Benched

In our early days in Japan, back at the tail end of the Showa era, our family lived in what is known here as a 'mansion'. Readers with knowledge of Japanese living conditions know that this does not signify anything upscale; the term mansion simply refers to what might be known as a condominium, or an apartment, in other countries.

It was a very standard living space for a family of four, with enough room for a typical family to go about their daily activities. In our case, it was a bit tight, because not only was I running an English Conversation school at home, I was making wooden toys for sale, and of course also learning to make woodblock prints. So to the extent possible, all the tools and benches I built had to be multi-purpose, or at least stowable. The table saw I made doubled as a stand for our telephone and fax machine, the large table for my printing work folded down out of the way to make room for the English students, and the bench I made for woodcarving had foldable legs so that it could be shoved in a closet when not in use.

Because of these restrictions, that carving bench was actually too light-weight for serious use. A wood carver's bench has to be very solidly built, able to withstand repeated pounding of the blocks with a large mallet when removing waste wood, but this one was barely useable. I put up with it, knowing that I really had no option; there was simply no space for a 'real' workbench in our little home.

Years went by. Grandma and Grandad left, freeing up some room, but woodblocks and prints piled up, keeping things tight. My children grew up and left home, freeing up a lot more room, but still more woodblocks, prints, books, shipping supplies and the like continued to accumulate, eating up whatever space became available.

Hundreds of blocks of wood passed across my 'temporary' bench. All the blocks for the ten-year poets' series were carved on it, as were all those for the five-year Surimono series that followed it. I simply told myself that 'one day' I would figure out how to get myself a proper professional carver's workbench. Maybe tomorrow ... Maybe tomorrow ...

When I left the apartment and moved to a house of my own in Ome, it seemed like a good chance to make the change, and I soon became deeply involved with building the workshop itself - all the walls, insulation, new floor, etc. and etc. - planning to save the new workbench for the last.

But nearly fifteen years on, the room is still far from finished, and at this point - because of the opening of our new shop in Asakusa - it is starting to look like it might never be.

The 'temporary' bench I built all those years ago - back in 1990 - is now in 'temporary' residence in one corner of the shop, where I try to grab whatever time I can to work on the current print project. It wobbles on its foldable legs, it's a bit too small for the full-size block that I am now working on, and all-in-all it's pretty much an embarrassment.

So, why write about this now? After more than a quarter century of using this bench, could something be happening to bring about a change?

A phone call. A call from a man who had visited our new shop and seen me working there. He called to tell me a little bit about his family history, and the fact that his father - who passed away nearly thirty years ago - was one of the top block carvers of his day.

He lives in a fairly small house, and is looking for ways to free up some space ...

 


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Jed

Wow, great news! Is he trying to get rid of knives too? ;)

Posted by: Dave

At this point, we're not sure. I have a meeting with him this coming Wednesday, together with researcher-friend Tosh Doi, who is interested in gleaning information about the older man's life and history. Just exactly what we'll be seeing and learning about is still unclear, beyond the fact that there is an old and strong workbench apparently available for my use ...

Posted by: Franz Rogar

What an amazing opportunity!

(Tough I'd prefer he'd be trying to get rid of *barens* instead, Jed ;-) Knives ain't as expensive today as hon barens...)

Anyway, that'd be also a good opportunity (apart from bench, etc.) to gather information in case you might decide to *extend working*, in your retirement, writing books (carvers history is always welcomed ;-)

Posted by: Dave

Brushes, Franz; it's brushes we're desperate for these days! With our printers now spread over two locations, and having so few good brushes, we're actually at the stage of posting 'that good green brush' back and forth in the mail … :-(

Posted by: Jacques

I went through Tosh Doi's list of carvers on the ShinHanga.net website, and Watanabe Tadasu seems to come closest to "nearly thirty years ago" ...

Anyway, congratulations with the bench!

Posted by: Dave

Sorry to be so vague on the dating Jacques; the name is 'Harada' … I'll be posting more (perhaps next week's story?) as I learn it ...

Posted by: Jacques

Yes, I can see now why I missed him: no dates about Harada's passing away are mentioned in Tosh Doi's carvers list. Looking forward to hear more about this carver from your meeting tomorrow with his son ...

Posted by: Marc Kahn

Harada was the main carver for the Doi publishing house for decades. He did most of Tsuchiya Koitsu's print designs. To use his bench will put you in touch with a substantial bit of shin-hanga heritage, on a daily basis.


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