“In order to see truth, we must be able to tolerate it.”
August Sandler

Kumiko Unfolding – Part 4: Jigs & Milling Kumiko Strips


I am an autodidact and I prefer learning through doing (I get very drowsy very quickly in most frontal, spoken learning configurations). Before moving to Romania most of that learning took place in mindy discplines … like learning to code. In Romania that changed when making & learning moved out of the virtual world and into the physical world. In the mental world errors in learning can be tricky: I can type into a text editor code that has syntax errors – until I run it; I can create poorly designed software and not know it until people use it (or never know it because no one uses it … because it isn’t good!). In the physical world, while there are similar feedback loops, there are also more immediate and vivid feedback that is sensed in the body before it is even understood.

When I started making in the physical world, I went through quite a few phases of disillusionment. When I came to build the humanure hacienda, I knew the sequece by heart, but when it came to execute: dig 8 holes for posts … the first whole took a month because it also involved learning what makes for a good shovel and what is a good time to dig (not immediately after rain because the soil is heavy and sticky, but not when its hot and dry because it is rock solid). This kind of assumed information is rarely a part of the instructions of the actual project I am trying to build. At first, I didn’t know this. I learned it the hard way. Now I have a nose that quickly picks up the scent of assumed yet unspoken information.

Take for example this video shot by someone who was lucky enough to visit a kumiko maker in Japan:

The video starts with lovely kumiko strips already cut and ready for assembly. What you dont’ see is how those strips are milled, sized, smoothed and cut (with notches). The only hint are the machines that you can sometimes glimpse in the background. These are specialized, expensive machines that don’t exist outside of Japan. You can see some of these machines at work in this video where you can see semi-indutrial production of kumiko lamps:

So the challenge I was facing was how to produce these strips with the rough pine-ish lumber I currently have access to and without making a large investment in tools. Whenever possible I look for graduality. I wanted to see if I could make a basic pattern within the settings of my workshop … AND how I would feel while making it.

This led me into the world of jigs – basically home-made (though some are available commercially) tools that are usually designed for specific tasks. So, for example, before even thinking about strips I needed to transform a rough piece of straight-grained lumber into a precisely dimensioned (all 4 sides are at 90 degress to each other AND correctly sized)  piece. In most western “Youtube workshops” this is done quickly and easily using 3 machines: a jointer, a thicknesser and a table saw. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of what they are and how are they are used … what mattered to me was that I have none of these machines. I did have a table and a vise and some hand tools (with no experience on using them).

To do this basic task (preparing a piece of wood from which I would be able to TRY cutting kumiko strips) … I tried a shortcut … working by eyes. I got mediocre results. I surrendered and started to create wining sticks … which was an entire journey … and you see where I am going … loops within loops … a simple task can become an entire project. Each cycle brings me face to face with tools (and/or skills) I don’t yet have. I ended up with OK winding sticks and a whole set of jigs I would need to get started with kumiko. This is the first set of jigs:

This is not really intended to be about woodworking (there is plenty of information about most of these things available online). It is intended to be about the hidden assumptions that I’ve encountered so many times. Had I not known they were there this journey would have been very frustrating. But I knew they were there … most of them were known unknowns … some were unknown unknowns. But going into this I made a space inside myself for exploration. I got stuck a lot … and when I did, I stopped. I stepped away until I felt invited to step in again. This allowed problems to move to the back of my mind and for solutions to appear without stressing over them. I had no schedule and no expectation for outcomes. I was taking one step at a time … and when I stepped onto shaky ground I took a step back and reflected on how to make the ground more stable.

My initial attempt to cut strips by hand was inspired by Adrian’s video:

But, I think because I was using a pine-ish soft wood, I was getting poor results. My saw blade kept travelling following the grain – leading to a lot of waste. Some strips (usually the nice straight cuts) snapped. It was not a pleasant process.

I “invented” a “cutting jig” for cutting with a hand-saw … that worked very well … at least for a few strips … the sawing rapidly wore out the jig. I did not enjoy the milling.

The “best” solution I did find came after stepping away for some time. In the back of mind I was asking myself “how would a traditional Japanese woodworker cut strips?” An answer suddenly appeared: “on the floor!” And indeed, when I set up an improvised inclined “planing board” on the ground and sat down next to / on it … cutting went much better (for one thing, the cutting angle became much more shallow!).

If I was to continue making kumiko I would need to figure out a way to work more effectively, to achieve better results and most important to me: to work peacefully and enjoy my time in the workshop. However, I managed to create a few usable (mediocre quality, close enough in size – see left side of image above) kumiko strips and was ready to take on a first pattern.

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