Carpenters at Work

Carpenters at Work by Mortimer Menpes. 1901. Watercolor. Source: Japan: A Record in Colour, facing p. 176. The carpenters, not just the master-carpenter whom he met — intrigued Menpes:

Then there were the carpenters, and here a whole series of surprises awaited me. For example, I found that the teeth of their saws were set in what may be called the opposite direction, and that therefore, when a man pulled his instrument towards him, it cut the wood, rather than when he pushed. In this, as in everything else, the Japanese are perfectly right. One always has more strength to pull than to push, and with this method you are enabled to use saws made of such thin metal that if their teeth were set in the opposite direction they must needs cockle and break. When a carpenter wants to plane some tiny piece of wood, perhaps a portion of a miniature doll’s house, he does not run a small plane over it, as we do, but uses a large heavy one, very sharp, and turned upside-down. In this way very delicate work can be achieved.

All the Japanese tools are designed with a view to their special fitness. The chisels work in a totally different way from that of our chisels, and lend themselves more readily to delicate work. As to their little wood-carving tools, they are perfect joys! I shall never forget the expressions on the faces of my British workmen as they unpacked the cases of goods that arrived from Japan, and came across saws as thin as tissue paper with their teeth set the wrong way; tiny chisels that almost broke as they handled them; hammers the size of a lady’s hat-pin. My foreman’s face was a study of disgusted contempt. “Now, how can a man turn out decent work with tools like that?” he exclaimed, looking round appealingly. And it did seem impossible. But not one of them complained when they came across the actual work accomplished by these ridiculously small instruments. The carpenters were loud in their admiration for the wood-carving, and the foreman merely sniffed. He knew that he himself could not approach it. And this was soon clearly proved, for if ever my hands tried to do a bit of patching it was always a failure. All their joining was as child’s play when compared with this Japanese triumph. [176-77]

As so often, Menpes compares craftsmanship at home unfavourably with Japanese craftsmanship, in this case, even in the matter of their tools. The carpenters shown here are working cheerfully in a bright room. All is light and industry, with ranges of finished work on shelves behind the workbench. You can almost snell the fresh wood. — Jacqueline Banerjee

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Menpes, Dorothy. Japan: A Record in Colour. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1901. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 6 July 2019.

Created 6 July 2019