by Mathieu

Last week I traveled to Dresden in East Germany to meet a fellow carpenter named Axel Weller. Before I met him I was already familiar with his work and his approach towards tools. Lately I have met quite some people who advised me to contact him since they where convinced we would get along. They proved right.

We had been in conversation for a while by email and at some point he asked me about Japanese roof geometry. Axel was looking for someone who would be able to explain him the essence of kiku-jutsu (‘Japanese carpentry lay-out methods’) so he would have a basis to explore the subject further on his own. I realized this would be the ideal opportunity for me to go and visit him, introduce him to Japanese carpentry lay-out, get to know him and learn some things from him as well. So I set of to Dresden for a couple of days to meet up with one of the most skilled carpenters of Europe.

When I arrived at his shop it was the quietness that was so apparent. Unconsciously I expect a lot of noisy machinery when approaching any kind of carpenters shop. Noise, or the deafness which I suffer from as a consequence of it, is not a problem in his earth-plastered workshop. Axel works with handtools only and holds on to strong ethics regarding his approach. I have met many people who embrace similar approaches but no one who has ever accomplished this on a professional level as far as I know. In that respect he is very unique. We discussed many aspects of running a business and I can see now how he manages to do this. Our conversations where extremely inspiring and fueled my own motivation enormously.

Most of our time we spend behind the drawing board. We made some developed drawings of hip-rafter joints according to the Japanese tradition and explored the basics of how geometry is applied to hip-rafter lay-out. It was a good opportunity to refresh my own knowledge while explaining everything to him. Since he already had a very good understanding of roof geometry in other traditions like the German and French, he had no problem understanding most of the things we looked at. Sunday we had a couple of hours of time left before I went home and he introduced me to the saw sharpening techniques thought to him by Nagatsu-san. He is one of the people I stayed with during my travels true Japan.

Nagatsu-san is an extremely experienced saw sharpener who devoted his life to this dying art. At the time I visited him I was still convinced that saw sharpening was a skill for specialists only and therefore I had limited interest in learning it myself. It is easier to send my saws to a specialist to have them resharpened instead of spending at least ten years in order to understand the basics and become proficient at this skill. Not to mention the time it takes for the actual sharpening. According to Nagatsu-san it takes about ten years to learn the basics and much longer if you wish to understand anything about tensioning saw-blades, the most important skill of the whole process. I am sure I will never work on my good saws myself since they are too good and valuable to risk destroying them but I have adjusted my point of view on saw sharpening as a whole.

Axel has lived with Nagatsu-san for many months while he was introduced into the art of saw sharpening. I remember Nagatsu-san speaking highly of him telling us Axel was very talented and learned quickly. Now that Axel explained me some basics and I am practicing myself I will experiment with it on my cheaper saws. Even if I will never become really proficient at it, it sure has deepened my insight in the geometry of saw teeth, how they work and what is important to evaluate the quality of a saw.

My stay in East Germany was a nice intermezzo from other things going on in life at the moment. Unfortunately I did not get to see much of the old part of the city but I am sure I will next time when I visit Dresden. Axel got me in contact with some other carpenters here in Europe and I am sure those contacts will be quite useful to me in the near future. I wanted to thank him for inviting me at his place and gave him a nice and rare belgian Coticule sharpening stone which I prepared a while ago. I am sure it will serve him very well…