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Trip to Japan spurs ideas for woodworkers

A visit to Japan last winter was only the tip of the iceberg for what Peter King foresees as an ongoing exchange of ideas between American and Japanese woodworking professionals.

Jeffrey Cooper tries out a Japanese-style plane, which cuts on the pull stroke, at the shop of Toyama-san, a maker of American-style furniture.

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During the first week of December 2009, King traveled to Tokyo with two New England woodworkers, Garrett Hack of Thetford Center, Vt., and Jeffrey Cooper of Portsmouth, N.H., for a trip sponsored by the American Hardwood Export Counsel.

The group is an organization of hardwood lumber companies that export wood overseas and is funded by membership contributions and government grants. The trip consisted of a series of visits to Japanese woodworking shops that were organized by members of AHEC's full-time staff based in Osaka, Japan.

"We spent a couple of days visiting people who ran those workshops where they mostly made custom-made furniture and spent time talking with them about their materials, tools and techniques," says King.

"Following those workshop meetings, we had a gathering at the International Furniture Fair in Tokyo. In association with the IFFT, the AHEC rented a room in a hotel and invited together many people from the Japanese woodworking industry for a panel discussion about the use of hardwood lumber and related matters in Japan."

King, a sales rep for Cersosimo Lumber Co. in Brattleboro, Vt., has been active in overseas efforts promoting American lumber for years. He visits Japan about three times a year to sell lumber and meet with large and small lumber companies.

"In the course of wandering around Japan and meeting people from the Japanese woodworking industry, I thought about the woodworkers I know in America and thought it would be great to bring them along with me on the trip so we could share ideas about design, materials, tools and marketing."

King discovered Cooper and Hack through his affiliation with the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association. Cooper, who specializes in making carved furniture, says he jumped at the opportunity because it would give him a chance to promote his work globally.

"Japan has a history of a high quality of traditional woodworking, including furniture and handmade tools. That kind of tradition gives Americans a familiarity with Japanese woodworking. Most quality woodworkers have at least one Japanese tool in their shop, typically the dovetail saw. With that familiarity, I knew it would be good for my career to participate," says Cooper.

Likewise, Hack says he was fascinated by the trip and especially enjoyed what he learned by teaching a class on Western hand planes on one of the shop visits.

"The reality turns out that as simple as Japanese hand planes seem - with their wooden bodies and big blades - they are more complex than the casual woodworker can deal with. Not so Lie-Nielsen, which work practically out of the box.

"I hope this collaboration continues. The interesting thing is that there are few craftsmen doing similar studio pieces as here. Some of the few make traditional craft objects, like wooden tubs, but not many there design furniture," says Hack.

In the big picture, King says he thinks ideas will begin to be exchanged where Americans develop new thoughts about designs and techniques used to make furniture. In turn, the Japanese will learn new ideas from Americans such as auctioning and marketing techniques.

"I see the trip as the beginning of an ongoing project. The next exchange will occur in October when AHEC will sponsor the travel of some Japanese leaders of the furniture industry to the Northeast to visit Jeffrey and Garrett and other colleagues, companies and design schools in this region to see what we're doing here."

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This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.

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