Recap: Douglas Brooks Visit

There's a thousand ways to skin a cat. As apprentice boatbuilders, we are constantly learning and relearning this lesson; not about cats, of course, but about boats. I've had three people describe three distinct techniques for taking a plank pattern - one using pencil dividers, one using hot glue and plywood tabs, and one using a simple wooden block. All of these methods are an application of the same basic concept, but the execution in each case, is different. I can't even recount all of the different techniques I've been taught for sharpening tools, whether using sandpaper, water stones, a grinding wheel, or a file.

In light of this, it was interesting to hear Douglas Brooks describe (and show!) the techniques used in Japanese boatbuilding during his lecture and demonstration. The building process is quite different. Here, we generally loft out a boat to develop molds and patterns. The molds - fixed to a backbone - function as a skeleton around which the hull of the boat takes shape. In the Japanese building process, the boat is built on the floor without much framing. The planks are much thicker and are edge-fastened to each other to create a kind of shell. While there are some critical angles and measurements, often recorded on the walls of the shop or simply memorized, the boats are not lofted. There are rarely even plans; building dimensions are transferred orally from master to apprentice and are not available to the wider public.

One of the things I was particularly impressed with was the method used for fitting planks. Western boats are usually caulked to make them watertight. In Japan, plank seams are fit so that they are watertight without any caulking. Builders run a series of progressively finer saws through the seams between planks so that with each pass, the planks fit more and more precisely and the seam becomes tighter and tighter.  

In his lecture, Brooks also chronicled what it is like to learn a craft in Japan. The educational philosophy in Japanese craft seems to hinge on the idea that students are fully responsible for their own learning. He described how apprentices there are expected to sweep, fetch tools, and move material for months or even years before they are allowed to work on a boat. It is their job to observe the movements and actions of their master, to study their master's work, so that when they are asked to complete a building task, they are capable of accomplishing it perfectly. The transfer of knowledge is achieved through silent observation and practice, not through direct instruction.

While my time at the Apprenticeshop has felt quite different from the way Brooks described his apprenticeships in Japan, there is something similar between the philosophy of the shop and Japanese ideas of what it means to learn a craft; the responsibility for learning is placed predominantly on the student, not on the teacher. There are no lectures or study halls. Instead, students are given the freedom to determine their own pace of work, the opportunity to learn what is of interest and value to them. Unlike in Japan, there is support - namely, people who are willing to answer questions or think through a stumbling block with you. Students are allowed to talk. And they begin building on day 1, whether they have experience with wood or not. But the responsibility for transmitting information is not, first and foremost, the teacher's.

From my experiences within the US education system, both as a student and a teacher, this is a rare thing. Traditionally, American students are assigned a passive role in learning. They are lectured at, demonstrated to, tested on. What this seems to produce is students lacking in intrinsic motivation who have no idea what they are interested in or passionate about. It also produces severely stressed out teachers. Perhaps it is a little extreme to place all of the responsibility for learning on students, especially when they are very young. However, I think there is a lot to be gained from shifting the locus of responsibility for learning from the teacher more towards the student.

All in all, we were very glad to have Douglas Brooks visit and share his experiences in Japan with us. We hope to have him back again!




A Peek Inside Apprentice Process

Most of us have some sort of notebook or journal for recording project ideas, progress, tidbits gleaned from our successes and failures as we construct boats, build toolboxes, and conduct our daily appointments and to dos. Here is a peak inside Owen's and Susan's:

And a Month Later...


I’m Alice.

I came to The Apprenticeshop in late January, ostensibly to build a boat. I mean, I am building a boat, but that’s not what this is really about for me.

I grew up in a great sailing city, San Francisco, but I never knew anyone who thought about boats, let alone had one. And although I’ve always liked boats, I haven’t had much experience with them. I’m here, I think, because I wanted to make something. I didn’t necessarily need it to be a whole boat, but heck, why not? Build a boat in 12 weeks. Sure, I can do that. Well, I can try.

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My Susan Skiff

Four of those weeks are over now and this is what I have to show for them.

I’ve got the front bit (the stem) and the back bit (the transom) and some structural middle bits (chines and keelson) all in place. Note: Because I’m only here for 12 weeks, I got set up with a skeleton I could build around. The new 2-year apprentices have to start out by lofting the boat (think drawing up architectural plans, but for boats) and building their strongback and molds.

It doesn’t seem much, to me, for a month’s worth of work. I’m told, though, that these first bits are some of the hardest because you’re trying to get things with angles to fit together. I’ve been asked several times about how much the experience here has differed from my expectations going in, and I’ve always replied that I didn’t know enough about what building a boat involved to really have any expectations beyond that there would be lots of wood and probably some saws? But I guess I’ll say this: I did not expect geometry. I should have paid more attention in math class.


Douglas Brooks Lecture

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Come join us for the start of our new lecture series! On February 28th at 6pm, Douglas Brooks, a boatbuilder, writer, and researcher who specializes in the construction of traditional wooden boats, will be giving a public lecture. He will talk about his experiences apprenticing with some of the last Japanese boatbuilders to learn their traditional craft and he’ll have copies of his new book available for purchase. To see photos of his boats and learn more about his research, you can visit his website.

The lecture costs $10. You can buy tickets at the door or purchase them here on the website.

Us lucky apprentices will also get to participate in a demo the following day. More to come on that in a future post.

Photo Credit: Douglas Brooks

Toboggan Nationals

This year, we sent two teams from the shop to the US Toboggan National Championships at the Camden Snow Bowl. We had our Fisherman's Academy team, a group of high school students who come to us from Oceanside East, and the Suzukinis, an apprentice team generously sponsored by Suzuki Sushi Bar.  

The day before the competition, both teams went for some practice runs. The video below shows the Fisherman's Academy team working on positioning themselves on the toboggan. The practice seems to have paid off in the end. This year, they made it down the run faster than last year, especially during the practice runs on Friday morning. Even though none of our teams took home a trophy, we all had fun, and even caught some fish out on the ice!

Some of the Suzukinis were interviewed about their experience on the Chris Wolf show. You can see the interview here.