Catching up with Toshio Odate
I didn’t intend to visit Toshio Odate for an official interview as an associate editor at Fine Woodworking. My wish to visit him came out of the desire to find out more about two tools I had in my shop—a large log-ripping saw called a maebiki-oga, and a side-trimming plane I had recently picked up on eBay.
Of course, I can’t hide that was more than excited to meet an author I had admired for many years, ever since I picked up a copy of his well-known “Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their tradition, Spirit, and Use.” When I mentioned Odate to the manager of a local woodworking club, he said “you’d be foolish not to visit him—he’s only 20 minutes away from you!” And so I called up Mr. Odate and made an appointment.
A few days later, I was pulling up his driveway on a late Connecticut afternoon. As I parked and got out, Odate came out to his back porch to meet me. I didn’t bring out my wooden Japanese toolbox or the big saw just yet—I worried I’d drop the box or the saw on somebody, and even though I’m well-versed in making a fool of myself, I decided against it for the time being.
After taking off my shoes at the entrance, Odate welcomed me to his sitting room, where an amazing collection of vintage power line insulators adorns the walls, along with other funky glassware. I met his assistant, Laure Olender, who takes photographs of all of Toshio’s work. I sat down and made only the smallest of small talk—which was not necessary. I sensed in a few moments that there is no need to be anything but full-on with Toshio Odate—and that it pays to listen.
I asked about the large ripsaw, or maebiki-oga, and Odate asked me to bring it in to show him. After a few minutes looking at it, he explained to me what I was wondering about: the maebiki of that size have specially-shaped teeth, usually on the front third or half of the blade. These special teeth give purchase so the blade can dig in better as it approaches the end of its glide, where the power of the user’s pull plus the blade’s own inertia is least. Other Japanese saws, like the more commonly-known ryoba or dozuki, have the tooth line at an angle compared to the blade’s back (or centerline, for the ryoba). This angle digs in more as the user reaches the end of the blade’s length. Odate mentioned that in woodworker’s slang, these teeth were sometimes called chon-gake. It was gratifying to learn this small, if somewhat esoteric, detail about my saw.
Toshio added that this kind of information is not what most woodworkers are interested in, and it is indeed esoteric—but he’d still include it if he were to write a book dedicated to the art and life of the kobiki, or sawyer. And here is where Toshio added something very important: there is something else that is not always being grasped by many woodworkers in the craft: the social responsibility of the craftsperson, be they woodworkers, musicians, photographers, doctors, or writers. Each of these persons practices a craft and in that craft they are expected to produce a result that carries with it a social responsibility. And that responsibility is where the person’s skill and even artistry must be used to serve others. For example, if a joint is used to show off a person’s ability to create a showy piece, but fails when it comes to joining two pieces of wood securely and efficiently, that person has failed at their responsibility to society—even if the joint “looks beautiful.” But the craftsperson who makes a solid joint, that looks “good enough,” does its job and holds for decades or centuries to come—that person has fulfilled the responsibility society asks of them. Even if that joint is hidden, it has the spirit of being a good joint. Odate made a comparison to comfortable and attractive undergarments—they are out of sight, but if they are strong, comfortable, warm, and last, they’ve done their job well, and can even bring a smile to the wearer’s face (I’ll admit that the comparison brought smiles to our faces at the time).
What about hobbyist and enthusiast woodworkers, I asked? If you are a hobbyist or enthusiast, Odate explained, and you are not publicly committing yourself to being a craftsperson for public hire, you don’t have the weight of that social responsibility. But once you commit to making a piece for a client, or a family member, that responsibility is there, to those people. It’s your job to make sure your design and your workmanship serve the needs and desires of your clients, and that the techniques and materials you use serve those ends. Anything else is superfluous, and runs the risk of being dangerous, or at best, ugly.
Wise words, from someone whose experience of over three quarters of a century has spanned an apprenticeship as a tategu-shi (sliding screen door maker), a woodworker, a teacher, and a sculptor. Odate has fulfilled responsibilities in all of these areas, and shows no sign of planning to diminish his creative output.
Toward the end of the evening, Odate shared a wonderful insight. Indicating the rich, warm patina of a tremendous plank table in his kitchen, he mentioned the idea of the “user’s finish”—the fact that no piece is really complete until, 50, 100, or 300 years down the road, the thousands of users’ hands handling a piece have given it the true finish, one that the maker could not give when the piece was assembled. It speaks of the present-day craftsman imbuing his or her work with their intention and sense of social responsibility, and projecting that skill and care towards the future, where further generations will be able to feel the woodworker’s spirit with them still.
Master craftsman and teacher Toshio Odate examines the author's maebiki-oga.
Close-up view of chon-gake, the specially beveled catching teeth on a maebiki-oga.
Odate takes a closer look at the handle and starter teeth of the maebiki.
Here, Odate took time to explain to me the best way to adjust a side-rabbeting plane whose blade was very loose along two axes. (He suggested some thin paper, as per his book, but also a thin sliver of bamboo as a wedge.)
A quiet evening chat over tea and tools. My warm thanks to both Mr Odate and Ms Olender for their hospitality.