Fabula Lignarius

Month: June, 2013

Japanese Sawhorses, a Build Tread

I have come across question like “How does a Japanese workbench look like, do Japanese carpenters work on a workbench or do they always sit on the floor?”

Well obviously I can’t really tell you since I am not Japanese. I was lucky enough to be trained by Japanese carpenters and worked along the side of western carpenters who received a long and tedious training in Japan, so I can only tell you about the way we work. Or better said, the way I was trained to work and  how I have been working the last couple of years. Why do I choose to work like this? Because it suits me and I feel personally attracted to it for so many reasons that I can’t possibly write them all down.

Here is a picture of two pair of sawhorses I made a while ago. The small ones on top are meant to be used working low to the ground or while sitting in front of them. The design is inspired on some I have seen in Japan and you can also find them in Toshio Odate’s book ‘Japanese Woodworking Tools’. They are made of Cherry that I salvaged from a half burned tree in the back of the garden. I succumbed and did some simple carvings on them.

cherry saw horses

Below that beautiful lumber you see a pair that I knocked together fairly quickly. Nothing special but they do what they suppose to do and are strong and stable.

There is no such thing as a Japanese workbench or at least no device as we know them in the Western world with leg or tail vises or other mechanics. The closest equivalent would be a thick slab with low legs raising the slab to about 20cm, sometimes made out of sakura (Cherry) and with a planing stop dovetailed at the end.

Some Statements

So I am sorry for those who are looking for another build tread of a Roubo workbench but I will surely disappoint you. There is a vast amount of blog posts, articles and books out there that will still your hunger if that’s what you are looking for. To be honest I feel sorry for carpenters who mainly rely on a workbench to do any work. Why on earth would you like to limit yourself to the workspace of your shop with it’s bench? And then there are those who actually drag these 160 kilogram monsters to the job site which I think is even more insane. Of course they are great tools and I am just being provocative but nonetheless I want to make a statement. I have thought about building one myself for many years but the truth is that I never really needed one, I could always get all the work done just as easy without the need for such a fancy device. Besides it would take me forever to build one I really like, never mind the costs. I guess I like the minimalistic approach of shokunin.

So if you are not solemnly a joiner who only works in his workshop, this and the following post might be valuable to you. Working on a pair of sawhorses instead of a workbench is a simple but very efficient way of establishing a comfortable place to do any kind of woodwork you can imagine. Sawhorses turn any place that is covered from rain and direct sunlight into a potential workshop, and yes that includes your kitchen.


The sawhorses we will discuss are not the first pair I make, many have preceded these and as far as I know they are all still in use and in good condition. For this new pair however I had some specific demands in mind which I will list first.

  •  high enough to do layout on them comfortably
  •  high enough to receive a planing beam
  • stable so they will not move during planing
  • light for easy transportation
  • compact
  • strong and durable
  • not take forever to make

I like simple, humble but efficient designs. They don’t need to have pretty carvings, sophisticated angles or special details just good proportions that feel right and a silky smooth hand planed finish will give them a balanced feel and look. But since I actually do like all of the above I will put some extra details in this new pair. Just remember to leave the details behind if you want to set up a workshop in a matter of a day.

The Materials

Originally I was thinking to use Siberian Larch but I couldn’t find anything dry of the right dimensions. It is incredibly durable but would be too heavy anyway. Clear and tight-grained Oregon Pine would have been nice but was not available in the dimension I was looking for. At my local supplier I found some old grown Western Red Cedar. I hear you thinking saying it is too soft but I disagree. WRC is very durable yet very light which is important for tall horses to be manageable. And yes it is very soft and will get dings and scratches but that is ok since it is a sawhorse and it is meant to be used. It is a tool, not a piece of furniture.

I had clients commenting on them in two occasions saying they look as good as a piece of furniture. Well it is nice to receive a compliment but I did think ‘hey, they are just a pair of sawhorses’.

The Design

I could have drawn a CAD drawing but what I had in mind is so straight forward that I could just lay it out and build it. No need to waste any time on drawing when everything is crystal clear in your mind. But to give you an idea here is a picture of something similar.

high saw horses

The pair on the right with the stretchers at the bottom is what I have in mind. I know out of experience that they are not incredibly stable. So to increase their stability I will lengthen their feet and foresee some extra mortices so I can install diagonal bracings between them that can easily be removed. This should make a stiff connection so that they don’t wobble when I use them to hold a planing beam.

But since I hope some of you might build a pair of your own I went to the drawing board and made a quick mock up. This will enable me to share all the drawings with you and aid me during my explanations. Here is a little preview.

sawhorse mock up

In the next post we will discuss the design and talk about kiwari or the proportions of all the members and how they relate to each other. After dimensioning it will be layout and then some simple joinery fun. I will make a material list and detailed drawings available.

You are welcome to leave a comment if you have any questions. And if you have any good ideas yourself please share them and maybe I will incorporate them in the next pair I’ll make. You can never have enough sawhorses.

Rebuilding Roof Trusses 1864

Last week I had some good old fun with my friends rebuilding a roof. The client wants to install a studio in the attic but since the lower tie beams where a little bit too low for someone to pass them safely they needed to be lifted by I-don’t-remember-how-many-centimeters.

truss before

The tie beams needed to be cut out, new struts placed on both sides of the truss and the tie beam joined between the new struts. This means 8 mortices, 6 tennons and two half lap dovetails per truss. Four trusses means 32 joints in total.

For the new struts we used heavy green oak and we were happy to find this beautiful wheel crane which we couldn’t resist to put back to use. It wasn’t really in perfect shape being at least 150 years old but since we where only with the two of us it seemed like the only reasonable way to get the pieces up there. The other option would be to navigate the timbers true the house which would be an unpleasant endeavor.

wheel crane

Just before I was about to cut the first tie beam I noticed some pencil writings. After careful examination I could read a name, place and date “Alois Claes Aerschot 1864”. Aerschot is the old way of writing Aarschot, a city not too far from this job site. It is hard to say if this was one of the carpenters who originally build it. It could be anyone for that matter since this attic must have been used as a storage area hence the wheel crane and it might be plausible that many people have passed by, all potential graffiti artists.

tie beam marks

If you look carefully you can see the writings at the bottom of the tie beam. It is always a nice treat to find these marks and ponder on their history. The carpenters who build this roof frame back in the days sure knew what they where doing, it was al pretty well made for a simple roof frame.

I am sure you know that the Japanese Makita hollow chisel morticers are designed to work upside down. I read a lot about it in the manual and finally we had the chance to try it out ourselves.

Makita morticer

After almost five days of work with my two partners in crime we got it all done.

new struts

Tight joints, happy client, all is good.

Oh, I forgot to mention that one of my colleagues stepped next to the joists thereby falling through the ceiling and waking up the person who was sleeping in the room. The rooms resident had no reason to complain since it was already 10.30 am and it was time to get out of bed anyway.

Nagatsu Shōichi 長津勝一, The Saw Doctor

Next month, on the 21 of July, there is a very unique event at the Museum for Old Techniques in Grimbergen. Nagakatsu-san is a Japanese saw doctor known for the very high quality of the saws worked by his hand.


We have the honor to inform you that he is coming to Belgium and will give a demonstration and accompanying workshop.

Nagakatsu has introduced some unorthodox styles regarding the shape of the saw teeth. He has adjusted the angle of the teeth and thereby he was able to increase the performance of the nokogiri. Japanese saws are known to cut fast, straight and are very accurate but his improvements have raised the standard even higher. Don’t get me wrong I am not trying to convince anyone here. It’s just that my colleagues and I have been using his saws for quite a while now and every time we use them we are amazed by their performance. That is why I am so excited that he is coming to Europe and that we are able to organize this event to share his skills with you.

Participants will have the chance to ask him questions in person. You don’t need to speak Japanese to do so since their will be two carpenters, Mathijs and Ante, who speak Japanese and Dutch fluently and can translate all your questions and explain everything he demonstrates.

Here is a list of what you can expect to see during the demonstration.

  • saw teeth geometry
  • saw sharpening
  • setting the teeth with a hammer
  • tensioning the blade

Brave participants will be able to practice their saw sharpening technique using Nagakatsu-san’s method. Clamps for saws will be provided but if you like to practice it might be a good idea to bring one of your old saws and grind of the teeth before the event. This will allow you to start with a clean blade and file new teeth on them that will cut like there is no tomorrow.

The second part of the event is a workshop where you will have the opportunity to try different Japanese saws. From large maebiki, used to saw a tree into boards, to small ryoba to cut intricate joints. We will discuss different sawing techniques and practice them by making either simple tennons or challenging splices, whatever you prefer.

You might ask yourself why you want to learn a Japanese saw sharpening method? Maybe you only use western style saws that cut on the push stroke? Hold your breath because Nagatsu-san has cut the teeth of Japanese saws so they work on the push stroke thereby introducing a ryoba that works as a western saw.

Or maybe you where wondering about the flutes (notches) in a mado style saw? In July you will have the chance to ask someone who has spent his life perfecting the subtle methods of saw sharpening.

mado ryoba

Participating the whole day from 9.00 to 17.00 costs 30€. If you are interested we strongly suggest to sign up well in advance since places are limited. We want to make sure we have plenty of time to coach all participants. If you have any more questions regarding the event you are welcome to post them as a comment. Hope to see you there.

To sign up contact MOT directly at:


or by phone

+32 2 270 81 11

Castles in France: Gaillon

The second project realized by the Charpentiers sans Frontier is a fact. This organization is the brain child of Francois Calame ethnologist, historian and passionate supporter of Traditional Carpentry.

This year the aim of the event was the partial reconstruction of the roof on top of the Tour de la Sirène, the oldest part of the Chateau de Gaillon. This castle is considered one of the earliest and most significant achievements of the early French Renaissance. The castles history dates back to 1453 and true it’s life it has been reconstructed several times. It was a home to both principal political and diplomatic protagonists as to prisoners when it became a prison in 1815.

Below you see the tour de la Sirène and the open vaulted gallery that runs into it.

tour de la sirène Gaillon

Les Charpentiers sans Frontiers exists of an international team of about 40 skilled carpenters who work solemnly with hand tools during this project. Besides France, carpenters came from as far as Norway, England, Canada, New Zealand, Belgium and Germany to contribute to the unique opportunity to work on this monument and to make sure we got the job done in a week time.

Our main aim was the reconstruction of the lower wheel frame which had completely failed about 20 years ago. No pieces of the original tie frame remained and that made historic research challenging. A model was prepared based on the little clues that where left. Florian Carpentier was the head carpenter on this project and here you see him explaining the construction and the particular way of how the frame will be raised.

Florian Carpentier

All the Oak timbers used for this project where locally sourced. During the first days we where mainly occupied with hewing all the logs into square sections and since there are so many different nationalities present it was a good opportunity to learn other hewing methods.

Leo hewing

A hewn surface produced by Clement’s hand with a Norwegian broad axe.

Clement's axe

Together with Christophe Laurent I worked on the reconstruction of a jambette and blochet (a queen post and wall tie). When laying out the timber it became clear that the dimensions where less then ideal and some sapwood would inevitably remain on the piece. There was only enough material to make all the pieces required so we did not have the luxury to find another one and decided to just get on with and get something done. Christophe was kind enough to lend me one of his axes. A small french axe that he bought in Dordogne and worked really well on this difficult piece with spiral grain and quite some knots.

Christophe's axe

This drawing, made by the illustrator Maurice Pommier, clearly shows the structure of the tower and all its members and clarifies where the jambette and blochet is found.


Installing them into place was not all that easy. The principal rafter that needed to be supported by this queen post had been damaged by water and had sagged quite a lot over time. It needed to be lifted by at least 20 cm before the new piece could be inserted. A 10 ton jack helped us to accomplish this without much effort. During the process we remained aware of any sudden noises that might indicate that other parts where being forced to rapidly. All went well and the principal rafter dropped into place back to it’s original location 9 cm higher then before our operation.


Together with Florian I did some layout on the wheel frame and was able to practice the french scribing technique, called piquage. There where  many people working on this part of the frame already so I decided it would be better to move on to something else, plenty of other work needed to be done.

wheel frame joinery

One of the most interesting pieces on this construction are the compound curved purlins. Five needed to be made in total so I took one of them for my account.

First a curve in one plane is laid out and the piece is squared. The picture shows Jim notching the timber to the curved line in preparation for the hewing.

Jim notching

It is then squared on two sides and the first curve is established.

Jamie and Jim coop

More layout is done and the second curve in another plane is marked using the piquage method in combination with templates to establish the final cutlines.

compound curve layout

I chose to finish the purlin with an adze since it is fairly easy to leave a smooth and accurate finish with this tool on a curved surface. For the same reason an adze used to be one of the most important tools of a shipwright who deals with compound curves daily.

adzed purlin

Naturally a broad axe can do a very clean job as well. In the picture below you see Jamie creating a very fine finish with his self modified broad axe.

Jamie hewing

On this post, made by Dino and Highs, you can see some of the straps made by Ludovic Marsille. Ludovic is a locksmith in daily life so forging some straps was not really a challenge to him.

Dino and Highs post

Here you see him wailing away and shaping a carpenters axe with a laminated blade.

Ludovic forging

During all the work the tools need to be maintained and sharpened. Barbara, who has a lot of experience with pit sawing, made sure that the teeth of her saw would cut fast and straight.

Barbara sharpening

The terrain aided in establishing the pitsaw which kept going despite some Normandy rain.

Hendry on the pitsaw

During our work we where sometimes treated with the soft tunes of a local violists who made sure our spirit remained high. It is hard to describe the beautiful combination, the sound of the hand tools working the wood and the violin singing her song.

the violist

Some of the joints where entirely made by axe. Cutting a half lap joint is no challenge for Trond, his accuracy with an axe remains astonishing to me.


After four days of work the wheel frame was coming together and could be brought to north side of the tower. Two horses and a log cart where used to drive the parts true the town center to the base of the tower.

test fitting

It took quite some coordination to lift the main tie beam into place but everything went well without too much effort. A coin and a piece of paper with the names of the children of one of the carpenters where dropped in the mortice of the king post before it was assembled.

wheel frame installed

On saturday Christophe, Sylvain and Benoit helped me to install one of the purlins. After a small adjustment it fell into place. The mortices on the bottom have different dimensions to accommodate the original rafters which will be reinstalled. It is unclear form the picture but the purlin has a tenon on one side and a half lap with an oblique abutment on the other. This way the purlins can be installed after the principal rafters have been raised.


On sunday I would go home again and I spent my last hours on the job site talking to some of my new friends. It was a wonderful project and a lot of work was realized. I can’t wait to work with these people again and be part on the next project realized by the Charpentiers sans Frontiers.

Thank you Francois Calame.

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Brodbeck.

Gaillon, The Carpenters

Jeremy Brodbeck, a Portrait

I travel a lot and one of the great things about these journeys is that I meet extraordinary people who inspire me. Because of their humble intentions I feel they could use some extra attention and this is why I have decided to write about them here on the Fabula Lignarius blog.

Jeremy Brodbeck is a Breton shipwright who converted from using modern power tools to working strictly by hand and left the electric machinery aside. Choosing this path in today’s modern society is a bold decision but he is clearly someone who follows his heart and believes this will take him to his goal. What follows is based on the conversations we had.

Jeremy portrait

“I quit school when I was 17 and because I wanted to be a carpenter I applied at the Association des Compagnon. During the application interview I quickly realized that this was not going to work for me and turned around to find my own way.”

The nature of the organization and it’s strictness were not compatible with his free spirited-mind and he decided to follow his own path instead. It was choosing the difficult and long trail instead of the more or less paved road that comes with a structured apprenticeship.

Initially it took him some time to find the training that he was looking for but after only nine months of training as a shipwright he was already hired to work on commercial fishing boats which he continued to do for several years. The choice to become a shipwright was obvious to him since he was under the impression that in this trade there was still a lot of work being realized with hand tools.

Jeremy's hewn log

Unfortunately he experienced the economic reality of our modern time and was expected by his employer to use power tools to get the job done. This led him to grind his teeth out of frustration when he realized that handtools where not considered a mandatory part of a shipwrights toolkit anymore. Not being able to take peace with the noisy power tool approach he decided to move on once more and became an independent carpenter. He now had the freedom to work in the traditional way he prefers, mostly with hand tools. Today Jeremy also does timberframing, green woodworking and joinery since this enables him to attract more work then the limited pool of potential boatbuilding work.

riven fence

He tells me it is not always easy to make a living and support his family like this but so far he succeeded. Trying to work in the way he chooses means a lot to him and it takes continuous effort to keep these traditions alive and eventually pass them on to the next generations.

“I want to take up the responsibility to rediscover the original methods and skills of woodworking and maybe one day be able to pass them on.”

It is noble to train yourself to pass on what you have learned, the practice of carpentry becomes a heirloom worth nursing, not just for yourself but for the generations to come.

Jeremy's fence

According to Jeremy one of the problems with shipwrighting is that there have been too many trade secrets. This was a good thing in the past when there was a lot of competition and where you had to secure your work. Today we are in very different situation and many trades and traditional crafts have become extinct already. To preserve what is left we need exactly the opposite and try to transcend our ego and share as much knowledge as we can in order to keep our craft alive.

“Just like in life there are no secrets in carpentry, you can tell everyone anything you know. If you share your trade knowledge with an idiot it will go in and out, it won’t stick and he will do nothing with it. Share your knowledge with a talented soul and he will use it to his advantage and in the best case become better than you. He might raise the standard of our craft and inspire others to do the same. That is true progression…”

If you are interested in quality carpentry made entirely by hand visit his website here. By hiring Jeremy you invest in much more than the structure you commission him to make.