Wood Work: Japanese-style tool box

Today I had brunch with my Dad in New Haven, Connecticut.  It’s a good half-way point for us both, though closer to me than to him, because we both enjoy a stroll through one or more of the Yale museums when we’re done. Today, there was an architecture tour at 1:30 at the Yale Art Gallery. Neither of us had been since the renovation was completed, and it was good to take a walk through the overhauled buildings and see old favorites and new wonders on display.

Our meal happened to be near one of my favorite art supply stores, Hull Art Supply. You know that funny thing where you buy a new type of car for you, and suddenly you see that model everywhere?  Lately, when I go to art supply stores, I’ve been picking up wooden things, because eventually I want to go back to work on the kavad… and you can’t build an elaborate storytelling shrine/visual aid out of wood if you can’t work with wood.  But, of course, most of what I’ve been doing has been painting wood rather than learning to shape and changing.

Toolbox in progress 1 Today, I discovered the motherlode of wooden stuff.  It turns out that Hull Art Supply has a back,back room with short wooden planks of basswood and other suchlike materials, in various hefts and weights.  Sculpture? Sure.  Small cabinetry? Sure.  Kavads? They were a little uncertain, but … ok, sure, we could work with that plan. But frankly, I’m not ready to build the kavad.  I haven’t got the skills or the carpentry chops yet.

On the other hand, I did have a project that I wanted to build in wood: I’d seen the design of a Japanese carpenter’s tool box on Tumblr ( Actually, it’s this one that I saw, thanks), and it seemed simple enough that I could build one for myself. And here was the wood at Hull’s, and the tools (although I ruined two coping saws in the process of browsing. Ooops. Sorry about that!)  I’d already built a model in Balsa Wood… surely I could build a full-sized one?

So, I came home with the planks shown above, and set to work. First things first: I laid out the planks in sort of a weird sculptural arrangement on the floor of my office, in roughly the order that the final pieces would be assembled.  I did this to get a feel for the pieces of wood, and how the various parts would fit together.  It became immediately clear that I’d bought too much wood.  I probably have enough materials to build a second box, although it would have to be much smaller than the first, and likely wouldn’t be as sturdy.

Toolbox in progress 1

Once I had a sense of the steps I was going to do, I started cutting pieces out.  And once I had three pieces, I started nailing.  In retrospect, I should have had longer nails, or maybe used screws, but I liked the banging of the hammer — it probably annoyed my upstairs neighbors, but I like that I had somethign under construction downstairs, regardless of the upstairs plan.

And here it is.  You can follow any photograph over to Flickr, and see the pictures of this afternoon’s build session.  I was intending this to be a multi-day project, but it turned out to be an afternoon effort.  If I’d spread it over several days, there wouldn’t have been much to do.  As it was, the building took more time and put more of a strain on my lower back than I would have guessed… but at the same time, I have a Japanese-style carpentry box, and you don’t.

The box had more than a few lessons to teach me, I’m afraid.  A lot of them had to do with the old saws (saws… get it!?  Hahahahahah) about carpentry, particularly “measure twice, cut once”. A lot of my efforts, errors and challenges resolved around trying to decide what to do about this piece not quite long enough, or that piece cut unevenly, and yet gradually the toolbox emerged.

Toolbox: progress/completeAlong the way, there were a number of revelations and secrets discovered  First, a coping saw is the wrong tool for cutting through wide pieces of wood, such as bars or ingots or planks.  It leaves behind slightly curved bends in the saw, reflected into the wood.  Can’t be done.  The result was that by trying to cut pieces to exactly the right height or width, I was destroying the symmetry the piece of wood was supposed to have, to do the job in the tool box that it was supposed to.

But the box works as advertised.  It has a tight lid which slides and locks into place, the tools are covered and potentially out of wet weather, there’s a small compartment inside for nails, screws and other odds and ends. It’s hardly perfect, but it has a certain beautiful and rough symmetry, and it has the additional advantage of being my first solo wood-working project.  I built the balsa wood model last week, and now the real, full-sized box is sitting in my office, loaded up with tools like it should be.  And how do I know that the right tools are in the box?

Funny you should ask that. Because the last picture of this series is the box, loaded up with the exact set of tools that I needed to use to build this box.

Toolbox: progress/completeHere they are: a small plastic box of short nails.  A hand plane and a Japanese style saw from Harbor Freight Tool Supply.  A coping saw and a set square I bought today from Hulls Art Supply (going to have to read up on those coping saws, because if I don’t learn how to use them more effectively, I’m going to stick with Japanese style saws from now). An exacto knife of a style not commonly associated with traditional carpentry.  A c-clamp from Home Depot (the red under the Xacto knife).  And a hammer that belonged to my grandfather — sometimes the things they made before the Spanish-American war are better than the newest and best in the store.  And one tiny square of fine-grain sandpaper, which I used when planing defeated me.

And that’s it.  I didn’t even use more than half the nails.

So… I’m a woodworker of sorts, now.  An apprentice, to be sure. But I feel fairly confident that I have started developing the skills that I need to build the kavad at some point in the future.  This is how things begin — with smaller projects that grow confidence and build skill, before the real challenges of the upper slopes of the mountain appear.

The larger implications for Design and Design Thinking that this tool box represents, though, are becoming equally clear.  I’ll elaborate on them in another post, later this week, but there are four big takeaways for me:

  • Design projects should introduce students to the use of new tools and materials that are not typical of schools.
  • Design projects should start with a couple of tools and work up to a more complete set.
  • Students discover new possibilities from tools and materials that are unfamiliar
  • What is built with the hands and tools is built in the mind.

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