Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Review: "Asian Furniture"


I few months back I obtained a copy of the book "Asian Furniture", edited by Peter Moss, which I had first come upon at the Boston MFA (Museum of Fine Art) bookshop. I was interested initially in this coffee-table book because of its inclusion of large and clear photos of furniture from countries like Tibet, Korea, Phillipines - places where fine furniture has been made and which have heretofore received little print coverage. The photography of pieces is excellent and the range of pieces, especially in the Chinese section, is most impressive. I already have numerous books on Chinese Furniture, so to find yet more stunning examples was enough to push along my decision to buy this book.

My praise stops however when I come to the other sections of the text, and these sections did not become apparent to me until I had the chance to sit down and read the book thoroughly. The section on Japanese furniture is written by a Japanese national, Yokobori Yoichi, who is described as "journalist, writer, and Professor of International Affairs, Politics and culture at Wayo Women's University". I'm not sure which of his qualifications leads him to be selected as an expert to comment upon Japanese furniture, however. I would have thought that a 'qualified expert' might be someone with academic publications on the topic of furniture, or who ran an antiques shop dealing with such furniture, or who worked as a specialist Asian furniture appraiser for one of the large auction houses, or who, god forbid, actually made such pieces.


My impression is that the English in that section of the work is a translation of the original Japanese, given certain linguistic peculiarities herein. How else to explain such phrases as found on page 273:

"About this time two technologies became available that related to cutting timber: the vertical saw operated by two men that could slice through timber of large girth, and the planer device that allowed slivers to be shaved off thin wood. These tools allowed the building of massive structures such as castles and big houses and, before long, moved from forestry to the cabinetmaker's workshop"

Since I actually cut wood once in a while, such descriptions, even allowing for translation errors, strike me as superficial and inaccurate. First of all, the 'vertical saw' referred to is likely a pit saw, and in fact that type of two-man saw can be operated in the horizontal direction as well as vertical. Then the term 'planer device' - the meaning here is simple: 'plane'. A lot of English speakers, mind you, confuse the terms plane and planer (along with joiner and jointer, etc., ) often enough. The author must be referring to the adoption of the Chinese plane in Japan. This plane does not "allow slivers to be shaved off of thin wood" - the phrase ought to be: "allowed thin slivers to be sliced off of wood" - the wood need not be 'thin' for shavings to occur. In any case, it is a misleading comment, as the precursor to the Chinese plane in Japan, the spear plane (yari-ganna), is also eminently capable to taking quite thin shavings. Further, neither the adoption of the pit saw nor the Chinese plane hardly "allowed the building of massive structures" - castles and tall platforms were erected long before the adoption of the Chinese plane. Finally, these tools are not 'forestry related' either. The sawyer is an altogether different specialty than the carpenter or cabinetmaker, as is the forester, or the people that transport the logs from the forest to millsite. Foresters did not use planes in their work, nor did sawyers.

Anyhow, my quibbles with that section are minor to be sure. It is all too common to come across works written by academics in which the descriptions of the work involving tool users is scant and inaccurate - I wonder if there might be a certain tendency of some in the white collar world to look down upon the blue collar worker and assume that there isn't much to what they are doing, certainly nothing of complexity at least- these are hand tools after all. The white collar person, triumphant generally in a narrow field of analytical knowledge, might conclude that blue collar work doesn't require much brain-power, and thus can be dismissed from relevance. That assumption, if it is occurring (and I'm convinced that it plays a role) is consistently wrong and serves to show the ignorance of the writer, and I am making a guess of course that such might be part of the inaccuracy of the descriptions found in the Japanese section along with others in "Asian Furniture".

But the book goes into further territory in which I object to much of what I find.

Page 302~303, Woods, shows tree species, however the range is narrow with only 12 tree species shown, and it shows the bark of the trunks predominantly, rather than say, the foliage, flowers, nuts, cones, etc. Hardly how a tree-identifying specialist would go about it at least. The wood slices below each trunk illustration are not consistent at all- some show face grain, some radial, some end grain, thus they cannot be compared to one another all that well. Further, most of the species described are denoted only by their Chinese terms, except for one: Paulownia, or kiri as it is termed in Japan (and very widely used in furniture). Further, the description of "Cypress" is misleading and doesn't consider the false cypress widely used in Japan for high-class pieces, hinoki. This section is woefully inadequate and misleading, not to mention largely ethno-centric to China.

Pages 304~305, Tools, stopped me dead in my tracks, and is the worst section by far. It shows tools used, presumably, for furniture-making, but upon a modicum of examination shows many tools which would never be employed by furniture makers, never mind Asian craftsmen specifically. The book titled, "Asian Furniture", and given that virtually all the pieces are antiques, one would think that the types of tools to be depicted would have been near-exclusively Asian tools. Not so.

Besides mixing in tools which would not likely be part of the furniture-maker's kit, like the "Japanese splitting knife", or "cooper's broad axe", we have the inclusion of western tools, like 'Scottish Craftsman Plane', 'English Jarvis Plane' , 'European Grooving Plane', 'French Bevel Gear Drill', and 'Cooper's Croze', etc. - what do these have to do with Asian furniture? Zero. This is mindless filler at best, and insults the reader's intelligence.

It gets worse though. Several (well, all) of the Japanese tools are mis-described:


The Japanese inkpot, sumitsubo, did not and does not contain fine black or white powder. It contained cotton wadding (wata) soaked in sumi (ink).

Here's another gem:


"Tsai bench chisel" - there is no such word as 'tsai' in the Japanese language. And it is not illustrating a tool made by the noted blacksmith Tasai either, and in any case, chisels are referred to by their type, not the name of the maker. That type of chisel is hardly what might be 'mainly used by temple carpenters' - it is a general purpose chisel type that any carpenter or woodworker might have. A chisel more typical of a temple carpenter's set, given the nature of working with large timbers, would be heavy duty mortising chisels or a long necked paring slicks, etc..

Next, "Japanese hand-forged chisel":


Whoa! Chisels "from the discipline of Shogun sword makers..."Cool!

This is a bunch of hype. Few sword makers made tools until after the Meiji restoration (ie., after the Shogunate disappeared) for one thing, when they had virtually no other work. More swordmakers quit than stooped to make tools, as far as I know. The chisel illustrated is an unusual one anyhow: two-prong mortising chisel - nimai mukomachi nomi - commonly employed by shōji makers, not carpenters. Further, ALL Japanese chisels, above the very cheapest level are hand-forged, and as far as I know ALL carpentry tools require precision in manufacture and 'clear-cut edges' - what else would one use, a chisel or plane with "blurry edges"?

The description for, um, 'Dozuki Mini' :


Here, the description indicates an entirely different type of saw, a kugi-hiki nokogiri. A dozuki saw has a back stiffener, unlike the saw illustrated or described, and is not used for flush-cutting pegs tenons, dowels, etc., unless you want to mar the adjacent surface.

Some more - here's "dovetail chisel":


Curiously described as "o-ire nomi takei". The word 'takei' is meaningless, for one thing; secondly the chisel illustrated is a push chisel as opposed to a striking chisel (all o-ire nomi are striking chisels however). The correct term for what is illustrated in fact, which is a crankneck chisel with a 'triangular cross-section would be "shinogi-gata kote nomi". Yes, it might be used for finishing dovetails and other joinery, but more specifically it is for cleaning out dadoes and housings.

Here's "Mortise Chisel":


Not bad, description-wise, but there are many chisels which can be used for mortising, rectangular and otherwise, and Japanese chisel cutting edge steel may be white paper steel, or blue paper steel, or Super Blue steel, or Swedish steel, or English Sheffield steel, etc.. The chisel illustrated, more to the point, is not a mortising chisel and is not "heavy duty" - it is a hira-machi o-ire nomi to be more specific, a type of medium duty striking chisel with a flattened neck.

Another beauty:


"Veneer saw" - this is an 'oga' type of saw, and is not a veneer saw but used for ripping large planks or logs roughly into baulks. Veneering is quite unusual in Japanese and Chinese woodworking. And "the refined skill of sawing diversified into a number of narrow specialities" - more twaddle.

Next, "Chinese Round Mallet" and "Carpenter's Mallet":


Both tools illustrated are the same thing, and this type of hammer is used by the Japanese as well. Why would the wood of the 'Chinese' mallet be described with the Japanese term 'akagashi' (Red Oak)?

"Splitting Maul":


What does this tool have to do with furniture making? It's a European tool besides. The tool illustrated does not have a poll - one end of the illustrated item is a blade, and the other a pick, If it did have a poll, it would be used to drive a splitting Wedge perhaps, not an 'edge'

Next, "European Adze":


What is illustrated is not an adze, but looks more like a slater's hammer. Again, why include a European tool that has nothing to do with Asia or furniture?

"Fish Head (Kobiki) Saw":


Illustrated is an azebiki saw. There is no such thing as a 'fish-head saw' as far as I know, and in any case 'fish-head' does not translate as 'kobiki'. The word 'kobiki' could mean 'little saw" depending upon the kanji used, but it is not a standard term in any event. Teeth spacing on these types of saw varies with the size, and can certainly be more than "1mm apart".

The "Ceremonial Tool Box", is perhaps the most egregious blunder of all:


Utter hogwash. While the tools illustrated are indeed ceremonial - these sorts of sets were produced for inclusion with a Japanese temple after construction was complete, where they would be given - to the temple - simply as commemorative items, never to be actually used. Sometimes the tool set would be hidden up in the roof. Few Japanese carpenters would be caught dead with a gold-foiled carpenter's square or inkpot and tool box (sumitsubo) inlaid with mother of pearl.

I could go on, but I'll stop while I'm ahead. There are inane and un-educated comments throughout the 'tools' section. I certainly could have done a lot better job than the editor of that book, not that I aspire to be anybody's editor. As I have found so many errors in one section of which I do have some detailed knowledge, I now must question the veracity of the rest of the text. Too bad. This book is simply one filled with some pretty pictures, but the text can be largely ignored I'm afraid.

I think like a lot of books these days, the whole point is to produce it fast, with lots of glossy pictures and who cares about accuracy? So long as they sell lots of copies, the publishers would appear to not give a shit about veracity of content. I e-mailed the publisher of "Asian Furniture", Thames and Hudson, two months back with a detailed commentary of the problem areas in the book, only some of which I have described above, and to this point have not even been graced with a reply, or a simple 'thanks for the input'. Not that I'm sore about that, but it does indicate a certain lack of regard for the reader and their feedback in general I suppose. Possibly their interest is in selling lots of copies, and not much else?

Thanks for dropping by today.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tréteau 31 -finis!

Last post in this series, previous installments are archived to the right of the page, and for a preamble, please look at the multi-post series entitled "French Connection", which are scattered here and there back over the past 12 months.

The last matter to deal with on this project is the fitting of the sacrificial cap. I managed to obtain a nice piece of vertical grain Fir from the architectural millwork shop down the street, for $6. Price was right! I wanted something a bit softer than the Canarywood, a material that would not be too slippery in surface quality, and the Fir fit the bill perfectly.

I made up a MDF jig to rough out the sliding dovetail mortises, of which there are 6 in total to be cut in the top and cap:


A few steps later, the mortises were roughed out:


Then a little chisel work to square up the drop in sections - here on the Fir cap:


A run in with a dovetail bit and a little more chisel work and the mortises were complete:


Then I made up the double dovetail keys in a scrap piece of white oak, and checked the fit of the keys:


The fit was acceptable, so I glued them in place.

Next, I started cutting the trench for the locking pin:


I checked the pin against the trench to see how it fit:


Next, I installed the cap, slid it forward and transferred marks from the beam to the cap:


The trenched parts complete:


Install - the parallelogram shaped pin is Honduran Mahogany, which is about half-way in between the hardness of the Fir and the Canarywood:


Peek-a-boo out the other side:


Last step was to clean up the cap with a few planing passes and some chamfering:


Here it is, at last all done and ready for use:


The other side:


For the near term, I'll leave the fixing pin a bit long, and then run it in and out a few times before trimming it flush at some future point. The cap is also slightly proud of the beam to act as a bit of a bumper to keep the beam underneath it in better shape longer (I hope).

All in all it came out well, though not all the fits are as nice as I would like them due to an error in the glue-up process. The main point was to learn a layout method which would apply to roof carpentry, and in that respect it has been a very worthwhile undertaking. The sawhorse should last a while - I wonder how much weight it can take? I won't be doing any destruction testing though, hah-hah!

Thanks for dropping by today. I wonder what I'll find to write about next time?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tréteau 30

While I said this was going to be the final post in this thread, reality is not cooperating with that outlook, so there will be one more post to come after this one. My apologies to those of you hoping for some reprieve from what I'm sure has become a bit tedious by now. Previous posts in this build thread are archived to the right of the page.

The last couple of days have comprised some final fitting and finish planing of the parts. I had one patch to do in the side of the top beam:


The Canarywood is fairly cooperative when it comes to dragging a blade across its surface, save for the odd minor patch of rowed grain here and there. It's a bit like Honduran Mahogany in that respect, only harder and stinkier. To tell the truth, I didn't fuss overly with the planing, knowing how banged up this sawhorse will be in no time, and only resharpened 4 or 5 times during the process:


I also chamfered all the arrises, though it will leave tiny gaps here and there when certain pieces are brought together, but I'm not bothered about it:


The glue up, though the epoxy gave me 30 minutes of working time, was a bit of a nail-biting stress session. Actually, I didn't even have time to bite my nails and was fortunate to have my wife around to help hold some part together during the first few stages of assembly. I might have been better to use urea formadehyde glue for its long open time, but I wasn't sure how well it would bond to the Canarywood and didn't feel like buying a $10 box of it for sake of experimentation. Here's the horse all glued, clamped and wedged up:


I decided only to wedge the legs that are à devers, as the tenons on those two were shaped in a conducive manner for wedging. The faces aplomb legs with their irregular pentagonal tenons seemed too much of a hassle to wedge as the wedge would be working against the grain in a poor manner and I would have to make a parellelogram-shaped wedge for one end. Nah...not this time:


In the next picture, you can see how I dealt with the barbes that taper out to nothing - I trimmed them back about 5/16" or so:


The epoxy was dry a couple of hours later, and I could start trimming the excess off:


Here's the other end:


So, after the dust had cleared and the pulse rate settled down a bit, here we have a nearly-complete project:


Another view - it isn't the easiest thing to photograph, as every photographic angle has some things in view and some things hidden:


The Canarywood sure is a nice looking material in some places - here's my favorite spot:


Okay then, all that remains is to fit the sacrificial cap, and that will be on the slate for tomorrow, so I hope to see you then. I found a nice piece of radial grain fir for the cap. Thanks for dropping by today.

--> Go to post 31 (final!!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tréteau XXIX

It's good to sit down at the keyboard after a full day working on the sawhorse project. Now, I know, I know, there's no shortage of people who will tell me that they could build a sawhorse in a few hours so what am I wasting my time on?! Just slow I guess....

Post 29 in the thread, with previous installments to be found in the Blog Archive to the right of the page.

Today's work comprised the final stage in the frame joinery cut out on this 19 century French puzzle - the cutting of the mortises for the interior x-braces. I used a jig and my router to rough out the mortises, and then trimmed them to the line with various chisels. Here's the result, showing a pair of upper mortises and a couple of lower mortises:


A close up:


These mortises are compound sloped, blind and tapered, and turned out to be a good fit to the interior brace tenons.

With the mortises done in a couple of hours work, I commenced the fitting of each pair of lapped interior braces:


As the tenon pairs with their barbes got closer to their destinations, I kerfed each barbe interior surface to the face:


And then kerfed the tenon shoulder to the adjacent face:


The result:


Here's another one - on the uphill side, getting pretty close, another kerfing and it will be there:


After each side was independently fitted, I did a trial assembly of each subsection of x-braces to their respective long braces:


Once both sides were done, it was time to do an assembly. This proved to be one of the most difficult things to assemble I have ever dealt with, as so many parts have to engage together at once. With enough patience and eye-balling, it was a matter of a little bit here and a little bit there, tap-tap, nudge-nudge:


Here all the parts are in play, and I'm working things down and together:


I gotta say, after all these months, it is really good to see this picture at long last:


Here I'm trying to show how the 4 different sets of short side braces all intersect at the exact same height:


It looks like the right hand leg in the above picture could sit a little further down, but I could care less at this point. I'll fiddle some more with it tomorrow.

I then placed a stick, one of the long braces that went by the wayside in the build, inside the frame to check how well aligned the brace sets were, and to my satisfaction the stick sat exactly upon all four intersection points at once with no rocking - I was a little surprised actually:


How about a few more pictures?



Wow. That was a saga! I have learned a lot through the process, and hope to spring onward to new challenges from this point on. Thanks to you, the reader, for hanging in there with me too!

The sawhorse isn't quite complete yet - I need to spend a little time fiddling the fit a bit more, and then assemble it for a final time, with glue and wedges in some of the tenons. Then I will fit a 3/4" sacrificial cap, possibly of mahogany (I'm not quite sure yet what material I will choose), with sliding dovetail keys and a transverse capture pin somewhat like my other sawhorse. Those steps will be covered in the next (and final) post in this series. Thanks for coming by today - I think I'll go and have a beer!

--> Go to post 30