What makes a puzzle box?

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The massive stump of a few-hundred year old "Sugi"(aka Japanese Cedar)

on Yakushima, Kagoshima, Japan

Don't all things always come back to Nature? The life force that literally makes our existence here on this rock possible. I believe it's important to consider "Craft" through the lens of nature. Nature will always respond with enormous momentum, pushing and pulling as it must. Our ability as humans to use materials to create tools, and things allows us to have a conversation with the world around us. With woodworking, we take a tree that has lived, sometimes over a hundred years in the forest, and through cutting, joining, and finishing, we make things that can live a second life as chairs, tables, toys, all the wooden things that live beside us in our homes. If we do this well enough, we can humbly accept the gifts of nature and through a bit of hard work and imagination, craft the world within our reach.

While traveling in Japan, and visiting a few craftsmen, I started to get a feel for the threads that tie them all together. To put such a complex web into words is no small task, so I will give you a few snippets of what I saw and learned and hopefully, you will be able to see these threads for yourself.

Yakushima - Gifts taken.

The unique ecosystem of Yakushima has found some sort of balance for thousands of years. The high rainfall and nutrient deficient soil means that the trees on the island grow incredibly slow. This results in cedar trees with very tight growth rings and a high resin content. The slow-growing trees end up producing lumber that is light, and waterproof. The stumps and fallen trunks of these trees are resistant to decay and disease so trees that have fallen hundreds of years ago can still be seen lying on the forest floor.

In the Edo Era (1600 - 1868), after being forced by the warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi, the Shimazu clan was instructed to send Yaksugi lumber to Kyoto to satisfy a new building frenzy of Japan. Normally, a clan would pay with rice. Seeing that Yakushima's soil could not support rice patties, they paid with shingles made out of Yaksugi lumber. The lightweight and waterproof material became a very sought after roofing material. The logging of the forest cleared a majority of the old growth forest. In the forest today, you can see some of the massive trees that were avoided by the loggers. Those that were too knotted, too dense, or curved were avoided because they couldn't make good shingles. Some of these trees have been given the title Yakusugi. These Yakusugi are given the title when they are over 1,000 years old. Some of the older trees look as if they are floating over a pile of rocks. In these instances, the tree had outlived the rock it has originally grown upon. The stones fell apart, and kept breaking as the tree grew stronger over time. Some trees have scars that grew around axe cuts where, hundreds of years ago, someone tried to make test cut, found it too dense to cut through, and left it for an easier tree. It's said that if you leave your axe propped up on a tree for the night, and you come back the next day, and the axe has fallen, that a spirit is inhabiting the tree, and you should not cut it down. Being in the Shiratani Valley, surrounded by running water and  petrified giants, spelled out, with punctuation, the narrative of the ground upon which we stood.

Today, Yaksugi lumber is very valuable to artisans and people who seek very beautiful, stable and essentially waterproof wooden goods. Legislation has been put in place to protect the forest, stating that there may be no logging of the forest. Previously, people could auction off lumber that fell naturally, but, at the time of my visit, the final auction had already taken place, and no more would be held for yaksugi lumber. Questions of forest preservation come up when trail guides need to take their guests into the forest. One specific area was up for debate whether to build a small bridge to help people cross a creek safely. But to do so, would obstruct a completely natural view of the waterway. At what point do we accept that there are places we cannot, or shouldn't go, and be okay with that?

The logging of ancient trees on Yakushima didn't occur without a catalyst. That catalyst came in the form of a small Chinese junker on the 23rd of September, 1543 (Lidin 1). The junker, thrashed by the waves and storms, needed repair, and sought it at the souther tip of the island Tanegashima. It was here, that the first guns were introduced to Japan. Two Portuguese traders sold their wares, and then their two guns to the lord of the island, Tanegashima Tokitaka (1528–79). He would later go on to invade Yakushima, and begin to exploit its natural resources. Today, you can see much of the new growth forest, trees upwards of 400 years old. The oldest trees, the Yaksugi, were the most gnarled,  or difficult to cut. Some trees have axe marks that have turned into scars: a product of a woodsman who made the first cut, decided the tree was too dense, and left it for another. The Yaksugi are sough after by many wood workers for its beautiful grain, resistance to rot, and pleasant aroma. In a small piece purchased from a craftsman, one could count 184 years of growth rings in a section of wood a hair under 4" wide. 


Shinsu Saws - From earth to hand

The island of Tanegashima was blessed with iron sand on its shores, and when smelted, produced some of the finest metal in Japan. The exact science unknown at the time, the iron sand, "satestsu", contained magnetite, and trace amounts of titanium, manganese, calcium and vanadium. When smelted in a bloomers, the edges oxidized into some of the finest steels to exist. These shiny, oxidized bits near the edges are Tamahagne. The word comes from "Tama" meaning round and precious like a gem, and "hagane" meaning steel.  This steel was used in the Katanas and other tools when laminated steel developed in Japan. 

One of the metallurgical advancements of history was laminated steel. A high carbon steel would keep it's edge longer, but it was much more brittle than it's lower carbon form. Blacksmiths developed a process of sandwiching high-carbon steel between low carbon steel to take advantage of both properties: a sharp edge and a flexible body.  This method was used for chisel, and hand plane blades. The quenching was a process that needed to be perfected. If improperly quenched, one metal would shrink faster than the other, de-laminating the blade: an irreparable fault.

Craft secrets, and the knowledge to work with materials have been such a closely guarded secret across the world, not just in Japan, that entire guilds were tasked with controlling who can learn the trade, and ensure the its quality. In Chino, Japan, the farming was difficult. What the area did have, was wood, and low humidity. A cunning lord petitioned to have a royal saw maker come and teach craftsman in Chino how to make saws. This request was granted, and a handful of aw craftsmen took hold in Chino, benefiting from the wood to stoke their fires, and the low humidity to avoid rust.

In Chino, I met Morozumi-san. One of the last master Shinshu Saw makers in Japan. Now well on in years, but with a smile and gleam in his eyes that convince you otherwise, he has honed his skills for the last 55+ years, inheriting the knowledge of saw making  from his father. He has an unwavering dedication to his craft. Each blade is made from Tamahagane. Depending on the saw style,  saw blanks are thinned, or flattened on a grinding machine. The teeth are rough ground by another machine. The final sharpening, is done by hand. Morozumi-san will sit down in his seat, perfectly positioned in front of his low-angle window so that he may sight the blade without straining his neck up to overhead lights. When stepping into his work space, everything was in order, beautifully laid out to facilitate the task: a space embodying a lifetime of making.

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Morozumi-san's seat with a wooden vice and saws for resharpening close by. 

Modern economies of tool making have made it more difficult for Morozumi-san over the years. A two sided pull saw for carpentry can cost upwards of $150 USD when made by a master craftsman. An industrially made saw can be purchased on amazon for $25. Most carpenters cannot justify buying such an expensive tool when cheaper alternatives exist. Morozumi-san has said that he will not lower the quality of his work specifically for the people who value its quality. A Shinshu saw made of Tamahagane can be resharpened. The cost to have Morozumi-san resharpen a saw is just a few dollars more than buying another cheap, factory made saw. Most, if not all industrially made ones are lower grade steels tempered at the teeth. This process makes the teeth too hard for files to sharpen the blade. This means that once you snap a few teeth of a cheaper saw, you have to throw it out. Tamahagane saw, however, can be resharpened time and time again. In the stack of saws, you can see one with the right side much shorter than the left. This is a carpenter who had this saw sharpened many time, until there is barely any left. There's a saying something along the lines of "Good old tools can't be found. They are ground into dust". The sentiment of this is that a good tool will serve many lifetimes, and be worn away until it is nothing. 

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Morozumi-san checking my filing angles to make sure they are correct.

Hakone - The birth of  Yosegi