Sunday, September 29, 2013


I hope to write about my good friend, Masanori Minami, and of my relationship with him.  He was an artist, a well known painter in the traditional Nihonga style, even though he lost both of his arms at the shoulders when a boy.  Becoming a mouth painter, initially by way of training with a Buddhist nun that had also lost her arms, his story beyond that point of having suffered a devastating injury, is one of perseverance, strength, and fine achievement.

Over the last number of years, Masanori was in poor health, and contemplating that his time remaining was likely short, he asked me to design and construct the butsudan for his home.  Beyond acknowledging the request, I barely considered the project at the time, he was too dear to me to much want to consider his death, but as it turned out, his life came to an end sooner than was expected, and my friend's wife confirmed that she wanted me to build the altar for them.  Her desire was to have the butsudan incorporated with stained glass, accented by a light inside, and overall of a relatively uncomplicated design.

It was a challenging project for me, both figuring out what I wanted to do for appropriateness, along with the technical requirements. The four softly curving glass panels in the front and rear needed to be removable in the event of damage.  Japan has frequent earthquakes, so over years of use, damage occurring is an unfortunate possibility.

 I had a quantity of both Claro and Black Walnut that I had been keeping for many years, some beautiful representation of both woods in the deep color and grain pattern that can make this material so wonderful for woodwork .  I had been saving the wood for what I hoped would at some point be a special and worthy use.  I am deeply saddened by the loss of my good friend, certainly among the individuals that I have met during my life that I have found to be both greatly enjoyable and also inspirational.  He was a man that was loved by many, and it is my hope that the butsudan will contribute to his memory in a supportive way.

Clicking on the photos increase the size, and thanks for viewing my blog.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cherry Wood

A lady and her friend each wanted a small simple cabinet with an open space at the top, and some other specifics about drawers and a door with the space behind.  I used some very nice Black Cherry that I was fortunate to find.  Not a complicated cabinet, but I did have some considerations integrating the allowable movement solid wood construction with the design requirements.  The area of the country in which the cabinets will be used, is considerably damper during certain times of the year, compared to where I live and work.

Of the many types of hardwoods that I normally build furniture out of, I would say that Cherry is one of the more predictable ones to work with.

Delivering the work enabled a rare trip down to Shikoku in southern Japan, a place that has some amazing feats of engineering highway bridges.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mr. Natural and the Evolution of a Design

The artist, R. Crumb, his well known character, "Mr. Natural", was the initial inspiration for the design of a rocking chair that I built a few years ago.  I like how the depictions of the flowing bearded man often show him stepping out with purpose, and he seems in good balance and unfettered as he plows through his path in life.  If one reads the stories that accompanied the character, it is shown that people relied upon him for his clear pronouncements, yet there is also something a bit quizzical about the man, one should often expect the unexpected.  His shape of stability and assuredness in motion is what I also wanted embodied in the chair, along with the quality of being something unique, but with limited need for deliberation when viewed, the appearance being fundamentally solid and self explanatory.  If the curves are graceful as an accompaniment, then I would be thankful.  I desired a chair meant to be a rocker in total purpose from the beginning, not something that evolved to that from a previous history of being solely a stationary chair on four legs or other, such that often confuses me with the mixed messages of both rigidity and motion at the same time.

I liked the first edition of Mr. Natural out of some very rich Walnut, and so did a few clients of mine, but it was a bit experimental and eventually encountered some technical problems.  Perhaps those that also work with wood can pretty easily figure out what those were?  I wasn't oblivious to the possibility of a degree of failure resulting, but the form was compelling to me, and in the least wanted to test it out.  Following the advice of another R. Crumb character to, "Keep on truckin'", I thought the basic concept was worth pursuing, and went on to the next chair edition, also in Walnut, with one major change that I thought would alleviate the problem that arose in the previous design, along with a few smaller proportional ones. This model, seen below, also found a good reception, and I have made a number of them for people.   It further fulfilled my hope that a comfortable chair would likely reduce much in the way of hesitation from purchasing a somewhat expensive object gleaned from a certain comic book character, were one astute enough to notice the resemblance.  Crumb's Mr. Natural is a man of wit, intrigue, and charm, but sometimes his associations can be of a somewhat dubious nature.  Perhaps it is somewhat like the Buddha himself, who after achieving enlightenment, is said to have preferred the company of hell raisers and drunkards, over the more restrained type folk that seem more commonly met....

For a few years I went with the second design in the series, but responding to the
comment that my furniture sometimes tends to be a bit heavy, I thought less about the original inspiration and proceeded to refine the design to a lighter in visual weight chair. Most recently produced from some Cherry that I had stored for many years, and originally rescued from pulverization at a pulp mill, the results are shown below.  I was pretty happy with the way things turned out, and so is the dear woman from the next town over that commissioned me to make her a rocker of my own choosing, and now owns the chair.  Her most recent comment that when sitting down in the chair, she simply does not feel like getting up, pleases me to no end.  Success is sweet with new designs.

Still, wanting to see if I could take the chair to a further lighter weight, the results are shown below, the latest in the series  Particularly the front and rear legs are a lighter scale, as are the remaining parts of the chair to a smaller degree.  It was only a couple of days ago that I delivered the finished chair to it's owner, commissioned for her as a total surprise, an unexpected gift from a generous friend.  The wood is my local Chestnut, a material that I have come to much value and favor in recent work.  The recipient  of the rocking chair is a member of a large household comprised of three generations, from grandmother to still young grandchildren, so I expect the chair will get much use, and henceforth, remembrances will accompany it through the ages.  It all seems quite natural.

Thanks for viewing my blog, your comments are welcomed.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Japanese Chestnut on the Lathe

Our Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata) is fairly resistant to the Chestnut blight fungus that devastated billions of trees in the United States, and where intensive efforts to find a prevention for the disease have to this day not been successful.  In Japan, our Chestnut is still quite abundant, the wood being a valuable timber, and the nuts an important food product.   It appears that although the Asian trees have the level of resistance, it is thought that either the Japanese or Chinese variety (different species) were in fact the culprits in introducing the parasite into the west, possibly either in some lumber or living trees that were imported.  A sad day that was, beginning the demise of an important timber from trees that had also been a source of food to natives and the early settlers.

Speaking of the wood's character, it is quite 'calm', a fairly light in weight hardwood that is yielding and relatively easy to work with.   With time, objects made from the wood take on a subdued but very pleasant honey color, giving a subtle quiet effect.  One of my favorite woods, and fortunate to have a local source for it.  I have made a wide range of different types of furniture with Chestnut, both of western and Japanese style inspiration.  I currently am building a rocking chair with the wood.  There can be some range in the quality of the material, the older trees with a tighter grain are the ones that yield the best lumber, with greater stability resulting as well. 

It occurs that many woodworkers have not had the opportunity to work with the wood, perhaps haven't much seen how it turns out when worked and polished up with a finish on it.  Both a clear oil and an urushi finish will give very pleasing results.

A tray or "obon" like this is very commonly used to serve tea, I suppose nearly every household will have one.  A fine wood for the lathe as well.  This chunk has an interesting swath of reddish color through it, something that I don't recall seeing much before.

I put this small item with it's stand of tig welded stainless out as part of an exhibition that I had of pieces for sale, something inexpensive to supplement the larger furniture work.  I was interested in seeing what reaction it might bring, to my mind a very lovely piece of wood in a useful form that most people can relate to, and last but not least, at a giveaway price.  "Buy it for almost nothing and I will give you the stand too".  I like to at least show one thing at a price that a shrewd person ought to pick up on right away, my contribution to the masses, so to speak.  I don't recall there being any reaction really, folks barely looked at it. It is hard to figure, sometimes, and a bit disappointing.  Still, Illusions can inspire...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gone, but Not Forgotten

The folks that ordered this rocking chair finally came by the shop to pick it up.  It's been a few weeks since I completed it, and could have delivered it to them the next day, but picking it up was their preference, and the fellow is a shokunin himself and has a truck.  He wrapped it with cardboard, even carried it out of the shop, leaving me feeling odd and thinking it was a first for that.  I would have used moving blankets.  Only the next town south where his residence is, but it saved me some effort.  I never did see the location where the chair would be used, something that always interests me.  Japanese houses of a certain period do tend to be alike, so I can easily imagine.

The Cherry wood turned out quite attractive with the Egoma or sometimes called Perilla oil that I now mainly use for my finishing.  It does bring out a lot of color, and is quite a strong finish for a natural oil, something that is desirable in our relatively high humidity environment during certain times of the year.   The back support laths are made from a wood called Sen, and having the highly figured fiddle pattern is not uncommon with the species.  It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a type of Japanese Ash, having a similar color and grain, but being an unrelated species.   The design I am pretty pleased with, though I am continuing my attempts to lighten up the chair with the current edition that is presently in the works, this time made from Chestnut, a wood that I have been using a lot of recently.  There was an earlier comment that the Windsor type side stretcher is not needed for strength,  and perhaps within that thought is also the possibility that it is incongruous with the rest of the design?  At this point I don't mind it, more think that it adds a small element of interest.  I enjoy seeing something on a chair that touches with earlier eras, when the overall concept may be of a contemporary nature.  The illustrious history of chair design evolution speaks a lot to me.

The rocking chair origin can only be traced back to North America during the early 18th century, though rocking cradles appeared much earlier, as is evident in paintings.  This type chair soon appeared in Great Britain shortly there after.  Perhaps one of the very few examples of early American made chair design influencing Great Britain, if that really was the case.  Few if any of the original makers saw the chair as something requiring further thought as to design, based on the fact that the chair had blades on the bottom and was meant to move.  Regular chairs were simply made with the usual straight legs shortened, to which the curved blades were attached, something that is still quite commonly done today.  I have done a number of them that way as well myself, but something always bothered me about what often appears as a rather stiff form stuck onto curves.  It is as if the chair has a case of rigor mortis!   To my mind, designing a complete chair where the form can carry through from and to the curvilinear parts on the bottom, and it also has some visual cohesiveness with the movement aspect, it makes more sense.  My rocking chairs over the more recent years, without the blades, there would be no safe way to sit in them without the risk of crashing over backwards or forwards.  In the lesser completed form, certainly not a gentleman's chair, or something acceptable to a lady that might easily become flustered!   I think of chairs as offering the place for the input of a great amount of subtlety, depending on the intended manner of use and location, and from that gives the possibilities of great practical seating.  It is something to hold the interest of the craftsman woodworker throughout a lifetime of work.

Some folks have asked me to post photos of the completed chair, and I welcome any comments.  Thanks for viewing my blog.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Some Old Work Revisited

A customer of mine asked me to refinish a table that I had made for him a number of years ago, his granddaughter had worked it over pretty good.  It was a bit of an unusual project at the time to build it, and I had somewhat of a hard time approaching it with the usual degree of concentration.  He was using a Mahogany table that the carpenter who built his house made, and though the material was quite nice wood, it was too narrow and the base was rather heavy and ill proportioned to the top.  He asked me to do something with it, no specifics required, whatever I wanted.

I didn't have any Mahogany and it is hard to obtain.  I did have some Maple in the length required however, and it was handy and well seasoned,  so I just widened the top with it and changed the overall shape to something that I thought was pleasing, and also used some of the lighter wood for the base, mixed with Black Acacia and Walnut for the woven pattern.  I'm not so into racing stripes, and a lot of thought really didn't go into the project, I simply produced it rather quickly as a priority, and it pretty much came from nowhere but the time.  No study, pulling out old patterns, or sketching.  My customer is a casual guy, owns a great French restaurant, from which he has mostly retired now.  His lifestyle is relaxed and at his own pace.  He likes the more unique aspects of the table, I guess could be said, and it gets treated pretty rough, used for both dining and as a work surface.  The chairs were a later addition that he asked me to do.

It's enjoyable for me to see the table now and then, he lives close by my shop.  It does make me wonder what I had in mind when I produced it?  I do recall thinking in an intuitive way about what he would like, and also what I could do expediently.  I might want to try and develop the idea of the wood weaving during another time.  I was a little concerned regarding the durability of the strips, they are quite thin, but so far everything has held up without any problem at all.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Seat Shaping Thoughts

I've added a final short summation to the earlier videos on shaping a wooden seat.  I hope that in the series, there may be some useful information for people wishing to do similar work.  I am interested in learning if anyone finds what I have shown here to be helpful within their own approach to chair making, or what other methods that they may have found useful to produce seats.  A bit of a choppy edited vid, sorry!   Thanks for viewing.