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!