Dale Brotherton Interview (Part 2 of 2)

In part 2 of our 2 part March 2018 interview, Dale Brotherton of Takumi Company discusses his approach to woodworking, his incredible useful book – Sharpening and the Japanese Plane in Depth, and thoughts toward the future for the Japanese woodworking community.

If you missed the first part, please find it at: Dale Brotherton Interview (Part 1 of 2)

Yann Giguère: Everything you do is custom, right?

Dale Brotherton:Yes, so I have to gear up for every project. My shop is not setup like a production type of shop. There are no bays or locations to do a specific task. No predetermined setups that I utilize over and over again. Whatever job I have, I am adapting my shop to do it. These days I am working out of a very small space and when I have a larger project, I move into a larger space. That means setting up my larger equipment and is fairly involved. But a larger project pays for that. The types of projects I have gotten in recent years are a little larger. Kind of bursts of larger projects with some smaller ones scattered in between. It’s more likely larger projects take a great deal of time to setup first. Upfront are work designing and communicating and interacting. So there’ll be months of that before things begin to move and start happening. The projects will last longer. The whole process is longer than it used to be perhaps.

YG: Speaking of the character of your work, many people who just use Japanese tools, and know some of the techniques, quite often start to do all kinds of woodwork. I believe you have stayed very close to tradition most of the time. Is that a result of commitment to that? Not every job really pays well, I imagine (laughs). Kind of a small market. Kind of a niche market. I guess I am putting out a lot of potential questions out there…

DB: I think I see where you are going. There is a word in Japanese, ganko – it means stubborn, [laughs]. Early on. I felt this devotion to doing work in a way that was respectful of what I had learned. Tradition and what I had been fortunate enough to have been able to learn from my teacher. What came to him from his teachers before him. So I stuck with that to the greatest degree I could. I do things I know are not the fastest or most efficient way to do them, but I feel that they have depth as a result of those methods. So although I use a lot of materials and modern equipment in my work, I use it in a judicious way. Somethings I just stick with doing regardless –the old way of doing things. For example, hand planing. I could buy a planing machine, I used them in Japan, but that is just one line I will not cross. I love hand planing. It gives a different look to the work and the energy involved – just stubborn [laughs].

YG: What keeps you going? That does not need to be limited to woodwork.

DB: The work is more than just a style of wood working. It is more a way of life. When I started out my teacher was in California. He was new there and knew very few people. He was teaching classes 2 days a week, Friday and Saturday. So when I started working with him it was four days a week for the first couple months. It was totally exhausting. It was all new. Trying to keep up with him and expectations that I had for myself. And, he had for me. It was all I could do. 

When I started working with him full time it was 5 days a week. We moved out to a farm for two years where we had a project to build a house. It was the biggest project of my apprenticeship. We were living and working at the site 6 days a week. We did take off Sundays. I slept most of Sundays. I thought that was putting a lot of energy into the work. Devoting myself. It was all absorbing and it was a great experience to be involved to that level. But then I went to Japan, it was before the economic crash, we took off 2 days a month. Usually on those 2 days I felt a need to go out and study. Because when I was working, I was studying the buildings I was working on. But, I didn’t have a chance to go look around very much. So on those 2 days off we’d go look at temples or historical buildings that I could learn more from. It was a gradual upping the ante of energy output through my life. 

Then I came back from Japan and started my own business [laughs]. There is no end to the amount of energy that can go into that. So that hasn’t really stopped. Life seems to present more and more challenges all through the years. When I look back, gosh, when I started out – that looks pretty easy [laughs]. I suppose 20 years from now if I am still here, I will look back and say,”Piece of cake”[laughs]. What I guess has changed is that I no longer feel that I deserve anything other than this. I feel so appreciative and fortunate to do what I do. Short answer to your question, that’s what keeps me going. I can’t wait for another moment to do more.

YG: The process is its own reward?

DB: Right… life has led me to this point where I am now. To show me that I can be appreciative of every moment.

YG: Maybe something a little lighter [laughs]. Talk a little bit about the process of writing your book on sharpening and how it has been received. I have read it and heard many good things. How was the process of writing it for you?

DB: Well, that was really eye-opening. I had the idea for the book when I first came back from Japan about 30 years ago. I actually wrote most of the text around that time. Now I’d have little time to do that. Then as my work developed and my business developed, it got put aside. I didn’t do much with it for years. Then eventually, I felt there was a need to have the information that I could offer available. So, I kept in the back of my mind, “Ok, I’ve got to do that book. I’ve got to do that book.” Eventually there was a chance, when the economy was down a few years ago, to devote sometime to something else. So that is what I did. 

Going back through the text and I started taking photos. When I reinitialized that whole process, it still took a couple years of down times and in-betweens to bring the book to fruition. The process was a long one, indefinite steps, and it is just so eye-opening into how much effort goes into making a book. I never would have dreamed it. Now when I go into a book store I am just staggered. My jaw just drops. So much effort has gone into them (the books). 

I had a customer a few years ago who built a library of sorts into the main hallway in their house. It was a big one with this hallway, both walls were lined with books floor to ceiling. I was impressed and I said to the owner, “Gee, you really like books. You have a lot of books here.” And she said, “You know, I haven’t read these books. These books represent the energy of all these people. Their life energy that’s here and just enriching the atmosphere of my house.” At the time I thought wow that’s pretty neat. But, now I really know what she was talking about. 

So my book, I am so glad I was able to pull it together. I would love to do another one someday. We’ll see. I know now what it is going to take. As far as how my book is being received, I just put it out there and offered it. I have had a few comments and it seems like it is… not too bad. I do not follow forums and I haven’t really had much feedback other than a few things you’ve said. And, a couple other people who mentioned that they liked it. But, I don’t know if they were being nice or not. I don’t really feel a need to know, I just put out the information that I have.

YG: Are you the only way to get the book through your website?

DB: There are a couple of retailers who are offering it, including Mokuchi. It’s not on Amazon or anything like that. I was pretty surprised at how many did sell right up front. Particularly when I first put it out. There was a pretty steady stream of interest. We are still on the first printing, which is ok. We printed 500 copies, and were almost 2/3 of the way through. Which is pretty good for something so specialized. Editors Note: A second printing was done in October 2018

YG: Everybody I have sold a copy to were just so grateful. It is so clear, so thorough. There is nothing else exactly like it out there. So the motivation to write it, what was the motivation?

DB: Traditionally this type of knowledge, how to make these tools work, is passed on through direct teaching – apprenticeship. And the apprenticeship is not really teaching, it is more like absorbing from your teacher. Being with the teacher and watching carefully and trying. Trying to copy and mimic what that person does, with a pointer here or there, perhaps, from the teacher – depending on who that teacher is. Which is a very excellent way to learn. I believe not only cultivates humility in the student, but the student also learns how to learn. When you’ve tried all the different things that don’t work yourself then you really know what to look for. You’ll watch with very crisp, open eyes – you are ready to learn. 

There is a lot of value to traditional teaching. I’m fairly certain that’s why there is not a lot written. To this day it is still largely taught that way in Japan. I understand that there are some trade schools that have sprung up in recent years. It’s just the reality of modern life. Young people, well they don’t have patience. Nor did I when I was young [laughs], but they have many alternatives. Much more than when I was young. So, I guess things are changing, even in Japan. But, I think for the most part things are taught in the traditional way. When I was younger I did not think, it wasn’t really of much value, to have something written down like this. Because you couldn’t really absorb it to the depth it needed to be absorbed. 

But, I feel very different about that now. I have been teaching in class-type venues for 8 years now. When I see the joy that people have in getting their tools working. Even in a week, they can make tremendous strides in sharpening or learn how to make a plane to work. They won’t have it down like they will after a number of years of use. Or, maybe they’ll never get it down to the point as someone who has come through a real apprenticeship. But, maybe they will. Who am I to say that isn’t of value? If I can contribute to that for anybody, it’s wonderful. 

So, the book is an attempt to fill a need. Mostly for people who are unable, for some reason or another, or can’t afford to go to a formal instruction class. If I think back when I was 24, I wouldn’t have paid to go to a class. I couldn’t have. Almost on principle only, I wouldn’t have done it [laughs]. If there had been a book like this I might have paid for it. And, if I could have benefited from it then all the better. That’s really what it’s aimed towards. Also to augment classes. Even a person who goes through a class in a week, there are some – many – details they won’t be able to absorb. So, they’ll have a resource to look back on and fill in some details that they didn’t pick up. Though some have tried to scribble it all down [laughs].

YG: What do you hope for looking ahead? Both for yourself and the Japanese woodworking community in itself?

DB: The dream I have always had is a large project here in the US that could bring together Japanese trained or Japanese style woodworking community to gather and work as a team. Together. Because there is a really rich atmosphere and individuals here with the skills. Because we are so spread out across the country, we end up doing such diverse work. We get kind of isolated doing our own things. Having a large project that would allow people to work together – it’s the best way of getting to know each other. Spending time shoulder to shoulder focused on a joint project. A goal that we are all trying to achieve. It would just be a great thing to do. So, that is my dream. 

It would also be nice to have a greater voice in the use of wood in the US. I don’t know how far one could ever go with that because there are forces controlling that. But, those kinds of dreams are always on my mind.

YG: Any words for a new woodworker?

DB: Don’t be shy. You will get out of it what you will put into it. It is not like you go to a teacher and gain from the teacher the ability to do woodworking. Yes, you do receive guidance from the teacher in one way or another.  But, you do it. You have to pick up the tools. You have to put the energy into it. It is your own initiative that makes it happen. Again, you will get out of it is equal to what you put into it. Just pick up the tools. Do it to the greatest degree that you can and that you can enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. But woodworking is pretty darn easy to enjoy, I think [laughs].

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