Gateway (VII)

I’ve been spending most of the past week slicing and dicing up the remains of the old gate to see what I could reclaim of the hinoki. It’s not much. There is one longish 4″x6″ timber, but it has bolt holes every 2 feet, so it is of limited usefulness. Another couple of sticks might be reusable as battens for side panels or door panels, but the rest are short small pieces less than 30″ in length. Such a waste!

Some more pictures to share of the devastation:

Main post foot well on its way to soil:

Support post foot:

Here’s the top of one of the rear support posts, hikae-bashira:

All it needed was a copper cap. Instead, what it got was 25 seasons of expansion and contraction, baking by the sun, and wetting and drying. The strip glued into the opened kerf served to further trap moisture entering from the top. A post whcih could have been substantially reclaimed instead yielded 5%.

Another beauty:

Flanking post foot:

Main post foot:

The thing is, there is so little which is reclaimable and it didn’t have to be that way. Sure, a kabukimon is a type of gate in which all the gate parts are exposed to the weather, so it takes much more of a beating than would a gate with a roof. But the design details, like the foundation consisting of metal shoes holding the posts down at ground level, made a big difference. And then there was the execution in terms of fabrication, and the choices presumably made by the carpenter which did the rest. Orienting beam kerfs up to the sky, combined with slipshod face-nailed copper flashing, and bolted threaded rod connections which promoted more rot, were examples of poor workmanship.

One construction detail that really irked me were the attachments of panels to battens:

At the time on site, I had pulled the decorative nails off of the front of the panel and yet could not get the panels apart from the battens behind. We ended up sawzall-ing the panels off. I figured the battens might be held to the back of the panels with sliding dovetails, as would be good (standard) practice, however once I had the panel out of the frame I could see no evidence of dovetails, so I was a little mystified.

Back at the shop, closer inspection revealed the ‘ingenious’ fixing method: Phillip’s head screws:

So, they actually fastened the panels to the battens using these screws, then covered them over with decorative domed nails. I’m not overcome with admiration – anyone out there ever tried to remove corroded Phillip’s head screws before? They are fasteners which were originally designed to strip out during automotive assembly line installation if they were torqued too high. Why these remain so commonly used when better options exist is beyond me. They suck.

With my Wera screwdrivers having a laser etched tip for extra grab, I did manage to extricate a few out of the less-corroded examples:

Unfortunately, it was only a few screws that were found to be cooperative, and I ended up having to chop the panel to bits. Recycled material from these side panels? That would be 0%. The main doors were also constructed similarly and I also obtained almost no reclaim from those parts either.

I have completed all the jointing, planing, cross-cutting and have maybe a dozen small pieces to return to the MFA. I also have one destroyed 15″ sawblade and need a new set of knives for my planer. Those mishaps are what you can expect when working with reclaimed material.

It would be one thing if the poor workmanship and short-sighted design issues associated to an inexpensive gate, however they charged the same money for the work back in 1986 as I am charging today, and I certainly won’t be taking the same shortcuts. Adjusting 1986 dollars for inflation to current time works out to more than double the amount I am to charge for the new gate. So, they overcharged and under built. I’m the biggest fan of Japanese carpentry out there, and it pains me to be faced with stuff like this.

Anyway, gate removal phase is now complete, and next up is foundation work, probably later this month. Stay tuned for more in this thread, and thanks for your visit today. On to post 8.

10 Replies to “Gateway (VII)”

  1. There's a commentary to be made about the inter-dependency of architecture and culture. The lack of workmanship and maintenance you've found are a clear example of what happens when the two are divorced.

    From what I gather, restoration projects in Japan for gates, temples, and wood bridges are budgeted for over time and master carpenters are recruited to oversee the work. I recall you writing in past though that Japan doesn't harvest enough large timbers to supply their own projects.

  2. MS,

    thanks for your observations. It's partly the case that Japan's indigenous forests cannot provide certain sizes and qualities of timbers, and it is partly the case that imported material is often cheaper than the domestic stuff, so it tends to get used for more and more.

    In this case, my impression is that the 'architect' was really a garden designer, and either they made errors in what they specified/detailed or the carpentry company fell down in meeting those specifications. Perhaps it was a case of a generic 'kabukimon' being specified, and then the company who made it either made what the budget allowed, or cut corners and assumed the client wouldn't notice. I speculate of course. To me, a conscientious carpenter would not have made some of the choices in their work that i have come across in dismantling this gate.

    On another level I don't get it. The MFA is a famous museum with a long history. I would have thought that a project such as this garden and gate would have been, in 1986, a chance to showcase the best of the craft. It's an expression of international relations for one thing, and the long sister city relationship between Boston and Kyoto. That 'showcasing' is not what happened though. I don't know why. It's good that the garden is getting a make-over and that annualized maintenance schedules will be established.


  3. I read where the use of hinoki in Japan is very limited, and used only special lintels in some temples. The substitute is American Port Orford Cedar. One would think it a foregone conclusion that if metal is to be used, the choice would be stainless.

  4. It's true that strong institutional connections can overcome these barriers. I visited the Dr. Sun Yat Sen garden recently (did you pay a visit when you lived on the West coast?), which were constructed in 1985. All of the materials were shipped over, and 50 workers traveled from China for a year to do the construction. Local gardeners were trained at the time to perform maintenance. 25 years later, the gardens and all the stonework and woodwork that comprise them are in exceptional condition.

    Mike S.

  5. Mike,

    I lived in Vancouver for a spell, and used to know someone involved with that garden, but have never actually visited. Seen video of it and that's about it.

    The maintenance and care aspect was somehow omitted from the equation at the garden project I'm involved in, however that has been changed as far as moving forward is concerned.


  6. Jack,

    hinoki is definitely expensive and that reserves its use for all but the highest end projects. That doesn't limit it only to lintels however – entire temples and shrine are still constructed from it.

    One substitute is POC, which is what I'm using for the new gate. They also make use of Taiwanese Hinoki and Alaskan Yellow Cedar.

    Stainless isn't common for the traditional hardware, as far as i have seen. The high end stuff is bronze. I'm planning to replace most of the hardware on the gate with bronze. Titanium would be nice too, and that is starting to become a more common shingling on temple roofs nowadays.

  7. Years back I repaired VW's, Bugs, Busses, Type III's and IV's. After finally locating the done wrong fix which had failed, I said, out loud, “Well, you could fix it like that, but I'd never do it.” My brother calls it the Arkansas Mechanic, whose motto is, “I can't fix it, but I can make it work”. I believe their symbol is a rusty phillips head screw covered over with electricians tape. In chair repair, one finds brads, nails, screws, yellow glue and epoxy on top of hide glue and they are still mystified why the chair is wobbly. Heh.

  8. I wonder if local codes had anything to do with the strangeness of the construction – I'm sure you may have also run into a local inspector or building department that didn't understand Japanese joinery and had to impose metal fasteners, shear walls, or western foundation systems in your various projects. Are you facing similar code/permit/inspection concerns in this new build?

  9. This is the last comment I'll post by any 'anonymous'. I appreciate you taking the time, but I do not wish to facilitate anonymity in commenting here.

    In answer to your question, there are no code restrictions or issues as the structure is below the minimum square footage requirements that would involve building codes or building department oversight.

    Inspectors and building departments generally do not impose requirements for metal fasteners, shear walls, etc. – it is rather the case that they will refer anything out of the ordinary, standard construction to an engineer. If an engineer will stamp the plans, then the building department is invariably going to be happy to issue a permit.

    You may have a slightly skewed understanding of Japanese construction practice as well, as metal fasteners, rods and so forth are very common in Japanese timber framing and other construction It is a highly seismically active country. These fasteners are generally concealed within the work however and are not obvious at all. The worst offender in this regard are the teahouse builders, who tend to build with extremely slim and thin sections. Loads of metal fasteners are used.


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