Photo courtesy of Douglas Brooks

Master of Japanese Boatbuilding Gives Demo at Maritime Museum

It’s no secret that a lot of old-fashioned boatbuilding goes on at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM). You can even learn how to do some wooden boatbuilding yourself, through their popular Apprentice for a Day program.

But an opportunity to see the unusual methods of a traditional Japanese boatbuilder is something new entirely. On Sunday Oct. 17, the maritime museum in St. Michaels will host Douglas Brooks—a craftsman who has made it his life’s work to learn Japanese boatbuilding techniques and bring his knowledge back to the United States.

Brooks traveled to Japan in the 1990s and set out to learn about the designs, tools and methods used by traditional boatbuilders there, and ended up interviewing around 50 boatbuilders and serving as an apprentice under seven different master boatbuilders.

Apprentices are expected to perform menial tasks, not speak unless spoken to, and learn only through observing the master boatbuilder—there is no overview of the work or “teaching” as we know it. Master boatbuilders work almost entirely from their heads without manuals.

Brooks was given rare access to the builders’ shops because they recognized there may not be many more opportunities to record and preserve their legacy.

Brooks was honored with the 2014 Rare Craft Fellowship Award, given to a craftsperson for “their contributions to the maintenance and revival of traditional or rare crafts in America.”

In a demonstration at CBMM’s working shipyard, Brooks will fit two planks in the Japanese fashion. Then, he will use a special set of chisels to cut pilot holes for the nails and edge-nail the planks together. The maritime museum points out that these techniques are “completely at odds with methods used in the west.” He’ll show the tools that are specific to Japanese boatbuilding. Following the demonstration, Brooks will give a presentation titled “Ways of learning: An apprentice boatbuilder in Japan.”

The demonstration is on Oct. 17 from 2-4 p.m., followed by the talk in CBMM’s Van Lennep Auditorium from 4:30- 6 p.m. The demonstration and talk are $35 per person, or guests can attend the talk only for $15. Registration is required at cbmm.org/JapaneseBoatbuilding.

-Meg Walburn Viviano