions in the pub that led to the birth of Good Measure, but unlike lots of pub ideas that fizzle out and disappear the moment you finish the pint… these guys actually started the business and created a company to produce high quality British clothing.

Their first and ‘hero’ product was an interpretation of a 1950’s/60’s American Sweatshirt, a classic Americana product they refined to be relevant and made here in the UK. They wanted to, without compromise, make the best sweatshirt available, producing it how they wanted, marketing it how they wanted and selling it where they wanted.

The search began for suitable manufacturers who could produce the sweatshirt to the standards they strived for. They had very specific requirements taking inspiration from classic sports brands such as Champion and some quality Japanese brands. Each of the guys brought their own bit of expertise, knowledge and know how to make this sweatshirt a reality, taking the best bits from each of their favorite sweats, the weight, the cut, the stitching and using them to fuel their designs.

Once they got underway with the product side of the business, they turned to Trevor Johnson a Manchester design expert to handle the branding side of things. Carl said “The Manchester bee became our brand mark, and this wasn’t the only Manchester reference… each of our product numbers are Manchester Postcodes, for example the beanie is M50 (Salford Docks).” Everything they do is very detail focused, from the product manufacture and production right through to the box it arrives in and the Vimto lolly inside.

A few pints into the session we started to talk about the future. The Beagle ales were going down well and the guys sat across from us were getting more animated. John said, “we are growing the business organically so we can retain control. Investment was never really an option.” They have worked hard to find a supply chain they are happy with and have a great product that they want to protect, keeping everything high quality and producing limited runs. The garments are available in a number of stores. Carl said, “It’s important to pick up, try on and feel the quality, so we select the stores that share our passion for detail.” Oi Poloi in Manchester was one of the first takers for the Good Measure garments and they now sell in a select number of detail focused outlets across the UK and online.

It was great to spend some time with the chaps from Good Measure, a genuine set of guys who are producing high quality clothing here in the UK without compromise. You can find out more about them and where to buy at www.goodmeasure.co.uk

The Start of Something...

Chris Roberts

Stood under a marquee with the wind whipping around what is now known as saddlers yard we held a wood fired Pizza in one hand and a pint in the other. It was poured by the team from the Port Street Beer House and happily drunk by many as we marked the start of something special. This time next year in place of the temporary marquee will be a pub, not just any pub though, a pub realised and delivered by local skills.

The project is driven by Ben Young in conjunction with Noma Manchester and will be completed by professional craftspeople and an army of volunteers all using traditional construction techniques. Together they will create everything from the pint glasses to the last orders bell and we will be documenting the people involved online and in a book celebrating the teamwork and traditional skills involved.

As we finished the last pint and the night drew to a close, we said our goodbyes and left feeling proud to be a small part of something that will form new bonds, build friendships and deliver more than just another pub, deliver an establishment built by many and enjoyed by even more.