Unuseless Skills

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Photo by Narayan Nayar.

When I was a kid, my family had a wide selection of “bathroom books.” These were books that had been taken down from the shelves on a whim and left behind on the shelf above the toilet, either because their contents were intriguing or seemed appropriate for a brief perusal. I remember a manual on grading gravel roads, a book of palindromes and, most memorably, one called “The Art of Chindogu.” Chindogu, as I learned over many short reading sessions, is the Japanese art of the unuseless (yes, unuseless) invention. These creations either fulfilled a need or solved a problem, with the catch that the solution was often overbuilt, silly looking or impractical.

What I grew to like about chindogu was the enthusiasm and professionalism with which the wacky, hyper-specialized or odd inventions were pursued by their inventors. Each one was (somewhat) professionally manufactured and photographed, despite being prototypes that were never meant to be sold. They seem like a byproduct of the design process – sometimes, pursuing something niche, unprofitable or outlandish can teach us a lot about our work that doesn’t fall to such an extreme.

And so, I spent last weekend with Narayan Nayar and Daniel Clay in a coopering class at Tillers International learning to make a handled bucket, called a piggin, despite having no need or particular desire to begin producing buckets or barrels.

Don’t get me wrong – the world still needs coopers and new barrels. Our teacher, Eric Edgin, makes vats and barrels for food fermentation. Just last January, Eric traveled to Japan to learn more about the art of soy sauce vat making. Coopering is also full of clever solutions to unique problems. Coopers have a wide range of woodworking tools and techniques that are at once specialized and widely applicable.

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One of Eric’s fermentation vats, made during his trip to Japan. Photo by Narayan Nayar.

But coopering is what I would call an unuseless skill for my work. I don’t plan to make barrels, buckets or piggins any time soon. It was fun to make a bucket entirely by hand, with only a few sharp tools, but the work in no way resembles my own.

The solutions that coopers have found to their particular set of problems, however, are likely to impact or inform the way I do a few things in the shop. The use of a stationary jointer plane, to which one brings the workpiece, makes a lot of sense when tuning the edges of beveled and tapered parts. The “clapper gauge” is really a specialized style of sector, which accurately measures the outer angles of a stave against a desired diameter. The shavehorses used are familiar looking, but the use of a “belly” is common, as are all sorts of clever body mechanics and workholding.

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Photo by Narayan Nayar.

Just like I was looking for an excuse to study something outside my usual practice, I was also looking for a reason to head to Tillers International. Located outside Kalamazoo, Mich., Tillers runs what I call a friendly “Robin Hood” non-profit model. The school teaches classes on woodworking, metalworking and all manner of skills for traditional homesteading and farming to those who can pay for them. Then, Tillers use that money to teach those same skills to those who cannot afford to pay for these classes. The organization has worked with people across the globe and is explicitly dedicated to improving the lives of people in rural areas worldwide, by teaching them skills they can use to be self-reliant and independent. This makes the act of paying a sum of money to learn to make buckets all the more sweet – it’s definitely going to a good cause.

It was a joy to spend time in a beautiful place with good friends, honing my bucket-making skills. I did not walk away a cooper – but I did walk away a furniture maker with a few new tricks. These skills may take some time to come about as a need in my work, but sometimes, a little inspiration from a bathroom shelf or an age-old vessel-making tradition is just the kind of inspiration or enrichment you need. Who knows? Maybe I’ve got a few round cabinets in me.

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(From left) Me, Eric Edgin, Narayan Nayar and Daniel Clay with our brand-new buckets.

 — Brendan Gaffney

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12 Responses to Unuseless Skills

  1. ericfromdayton says:

    Perhaps some of my tools are considered “unuseless” by those that don’t know how or why they were invented. That’s why I like patented tools, so you can read the inventors thoughts.

  2. Rachael Boyd says:

    I have often thought of trying to make a bucket and I may some day. I really like what they are doing.

  3. potomacker says:

    Scotts, Michigan

  4. Monte Bell says:

    I am curious about how you bring the edge of a board past a stationary jointer plane in order to tweak the angle. Can you describe the process in more detail? How “accurately” are you able to shave the edge?

    • Narayan says:

      It’s the same way you do it when the plane is oriented traditionally (blade toward floor) except you’re moving the board instead of the plane. You take light angled passes toward one side of the board to establish a new bevel then follow through until that bevel spans the width of the board edge. The blades on the planes we used were straight; a very slightly cambered blade would help this process significantly, but it’s not necessary.

  5. Richard Mahler says:

    Always intrigued by the bizarre, I have to have that book: found a good used copy! I am expecting the book itself to be Unuseless.

  6. davidcockey says:

    Tillers is a great organization – both for preserving teaching old skills as well as their work improving small scale agriculture and lives in “less developed” parts of the world. Their model is finding solutions and helping folks help themselves using locally available materials. They spend very little on fundraising (arguably too little) and administration so the vast majority of donations and income from classes goes directly to their good work.

  7. Eric R says:

    Great article Brendan, and great bucket too.
    I like your writing. You know how to tell a story well.
    Thank you
    Eric
    central Florida

  8. Jim O'Dell says:

    That looks like it was a lot of fun. I book marked their website. I may take some classes with them one day. Nice looking bucket by the way.

  9. mjstauss says:

    The chindogu site is great! I totally think your next project should be the sock closet (#341).
    Tillers sounds like an excellent program, will definitely check them out.

  10. Jeff Ward says:

    Lost Art really needs to put out a book on coopering; there’s a huge void.

  11. Martin O'Brien says:

    Thank you for enlightening me about chindogu and Tillers International. Amazing!

Comments are closed.