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Japanese tools, transcendence of craft beyond technique, by John Burt

Japan is a culture deeply based in wood. The cultural edifices of ancient lineage are all wooden structures, as seen in the Buddhist temples at Nara and Shinto Shrines at Ise. The corollary to this is the constant development and refinement of the tools and techniques and joinery used in these structures and their interiors, specifically the use of hand forged tools down for their durability and sharp edge. The highest quality Japanese woodworking tools are all hand forged, some with the aid of mechanical hammers. However, the skill of the blacksmith remains paramount in pushing the limits of the materials from which the tools are made. The long lineage of craftsmen and design has produced tools which function to a very high degree. Innovations specifically in edge tools (other than saws) are made with a lamination technique, mating a high carbon cutting edge to a soft ductile body. This allows the smith to produce a toool with a hard, long lasting cutting edge which can also withstand and absorb shock. These combined properties produce tools of unmatched performance for the craftsman. Japanese edge tools get sharper and stay sharper in use for longer than the products from other traditions. An additional element in making tools in Japan is the philosophical and cultural framework within which they are created. The tradition of handing down methodology and techniques through a rigorous apprenticeship has fostered refinement within a structure. Masters did not teach in the conventional sense, rather the apprentice “stole” the techniques driven by his desire to know. In light of the rapid changes in Japan on many levels, the number of young people interested in learning traditional crafts has dwindled. We are witness in our time of the loss of knowledge that over one thousand years of refinement has produced. In the traditional culture of Japan, a plane blade for example, made by an older smith is valued more highly than one made by a smith with years less experience. The view is that the older smith brings more to the work at hand, more of himself, his experiences in life and experience at the forge. ( These intangible but very real factors give the user a window into the life of the master craftsman. The intangible becomes tangible to the perceptive craftsman. ) These factors are not evident in the mass produced tools we are familiar with in our western culture. Each year there are fewer craftsman producing tools in the traditional manner. Yataiki (Miyano Tetsunoske III) is one of the last craftsmen in Japan who understands the process of toolmaking from beginning to end, from the smelting of Jama Hagane, through use of historical designs, and each innovation in between in the development of laminated woodworking tools. The national government in restoration projects refers to Yataiki’s expertise and knowledge in reproducing tools via original methods, and from each historical period. He is equally able to produce an 11th century saw as a contemporary one, and is conversant in al the developments between the two. Because Yataiki saw that the knowledge was being lost, he spent several years in the late 1980’s producing sets of all the different types of saws that were known. He felt that at least he could leave a record, so that the examples could be studied and reproduced in the future, even if the comprehensive knowledge was lost. Yataiki is now looking towards America as a forum to disseminate his skills and knowledge. He sees America as a place free of the constraints of Japan, where he is able to impart his knowledge and skills to a wider audience. As in many things Japanese, what appears simple or primitive upon cursory examination, is, in fact, complex and highly refined. The traditional Japanese forge used in the making of these tools is an item in this category. Consisting of a fuigo (wind box) bellows, clay firepot and smokehood. The fuigo is a hand operated piston type constant draft bellow. Operated in a push-pull stroke, the fuigo can deliver a strong constant stream of air to the fire, or a short burst of air in a pushing manner, especially useful in heat treatment of saws, chisels or swords. The air is conducted from the fuigo to the firepot in a wooden connector, mated to a conical bisqued clay tuyere. The clay firepot is a rectangular trough dug down into the floor of the shop and lined with clay. The clay tuyere enters from the side, angled down towards the bottom of the trough where the fire is built. Traditional fuel for the forge is Red Pine charcoal. It is a clean burning fuel imparting no impurities into the steel, as is the case with coke or coal fires. Different operations in the forge such as welding, heat treatment and forging, each utilize charcoal broken into different size pieces. The hood, at Yataiki’s forge in Japan, is a large square tapering chimney framed in small logs which encase a lattice work covered with clay. (Very similar to wattle and daub, or noggin infill in the west). These components of simple materials assemble into a forge capable of work ranging from the smelting of iron sand into (tama hagane) to delicate heat treatment of saw (blanks). In the hands of Master Yataiki, the forge becomes a sophisticated vehicle in the manufacture of instruments in the way of the wood.

John M. Burt, 2003, San Jose