Dale Brotherton Interview (Part 1 of 2)

In part 1 of our 2 part March 2018 interview, Dale Brotherton of Takumi Company discusses how he began working in the Japanese tradition and how his relationship to his work has evolved.

Yann Giguère: Where is your joy today?

Dale Brotherton: I love woodworking, so any time I can spend time with wood is totally joyful. To be able to learn more every time I work with wood is, I guess, largely what it is about. But most importantly, being able to share that with others. To create things that others can enjoy and benefit from. I don’t know that’s changed much over the years. When I started out woodworking, I had to focus so much on developing my skills and abilities. Then even later, when starting my own business, I had to concentrate so much on making the business work. Juggling all that needed to be juggled. The woodworking joy is there, but it is  sometimes eclipsed by the other activity. More and more as I get older, I find that I am used to doing the other activities. Maybe they are not such a challenge as they used to be, so I can transfer my attention back to simply enjoying woodworking.

YG: Were you seeking something before finding Japanese tools and woodwork?

DB: Yeah, that is a big subject and I am not sure I have a big answer. When I started, I was looking for some meaningful activity in my life. Something that I could put my heart into. I was finding things but nothing really clicked. Nothing where I said “yeah.” When I was introduced to my teacher, I really had no idea what Japanese carpentry was. I had never been exposed to Japanese architecture. I was drawn to woodworking. I knew that for a long time, but I never found any woodworking that I felt I could really grasp onto. That I could make an occupation and really devote a lot of my life to. When I saw what my teacher was doing, it had so much depth. I said “Wow, this is something I could really delve into and not reach the bottom any time soon.” Certainly I never have reached the bottom and probably never will. So, yeah, I was seeking something in my life for sure. I was young and just kind of floating around. 

YG: You mentioned your teacher. Was that your introduction? What got you interested? 

DB: Yeah, I was as I say floating around. I was drawn to woodworking, I dabbled in woodworking. The last thing I tried to do before I got into woodworking, I just said I’ve got to do something other than what I’d been doing. So I decided to try and do leatherwork. I made some leather objects and tried to sell them on the street in San Francisco. I felt out of place pretty quickly – one day I think, [laughs]. I am not a salesman. 

I decided to try some kind of woodworking, some carpentry, so I just advertised in the local newspaper. I had no experience at all. I got some jobs and fumbled through, horribly. I had no idea what I was doing. The clients knew more than I did. This is quite embarrassing and just at that time I was introduced to the man who became my teacher. I realized, well, here is someone I can get some real instruction from. And clearly, as I said, he was doing woodworking with a lot of depth to it. I had no idea what Japanese architecture or carpentry was. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But my teacher himself was a very intriguing person. Multifaceted personality. A lot of charisma. People are drawn to him and pay attention to him when he is in the room. So I was intrigued by him personally. That had a lot to do with my following him. And, once I started spending some time with him and learning from him I was like a fish on a hook.

YG: How did your perception of tools, wood, and the work change over time. You’ve been at it now for 30-some years?

DB: You know, I started in 1978, so 40 years now. Well, the work in general, was unimaginable when I started out. I had no idea what to do. It was overwhelming. Everyday was a new experience. Everyday I had not done that before, so kind of overwhelming to start. Of course, with experience that subsided. As time went by I became more confident and familiar with the different aspects of the work. Now after many years the work itself is more automatic. My body knows what to do. It’s not overwhelming like it used to be, so now it’s more an expression. An enjoyable expression through the skills that I have. So in general, the work has progressed that way.The tools themselves? Since I was young I’ve always had a fascination with tools. And, a respect, I guess you’d say, as if they are entities of their own right. That deserve respect and attention and care. I do not know that that has changed much. The Japanese tools have a lot of life in them. They are sophisticated in ways that I don’t find in other woodworking tools. Most of the Japanese tools seem to be largely that way. 

Of course, my ability to work with the tools and communicate with them has grown tremendously. I feel that the tools are happier with me now than they used to be. One little story, when I was an apprentice my teacher would give me tools and these were tools that he had used. One tool he gave me was a hand plane and this plane was clearly unhappy that I became its new user, [laughs], after being in my teachers hands for many years. The first thing it did was jump out of my hand and land on the floor and crack in half. The blade! Fortunately, it didn’t crack in the long dimension. It cracked horizontally (across the blade). Fortunately, I was able to salvage it and recondition it. I use it to this day. We came to an understanding. It finally accepted me. Some people would say it just fell out of my hand but I say it jumped out of my hand. So to me, tools have always been more than just utility objects. There is a lot to them. I have always felt that and I still feel that. 

My perception of wood? Ahh, that has changed tremendously. I remember at one point when I was an apprentice, looking at all the wood and knowing that this was the material that I would be using. I’ve learned so much about the different types of wood and different qualities. How I have to adjust what I do to facilitate using the different types and qualities of wood, but still not feeling a close relationship to the wood. Overtime more and more has changed. I really feel that the wood itself, it comes from trees – living creatures, so there is so much to it. So much depth in the wood itself. And nowadays when I look at wood I am not as concerned about how it is put together in a piece of furniture. What I mean is it’s the wood itself that’s what’s important; more than what we do with it. Feeling that aspect, just looking at the wood and really appreciating the wood for what it is; its character. That has really changed over the years. And I still feel, maybe more than before. I feel like an infant in that I am just scratching the surface. Yeah, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

YG: Do you still work largely in Port Orford cedar, yellow cedar, red cedar, and fir?

DB: Yes, that would be true.

YG: It’s amazing even with a handful species, for decades, there is no bottom to reach in understanding and appreciation.

DB: Yes, it really doesn’t matter the species. Each piece of wood comes from a unique tree. Or, several pieces from the same tree. Each tree is unique – individual. I could spend years working with that one tree and really getting to know it. I wish I had the time to actually do that. Those species in particular, if you want to discern species, those are very long-lived trees. The wood that I work with tends to be from very old trees. Not only humbling, but I think there is much more depth in what can be learned from a 600 year old tree. It went through, just like anybody else, its young years too. It has all that history in it besides the additional 500 or 600 years -or longer. 

YG: Another broad question: What are your thoughts, both early and later, around “best” and “perfect” as concepts?

DB: They are both ideals that are imposed by us. I find them really not dominating my day to day life. I always strive to give as much as I can in quality. In woodworking quality often means precision. Precision, I think is very important in creating an aesthetic that is very conducive to harmony in the finished product. Which is very much a part of Japanese aesthetic. So, I do strive for the greatest precision that I can achieve. At any time or any given situation for any project as much as it is appropriate. But to label “best” or “perfect” is pretty much outside of my world. I don’t see those as necessary. It’s kind of stepping into a judgmental (space), this is better than the other. What is important is how much joy we put into the work. That will show through regardless of the level… or anything else. 

YG: What are some of the challenges or joys of running your own business?

DB: It is a business, I have to acknowledge. That has changed over the years, tremendously. At first I was devoted to woodworking, doing just the “best” and no thought about business. And then as I really started my own business, official business, and dealt with all the necessities of interacting with customers, estimates, writing contracts, and promoting to the degree that I am capable of doing. I was kind of overwhelmed with that. That dominated a lot of thought. There was a separation of the work (woodworking, producing and making things) and the business. I gritted my teeth through the business part. “Oh, I’ve got to go meet a customer.” “Oh, I’ve got to do an estimate.” “I can’t wait to get back to work.” (laughs). 

I found that to be, without thinking about it, really tiring. So thankfully, in recent years, I have been able to extract myself from that mindset. I realize that interacting with the customer and providing a service to the customer is really the most valuable thing I can do in my life. It is now with great pleasure that I embrace that whole process. First meeting clients, interacting with other people, professionals, architects or other tradespeople or craftsmen that I have to interface with. That interaction and building consensus – it’s powerful and very interesting. I wasn’t born with the personality for that, but I’ve managed to embrace it. When I actually do get to do the work, it’s so much richer than it used to be. People’s support of the work, there is a financial side to it. I don’t mean that. I mean personally supporting the whole process. When there is that rich interaction. I’ve found communication to be the most important key to every aspect to business and the work. Communicating what I do and communicating what clients need. Just being in touch. Keeping a constant flow of communication. Everything is enriched by the whole experience. It enriches the experience for everyone.

YG: How do you see yourself? An artisan, a trades person, crafts person, artist, designer? None of the above? And, this might have changed over time – if you even define yourself any way.

DB: I guess years ago I would have said designer craftsman. Of course, I have to say something when people ask me what I do. That was kind of difficult at first, to come up with something. When I started my own business, I came up with “Japanese carpenter”, but almost nobody knew what that was. So I would have to say “woodworker in the Japanese style.” Most people would then think shoji screens or maybe a tatami room or something. Then I’d have to explain post and beam construction. Then get more elaborate and explain. I never really put a title on myself, in terms of being in any category of artisan or craftsman for that matter. I never felt a need for that. And now my true feeling is that I am just happy to be able do what I do – whatever that is. Blessed to make things for people out of these beautiful materials.

YG: You apprenticed in California, in the Bay Area for over 6 years. Then you worked with a residential builder as a journeyman in Japan for 2 years. You returned to the states 30 years ago and your work has been focused around the Pacific Northwest. Would you talk about the scope and character of your work in the past and then now?

DB: Scope-wise, I guess there has been a broad range of scope. From the tiniest door or tray up to whole house construction. A variety of intermediate structures, like garden structures, gates and pavilion type things. So kind of a broad range. That has probably not changed a lot. Though I tend not to do tiny projects, but that’s economics. It is difficult to make tiny things in a cost effective way.

Continue reading Yann’s interview with Dale Brotherton in our next post:  Dale Brotherton Interview (Part 2 of 2)

This interview was originally published on the Kezurou Kai USA newsletter, the Wooden Post

In early March, I interviewed Dale Brotherton on behalf of Kezurou Kai USA. He is the owner and operator of Takumi Company based in Seattle. And, the man with whom I apprenticed from 1999 to 2008. It was a wonderful opportunity to discuss his inspirations and share his experiences with the Japanese woodworking community. 

Background on Dale Brotherton

He began woodworking in 1978.  He spent 6½ years in a traditional full time apprenticeship with a well known teahouse carpenter in the San Francisco Bay Area. This apprenticeship was a concentrated practice with traditional hand tools and learning refined joinery methods.

Dale then spent 2 years as a “journeyman” in traditional residential construction in Nagano-Ken, Japan. He expanded his skills, studying traditional building design and structural layout.

With nearly 9 years of intense study accomplished, Dale returned to the USA founding Takumi Company. He has remained committed to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship completing over 100 projects for private customers, institutions and municipalities. 

More about Dale Brotherton and his work can be found at Takumi Company’s website