10 June 2019

A Shojimaker along the Kiho Bypass

Safety Frist
The visa bearer and her spouse

My wife informed me that a bank that issued her a credit card would give us a pair of roundtrip air tickets. She refuses to tell me which bank out of a superstition that if the promotion becomes too well known, she might lose it. Last year she got a free weekend at a hotel from the same bank. We debated whether to travel to Taiwan or Japan, neither of which places we've visited and both require her to obtain a visa. Eventually she persuaded me to go to Japan with her. Japan is the most popular tourist destination for mainland Chinese where due to the use of kanji,  Chinese tourists can read Japanese as though it were Chinese.  For example the city of Osaka is known to Chinese as Daban. This causes problems for me and my wife. When I tried to insist that we chose one name for the Japanese name, she protested that she doesn't know the English names.
Suzuki garden ornament

Interacting with the local wildlife
To her credit, my wife chose to avoid the major destinations that draw in typical Chinese crowds. After touching down at Kansai International Airport, we rode the JR line to Tanabe to spend our first night in a guesthouse converted from a century old single family home. This is where I first learned that much of Japanese architecture is not accommodating to tall outsiders. I thought that this might be due simply to the guesthouse being an older generation building. The next night after travelling to Kiho, just across the Kumano river from Shingu, we stayed in a guesthouse newly built by rice farmers where my scalp also suffered.
Vernacular landscape

Oversized bracing

Sea Turtle Park

Egret and Heron paddy interlopers

We took advantage of the two bicycles at the guestroom to wander the many hillside pathways and intensively channeled watershed.  I came across several dilapidated and neglected traditional timbered framed structures that find footings on nearly every bit of terraced slope, allowing agriculture to hold the flatlands.
the workshop between the railway and rice paddies
Somewhat late in the day it was after exiting a drugstore that I caught sight of enough recognizable kanji. I readily spotted 家具, which means furniture in the country that I had just come from, but in Japan is pronounced, kagu. The characters 木工 mean tree/wood and work. My curiosity was piqued and that of my wife. too.
I could hear activity inside the building as we approached so I thought I could, at least, sneak a quick peak as a fellow woodworker. Body language and hand gestures should never be underestimated when communicating internationally. While my wife was still struggling with her translator app, I simply held up my camera while politely asking for permission to photograph and pointed to the inside of the building.  The owner, Mr. Hiromasa Nakano whose name I learned much later, nodded his assent.
cutting a laminate board with a vertical panel saw

a low table, perhaps
There was only Mr. Nakano and another older worker in the shop as I began examining some of the machines. All were Japanese makes, evidently purchased some time ago and well maintained. Nakano-san explained that he is a third generation woodworker. The other term on the business sign, 建具, tategu, means 'joinery', which might be a term for shojimaker.
Screw presses

Mortising machine

Tenoning machine

Surface planer
After clicking some pics of the machinery, I focused my attention on Mr. Nakano since he was assembling some shoji screens. He had already prepared the components and went through the process of gluing and assembly. He squeezed a perfect amount of glue into the mortises to accept the double tenons in the four corners, which are the only joints that received glue. The mortise and tenon joints of the thinner member were tapped in dry.
chamfered tenons
driving rail onto uprights

After the components of the first screen were adequately assembled, Mr. Nakano moved it to the 'clamping machine'. This was the first time my mind was blown. The upper section compressed the frame parallel and square. Unexpectedly, the corners slid in rather easily. To compensate, the craftsman placed a wooden block to maximize pressure on the dryfit joints. After withdrawing the screen from the clamping machine, he casually brushed the corner joints with a bit of water. There was no glue squeezeout. Later on, I gestured with my hands whether this was to expand the wood fibers, and he nodded knowingly.
Clamping machine

focussing pressure to close up all gaps
The screen was then laid upon the workbench which was clearly made specific to shoji construction. On the working side was a block along the full length upon which the craftsman applied his tools to the screen; on the far side, another parallel block supported the unworked length of the screen, allowing tools and detritus to accumulate between the two risers.
Tapping the doorpull into a mortise

planed flush
Mr. Nakano then deftly proceeded to apply a modicum of white glue into a shallow mortise and tapped a hardwood doorpull into the void. When it was flush with the surface, he pulled a smoothing plane across the two surfaces and then started on the second screen. I assumed that he must have made this doorpull as any other component but he showed me the box that the doorpulls were shipped in. (yes, I should have photographed the box.)

subtle bowing from head to toe
I attentively paced around the workshop, trying to visually absorb as much as I could manage, noticing the handtools and the other bench. When Mr Nakano had finished, I examined the screen still lying on the workbench and I saw for the first time that the shojiscreen had a noticeable bow from top to bottom. This appeared to be a defect.  I asked naively whether this would be pressed flat with the screwpresses that lined the northeastern wall. He shook his head and sketched a diagram, showing a triple screen arrangement and explained using mainly hand gestures and relying on the insight of a fellow woodworker that the two outer screens were intentionally made to bow out in order to reduce potential for friction. Mind blown a second time.
Nakano-san and Laowai

The screens were put aside to let the glue dry. The end of the workday was upon us and before leaving to do some birdwatching I confirmed with Mr. Nakano that I would return early the following day if he were also working.
Body weight holdfast

When I arrived the next day, the craftsman was already cleaning up the corners of the rabbets that would receive the paper sheets. As he chiseled out waste freehand, I thought about using a router. It shortly dawned on me that the rabbet was merely to define a pasting zone for the paper and to bring the paper below the wood surface to protect from abrasion. Sharp chisels and straight, clear grain made quick work of this task.
sawing with screen supported on parallel blocks

Marking the end grain
cleaning up the end grain surface after sawing

the mystery ryoba
Mr Nakano positioned a screen on its side and marked with a pencil and square to cut off the horns of the bottom. After he sawed off the length, he extended the width of the sliding bit that gets inserted into the floor track with a marking gauge and he removed the wood, using a sawblade that he must have known that I had not seen before. I even took a photo of this saw side by side with the other more common ryoba style. But that photo somehow got lost. I gesticulated that this was specifically for cutting inside cuts and he nodded.
Studying on bent knee
Stage completed
 I've searched online for any mention of this ryoba (if that's also its proper name) and cannot find a reference to it. So there is a mystery and my mind was blown a third time. It might be that this saw is simply modified by a clever saw sharpener on a piecemeal basis or it's available directly from the marketplace if one knows what to ask for. The craftsman that day only trimmed the bottoms of the screens and set them upright, declaring that his work was stopped for the day. I asked for his business card and thanked for the generosity of his time before departing.
Work & Tool parking lot

Shoji components

Shoji DIY items
The last time my mind was blown on this topic was while staying at another guesthouse near Kawachi-Hanazono Kintetsu station, a brief train ride to Osaka and the Kansai airport for the return flight. I came across an home center and home improvement outlet where I found commercially milled shoji components.
between tree and artifice
 I don't know why I would have resisted the idea that such a product might be available. My first exposure to shoji was in Toshio Odate's book, where he details making shoji entirely with handtools. That impression stuck with me, discounting that shoji are also just a basic component of Japanese homes. Perhaps the deepest impression on me is one that I have already concluded, Japanese consumers are some of the best educated of any country I know. Nakano-san still operates his workshop because despite having cheaper alternatives, there are consumers who can recognize the qualities of handmade shoji screens and are willing to pay a premium. He remains in business and his skill set thrives because enough consumers continue to recognize the distinctive value of his craft.
Nunobiki Falls, Kobe

DuanWuJie Kualie!

23 January 2019

Corporatist Wokeness

I've written on a few occasions about Chinese manufacturing as it applies to woodworking, not as an expert with all the insights, but as a woodworker giving some sense of an outsider's perspective. I've been unemployed and that in part explains my motivation for commenting on the news about Pony/Jorgensen clamp company's decision to relaunch its website and to honestly outsource all of its manufacturing to a Chinese location.
The right job for the right tool
If the Pony/Jorgensen product line relaunch were merely that simple, I could hardly offer anything more than as when I wrote about the Stanley planes revival through mainland Chinese manufacturing. Instead, I found an interview from a newly installed Vice President of marketing that prompted this essay. The full text is here

Gregg: Did Pony Jorgensen go out of business a while ago?

Bill: We closed up shop for a bit to reorganize the company. But we’re back in business and under new leadership. We are committed to sustaining and growing jobs, distribution, and the overall brand. We’re also dedicated to expanding retail distribution so our customers can start purchasing their beloved clamps in stores once more.

Gregg: Since the brand relaunch, a lot of customers have been asking: Is this the original Pony Jorgensen?

Bill: Yes, it is. This is the one and only Pony Jorgensen that customers love and remember from our Chicago days. We remain committed to upholding founder Adele Holman’s vision and manufacturing woodworking tools of an uncompromising quality.

Gregg: Is manufacturing taking place in Chicago again?

Bill: No, it’s not. Manufacturing and production have moved to China. This move was not about cost; we could have manufactured our clamps more affordably in a number of other countries. The decision to move manufacturing to China is very strategic. In recent times, China has emerged as a global market leader and a center of excellence for the manufacture of these particular products. So our move eastward was to ensure quality – not to compromise on it.

Gregg: How will the new products live up to the standard of quality that customers have grown to expect from Pony Jorgensen clamps?

Bill: We anticipated there would be some customers who would be skeptical of the quality of our new line of clamps. And this is understandable. Over the years, a plethora of companies have moved manufacturing to other countries. The purpose behind many of these moves was to cut costs. In the process, many have often compromised on quality.
However, our move serves an entirely different purpose. Our reason to move production to China was rooted in our commitment to quality. We wanted to capitalize on the level of quality, sophistication, and specialization the manufacturing industry in China brings to the production of these particular products. Additionally, we’re making today’s Pony Jorgensen clamps from the original tooling and equipment that was used in the original Chicago plant. We are fully dedicated to delivering the same trusted tools our loyal customers have come to expect. The quality of our clamps has not and will not suffer, and that is of paramount importance to us.

Thanks for the enlightenment, Bill!

Bill Sokol is now a Vice President in charge of reviving the brand name of a former Chicago area tool manufacturer.  He's certainly not one of the executives who introduced himself to me while I was still at Harvey. Sokol is new to me but he comes from a diverse corporate background, none of which might suggest skills adapted to rebuild a struggling woodworking tool company. Having started out his career in eyewear, he also did a stint with Gillette. (and no, I didn't just make that up.) Today his job is that of a corporate mouthpiece who evidently prefers to be interviewed by another executive who just happens to work at Arrow Fastener, which is also part of Hangzhou Great Star Co., Ltd., which outsourced manufacturing to Hangzhou, China.  Thanks for the enlightenment, Gregg!
GreatStar Industrial Co. Ltd., Hangzhou headquarters
And what is this wonder center of manufacturing, Bill and Gregg? GreatStar industries, of course. I have certainly met a number of Bills and Greggs in my lifetime. They ably move from desks in one front office to another unconcerned about the products or services because they are experts in the business of business, They are a pair of MBA shills who were hired by their respective corporate overlords because they can ably transcribe one another's businessese BS. Do Bill Sokol and Gregg Malanga truly believe that relocating manufacturing to China was about anything but reducing labor costs? Sokol plainly admits as much with a slight twist in his wording that requires context to understand clearly:
"This move was not about cost."

If we are to accept Sokol's claim at face value, then we must conclude that he is convinced that a Chinese workforce can produce at a higher quality standard than laborers in the USA. I suppose he makes the big bucks by persuading North American consumers that even though their local production standards are inferior to the workers in Zhejiang province, woodworkers, employed and unemployed, still ought to place their trust in the Pony / Jorgensen brand.  Because as every marketer knows when trust is lost, it can so hard to restore, here, here, here

If one thinks that praising the excellent quality of Chinese manufacturing doesn't play well given the legacy of, well, the recent history of low quality Chinese manufacturing, Lee Valley has formed a similar opinion.

I sent an email to learn which one was authentic
Furthermore one might think that recapturing so much squandered good will might be difficult for a former Gillette executive, but that just shows how unwoke you are.  Clearly you have not heard about the struggles of Adele V. Holman to raise a company up against the toxicity of patriarchy.

Gregg: When and how was Pony Jorgensen founded?

Bill: Pony Jorgensen was founded in 1903 by Adele Holman in Chicago, Illinois. A former professional opera singer, Adele envisioned a company that could grow through product innovation and woodworking tools with superior performance. But a woman running a manufacturing company was unheard of at the time, so Adele famously signed company documents and correspondences as “A. V. Holman” to hide her gender. She partnered with Hans Jorgensen, a Danish cabinetmaker, and Marcus Russ, a tool salesman. Adele’s pioneering spirit laid the groundwork for our company values.
Famously, she signed her name! I now have a theory that misgendering is the reason that the a infamous airplane hijacker has never been found. D.B. Cooper was a woman!

Androgynous hijacker or pre-op transwoman in need of cash
When it comes to spinning their own corporate history, one big advantage is that most of the insightful documents are proprietary. It's even more advantageous if the biographic subjects are long dead and cannot contradict press releases from the marketing department. Adele V. Holman cannot, therefore, feel angry when it is insisted that her signature was written so as to hide her gender decades before the term, gender, became synonymous with sex identity. The new website goes out of its way to proclaim that they are continuing work now in the same spirit of this feminist pioneer.  

Realizing the American dream.
Our story began in 1903 when a small company opened up shop in Chicago, Illinois. Founder Adele Holman, a former professional opera singer, envisioned a company that could grow through product innovation, excellent customer service, and woodworking tools with superior performance. She partnered with Hans Jorgensen, a Danish cabinetmaker, and Marcus Russ, a tool salesman. It was an unlikely combination at the time, but it laid the foundation for the Pony Jorgensen brands that woodworkers have come to rely on for high-quality clamps.

 Adele’s secret identity and success.
A woman running a manufacturing company was unheard of in 1903. But that’s exactly what Adele Holman did. She famously signed company documents and correspondences as “A. V. Holman” to hide her gender. Under her leadership, the product line was expanded beyond the original handscrews to include iron clamping products, such as C-clamps and bar clamps, as well as the now-famous Pony pipe clamp. There’s no doubt that Adele’s pioneering spirit set the groundwork for our company values.
So a former opera singer with a secret identity founded a manufacturing business that would a century later mythologize her contributions in a smarmy appeal to the zeitgeist, employing a reliable combination American business school ethics and Chinese state capitalism. Does any of this story sound fishy? What's that? You don't automatically believe the revisionist history run up the flagpole by marketing professionals from New Jersey? Fortunately a local Chicago historian, Andrew Clayman, put together a more objective version of the company's origin story.

From Opera houses to Shopfloors
While Clayman doesn't set out to debunk the corporate claim that 'a woman running a manufacturing company was unheard of in 1903.' He makes it clear that Adele Holman wasn't running a manufacturing company at that date either! He writes:
In any case, a little digging of my own revealed that the Adjustable Clamp Company's beginnings actually came a few years before Adele Holman's involvement, when Hans Jorgensen himself—inventor of our trusty hand screws—got the ball rolling in 1903. Jorgensen had his product and the skill to manufacture it, but he lacked the capital to start a business. This brought him into contact with an opportunistic Chicago lawyer named Marcus W. Russ, who agreed to fund the effort, serving as the first company president and sole salesman. In the early years, the whole operation ran out of one room, with a tiny staff of several workers hand-making each and every clamp. As demand increased, Russ purchased a separate manufacturing facility at 216 North Jefferson Street, with a half dozen employees making a still meager 300 clamps per week. It was around this time, in 1907, that a whirlwind of a woman named Adele Holman walked through Russ's door. It was literally music to the lawyer's ears.
and elsewhere:
With her initial purchase of Adjustable Clamp Co. shares in 1907, she replaced Walter Caddock as secretary, and while Marcus Russ was technically still the president, Adele Holman immediately took charge.
It might seem difficult to be a founder of a business four years after the business was founded, but as feminist scholars have pointed out: chronology is simply another tool of the patriarchy.  By 1914 as the principal stockholder, it was easy for her to bring her son into the business. So while the Holman family line owes their wealth to a female progenitor, it has more to do with her stock purchases and managerial efforts than being a founder of the Adjustable Clamp Company.

Closed in 2016
Pony Jorgensen executives are basically fabricating history with Chinese characteristics. But, honestly, even while using the Adele v. Holman biography in an attempt to remake a brand name with a contemporary feminist spin, how is it advantageous to restore customer loyalty by promoting such a flawed company narrative?  And is Sokol pretending to not understand how much damage was done when Lee Valley discontinued its product line due to poor quality from outsourced manufacturers in Asia? Or was he, in particular, brought in recently because he can claim with a straight face that he knows nothing about that nail in this as yet unburied coffin? Even if they would listen to me, I certainly don't want to tell business experts how to better do their jobs, but perhaps they can follow the example of an early businesswoman whose management style drove a century of profitability. Clayman pointedly relates:

With her initial purchase of Adjustable Clamp Co. shares in 1907, she replaced Walter Caddock as secretary, and while Marcus Russ was technically still the president, Adele Holman immediately took charge.

"Shortly after Mrs. Holman became secretary of the company," reported the Manufacturing and Wholesale Industries of Chicago, Vol. 3, "she decided that to insure the maximum success of the enterprise, the business office should no longer be segregated from the factory. [emphasis added] She accordingly set definitely to work to bring about an orderly and progressive administration of affairs, though she had virtually no previous business experience. She established her executive headquarters at the factory and by her careful and discriminating methods evolved order out of chaotic conditions."
From this insightful passage, I know that Ms. Adele Holman would deem managing a Chicago business from offices in New Jersey decidedly unproductive but as it is pointed out: "...she had virtually no previous business experience." I can only imagine what salty language she might use to describe management offices in Saddle Brook, New Jersey segregated from its factory floors in Hangzhou, China, P. R. 


Zhunian kuaile o! 豬年快樂喔 🐷🐷🐖🐖

15 November 2018

Rotary Pumpkinning in BaGuaZhou 八卦洲

Studying Xiangqi (象棋) moves
On October 26th I was asked to participate in a Rotary event by visiting a migrant school in the outskirts of Nanjing in order to demonstrate frisbee to primary students on the following Monday, the 29th. I was up for the opportunity and readily agreed. The following day I was reminded that I was in China. I received a message that the event was postponed until Friday, November the 2nd. It's often a feature of events in China that commitments are elicited before basic details are confirmed. On the 1st I was informed that the sport has been switched to Tball.
Simon Laing explaining the subtleties of Tball
On the Friday of the event, I shared a ride with a group of other Rotarians at the MaiGaoQiao subway station, the end of the #1line. I learned later that we would be travelling to a school in BaGuaZhou where I had never spent much time. It's north of the river in a mixed industrial / residential area that characterizes much of the Nanjing urban suburbs.

Well rehearsed greeters
Some time between the subway and the school parking lot, I heard about the other activities planned for the day. Would I prefer to be involved in making masks or carving pumpkins? More of the Chinese style of event planning: I had not planned on doing either until I was in a vehicle on my way to an unknown facility. I was leaning towards mask making since it would likely involve fewer bloodletting tools. Christel, whom I has just met that day, holding out her smartphone to me in a reassuring gesture explained that she had some videos of pumpkin carving. She either knew in advance that we would only have no more than three students to contend with or had never been in front of a loud classroom before.
Serving the role of a foreigner

Last minute negotiations with the principal
 I was struck by how new the school appeared. It couldn't have been built more than two years prior and during a quick tour of the facilities, the array of new equipment confirmed this. But even before the tasks were formally assigned and finalized, we all were led outdoors to witness the welcoming ceremony.
Perfunctory welcoming speech
I am posting here photos of the longer than expected welcoming ceremony.  I should be more accustomed to this degree of staging.
Tea ceremony and musicians

Willow dancers
Tea service

Two Xiangsheng ( 相声) performers get a pep talk
 After the various performances concluded, seemingly to bring the ritual hospitality to completion, there was still the mass kungfu display after which there was still more to behold. Because what's a welcoming ceremony without a choreographed game of living chess players.
North Korea MTV video tryout

And then it was acknowledged that we had, in fact, arrived to do some activities with the students at which time I found myself responsible for the pumpkin carving session.
Young Pioneers dutifully ignoring the instructor
The main challenge was the lack of proper tools for the task. Simon had brought along two butter knives, which were more useful than the segmented utility blades and double ended chisels offered by the school staff. I did a very quick lesson that ignored the fact that we were two days past Halloween, but as I quickly found out, the students weren't much familiar with the holiday and their Chinese teachers had done nothing to prime them for this activity.
The laowai consulting with vegetable butchers 
In the end, my Swiss army knife was the only blade that could safely cut the necessary depth to complete the Jack o'Lanterns. I worked the room cutting the lid after the subgroups had been taught to draw the top opening and advising them to not make details too small.  At the last minute, a Rotarian showed up with a bag of oily votive candles to complete the effect. After the photos, the students scurried to play outdoors.
Testfitting a pumpkin shell

Mask masking session with Rotarian Nick

Ready for Hallowe'en 2019!

Masks and Jacks

Christel, my adaptable assistant, displays a lantern

Young Pioneers
 The evening sun began to set. And once last pose was taken for the newsletter. As we were packing up, I learned that the reason that the Monday event had to be postponed was due to a surprise inspection of the school.
Anhui students and Rotarian volunteers

Happy All Saints Day!