Soma Cousha Interview (Part 2 or 2)

In part 2 of our 2 part March 2018 interview, Kohei Yamamoto and Jonathan Stollenmeyer of Soma Cousha discuss their connection with tools, Kezurou Kai in Japan and how they’ve participated in a renewed interest in hewing. And finally touching on what would be their dream project.   

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

Yann Giguere: Okay, can you talk a little bit about, I assume you have, a connection with tools?

Kohei Yamamoto: They are like our third arm. An extension of our body. Sometimes you can feel what’s going on, with the tools as they are cutting. Practically there is no way to see what’s going on in the micro-world between wood and cutting edge but sometimes you can feel it.

YG: Yes, a deep and subtle connection.

Jon Stollenmeyer: As far as my connection to tools is concerned. I guess my first real connection was more to the end product, but then as you build something that changes. When I first started working in Kyoto, even when I was working on boats in States, the tools were kind of magical. When you buy a new tool and use it there’s something magical. But when I started working in Kyoto, all my teacher’s tools –  the tools people had been using for years and years, there was something about that I could not get over. To the point that, at night, I would go open my teacher’s toolboxes to just look at their tools. Which, of course, was a faux pas. But, apprentices above me would say, “You want to know about how do you put a plane iron in a block? How do figure out details about chisels, planes and other tools?” Nobody is going to show you, so apprentices above me would say, “You just gotta be really sneaky and go pull them out. But, make sure when you put it back everything’s exactly where it was.” I would literally take pictures with my phone, pull out a toolbox and look at everything. Then look at my picture to make sure everything was perfectly back in place.

KY: Did you wipe your fingerprint? (laughing)

JS: Of course! So much to be careful of, for metal… you don’t want to touch a plane with oily fingers. I was just terrified. Sweating bullets looking at these things, but learning SO much! Especially after you start working with tools. At first, you’re just looking at it. It looks like a really beautiful ceramic pot, it’s aged and beautiful and amazing. But, as you start using a plane or you cut your own block, when you pull out this guy’s plane. You’re like, “Oh holy sh*t!’ He’s doing this or he’s doing that. He’s that specific about how he sets up this. Or, details about how he built his block. Or another block he laminated together a bunch of different pieces so it wouldn’t move. And, you actually don’t know because you can’t ask them. But, you get an idea.

It’s like taking apart a building. You don’t actually know, but as you get further along in your carpentry career you have really educated ideas about why the carpenter did this, that and the other thing. And, then sometimes you’re on the other end asking, “Why would you do that? That’s terrible idea.” That sort of thing comes up as well.  

Anyway, at that firm in Kyoto there were 30 people, so it was like having 29 magical boxes of toys to look at. And everyone’s got more than one toolbox, so it was super fun. I remember wanting my tools to have that look, like they had been used. In the beginning and oiling of them every day; taking really, really good care of them. And without thinking about it, I can look back and now they look like I wanted them to look then. I haven’t thought about it for 10 years.

They’re definitely magical. Tools are magical when they work right.

YG: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Kezurou Kai in Japan. I’ve seen pictures of you hewing and sawing.

KY: My involvement started almost 15 years ago at the Seki (town in Gifu Prefecture Japan) Kezurou Kai. At the time I was working on temples and even though we hand planed a lot, no one other than me was really into it. I wanted to learn more. Kezurou Kai was really fun. I made a lot of friends. Also, I connected with guys who were re-learning about hewing and sawing for fun. After WWII, the use of axe,  adze and Obiki (large resawing saw) for milling almost disappeared.

JS: After a few years of Yama-san studying and practicing with the ancient tools I came along. Within the first 10 days when I started, we went to went to the woods…

KY: (laughing) We still have video of that time.

JS: Yeah, we went to woods and were felling trees by hand. Then hewing them onsite and pulling them out of the woods. We brought some of those home. Then because we’re maniacs, we kept doing the hewing. It started to become apparent that the hewing was maybe something we should do at Kezurou Kai.

Thanks to someone named Araki-san, who was going all over Japan hewing at small Kezurou Kais, it became of interest. At the Kobe event, we were asked to do a big presentation. They brought us these gnarly timbers and asked us to make it into a roof system. We hewed it so everyone could see the process at the event. Yama-san laid it all out and we joined all the timbers in a day and a half.  It was so immediate! There was so much enthusiasm!

There were also some huge timbers. We had everyone that brought axes go through and hewed them together. Then suddenly it wasn’t just Kezurou Kai. We had a hewing group. We’d get together a hundred people in Kobe just to hew. That became a mini Hatsurou Kai. People were going there not just to plane, but some only going to hew with adze and axes. So now there’s both in Japan.

And, of course, at all the Kezurou Kai events there is also hewing now. But it’s just in the last five or six years that it’s become a big thing. It’s great because now people are realizing how much fun it is. So recently that’s been our thing. We’re really interested in planing, too. But, when we go, we’re usually too busy hewing to be planing.

YG: I can understand that, it is my favorite. I let everybody else plane and I judge the planing competition, but the rest of the time I have axe and adze out.

JS: There’s something about those tools. Man, it’s just such a beautiful connection. And, we’ve been blessed because now we get asked to do hewing for people’s homes.

YG: What would be your dream project? Hopes moving forward?

KY: We’d love to start a carpentry school.

JS: Yeah, the school while still doing projects. It’s a lot of fun to see people learning. Another dream is helping this temple in Kentucky where I used to live. I want to be able to build something for them to give back to that community.

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

Soma Cousha is a multi-disciplinary design studio located in Okayama, Japan. Kohei and Jon strive to create contemporary design that is made to last. They believe in a holistic approach to design and the process of making. Focusing on the importance of quality materials and craftsmanship they ensure their designs embody a narrative rooted in history yet relevant to today. Allowing their designs to outlive trends and maintain a sense of timeless beauty. 

Background on Kohei Yamamoto

Kohei was introduced to and fell in love with hand tools while attending a trade school specializing in wooden crafts.  He delved into the furniture arts. At the advice of his professor, he took a job as a Japanese Temple and Shrine carpenter. For 8 years Kohei worked on some of the most famous cultural heritage temples and shrines in Japan such as the Grand Shrine at Izumo.  Working on buildings that stood the test of time, he became interested in why present day homes weren’t built with as much thought. He also fell in love with the mark that carpenters left using traditional methods of sawing, milling, and finishing in the past.

In 2012, he had the opportunity to build a new home in Fukuyama city. He built one of the area’s first traditional Ishibatate homes since the end WWII. Finishes included everything from finely planed to adze and axe finishes used in rough milling.  This began his company Somacousha.  The character for Soma (杣) means traditional sawing/milling.  The character for Ko (耕) means to cultivate.  The final character Sha (社) is a typical character meaning company.

Background on Jonathan Stollenmeyer

Jonathan graduated from University of Cincinnati’s DAAP architecture program in 2005. Over the next several years, he traveled extensively with a focus on exploring architecture and design. His lived and traveled to Japan, Mexico, Argentina, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. In the US, he worked in large-scale apartment architecture but his interests were pulled towards study at Traditional Boatworks in New Hampshire and a Zen monastery in Kentucky. Through these experiences, Jonathan decided to pursue his architectural and design passion via working with his hands rather than in an architectural office.

He returned to Japan in 2009 to work with Japanese carpenters. He worked with, Nakamura Sotoji Komuten, carpenters is doing projects within Japan and abroad in the Sukiya (teahouse) style. In 2013, he saw Kohei Yamamoto’s work in Okayama Prefecture and the building’s Ishibatate carpentry style astounded him. He received approval from Nakamura to leave the firm for further study. In November of 2013 he began work at Somacousha learning the Ishibatate framing style under the tutelage of Mr. Yamamoto.

More about both and their work can be found at Soma Cousha’s website