Japanese masters share ancient wisdom with modern craftsmen

The rythmic tapping of Tanaka Hisao's hammer punctuates the silence in the sun-dappled white pine forest here. Mr. Tanaka, the world's foremost Japanese planemaker for the past several decades, holds a crowd of craftsmen spellbound as he ``tunes'' a woodworking plane -- and turns a seemingly menial task into a meaningful art. ``When he fine-tunes a plane, it's like someone tuning a Stradivarius,'' murmurs one onlooker, watching Mr. Tanaka fit a plane blade for use on hard maple.

The robust master -- whose short, stout frame is decked in baggy green pants, white T-shirt, and colorful bellywarmer -- raps lightly on the top of the blade until it peeks almost imperceptibly past the plane's bottom surface. He stops abruptly, twirls the plane to his left hand, and peers down its leading edge. Satisfied, he rocks forward and pulls the plane across the maple board before him. The plane, which had stutter-stepped across the rough-hewn surface before, now produces long, gossamer sh avings and makes the board as smooth and reflective as glass.

For Mr. Tanaka, this process is a 60-year-old ritual. For Japanese culture, it's a 900-year-old tradition. But for most of the woodworkers who gathered here recently for the second annual Japanese Masters Seminar, it was a compelling novelty. So compelling, in fact, that -- along with other insights they gained here about Japanese woodworking tools and methods -- it may revolutionize their work.

``Most of us are in the process of switching from Western tools to Japanese tools,'' says participant John Scherding. Japanese planes and saws work on the pull stroke, not on the push stroke as Western tools do. Because the tools require an entirely different technique, Mr. Scherding and his fellow craftsmen feel that studying -- and practicing -- the methods of these Japanese masters is invaluable. Despite the $790 price tag for the full 10-day session, the seminar attracted more than 50 carpente rs, cabinetmakers, even shipwrights -- from across the road and even from across the Atlantic.

The two-week seminar, the idea of woodworking enthusiast and tool salesman Robert Major, exposed the craftsmen to the age-old wisdom of five venerable Japanese from Miki city, a small town in western Japan renowned for its toolmaking tradition. Joining Mr. Tanaka were: Miyano Dai Endo, son of the world's greatest sawmaker and one of the best in his own right; Fujieda Hiro Aki, a 14th-generation temple carpenter who orchestrated the construction of a tea-ceremony house during the seminar; Kageyama Shigeki, a gold-toothed maker of shoji screens and doors; and Hara Zenji, a retired sawmaker who is Mr. Major's teacher.

The unequivocal star of the seminar was Mr. Tanaka, who drew more people when it was learned that this would be his last year here. This bristly haired man has been tuning planes and carving their wooden bodies since the 1920s. Although now retired, he still heaves a six-pound hammer easily, using muscles he jokingly compares with those of his favorite (and perhaps only known) American character: ``Popeye.'' He still crafts some special planes for Mahagony Masterpieces, an American distributor of Japane se tools run by Mr. Major. And he has taught in the seminars for the last two years.

``My life is short now,'' says Mr. Tanaka through an interpreter. ``I want to spend it teaching and helping others.''

His silent but salient instruction showed how Japanese tools and methods -- which were first imported across the Pacific only six years ago -- differ from their Western counterparts in both physical and mental approach. The push-vs.-pull distinction is a simple one, but to these masters -- and to the growing number of Western woodworkers switching to Japanese tools -- it makes all the difference.

To explain, seminar director Major only has to point to the glossy maple board Mr. Tanaka planed earlier. ``Japanese planes cut the [wood's] cells so cleanly that they refract light like the facets of a diamond,'' he says. ``If you tried to sand it, it would be like sanding a mirror. You would ruin it,'' he adds, noting that Western techniques require hours of sanding and finishing even after planing. Mr. Major attributes the silky surface to a razor-sharp blade, a well-fitted dai, and, above all, the p ulling technique.

Pulling is a more powerful and natural motion than pushing, says woodworking teacher Albert Barbour. The Cape Cod craftsman notes that ``my young students, who haven't learned how to [use a plane] the Western way, naturally turn the plane around and start pulling it toward them. It just gives them more power and control.''

The same theory holds true for Japanese saws, Mr. Major says. He uses this analogy: When you try to push a piece of string through two fingers, it buckles; but when you pull it, the string remains taut and strong. This not only means that a Japanese saw is more powerful than a Western saw, he maintains, but also that it can have a thinner, sharper blade that yields a cleaner cut.

One young carpenter, who hones his planing technique during a lunch break, says that, for him, the Japanese method isn't just a variation in technique, but an ``entire difference in psychology.'' Western techniques, with their forceful pushing and abrasive sanding, seem to work against the wood, he observes, whereas Japanese methods seem to work in harmony with it.

Mr. Miyano agrees. The sawmaker tucks away his toothy grin when he discusses the serious spiritual purpose he sees in his craft. ``Soul is not only in people,'' he says. ``It is in everything, and every good thing that people make. My job is to bring soul into tools.''

The question remains: If Japanese tools are so superior, have they proven it in the American marketplace? To a small degree, yes. During the short five-year history of Mahogany Masterpieces, Mr. Major claims, sales have risen to the point where ``the best 10 percent of American craftsmen'' now use some Japanese tools.

But high prices, high technology, and fixed ways conspire against a broader appeal for Japanese woodworking tools. The more expensive of the machine-made American planes go for about $40 -- the starting price for Japanese planes, which may cost as much as a few hundred dollars. Furthermore, it often takes up to six months for a Western-trained woodworker to become adept at using Japanese tools, says Mr. Scherding, and many American craftsmen -- especially the more established ones -- feel they can't aff ord to spend that much time learning a new skill.

Prew Savoy, a veteran shipwright from Delaware, is one older craftsman who swears by Japanese tools. Two years ago, he bought saws that ``turned my work right around,'' he says. ``They have such efficiency -- some say `soul.' I don't know if I would go that far, but you really do fall in love with these tools.''

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