Otaka poppo: Ancient Japanese carving is amazing

At a friend’s house recently, shooting promo photos for a tool that he distributes, I ran across this carved hawk, called otaka poppo, part of an ancient craft from the Yamagata prefecture in Japan. Like lots of woodworkers, my friend is curious about just about everything. He flies planes, fishes for salmon, and rides his bike on weeklong trips. As the traveled the world on business, he collected handcrafts wherever he went, and these amazing carvings are just treasure he brought back.

One of the many things I love about Japanese culture is how far back the handwork traditions go, from sushi to woodworking blades to temple-building, and how alive they still are today, in their original form.

Otaka poppo means hawk toy. A quick web search revealed that the lord of the town of Yonezawa had these made by local farmers when they were stuck indoors during the winter, and they soon became a source of income. Today these figures are the most popular souvenir of the region.

The same technique used to make the hawk is also used to make chickens and other figurines, as seen here. Each one is amazingly carved with a single blade from a single branch of wood. The beautiful Japanese burst characters give the name of the craftsman and the amount of experience he or she has. Experience is respected.

What I love about this craft is the obvious skill and precision that only comes from hundreds of hours of practice. It reminds me of the figures I saw people in West Africa carve, when I was in the Peace Corps. They worked on the ground, using rudimentary tools with amazing skill.


Finest furniture in Texas

I was in the Lone Star State recently to judge the Texas Furniture Makers Show at the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center in beautiful Kerrville, TX. I’ve judged the show twice before, back in my previous life as the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. With my new woodworking book on the horizon, they asked me to be their guest once again.

First of all, the Texas “hill country” is one the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world–and unknown to many outsiders. Secondly, Texas knows how to make fine furniture.

The Kerr Arts Center is housed in the old Kerrville post office, and is as charming and professional as can be. If you don’t know how open and welcoming Texans are, well then you’re just missing out.

You can go on the show’s website to see who won prizes this year, but here are my personal favorites. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.

A few determined, art-loving citizens turned the old Kerrville post office into a gorgeous arts center, complete with huge galleries, a thriving gift shop, meeting spaces and more.
This is just one of two big gallery spaces, which host a wide variety of shows.
Leo Litto of Austin won Best in Show for this sleek tray table made of pearwood and sapele veneer. He made it out of love for his dad, who was gravely ill in the hospital and surrounded by inhuman machines.
Every inch of this table is flawlessly designed and sculpted.
The top looks like a tiny ocean.
Jim Wallace, a local woodworking hero, took the People’s Choice award with his jaw-dropping “Oz” cabinet. The laser-cut marquetry is inspired by the movie.
The cabinet opens to reveal a Technicolor world, just like the film did.
My personal favorite at the show (I’m a bit different) was this desk and chair inspired by The Jetsons, a 1960s cartoon that presented that old-timey Tomorrowland view of the future. It’s called “Educating Elroy” and it was crafted mostly from MDF and PVC pipe by Jody Fletcher of Seguin, TX.
Fletcher used a regular mirror, a two-way mirror, a ring of LEDs, and a Lexan disk to create this endless tunnel into the future.
Lou Quallenburg, who usually takes home awards with benches and tables made from live-edge slabs of mesquite, is continuing his foray into sculpture, and took top honors in the art-style category this year.
When the heart broke during sculpting, Lou learned about a Japanese technique for making repairs and embracing them, by highlighting the fix with gold dust. “Broken Heart” was born.
Barry Bradley made a bold departure from his earlier, more traditional work with “Fenced In,” which has a steel base that invokes barbed wire, and a mesquite top. The judges rewarded his courage and creativity with top prize in the Texas style category.
I love the ebony butterfly key and how it matches the ebony-toned epoxy used to fill cracks, and also the texture Bradley added to the edge.
My trip included a visit to the gift shop, where I found these amazing bowls, sculpted from Manzanita burls by my fellow judge and dear friend Danny Kamerath.
This table by Spider Johnson celebrates one of Texas’ finest troubadours.I love it.


Use your skills to improve the world around you

My new Portland neighborhood is a great place for walking. There are side trails and staircases between houses, all leading to a giant field around the local school where people walk their dogs, run on the track, etc. But Portland is also a wet place much of the year, and we rely on homemade bridges and walkways to get through the muddy spots.

So recently me and my neighbor (Chuck, musician and Christmas-light king) teamed up to replace a rotting section of walkway. It took about $50 of pressure-treated wood and deck screws to make a new section, and the moment it went down, joggers and school kids were using it.

Chuck also stapled down some asphalt shingles on nearby wood bridges, which get mossy and super slick in the winter. The gritty shingles are a cheap and effective fix.

Bottom line, it feels good to put some sweat equity into the place you live. Word went around that the new guy in the neighborhood is already fixing things up, so my street rep is solid!

Chuck and I spent about $25 each for some pressure-treated 4x4s and 2x4s and a box of deck screws. Then I measured for the length and width, chopped up the pieces, and started drilling and screwing the crosspieces. A thin piece of wood gave me even spacing as I went.
Chuck helped with the installation. We dug out the old rotted section and dropped in the new one. Moments later we also put a stone under that little bridge in the foreground, to level it. Build your world!

Free videos for beginning woodworkers

Back in a past life, as editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, I put together a free series of videos on how to get started in the craft. There are awesome projects, including a simple but solid workbench, and lots of advice on choosing your first tools and learning how to use them. It’s all still online and all free at StartWoodworking.com.

The video series is actually called Getting Started in Woodworking, but it lives on the StartWoodworking website. There are some annoying ads you might have to sit through at the beginning of some videos, and my co-hosts and I were far from professional presenters, but the info is rock-solid.

We shot three seasons in all, and projects included a small box, a cutting board, a real workbench for woodworking, an oak bookcase, and a beautiful side table/nightstand from walnut. Along the way, we introduce all the key power tools and hand tools you’ll need to be a woodworker, from the tablesaw and planer to chisels and handplanes, with a surefire method for sharpening.

My thanks to my co-hosts Matt Berger and Ed Pirnik, shooters and editors like Gary Junken and Mike Dobsevage, and the Taunton Press for making it all possible.

Pleasure vs. satisfaction

I’m all for pleasure. Eating, drinking, playing, relaxing. Popcorn and a movie. But satisfaction is something else entirely. Pleasure comes and goes, there for the moment and then largely forgotten. But satisfaction stays with you. That’s because it comes from true accomplishment, from a job well done. That’s why I love building things.

I enjoy the zen of a project, the way you get lost in the problem-solving and the rhythm of the step-by-step. But what I really love is the satisfaction that comes at the end, when you look at what you’ve accomplished. A room transformed, a deck built, a piece of furniture made, whatever it is.

And that satisfaction never really fades. Because that newly painted room, or new patio, or outdoor bench becomes part of your life. If you do a halfway decent job, the project stays with you for a very long time, decades even, reminding you that you did this.

Learning new skills brings satisfaction, too. Once you know how to really sharpen a chisel, or lay tile, or use clip pedals on your bike, it stays with you. There is something about accomplishing something in the physical world, with real materials, that hits us all down in our DNA.

My friends who paint pictures, or restore cars, or knit socks (greatest gift in the world: hand-knit socks)–they feel the same way. They are addicted to the feeling. They could tell you something about every object they’ve built or created.

You can rehab a camper van and make memories driving it down the coast, or build a treehouse and watch your kids play in it. I could go on. Real is real.

I feel bad for my friends who don’t build stuff. Some like to veg out with video games. I get it. Turn off your mind and rack up points. It’s fun to talk shit with my friends while we kill bad guys. But when we power off the Playstation, we feel nothing. Maybe a stomach ache from all the Doritos we just scarfed.

When I leave my workshop, coated with sawdust, the first thing I do is get one of my family members to see how far I’ve gotten on my latest project. That’s satisfaction, Holmes, and it’s free.

I say dive in and build something. You’ll see.

I felt tired but happy when I finally finished this big patio. The dog and cat were pretty impressed.
I grab a cup of coffee, put on some music in my garage, and let the project happen. This one is from my blog on making projects from plumbing hardware.
The best part about building stuff is how the results become part of your life. Maybe that’s why the satisfaction lasts, too.
Building teaches you to stay present also, doing each step as best you can.
Then suddenly you are done, and the bragging begins! This is from my blog on working with natural-edged wood slabs.


Erector building kit: Gone but not forgotten

In the introduction of my upcoming book, “Build Stuff With Wood,” which drops in fall 2017, I look back fondly on my childhood in the 1970s and 80s, and the childhoods of the generations before mine, before big flat screens and little smart screens took over the world.

Before video games, when there were just four channels of bad TV, we were pretty bored, I’ll admit, but we did something valuable with all that downtime. We built stuff. Tons of it. Bikes (from other cannibalized bikes), model cars, model planes, model rockets (which actually blasted off into the sky), forts (both ground and tree), and more.

I had Lincoln Logs, and Tinkertoys, and Legos, and the generation before mine had these awesome building kits called “Erector.” OK, you definitely can’t call a kids’ toy “Erector” these days, but it was a different time! There were guys called Dick. Seriously.

Hoping to locate an Erector set to photograph for my book, I hit craigslist and found one that looked promising. I made contact and headed out. An old guy met me at the door and said, “This was my dad’s, and I think all the parts are still there.” He was right. The set looked to be in awesome shape. The box said it was designed to create a radar scope, but there were tons of parts in there, and a full book of project plans. So I went for it.

I dug through the plan book. It was tattered but amazing. There were tons of projects. All sorts of old-time vehicles, machines, and mechanical gizmos with working pulleys, cranks, etc. I decided to actually build something. A picture of a box full of parts would have been pretty lame anyway.

So I spent a night putting together a railroad bridge I found in the book. I had every part I needed, but wasn’t easy so sort out every detail in that drawing in the book, and the work was tedious! With Erector, everything goes together with tiny screws and nuts. (There’s a joke there, I know).

But the tougher the job, the more proud you are in the end. It was awesome building something the way a kid must have done 60 years ago. I tried to put my perfect bridge on a shelf in our house, but my wife said, Hell no. So it’s on a shelf in my shop, where I can still force my friends to check it out.

Jim Puterbaugh creates his world

When Fine Woodworking has a photo shoot in the Pacific NW, I sometimes get the call, saving them a few beans on airfare. That means I get to visit the shop of another dedicated woodworker. Visiting shops was one of the best things about my years at FWW, for a bunch of reasons, and Jim Puterbaugh checks every box and then some.

I visited Jim to shoot an article about how he likes to keep all of his tools out in the open, instead of behind closed doors in impressive cabinets. I was a little nervous as always to spend a day with a stranger, and like almost always, we weren’t strangers long.

Just like so many Fine Woodworking readers, Jim is a super-inquisitive guy. He knows a lot about old trucks, bread making, woodworking, home renovations, plants, old bicycles, and being a doctor (his day job). And he is thoughtful about all of it. That makes him fun to hang out with.

We blew past the small talk to get into how he motivates people to lose weight (no cookie cutter solution, so to speak), why he likes the wide toe box on Keen shoes, and what I really need to do to treat my allergies (short-term steroids and long term nasal spray).

And as you’ll see in the pictures below, Jim has created his world, just like Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and all my woodworking heroes. He watches less TV than me, and builds a lot more. It is f—ing inspiring.

And he is generous as hell. He lives just a few miles form me in Southwest Portland, and already he has had my whole family over for pizza from his brick oven. I’ll be heading over soon to learn to make bread (that’s always been on my short list, and I rather learn it with J. Puterbaugh than U. Tube).

The point? Create your world. You can do it. And make friends with woodworkers. Most of them are awesome human beings.

Jim’s shop is amazing.
He built this Seussian treehouse for his grandkids! What?!
He keeps bees, many, many bees, and produces 150 lbs. of honey a year! What?!
Jim built this gazebo, where he and his wife spend the twilight hour with a drink each night. So he is a ladies man also.
Jim made this end-grain block for bread making.
And he has a brick oven in his house!
Windows are another place to create.
Almost all of the woodwork in the house is Jim’s.
Kitchen cabinets and cutting boards too.
And he is a FWW reader, who builds projects from the magazine. Love this guy.