On Japanese Trowels

As many will already know, we visited Japan this past winter to explore the some of the beautiful earthen architecture of Japan. Our friend Kyle, who practices as a natural builder and permaculture teacher in Japan, took us under his wing and showed us some of the most fantastic examples of fine earthen craftsmanship in the country.

He also deepened my understanding of the carefully crafted tools they use to carry out their work, sending me home with a set of beautifully hand-forged trowels made by a well regarded local craftsman. But as I’ve come to learn, the craftsmen responsible for making these hand-forged trowels are at risk of sliding into oblivion, as standardized, mass produced building replaces traditional architecture. As someone wholly committed to advancing earthen architecture I know that high quality tools not only makes the work easier and, therefore, more efficient, but good tools that lend themselves to good work helps with how natural building is perceived by the general public. It’s important to support the cottage industries that make tools that allow our work to shine through! So I’d like to share my experience of using these tools and how you might come to have a set of your own. But before I do, here’s a little history of how such fine tools came to be.

From Kyle’s blog:

Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Buddhist monks brought tea seeds from China to Japan and in the 16th century, Zen practitioner Sen no Rikyu, established the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony generally takes place in a chashitsu, or tea house. Following the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi”, the unostentatious walls of the chashitu are plastered with earth. As the tea ceremony and the construction of tea houses spread throughout Japan, the art of Japanese earthen plastering flourished. Unlimited time and resources were granted to craftsmen to create unpretentious, but exquisite earthen plastered walls. In this way, tea and the Japanese aesthetic led to the high development of fine earthen plastering in Japan.

These fine works required fine tools and those familiar with the fine samurai swords of Japan will know that the Japanese have a knack for willing metal into exquisite works of art. Rising up out of this know-how, a great variety of trowels – more than 100 different types in all – were crafted to meet the demands associated with constructing buildings with such stature. From the “hard” high carbon steel (‘honyaki’) to the “soft” iron (jigane), Japan has undoubtedly the largest variety of trowels on the planet. And, I’ll argue, having used many American-style trowels, Italian venetian trowels, and my fair share of the flexible mass-manufactured Japanese-style trowels, there is nothing, I mean nothing, that compares to these hand-forged trowels in terms of weigh, balance, quality, ease of use, efficiency of application, etc. To know what a good tool feels like, and then to consider that the craft is at risk of disappearing altogether, I feel compelled to help get these beautiful tools into more hands. For those of us working with earth in its many forms, we can help preserve this craft and the wisdom inherent in it, by simply using hand-crafted tools over ones that are mass-manufactured.

Kyle is committed to this and makes ordering easy. Simply visit his site: http://japaneseplastering.blogspot.jp/p/blog-page_10.html, browse the selection and order what tools might work for you. His “Basic Set of 6 Trowels” is a great starting point, and I’m still blown away every time I use my Premier Hanyaki Application Trowel (A101 240mm) to apply straightening and scratch coat plasters over earthen substrates. What a treat!

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