City man’s book explores Japanese boatbuilding

VERGENNES — The first book of its kind to offer a comprehensive study of the secrets, traditions and techniques of Japanese wooden boatbuilding is now available for purchase. “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding,” written by Vergennes-based boatbuilder and writer Douglas Brooks and published by Floating World Editions, is a fascinating book that fills a large and long-standing gap in the literature on Japanese crafts.
“With more than 300 color photos and 36 detailed technical drawings, this promises to be of great interest to boatbuilders, woodworkers, and all those impressed with the marvels of Japanese design and workmanship,” Floating World’s Ray Furse said.
With Japan’s unprecedented modernization over the last century, the demand for traditional boats (wasen) faded, leaving the last generation of boatbuilders with no one to teach. “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding” is part ethnography, part instruction, and part the personal story of a wooden boatbuilder fueled by a passion to preserve a craft tradition on the brink of extinction.
Over the course of 17 trips to Japan, Brooks traveled more than 30,000 miles to seek out and interview Japan’s elderly master boatbuilders. He built boats with five men, all in their 70s and 80s, between 1996 and 2010, from Tohoku in the far north to southernmost islands of Okinawa. He was the sole apprentice for each and worked under a time-honored system in which apprentices first swept floors and sharpened tools, learning chiefly by observation with only limited direct instruction. Eventually, Brooks managed to win the trust of these extraordinary craftsmen, who realized that sharing their secrets and techniques with this eager American would mean their heritage might be saved.
In “Japanese Wooden Boatbuilding,” Brooks tells the story of these apprenticeships, and the techniques and secrets they revealed. In Part I, readers will discover significant aspects of traditional Japanese boatbuilding, including design, tools, materials, joinery, fastenings, propulsion, ceremonies and the apprenticeship system. Part II details each of his five apprenticeships with insights into the complex culture surrounding the demise — and potential rebirth — of this centuries-old craft.
Signed and inscribed copies are available only from the author. To purchase a copy, visit www.douglasbrooksboatbuilding.com. Buyers who purchase from this site are also directly supporting his ongoing research.
Douglas Brooks is a boatbuilder, writer and researcher specializing in the construction of traditional wooden boats for museums and private clients. Since 1990, he has been researching traditional Japanese boatbuilding, focusing on the techniques and design secrets of the craft. The boats he and his teachers built have been exhibited at the Urayasu Folk History Museum, the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History, the Michinoku Traditional Wooden Boat Museum, the Museum of Maritime Science, and elsewhere.
Brooks is the sole non-Japanese listed in a 2003 Nippon Foundation survey of craftsmen capable of building traditional Japanese boats. In 2014, Brooks received the Rare Craft Fellowship Award from the American Craft Council. In 2015 he was named an Arts in Action-Japan Fellow by the Asian Cultural Council. He lives with his wife Catherine in Vergennes.

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