Intro from Ilana: Hello! Here is the guest post I promised from Julio Alonso, a woodworker in Spain and longtime reader of The Carpentry Way blog. When I found out that he had visited Funahiro’s forge, I asked him if he would be willing to write a guest post, as I thought it would be of interest to many of you.
I thought I was asking Julio to do me a favor, but he responded as if I had given him a gift. He is, as you will see, extremely gracious and enthusiastic. He is also one of the only carpenters in Spain using traditional Japanese methods, but he has made up for the lack of others with similar interests nearby by making friends all over the world.
***One CHANGE to the post below***Since this was posted, Julio wrote to me and said that although he had been told that Kiyohisa passed away, but he recently heard from friends in Japan that Kiyohisa is definitely still alive.
This guest post turned out to be epic! The first part is about how Julio got interested in Japanese carpentry and his visit to the Kezuroukai. The next part describes his visit to Funahiro’s forge. The post was getting long enough that it was hard to load all of the photos, so the second half of the his visit to the forge will be in a subsequent post. Huge thanks to Julio for sharing his story, expertise, and experiences!
I think it would be nice to have a post about Kezurou-kai US and I’m sure there are other topics we could include here as well.
Some of you have asked how Ryden and I are doing. Other than being insanely busy trying to work full-time and parent a small child, I miss Chris very much and I love being Ryden’s mom. If you lived nearby, I would try to force you to take home some of our garden veggies! Ryden is a “little Chris” and has entered the phase in which he takes apart anything possible to better understand it and then tries to put it back together. I am going to have to hide all complex electronic devices soon.
Feel free to be in touch at any time. Stay tuned and thank you for stopping by The Carpentry Way.
Hello everyone here, my name is Julio Alonso and this is a guest post telling my story and how it links our beloved Chris Hall, blacksmiths Funahiro and Kiyohisa, and me myself.
Well I would like to start at the beginning. First of all I want to send endless THANKS to Chris’s wife, Ilana for inviting me to write this, I was really surprised at first and even didn’t know what a guest post would be, when I received the kind email from her. I also want to thank everyone reading this which is one of the biggest honors I have had in my life since my respect and admiration to Chris Hall comes from many years ago, I have no words enough to thank him for all his extraordinary work and knowledge shared.
I met (found Chris´s blog) Chris for the first time surfing through the net. At that time (around 10 years ago) I was working in a small workshop exclusively with western hand tools, and started my own blog on Blogger, like Chris’s one, called “El taller dominical” (The Sunday workshop, sorry it’s not available anymore, foolishly of me I deleted it). What made me fell in love with Chris articles was his mentality to apply accuracy methods and precision attitude to furniture making and woodworking, approaches that I was very keen on for my own work with wood. Not everybody takes working with wood like engineering, one typically says wood is a live material and you don’t need to bother to look for such a high level of precision. I knew it was worth trying to achieve and Chris demonstrated to us that it was possible.
I continued to follow Chris’s blog, and one day I decided to email Chris for some simple questions about Japanese chisels. I have been linked to Japanese culture since childhood: I practiced kendo when I was younger, love many aspects of Japanese culture, and the food makes me go crazy. So transitioning to Japanese carpentry was a matter of time, but I couldn´t start from the beginning because nobody was teaching it in Spain 14 years ago. Sadly this is still true today. So first I learned to know wood as a material and to work with it, including sharpening, in a self taught manner with western hand tools. But in what I would call a japanese approach, still traditionally practiced today in Japan.
Here’s my email to Chris in 2013, which of course Chris as kind as usual, replied to me with helpful and clarifying information. I keep this conversation with love, and I don´t mind sharing Chris´s answer if anyone is interested.
And here we come to the point. This was the first time I remember learning anything about Funahiro and Kiyohisa, which were among others that Chris recommended me as top blacksmiths in Japan. I know it is not polite to say in public one blacksmith or other is your favorite because in Japan (and other sites I guess) this can bother others, so I will say first: so sorry! My main choices for Japanese hand tool makers are Funahiro and Kiyohisa. This doesn’t mean I don’t love the work of other great blacksmiths like Chiyozuru (a great friend), Keizaburou, Mosaku (Kikuo Kanda) and others….
Saying which blacksmith you don’t like is even less polite, of course I won’t confess, but it is really funny to think now that Chris in that conversation told me which blacksmith he did not recommend. The one that he mentioned turned out to be one that my Japanese teacher Mr Teshiba and I agree is not one of our favorites. I don’t like him although he is probably the most popular and desired (at least the most expensive) among people the West.
For those who, like me, had never heard of Funahiro, I would like to tell you a little about him.
Funahiro, named Funatsu Yuji, was, before becoming blacksmith, a teacher of Spanish guitar, and his wife was one of his students – surprising, isn´t it ? He was a friend of and worked next to Usui Kengo, another legend of japanese blacksmiths, and they were pioneers who first started to study steel with microscopes and in a scientific manner. Funahiro makes superb blades for kanna, astounding chisels and beautiful knives, along with the most classic Japanese carpentry tool, the yariganna, spear plane. These are some examples with mokume patterns on steel.
Here are some examples of his work.
Awesome multiple hollows on the back (ura) on this sort of Damascus chisel. Chris spoke to me about this feature: it shows the skill of the blacksmith and is helpful to support the back of chisels on narrow surfaces but it is somewhat disadvantageous when sharpening because you expose more steel to stones. I can´t agree more with you dear Chris.
Splendid kanna ! Tenkei and Genshin.
Teshiba-sensei taught me, among many things, how to make the handle for this astonishing mokume finish yariganna by Funahiro.
Funahiro is acclaimed as a Japanese national treasure for his excellence at blacksmithing. Here you can see some pics and a short video of the documentary Miss Mari Mukai did about Usui Kengo and Funahiro, really nice and interesting.
Here are a couple more videos of Funahiro working.
In the next months after the conversation with Chris, I started buying Japanese chisels, not Funahiro nor Kiyohisa because it was impossible for me at that time. As you may already imagine, Funahiro’s pieces are anything but cheap.
Later I bought affordable kanna, nokogiri, and other Japanese tools to get familiar with and transfer my skills. I started to study books and teaching material about the subject, in addition to Chris’ blog. And in the beginning of 2016, I sold out my whole workshop with western hand tools, keeping the few Japanese ones I had bought already. I was very lucky because one of my students bought all the tools – it was a bargain for him but very helpful to me.
The old H a y a b u s a studio
With the money I was able to invest in the new workshop, which is the only genuine Japanese carpentry workshop in Spain, and fill it little by little, with high quality Japanese hand tools.
This is the main work zone in the current H a y a b u s a studio
By that time I was blessed to participate in a singular interview for the prestigious Italian magazine Legno Lab, alongside articles about Chris Hall and Andrew Hunter. I want to thank once again Diego Miscoria for making that possible.
Chris in the gate he built for the museum of fine Arts in Boston. Below. Bubinga table by himself.
I think there is good and interesting information in that interview, where Japanese carpentry enthusiasts can find many insights about the point of view and approaches of three shokunin. You can read it in English if anyone is interested too, I can provide the link. I could never imagine being next to such masters. Chris, who was a model to me, was on the same pages as me, absolutely outstanding!!!
Time kept running on and I kept on working, always trying to improve my skills and refine my knowledge. Then, in November 2018 I had the opportunity to travel to Japan, that was one of my biggest dreams. I visited as many friends as I could, many shops, and those who consider my Japanese woodworking teachers.
One of the goals of this trip was to compete in the Kezuroukai, the wood planing tournament in Japan. I´ hope to attend Kezuroukai USA at some point to meet so many friends there too. It would have been awesome if Chris would have been able to attend one of these events and we could have met, wowwwwwww!!!
Here the Kurume arena, place where the event was held, the day before it started.
In that event, held in the city of Kurume (Kyushu, Japan) I met a lot of friends, certainly some who Chris also knew, like the president of Kezuroukai, Kamijo-sensei, here.
Others like Andrew Hunter, so kind man, he was gentle to have meal with me there ☺
Alex Gilmore, an absolutely wise man about Japanese natural stones who I will be thankful all my life to spend many hours with me visiting the stands of sharpening stones there and talking about.
And finally I met my admired Funatsu-san, Funahiro. Sorry, this picture has poor quality. Here I was holding in my hand the Tenkei kanna made by Funahiro which I had bought some time ago and was using for the competition.
Here is the stand of the Funahiro in the fair with some of his kannas for sale. Over these, it is a dai I built in my workshop and I gave it to a friend, Mrs Tomoko-san, as a present, still pencil marks visible.
Chiyoko-san, Funahiro´s wife(you can even see her in the photo above), was extremely kind and generous to gifted me with a lovely towel with Japanese waves pattern. This is supposed to take off your sweat but I love it so much that I still have not used it.
This is my sharpening place outside the building. Blades and stones.
Straight shaving out of Tenkei in the beam I was borrowed to plane. I like to build my own kanna. Every bench is shared by two competitors.
I could share hundreds(literally) of pics but I think this is not the occasion. It was an amazing time and I feel very happy and pride to be the first Spanish who attend this competition, and I got decent results for my little experience: 8 microns (in fact it was 6 when we measured it out of the beam, I learned my mistake damn !!) with Funahiro blade.
Average shavings are 5 microns, being 2 microns the winner, I have seen even 1 micron shavings from japanese friends.
It is a very funny competition that many people like to take part in. I found I enjoyed speaking to friends more than taking shavings, hahahaha¡¡ I can tell you that I only used one of the three chances you have to carry a shaving to the judges, you guess I wasted two chances to improve my shaving thickness results, but I was so happy spending time with people I knew for many years and never see in person that I didn’t care about planing.
And here during competition with my teacher Mr Teshiba, who Chris knew and mentioned in his blog sometimes, discussing some points about kanna adjustments.
Many people come to the fair.
At night we had a fantastic time for dinner altogether and I was blessed with a gift by the organization of Kezuroukai: An epic kanna by blacksmith Yamaguchi.
When I was studying with Mr. Teshiba, he showed me a set of 10 Kiyohisa chisels that were made specially for Kezuroukai in Kurume. I was almost running out of money but I knew that chance would never come again. After those years, Chris´s email came to my mind – I was so excited and I bought them.
He just asked me to let him display the set on the Kezuroukai stand because people must see them since they were built for the occasion. Here is the stand where you can see these wonderful Kiyohisa.
I didn’t have the opportunity to visit Mr. Watanabe Kiyoe, the blacksmith behind Kiyohisa brand. I know he worked near to Funahiro, in Niigata too, but in the city of Sanjou. I would like to share with you some interesting info about Kiyohisa from the website of another mate well known by Chris, So Yamashita from Japan Tool. I am sure many of you already know him as well:
Unfortunately, Kiyohisa passed away last april, and his work is being discontinued in many places. If in the past it was hard and expensive to get Kiyohisa tools, now they will be much more difficult to obtain. (***One CHANGE to this post***Since this was posted, Julio wrote to me and said that although he had been told that Kiyohisa passed away, but he recently heard from friends in Japan that Kiyohisa is definitely still alive.)
A few weeks after that, I was contacted by email by TV Tokyo, asking me about making a documentary about my work on sashimono, the way Chris built furniture, I mean, as his blog says: “Building in solid wood, emphasizing joinery with minimal use of glue or metal fasteners.” The TV program also would deal with Japanese hand tools and how they are forged.
I couldn´t believe it, was I in a dream about to wake up? It goes without saying I accepted it and in February – March 2019, we were recording the documentary.
And here I had an extraordinary time visiting Funahiro’s forge. He is in a city called Yoita, in Nagaoka, Niigata prefecture. This is a place where many other famous blacksmiths work as well. For example, the other one Chris recommended, Kiyohisa. In Japan, Niigata is also popular because of its sake (Japanese rice beverage) and for the best rice. It also has a mesmerizing mountain landscape.
When we arrived in Nagaoka in the evening, my friends knew my favorite food is sushi, so they brought me to a kaiten sushi, a restaurant where dishes you order are served on a conveyor belt.
That was a terrific dinner! I loved it soooooo much!!!
The workshop of Funahiro is a space part of his own house, which is typical for shokunin, Japanese artisans. My workshop is that way too, but in Spain that is not usual for carpenters. The entrance of Funahiro´s home has a beautiful gate with kumiko.
Inside, in the main room, you find shoji screens with asa-no-ha kumiko pattern. I was speechless!
The ceiling lamp was amazing too, kumiko again.
Here with Mr Funatsu and Mrs Chiyoko, his wife. It’s really touching to see these pics again after this much time.
We had a chat (thanks to the translator – my poor Japanese language was not enough LOL) while having the ubiquitous matcha (japanese green tea) and some sweets, among them some made with sakura(cherry) leaves because of the season, the ones in pink.
Very shyly. I tried to take as many photos as I could, as long as they were allowed. Here are some pieces of famous Tamahagane steel, mostly used for samurai swords.
The Ooganna, Japanese plane, this very big Funahiro blade is 300mm wide. I can´t remember very well but I would say Kamijo-sensei told once he made this dai, since Mr. Kamijo is a good friend of Funahiro too.
Mr Funatsu showed me a “raw” piece of steel prepared to forge one of these big blades, 300 mm wide.
One old book. The beauty of kanna is the title.
Usui Kengo angle measure device, a jewel that Funahiro kept from his friend.
Memories and awards from Funahiro career.
Examples of what Funahiro blades can cut – absolutely stunning 2 microns. Mitutoyo micrometer device read in millimeters (actually microns), not inches. This blade is named Genpuu.
Anyways I have seen 1 micron shavings (!!!) from another blade of his. I understand that almost nobody these days cares about shaving thickness in the west since you can see how woodworkers finish wood with sandpaper, but in Japan, and in my own work, it is said this way: The thinner the shaving, the better the surface. Because many times the surface of wood is finish only by the cut of the handplane, so sand the surface after that would be a huge mess. I can assure you that if you ever see and touch in person, a surface finely handplane where shavings cut were under just 20 microns you will understand instantly the worry about thickness shaving and high level of sharpening.
Several Funahiro works keep on display.
During the time there I could see the whole process of forging one of the Funahiro blades and chisels by hand. This blade in the following photos is called Tensui . It is forged with high carbon steel, very pure white steel.
Japanese blades are made of laminated steel. This means it has one thick part made of wrought iron, or softer steel with lower carbon content called kamaji or jigane. This serves as body blade. The other part is made of much thinner hard steel, the hagane, which is what builds the edge. It is placed on the back of the blade, forming the ura, which has a wide hollow leaving a very narrow line (haba and ashi) of contact with stones – at least this is how I understand it should be, and Chris mentioned this in his blog on several occasions. This way is supposed mostly to ease sharpening. The thick and heavy wrought iron helps to reduce vibration too. So we have one thick sheet of wrought iron and one thin sheet of hard steel, this is japanese laminated steel. But we must know, laminated steel is not exclusively from the East – we had used it more extensively in the West in the past.
Here is a pile of wrought iron for kamaji. (Garlic to scare vampires hahahaha¡¡) In the background is the carbon for the furnace.
If you look closely you can even see, on the right side, a rectangular oxide color box full of old japanese sand-iron nails. That’s the material to forge a kind of “Damascus”-type pattern kamaji, with no doubt my very most loved ones but I still can’t afford one of these blades.
Tenkei and Yousui blades with sansui kamaji pattern, above are their own chipbreakers (osaegane) with signature, simply splendid!!
I must say I am not an expert in forging steel. I know the basics as far as it helps my woodworking, in order to know the steel I use and sharpen. So I can’t answer technical and deep questions about this subject, and perhaps I even make mistakes in my explanation. Please forgive me and correct me.
To be continued – next time, see Funahiro at work in his forge with descriptions of the process by Julio!