When a work lifts your spirits and inspires bold and noble thoughts in you, do not look for any other standard to judge by: the work is good, the product of a master craftsman.Jean de la Bruyere
Gentle Reader, welcome to this second installment in my series of articles about the Japanese floor workbench called the “Atedai.” In Part 1 we looked at some of the design considerations and construction techniques involved in making this tool. In this presentation we will get to the fun part of putting it to use.
These workbenches, as I hope you will see, are incredibly versatile tools that can be used in endless ways. My objective in this article is to show you a number of those methods, some traditional and some less so, and inspire you to maybe give it a go yourself.
I will use examples from my own work, as well as examples from master craftsmen (including a few National Living Treasures of Japan) who have completed rigorous apprenticeships and used atedai professionally much longer than I ever will.
I have not received any direct training in this method of working but have ‘stolen’ many ideas and methods (lit. “Gijutsu wo nusumu” 技術を盗む) through observation and practice of their techniques.
This is the way traditional apprenticeships run in Japan – the master seldom gives direct instructions and entertains few questions, yet the apprentice is expected to learn everything – through observation and practice – and is thus said to “steal” his master’s techniques. Only in my case, my teachers are Stan, books, the internet, and videos!
I will use a fair number of pictures and video links in this blog, as they will show much more nuance than words can about how master craftsmen use their Atedai.
If you live in a ‘chair culture’ and are just starting to work lower to the ground, then this may be the first time you have sat cross-legged on the floor since school. Take it easy! Go slow, improve your flexibility gradually and your knees will thank you. This style of woodworking is physical, and you must orient your whole body with the work to be efficient, and safe, which at first can cause some aches and pains. Bear with it – the results will be worth a little suffering!
If the floor is out of the question, don’t despair! There are a number of ways to use an Atedai either sitting on a stool or standing, which we will explore in this article as well.
With that said, let’s begin!
Sawing using an atedai falls mainly into two categories – rough sawing for stock preparation, and precision sawing for finer work/joinery.
Rough sawing doesn’t differ much from using low sawhorses… you lay your work flat on the bench, making sure to hang it over the side, or off the far end of the bench, and use your foot to stabilize the board while your hands work the saw. This is very quick and accurate and doesn’t require large, bulky, difficult-to-store sawhorses typically used in the Western woodworking tradition, but it is dependent on using Japanese saws.
The process of rough sawing is the same, more or less, as when using low sawhorses. Using one’s feet to stabilize the workpiece helps significantly. You can also stand with both feet on the stock, which can be very useful when making big rip cuts in large stock.
Fine sawing can be slightly ‘fussier’ in getting the work where it needs to be, and can depend on the kind of joint you are cutting. That said, it often helps to prop the work up somehow, particularly when ripping. This can be accomplished by leaning it vertically against the end of the Atedai, or laying the work flat on the bench (a clamp can help here) and propping up the end of the Atedai – experiment and see what works for you. I have seen craftsmen using plane blocks to prop up the near end of the bench – an ingenious and elegant solution, yet maybe not as quick as just leaning it on the end…
Note the size of the stops on Mr. Mogami’s atedai are much smaller than my own, and very much in the sashimono tradition.
Any cross cut, like the cutting of tenon shoulders, can be made off to the side of the bench or, if your stops are low enough, in the middle of the bench itself. I prefer to saw to one side, giving my arm room to move back and forward without having to shift position too much. You can also use shorter Western joinery saws here, by pushing the work into the stops, almost like a bench hook.
Planing at the Atedai is accomplished in only one or two positions… sitting down crossed legged, sometimes with one leg extended, or while on both knees. Give it a try and see what works best for you in your work.
You reach with your plane, and pull. Simple.
In my experience, I have found that kneeling on both knees works best for powerful roughing strokes, because I can make use my upper body weight to press down on the workpiece while making powerful, controlled cutting strokes with the plane. Alternately, planing while sitting with one leg extended works best for me for finish planing. YMMV – experiment and find what works for you.
For really long stock you can, in theory, lunge forward with one leg and rock back with the planing stroke, but that still has a length limit (not to mention the need for very strong leg and back muscles) and standing up really has all the advantage in this situation. Traditionally, craftspeople such as Tategu-shi, joiners who specialize in doors and shoji, have a dedicated planing beam in their workshop, used standing, for longer stock preparation, and use their Atedai used for mortising and other smaller tasks.
“What about my Baileys?!” I hear you cry.
Fear not, Gentle Reader, for you can still use Western planes… both on the normal push stroke, as well as the pull… by adopting this work style. I often use No.5 and No.7 planes for initial rough stock preparation, and both can be used well low-down, although it must be said not quite as well as Japanese planes. To push I often kneel to the side, or sit on the work and push towards the stops. Maybe not elegant, but still good enough for me – either way, no one is watching, except maybe Master Sprocket, the neighbor’s cat, who meticulously supervises every step of my work!
Another way to use push planes is to stand the atedai on its side and clamp the workpiece to its face, which allows you to plane standing up… this can also be useful with Japanese planes when planing longer boards or when you just need to stretch your legs and rest your back.
Jigs for any number of planing tasks are used as much in the Japanese tradition as they are in the West for 45° and 90° angles and, except for being designed for the pull stroke, do not really differ. One jig, however that may be new to you is a rather simple, but incredibly effective, device helping to shoot long edges. It is simply a flat board with a stop, which elevates the board above the surface of the bench, allowing your plane to shoot the edge of a board. This is one of the reasons you will often see 2 stops rather than 1 long stop on the Atedai. One stop braces the shooting board and workpiece while the gap between the two stops allows the plane to pass through and finish the stroke.
Just as when planing, there are a number of ways, and many more besides, to use chisels at an Atedai depending on the task at hand.
For mortising, and other similar tasks, a great way to hold the work is with your derrière. Yes, finally we come to the famous bum clamp. Sitting on your stock (while potentially uncomfortable on narrow or high stock) is one of the best ways to keep the work steady while positioning yourself for efficient and safe work with your eye directly over the mortise to help ensure the chisel stays plumb. As we will see, this is also very effective while at a standing bench too.
Hollowing work, like that used in kurimono carving, is often performed while sitting to the side of the bench directing all the force into the stop, and keeping the work steady. Be warned here, keep a mental note of where your left knee is in relation to your chisel! In this position it’s easy to make powerful horizontal hammer blows, and the last thing you want is a chisel jumping out of the cut into your knee.
The final ‘standard’ chiselling position is at the end of the Atedai, often using your foot to stabilize the work piece, although clamps may also be used. This allows for quick repositioning of the workpiece, if needed, and holds the work solidly enough for the work at hand (foot?). As you tend to chisel more or less vertically in this position, your foot isn’t in much danger, but it still pays to be cognizant at all times.
This number 3 in a 9 video series of Mr. Nakadai, designated one of Japan’s National Living Treasures, making a beautiful serving bowl for the tea ceremony from pauwlonia wood. You can view the entire playlist on YouTube at this link.
Standing & Sitting
So far, we have looked at using the Atedai while it is resting on the floor, but there are a number of other ways to use it if your knees say “no”, or if you just prefer to work while standing up.
A great way to integrate the planing bench into your normal workflow is to have a slightly smaller Atedai for use on top of your normal workbench. This can be a great option if you use a mixture of western and Japanese planes, and can give you the best of both worlds. If you dimension it so you can place the Atedai under your table workbench when not in use, you can quickly and easily pull it out when needed.
By placing the Atedai on sawhorses, you will have a versatile, and mobile workbench which, with some practice, will do everything you ask of it. Carpenters in the field will often use a bench similar to this, made with materials on site, although they can sometimes be rather quick and dirty affairs.
In the photo above, Mr. Makoto Imai, a highly skilled carpenter, is using a similar set up, which was immortalised in ‘The Workbench Book’ by Scott Landis. The stop here is just a screw, which is all you need for most planing operations – although care must be taken if you don’t want to mark the end grain. I love the simplicity of this set up, and find Makoto’s work truly inspiring. Credit: Daiku Dojo http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/20070414_tfgwc_asilomar_makoto_imai_demo/
While easier on the body in some respects, the lack of vises (Editor’s note: “virtually free of sin”) still means these workbenches require good flexibility and the use of body clamps. There is no escaping the fact that Japanese woodworking can be very physical. With that said, due to the need to lift your knee/leg up to, or to sit on, this kind of bench I have found the work surface needs to be slightly lower than your normal Western bench – for me about the height of my downward facing palm, with my arm by my side.
As you have no doubt seen, the potential ways to use the Atedai are incredibly varied. In this section I will outline some interesting techniques and ideas that may help show you just what is possible with these benches, or at least give some food for thought.
Firstly, using low sawhorses of the same height as your Atedai is a great way to extend the length or width of the work surface, and is a great solution for things like doors or shoji frames. It can also be incredibly useful if combined with, for example, a chop saw set at the same height.
Next, in a real blurring of east and west, you can put dog holes in your workbench – similarly spaced as you would on a normal workbench, for use of bench dogs, and hold fasts (Veritas make a lovely version which you can hand tighten). This can really add some versatility to your bench.
These holes will also give you an alternative to the ‘foot clamp’. By making a piece of wood with a hole drilled about ⅓ of the way in from one end, and a bolt passing through it into a dog hole (no need to attach a nut to the other end), you can create a foot-operated lever to press a workpiece into your stop, holding it very securely. The picture below shows Mr. Inomoto using this ingenious tool with his atedai
So, there you have it, a whistle stop tour of how to use an atedai. As you can see, the atedai is hugely versatile, and can offer all woodworkers, especially users of Japanese tools, a great way of working.
Low workbenches of various styles are used by a huge range of specific crafts within woodworking (as well as an equally large number of crafts outside of woodworking). I hope to have sparked some ideas that will be useful in your own work. Even if you continue using a Western bench, I hope you got a hint just what can be achieved with a couple of stops and your body…
While this way of working initially may appear quite simple, this simplicity belies the huge degree of nuance required to get the most out of it… from construction details to actual use. Often it’s not what the bench brings to you, but what you can bring to the Atedai, that determines the benefit it can provide.
You will also have seen that the benches themselves, as well as the methods of using them, are as unique as the craftsman employing them, so if something works for you, and is safe, crack on. There is no ‘one way’ to work with an Atedai, and I would love to see you at work with one of your own.
The best way to get a real sense of these benches in use is to view a range of craftspeople, including some of Japan’s “Living National Treasures,” actually using them, and so I wanted to leave a list of links for you to ‘steal’ some ideas of your own.