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.
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.
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.
— Brendan Gaffney