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Working faster 1

I finished a commission for four patterned shoji panels for a restaurant in Brisbane last week, and I’m now just waiting on the carpenter to do his side of the work so they can be fitted. Once they’re up, and with the restaurant’s permission, I’ll post some photos. It will probably be some time early next month. In the meantime, I’d like to put a few quick philosophical thoughts together about the difference between woodworking as a hobby, and as a job.

The commission wasn’t a rush job — I had plenty of time to complete my side of the project, but that doesn’t mean I had the luxury of being able to procrastinate and work slowly. Trying to do the work I do as a full-time occupation demands that I finish each project as quickly as I can so that I’m ready for when a subsequent quote leads to the next commission.

Working quickly, though, doesn’t mean working hurriedly, or rushing through the job. This leads to mistakes and sloppy work, and in this business, it just takes one quality slip to ruin a reputation that has taken time and great effort to build.

It means eliminating wasted movements and unnecessary processes. This was a constant theme at Shokugei Gakuin (where I studied
tategu) across all disciplines — carpentry, furniture making, tategu, and gardening and landscaping. Work carefully, but work quickly.

This reminds me of an excellent entry on furniture-maker Dennis Young’s blog from a year and a half ago about his master from his apprenticeship days, and his master’s final days before passing. The blog entry is
here. I encourage everyone to read and absorb Dennis’s meaningful words. Even bed-ridden and in his final days, his master, albeit in his mind, was engaged in the craft he loved and had devoted his entire life to. And there’s no doubt there would not have been one wasted movement or process in those final actions.

As Dennis’s master said: “You have to get faster.” I, and every other student at the College, heard this regularly from our instructors, who undoubtedly would have heard this regularly from their masters, and so on back in time. And yes, I do have to get faster.

Much has been made of the Japanese
shokunin tradition of “stealing” their skills rather than being taught them. In other words, apprentices had to observe and learn, rather than being fed their knowledge. As Japanese society, and indeed the world of the shokunin, changes, I think this concept is certainly dying out. With a willing apprentice, it is much more efficient to teach skills and knowledge so that the apprentice has a solid base from which he or she can work to develop and expand those skills and that knowledge.

To a degree, I also think this idea has perhaps been a little misunderstood in the West. Some processes, be they making furniture, assembling shoji, or building a frame for a house, require explanations to be properly understood, and in the past, apprentices would have had these processes explained to them, even if it was in the form of being yelled at or a boot up the backside because of a mistake they made. I believe the concept of “stealing” skills related more to closely observing how their master moved as he worked — watching and copying his actions using the plane or chisel, or in assembling the work. In other words, learning how to eliminate every unnecessary movement and action. This cannot be taught; only learned by observing and copying. And subsequently honed by experience, knowledge, and a firm grasp of the work processes so that there is a natural flow from one procedure to the next without the need to stop and think about what needs to be done.

This is why I enjoyed watching my instructor, Sawada Sensei, and all the other instructors in action so much. Complete and absolute efficiency.

Some work to do, so I’ll continue this in later blog entries.