It’s All Academic

When I was in school, I was hardly an inspired student. Well, that was true from about the 6th grade of elementary school onwards – prior to that I was a really keen student. I used to be the science monitor in 5th grade, which meant I’d stay after school and clean equipment and organize the storage room. Moreover, I would go out on the weekend to the ocean, head out in a rowboat and collect samples of floating plant material, bring them back home and examine them for hours with my microscope, then I’d write 20 page articles on what I had discovered, complete with detailed hand-drawn and colored illustrations. This wasn’t for any required coursework – it was because I was into it.

Sometime in the 6th grade however, I can’t remember exactly how, I twigged on to the system – I became aware that the teacher was more irritated than glad for my extra efforts, and I suddenly realized, in fact, that the entire thrust of the curriculum was directed at the ‘C’ level. It would be better all round if I just kept quiet. So I did, for the most part – it’s called “checked out”.

That approach continued right on up through the years I spent at University, where after a while things like ‘grade-per-effort’ ratios (if I could get a ‘C’ doing the absolute minimum, that seemed ideal) and choosing the courses with the least amount of reading load – these were the main drivers in my ‘educational’ process. I wasn’t in university because I wanted to be there, but more because of family pressure and expectation. After the first couple of years were behind me, I stayed in university until completion largely motivated by the fact that I was already into it for a fair amount of time and not a small amount of money, and to leave without the Holy Grail piece of paper would have been close to a total loss. So I stayed, and I graduated eventually, with a degree in English Literature. As as result, I can no longer read classics, especially anything from Dickens. It’s too bad really, and I feel in some ways like I wasted a lot of time going to school – in fact I wasted other people’s time for that matter. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been there – technical school, say studying pattern-making, would have been a far better choice for me. When you’re 19 years old though, it’s not always obvious what to do with one’s life, is it?

It’s funny though, how sometimes in life you start out walking in a particular direction, even if it’s all wrong for you, and it strangely brings you around to where you wanted to go, or perhaps should have been heading from the outset. In my case, A bachelor’s in English facilitated getting a work visa in Japan, where I was able to pay off my student loan in short order, and more importantly, discover Japanese timber architecture. Working in Japan in the public school system for several years, which I found to be an extremely tedious and unrewarding job, gave me the opportunity to study a lot of Japanese and spend considerable time reflecting on my life and where it was ‘going’.

Despite having a job that paid well, provided me with a free place to live, furnished, and a free car (I only had to put in gas), and nearly 100 paid days off per year, I wasn’t enjoying life, though by any standard, I had it made, no? Obviously, this is not a plea for sympathy folks – many would dream to have a job like that, but I found, for the way I tick, that without challenge and emotional reward, the job and its perks meant nothing to me. Further, I really didn’t like having a desk job and wearing a suit all day.

One day, during the time I was helping out the swordsmith, I was building a small structure in the basement of my apartment building – a little climbing wall – and the light finally went on! I realized that I really liked to work with wood. It was a profound rediscovery for me. I’d worked with wood a lot as a young man, from pre-teen up until the age of 16~17, when I (my parents) ‘made the decision’ to go to university, whereupon I ceased all shop courses at school and concentrated on the academic ones. So, though I had headed in the academic direction, and in the end that path brought me back to a simple joy of creating with my hands. Funny how things work out sometimes. Once the light went on for me, the direction was set, and some 6 months later I left Japan.

I had the opportunity to apprentice with that Temple Carpentry company in Osaka, Kongo Gumi, but I decided against it. I’d already been through the apprenticeship scene to an extent, with my martial arts training and experience with Watanabe the sword maker, and while I fully comprehend the value of the sensei-deshi relationship, I figured I could do better for myself by going the auto-didactic (self-study) route. While I was sure to make innumerable blunders trying to figure things out by myself, I knew I would never actually be alone in my quest as a great deal of carpentry information has been set down in print, and there are so many opportunities in modern life to access people and information that would have been impossible a few generations ago. Not everything comes out of books of course, and without having the hands in the work, all the theorizing in the world isn’t going to be of much use in a practical art such as carpentry. There’s a lot of stuff that can be learned by simple copying and repetition – indeed, rote learning is the cornerstone of many educational systems, Japan’s in particular.

Also, by means of self-study, which was entirely self-motivated and directed, I could blame no one else for my shortcomings, and even when I would run into the inevitable areas where I just couldn’t understand something, the important point is that when I met someone who might have the information, I would know exactly which questions to ask. and unlike the past years of uninspired study that had characterized my time in school, this time I was motivated! Learning is SO different when you are really engaged, and when you are pursuing knowledge, not certification.

What I loved the most about Japanese architecture, besides the intricate joinery and glassy planed surfaces, were the glorious roofs. From the outset, I wanted to make Japanese roofs. To learn how to layout such roof structures one cannot, it would seem to me, rely upon the rote learning method – it’s not a matter of snapping a line in some place just because someone told you to do so – it’s a matter of snapping the line in a place because you understand that is where the line needs to go. And if you didn’t understand and put the line in the wrong place, the mistake will be all too clear soon enough. An Albertan named Robert once told me that an old teacher of his said (in a broad English accent):

carpentry is just about two things: putting the lines on the wood and cutting where the lines are

In my experience, the cutting part is the far easier skill to gain – whereas mistakes in the placing of lines seems to go on pretty much indefinitely! A carpenter in California who I greatly respect told me once that he laid the entire side of a building out backwards once and the mistake wasn’t discovered until raising. There are accounts of Japanese master carpenter’s fleeing into the night in shame or even taking their own lives as the result of layout mistakes on important projects.

You have to get your intellect engaged in layout, and that involves finding a way of learning that works best for yourself. For me, all those hours studying Japanese simply for something to do while passing the time at my job would prove to be very valuable indeed, since I could now access the Japanese carpentry and layout texts. Now, simply because one can read a textbook doesn’t mean one can understand the book – especially when tackling a subject like Japanese descriptive geometry….

After I was back in Canada a while, I signed up for a couple of week’s instruction with the Timber framer’s Guild at Pingree Park, Colorado. The first week was devoted to cutting an raising a standard 12′ x 16′ timber structure, comprised of three bents and a 12/12 common rafter roof . That was fun and easy but not of great interest to me. The second week of the course was devoted to an ‘introduction to compound joinery’. Will Beemer and John Miller shared the instructional duties, and we were shown three methods for determining the cut angles for compound roof joinery:

-the Hawkingdale angles (which derive from the Martingdale Angles used in steelwork)
-developed drawing

In the first week of the course I had of course gotten to know my fellow students, and learned that a couple of them were going on the compound joinery course for the second and even third time. I was puzzled why they needed to take the course again – later I understood a little better.

For the compound joinery course we were put into pairs and during the week endeavored to produce three roof models – a prow gable, a hip corner, and a valley corner. To be honest I wasn’t totally getting the material we were being taught, but my partner, an architect, seemed comfortable with the drawings. I was quite comfortable with the cut out, so we made, it seemed, a good team and completed all of our models just fine. What I didn’t come away with however, was a solid understanding of the methods. Cutting, as I said, is relatively easy. The instructors had done a superb job and were very clear, however the penny hadn’t dropped for me at that point.

Then I returned home. One thing I knew right off the bat that as far as the compound joinery layout material was concerned, it was ‘use it or lose it‘. My landlord happened to need a well pump shed, so I offered to make it in return for provision of the materials and in lieu of one month of rent ($650). He agreed.

I decided to make a little pyramidal roof since it involved compound angles, and cracked open my notebook from the course, thinking that with some applied study I would figure it all out. Trouble was, I couldn’t figure it all out – I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. While I had been shown three methods, I was confused with every single one of them. A few days went by, and I grew quite frustrated. Use it or lose it….

I went and dug out one of my Japanese lay out books and sat down to see it I could make some headway. They teach a different method than I had been exposed to in the course at Pingree Park, and they don’t teach the method in what might be called a logical-progression. My comprehension of the reading at that point in time was about 70%, but to be honest, since the reading was a struggle, I tended to look more at the pictures than the text at times. Curiously though, after a few hours, I was able to understand the method quite well, and the next day, I was putting the lines on the wood.

So, over the next couple of postings, I’d like to detail the construction of the well pump shed, my very first building project. My ‘workshop’ was the sun deck – I didn’t even have sawhorses at that time, nor any power tools. I put time in on the project after work and on the weekends.

First things first: the foundation. I removed the topsoil, compacted the ground, threw down some gravel and cast a small pad for the pump house and the pump itself:

Then I laid out and cut the parts for the sill, termed ‘dodai‘ in Japanese. I chose to join the sill corners with a double-wedged joint called ‘dai-wa-do-me‘ 台輪留め, which means ‘platform-ring-miter’:

Here’s the completed sill assembly:

Then it was a matter of bolting the sill and pump motor into place once the slab had cured sufficiently (I gave it 3 weeks):

Sill installation complete:

In the next post I’ll detail the remainder of the well pump shed construction.

2 thoughts on “It’s All Academic

  1. Thanx for sharing all this. The story of your learning history is defenitly inspiring. I look forward to see the pump shed come together.

  2. I too am grateful for the story here. I am intrigued to see that you were documenting this a pictures at 4:23am!!!
    Thank you for the story

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