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Experimenting with Japanese Woodworking Methods

> Blog > Japanese Woodworking Adaptations > Japanese Floor Horses > Experimenting with Japanese Woodworking Methods
Fri 13th Nov 2020
Blog Categories: Japanese Floor Horses | Japanese Woodworking Adaptations | All / Filter

When woodworking, I have used European hand tools methods at a European hand tool bench (I have no standalone machines, nor do I want them). This has meant means standing up using hand tools at a traditional European style work bench, using metal planes that are pushed away from me. But I have been recently investigating if I can do some of this work on the floor, using the Japanese way of working (again using only hand tools).

This was done with some reservations. Firstly, living with pain & being 47, trying to work on the floor could make these things much worse. Secondly, there is a fundamental shift from working at a bench to the floor, and from pulling rather than pushing the tools (and I can't over state the second one). However my early experiments have exceeded my (fairly low) expectations and I am excited about continuing with them.

Why look at the Japanese methods?

Historically, the Japanese live a lot of their lives on the floor - sitting and living, and whilst this may not be as true today, it has over the centuries naturally reflected how they work in wood.

Japan was a 'closed' country for sometime, and this enabled them to create their own traditions in many ways, without undue influence from the 'outside world', and this includes wood working. This is exciting because they have come up with different ways to create things.

Fundamentally from what I have read, traditional Japanese woodworking is done working from the floor - with various devices to enable them to work either seated, kneeling or standing. They don't traditionally have the European style benches we might be used to, but much simpler, but still as effective supports such as planing beam and low floor mounted horses and floor mounted 'benches' to work on.

A big reservation was the fundamental shift in how to use the tools when on the floor. In the European tradition (& US / Canadian etc.) we push tools away from us to do the work. With a bench plane, to flatten a surface the tool edge is positioned to cut when we push. The same with saws - they cut when we push the tool, and on the pull back they do no work at all, just get ready for the next push. In the Japanese tradition, the work happens on the pull - on planes the blade is oriented to cut when we pull - ditto saws etc. This uses different muscles in our body, and mentally is a different way of work. With planes we can use the European style but just rotate them through 180deg (although that may not be ideal). With saws, you need different ones, you can't use a European saw backwards.

First Experiments - How to Start

I concluded that to explore this I needed to do 2 things - massive Studio Reorganisation to create more floor space (currently a storage space for so many things) and then make some Japanese inspired floor horses to work on / experiment planing with planing beam.

I also have read around the subject a lot, but it is all very well reading, you also need to get out there and try it out, which is what I have been doing in the past few weeks.

Studio Reorganisation

Firstly, my studio needed a radical clear out and reorganisation. There was far too much stuff in there (not all of it mine, various relatives things were there too), but I also wanted a lot more floor space - too many floor standing shelves meant I didn't have that.

Clearing out is a long term project - I've done a lot already, more needs to be done, but I need to get on with other things too, so I will continue with this over time.

More floor space was much more exciting. I've made 2 trolleys (cabinets on industrial wheels) so I can move them around when necessary, and still store things in them. The larger of these is very heavy, and has storage for shorter bits of wood at the back so I can store against the wall, but bring out to access the timber and boards stored behind it when necessary.

Trolley with wood storage
Rear of larger trolley with wood storage

The second wheeled cabinet is much lighter weight as it stores mainly my photography lighting / tripods etc. which I use for some of the photos on this blog (rest are taken with mobile, I haven't time to set up the lighting every time).

It is only a few days since I made these, but I'm really glad I did, they make the space so much more usable.

Floor Horses Experiments

To see if working on the floor worked for me, I realised that I needed to try it out using some simple experiments.

I started with prototype Japanese inspired floor horses - horses that are about (can't remember)cm tall, and sit on the floor, where I work. There is no magic number for the height - when reading around different people in Japan use different heights, so I went for what seemed comfortable to work with. Not too low so I don't have to bend down and hurt my back (which is very easily done & causes me a lot of pain) but not so high that the advantages of working on the floor are lost both in terms of not having to stand up, and retaining advantage of body over work to create extra leverage.

These were made out of wood scraps - they aren't much to look at, but I wasn't sure about the design or height, so concluded a quick test out of scrap is a good starting place.

Test Japanese Floor Horses
Japanese Floor Horses, test ones made from scrap wood to see if I liked them, using for sawing

Then I used them to make the components for trolleys - and WOW - I must say that very quickly I really liked them! Once I'd cut the wood on my mitre saw (not floor mounted), I knelt on a folded up towel to drill and screw the sides, top, bottom etc. together using the horses, clamping pieces to the horses when needed. (Trolleys were put together on floor without horses as they weren't big enough to support them).

Test Japanese Floor Horses
Test Japanese Floor Horses, using the screw up a frame work

Planing Beam Experiments

Today I have also been trying a mock up of a planing beam which I kneel beside, and planing sitting at a shaving horse type of bench (which I sit astride) with a good thick beech planing board mounted at front, with a stop just in front of me. In both of these have been planing some soft and hardwoods, planing using European style metal planes, but pulling these towards me in the Japanese style.

This certainly used different muscles in the hands, arms, back and stomach, but I was pleased with the result for two reasons.

Firstly I was able to do it - that is a big step forward as I have a lot of muscular problems with my right hand/wrist - and aside of the completely different way of working (pulling rather than pushing the planes) I got used to it quickly, and was able to do it without getting so exhausted quickly as did when standing up. Secondly, I liked the pulling action because I felt that I could put more into it.

Of course, kneeling or sitting there is one big disadvantage and that is I can't plane as long a board - standing I can move more around / lean over etc. with my whole body. When sitting or kneeling that advantage is lost because there is a lot less of me between the plane and my body/floor contact position so I can't lean over as much, and certainly can't move around.

But is this disadvantage such a problem? If I were making large cabinets or a dining room table, then yes of course this would be hugely problematic. But I don't make these things. Whilst they are not shown on this site, I want to continue making the smaller drawer sets I made sometime back, and I can work like this. So this is something I am going to work up to next.

Unfortunately I didn't have time to get any photos of the planing, however watch this blog for more photos to come as I continue these experiments.

Tags: japanese floor horses carpentry carpenter wood worker woodworking cabinet maker cabinetmaker furniture maker furniture making

Blog Categories: Japanese Floor Horses | Japanese Woodworking Adaptations | All / Filter

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