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The Mad Carpenter
Expériences, Savoirs

The Mad Carpenter

2 Oct 2018

The whole story starts with an oven. This may seems odd for a carpenter story, yet it all started with an oven. But not just any oven! We're talking about a traditional bread oven that has been long awaited. An oven which would bring fest into our garden. An oven which, for obvious experimental, ethical and aesthetic reasons is made from soil and straw. And last but not least, an oven that we are still waiting for.

Indeed, as much noble and traditional it is, we can't ignore that soil and straw together don't like much to get wet. And with such an oven, it would have been a shame to just make a quick and dirty roof.

Luckily for that oven, and for the interest of that story, it happened that I have been studying some basics of wood working in my free time during the past few months. Some readings, some inspiration from my wandering in Japan and a few experiments such as building a fantails house, sadly deserted by those, or building dry toilets which should be on topic in a soon to be written article.

That not-yet-existing-oven has therefore an additional specificity. It represents the perfect opportunity for a useful and highly challenging outside kitchen shelter project !

Useful, of course for its main purpose, but useful especially for it is the ideal step on my learning journey between the uninhabited fantails house and my future potential house.

And challenging for a few reasons actually.
It is always a good thing in any activity to consider sustainability and aesthetic. When it comes to carpentry, I found an optimum of these elements in the traditional Japanese woodworking approach.
As a big newbie, I improvised myself as an standalone carpenter in a highly technical construction where the success, or the failure, of the whole process could be only determined after a long and tiring work.
This whole crazy idea came up less than three weeks before my long term leave abroad. During that time, I therefore had to make the plans, find the materials, breach all the leaks in my knowledge and reach the first safe stage of construction, the roof. Otherwise, weather would damage everything while I'm gone.

So, traditional Japanese woodworking may be a bit unclear. Among other attributes, we could notice :

  • Full wood: the main frame of the building is made only with wood. Neither iron screw or nail are used. Instead we use various wood joinery technics to join each piece. This imply a big part, global in my case, of hand tools work. The machinery used to do such precise works are not accessible to ordinary people. Precision is indeed essential. Margin of error is extremely low otherwise we would end up with a dancing building or angles making it impossible to assemble the whole set !
    On a first thought, we may think it is an approach asking too much work and precision. Just for the plan I drew up there, you can see 25 pieces of wood, each with at least 2 joins with other pieces and therefore a few hours of a hard and meticulous work. And this is not even a whole house !
    But benefits are also significant.
    First of all, this approach maximise the use of local and renewable materials.
    Such building can also last longer time. Mixing wood and metal will imply through the years a corrosion of the metal pieces which would end up damaging the wood elements. Also wood and metal behave differently to change of weather conditions. With a single kind of material, the whole structure will be much more stable.
    And last but not least, this kind of building goes with a very nice natural beauty.
  • Puzzle : This is the funny part of the building process, Especially for a beginner like me. After a work of few weeks, or months for larger structures, to prepare each piece, to store them properly, to pray for a right assembly of all the poles and beams at the D-day, well, you just have to make to assembly. For that you gather a few friends, and you hope that there won't be too much correction to do otherwise they may get bored !
  • Stone feet : in the west, we often burry or put the feet into concrete for wooden building. In the East, the traditional way is to simply put the feet on stones. Of course, you have to make sure that those stone are stable. Result is a well airy space under the building to prevent any rotting evolution.

Well, we had little time for doubt, so we took the challenge with not so big hope though ! Indeed, my previous attempt in a smaller scale of joinery were always clumsy and needed multiple corrections...

So first problem was to find the right wood. The one which is local, that resists naturally to insect and humidity, that we can carve with precision for the joineries and most importantly, the one we could find in time !

Getting all the information about such an particular way of working was not easy, but we were happy to find the lumber in just five days !

Some Douglas pine, growing in centre of France, affordable and naturally resistant.
With 14 pieces of lumber, 3 meter long and a 94x94 section in the garage, I just had to start the actual work.

Having the right tools for such a hand work is really a critical point. I had gathered for some time already various old tools which were really up to their functions.

I was just missing a wood hammer which we must have to handle the chisels. So I started to make my own with a piece of tree from the garden.

Wood is a living, non regular and changing material. This implies a lot of precautions for each stage of the project. Storage requires to keep lumber close to the final climate conditions and in the right position to avoid torsion. Marking lumber needs to take into account the non perfect geometrical shapes of wood. There is a whole science and set of tools about measuring irregular objects. Shaping the lumber can't be done unless we understand the behaviour of the wood, its fibres, nodes for each kind of wood we use. Otherwise we end up breaking lumber or tools.

There is a nice local loop between the sawdust and our brand new dry toilets and compost.

Work was done sometimes standing on workbenches or on the ground "Japanese style" depending on the needs.

Shaping this size of lumber were making a big difference.
Each mistake could make a whole piece useless and threaten the whole project. I had made the mistake indeed to buy just the right amount of lumber. No spare item. Actually, my mistake was even bigger because I realised I had bought less than needed. And it was too late to get new lumber when I realised this. Improvisation with some old piece of wood in the garden saved the game !
Also, small pieces let you try and correct as much as you want. With this size of lumber, I just had to find other way to validate the work and hope it would be find in the end.

Two weeks of marking, shaping, sawing, carving, trying to think about all the forgotten things to do. I finished the last lumber on the Saturday night. Friends and family were expected the next day to assemble everything.

Foundations still had to be done and before that clearing the chosen spot. And I had overlooked that part even though I didn't have much choice. It took me most of the morning to free the space, level it and place correctly the stones.

What a good surprise to see that the whole thing got assembled almost straight away !

Angles were good, the building was still standing after we took of our hands. But it wasn't over ! I was leaving just two days after and I had to place diagonal braces, the roof, a few other things, and of course prepare my package for the travel.

Voilà ! Of course, we may notice that the hero of the story, i.e. the oven, is still not there. But it now has a nice place to be. There will be a nice kitchen work space with oven, a hotplate, storage units among other things.

A big thank you for help, inspiration to my family and friends. A special thought to Iain and Tomoko who planted the seed of this one year ago around.

Last note about a good surprise. The angle join was quite tricky to choose. Three important pieces of lumber join in the same space. And it had to be strong, beautiful and not to hard to do.

I ended up after some readings and Internet searches with the one you saw in the last pictures. And here I am, back to Japan, I just started this article while arriving at a friends place living in some mountains. Just before the last ascent to their place, we took a break near an old shrine. And here comes the surprise : The joins of this very old building, maybe more than a century old, were the same ! This gave me some comfort for my choices of joinery and it seems like this experience change my look on wood crafted things.

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