An Interview with Dale Brotherton

as interviewed by Yann Giguère (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol 10, March 2018)

Dale Brotherton’s website, informs us of the following (and a lot more):

OWNER AND OPERATOR OF TAKUMI COMPANY (Seattle, WA), DALE BROTHERTON, began working in this field in 1978. He spent 61⁄2 years in traditional full time apprenticeship with a well known teahouse carpenter in the San Francisco Bay Area. This apprenticeship was dedicated to concentrated practice with traditional hand tools and learning refined joinery methods. Dale then spent 2 years as a “journeyman” in traditional residential construction in Nagano-Ken, Japan expanding his skills, studying traditional building design and structural layout. With nearly 9 years of intense study accomplished, Dale returned to the USA founding TAKUMI COMPANY. Since then he has remained committed to the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship completing over 100 projects for private customers, institutions and municipalities.

Special thanks to Dale Brotherton for the time he spent speaking with Kezurou-kai USA Board Member (and Dale’s former apprentice) Yann Giguère.

Yann Giguère: Where is your joy today?

Dale Brotherton

Dale Brotherton

Dale Brotherton: I love woodworking so any time I can spend time with wood is totally joyful and to be able to learn more every time I work with wood is, I guess, largely what it is about but most im- portantly, being able to share that with others. To create things that others can enjoy and benefit from. I don’t know that that’s changed that much over the years, but… when I started out woodworking I had to focus so much on developing my skills and abilities and then even later starting my own business I had to concentrate so much on that, making the business work, and juggling all that needed to be juggled. The joy is there, the woodworking joy, but it is eclipsed sometimes by the other activity, but more and more as I get older, I find that I am used to doing the other activities, maybe they are not such a challenge as they used to be, that I can transfer my attention back to simply enjoying woodworking.

YG: Were you seeking something before finding Japanese tools and woodwork, and if so, what was it?

DB: Yeah, that is a big subject and I am
not sure I have a big answer, but when I started I was looking for some meaningful activity in my life, that I could put my heart into, I was finding things but nothing really clicked, nothing where I said “yeah.” When I was introduced to my teacher, I had really no idea what Japanese carpentry was. I had never been exposed to Japanese architecture, I was drawn to woodworking, I knew that for a long time, but I never found any woodworking that I felt I could really grasp onto, that I could make an occupation that I could really devote a lot of my life to. But when I saw what my teacher was doing, it had so much depth, I said “wow, this is something I could really delve into and not reach the bottom any time soon.” Certainly I never have reached the bottom and probably never will. So, yeah, I was seeking something in my life for sure, I was young and just kind of floating around.

YG: You mentioned your teacher, was that your introduction? Or what did get you interested? Seeing your teacher or something?

DB: Yeah, I was as I say floating around. I was drawn to woodworking, I dabbled in woodworking. The last thing I tried to do before I got into woodworking, I just said I’ve got to do something other than what I’d been doing. I had to get away from what I was doing. So I decided to try and do leatherwork. And I made some leather objects and tried to sell them on the street in San Francisco and I fell out of space pretty quickly one day I think, [laughs]. I am not a salesman. When I met my teacher, wait backup, I decided to try some kind of woodworking, some carpentry, so I just advertised in the local newspaper, had no experience at all, and I got some jobs and fumbled through, horribly. I had no idea what I was doing. The owners knew a lot more than I did, this is quite embarrassing. And just at that time I was introduced to the man who became my teacher. And I realized, well, here is someone I can get some real instruction from. And clearly, as I said, woodworking with a lot of depth to it. I had no idea what Japanese architecture or carpentry was. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. But my teacher himself was a very intriguing person. Multifaceted personality, a lot of charisma, people are drawn to him and pay attention to him when he is in the room. So I was intrigued by him personally. That had a lot to do with my following him. And then once I started spending some time with him and learning from him I was like a fish on a hook.

YG: How did your perception of tools and wood and the work change over time. You’ve been at it now for 30-some years?

DB: You know, I started in 1978, so 40 years now. Well, the work in general I would say, when I started out was unimaginable. When I started out I had no idea what to do, it was overwhelming, every day was a new experience, every day I had not done that before, so kind of overwhelming to start with. Of course with experience that subsided. As time went by I became more confident and familiar with the different aspects of the work and now after many years the work itself is more automatic, my body knows what to do. It’s not overwhelming like it used to be, so now it’s more an expression – an enjoyable expression through the skills that I have. So in general the work has progressed that way.

Dale Brotherton

Dale Brotherton

The tools themselves: since I was young I’ve always had a fascination with tools, and a respect I guess you’d would say, as if they are entities of their own right that deserve respect and attention and care, so I do not know that that has changed much. The Japanese tools, I find, have a lot of life in them and are sophisticated in ways that I don’t find in other woodworking tools specifically, usually. But most of the Japanese tools seem to be largely that way. So I don’t think that that has changed much over time, but of course my ability to work with them and communicate with them has grown tremendously. I feel that the tools are happier with me now than they used to be. One little story, perhaps: when I was an apprentice my teacher would give me tools and these were tools that he had used. And one tool he gave me was a hand plane and this plane was clearly unhappy that I became its new user, [laughs], after being in my teachers hands for many years. The first thing it did was jump out of my hand and land on the floor and crack in half – the blade – fortunately it didn’t crack in the long dimension, it cracked horizontally (across the blade), fortunately I was able to salvage it and recondition it and I use it to this day. We came to an understanding. It finally accepted me. Some people would say it just fell out of my hand but I say it jumped out of my hand. So to me tools, as I say, have always been more than just utility objects. There is a lot to them and I have always felt that and I still feel that.

Woodah, that has changed tremendously. I remember at one point when I was an apprentice, looking at all the wood and knowing that this was the material that I was using, and I’ve learned so much about the different types of wood, different qualities, and how I have to adjust what I do to facilitate using the different types and qualities of wood but still not feeling a close relationship to the wood. And over time more and more has changed. I really feel that the wood itself, it comes from trees – living creatures, so there is so much to it. So much depth in the wood itself. And nowadays when I look at wood I am not as concerned about how it is put together in a piece of furniture, what I mean is it is the wood itself that’s what’s important, more than what we do with it. And feeling that aspect, just looking at the wood and really appreciating the wood for what it is, its character. That has really changed over the years. And I still feel like, maybe more than before, I feel like an infant in that, like I am just scratching the surface. Yeah, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

YG: Do you still work largely in Port Orford cedar and yellow cedar and red cedar and fir?

DB: Yes, that would be true.

YG: it is amazing even with a handful species, for decades, there is no bottom to reach in understanding and appreciation.

DB: Yes, it really doesn’t matter the species. Each piece of wood comes from a unique tree, or several pieces from the same tree, and each tree is unique – individual. I could spend years working with that one tree and really getting to know it. I wish I had the time to actually do that. Those species in particular, if you want to discern species, those are very long-lived trees, and the wood that I work with tends to be from very old trees. Not only humbling, but I think there is much more depth in what can be learned from a 600 year old tree. It went through, just like anybody else, it went through its young years too, so it has all that history in it, besides the additional 500 or 600 years or longer.

YG: Another broad question: what are your thoughts, both early and later, around “best” and “perfect” as concepts?

DB: They are both ideals that are imposed by us, that I find really not dominating my day to day life. I always strive to give as much as I can in quality. In woodworking quality often means precision. Precision I think is very important in creating an aesthetic that is very conducive to harmony in the finished product and which is very much a part of Japanese aesthetic. So I do strive for the greatest precision that I can achieve at any time or any given situation for any project as much, so as much as it is appropriate. But to label best or perfect is pretty much outside of my world. I don’t see those as necessary. It’s kind of stepping into a judgmental (space), this is better than the other. What is important is how much joy we put into the work and that will show through regardless of the level… or anything else.

YG: What are some of the challenges or joys of running your own business?

DB: It is a business, I have to acknowledge. That has changed over the years, tremendously. At first I was devoted to woodworking, doing just, ahem, the best, and no thought about business. And then as I really did start my own business, official business, and deal with all the necessities of interacting with customers, and estimates, and writing contracts, and promoting to the degree that I am capable of doing that. I was kind of overwhelmed with that. That dominated a lot of thought. So there was a separation of the work (woodworking, producing and making things) and the business. I gritted my teeth through the business part. ”Oh, I’ve got to go meet a customer.” “Oh, I’ve got an estimate.” “I can’t wait to get back to work (laughs).” I found that to be, without thinking about it, really tiring. So thankfully, in recent years I have been able to extract myself from that mindset. I realize that interacting with the customer and providing a service to the customer is really the most valuable thing I can do in my life. It is now with great pleasure that I embrace that whole process. First meeting clients, interacting with other people, professionals, architects or other tradespeople or craftsmen that I have to interface with. That interaction and building consensus and – its powerful, very interesting. I wasn’t born with the personality for that but I’ve managed to embrace that. When I actually do get to do the work, it is just so much richer than it used to be. Support, and people do support it, there is a financial side to it I don’t mean that, I mean personally support the whole process, when there is that rich interaction. Communication I’ve found to be the most important key to every aspect to business and the work. Communicating what I do and communicating what clients need, and just being in touch, keeping a constant flow of communication, everything is enriched by the whole experience. It enriches the experience for everyone.

YG: How do you see yourself? An artisan, a tradesperson, craftsperson, artist, designer – none of the above? And this might have changed over time – if you even define yourself any way.

DB: I guess years ago I would have said designer craftsman… Of course I have to say something when people ask me what I do, that was kind of difficult at first. To come up with something. When I started my own business, I came up with “Japanese carpenter”, but almost nobody knew what that was. So I would have to say “woodworker in the Japanese style.” Most people would then think shoji screens or maybe a tatami room or something, so then I’d have to explain post and beam construction. Then get more elaborate and explain. I never really put a title on myself, in terms of being in any category of artisan or craftsman for that matter, and never felt a need for that. And now my true feeling is that I am just happy to be able do what I do – whatever that is. Blessed to make things for people out of these beautiful materials.

YG: You apprenticed in CA in the bay area for over 6 years, then you worked as a journeyman in Japan for 2 years working with a residential builder, then you returned to the states 30 years ago(?), and your work has been focused around the Pacific northwest, and so could you talk about the scope and character of your work in the past and then now?

DB: Well, scope-wise I guess there has been a broad range of scope from the tiniest door or tray up to whole house construction, a variety of intermediate structures, like garden structures, like gates and pavilion type things, so kind of a broad range. That has probably not changed a lot though I tend not to do tiny projects, but that is as much economics. It is difficult to make tiny things in a cost effective way.

YG: Everything you do is custom, right?

DB: Yes, so every project I have to gear up for. My shop is not setup like a production type of shop. There are no bays or locations to do a specific task, or predetermined that I utilize over and over again. So whatever job I have I am adapting my shop to. These days I am working out of a very small space and when I have a larger project I move into a larger space. And so that means setting up my larger equipment, and so it is fairly involved. But a larger project pays for that. The types of projects I have gotten in recent years are a little larger, kind of bursts of larger projects with some smaller ones scattered in between. It’s more like larger projects that take a great deal of time to setup first, up front are work designing and communicating and interacting – so there’ll be months of that before things begin to move and start happening and the projects will last longer. The whole process is longer than it used to be perhaps.

YG: Speaking of the character of your work, many people who just use Japanese tools and know some of the techniques quite often start to do all kinds of woodwork. I believe you have stayed very close to tradition most of the time and is that a result of commitment to that? Not every job really pays well, I imagine (laughs), kind of a small market, kind of a niche market. I guess I am putting out a lot of potential questions out there…

DB: I think I see where you are going. There is a word in Japanese, ganko – it means stubborn, [laughs]. Early on I just felt this devotion to doing work in a way that was respectful of what I had learned. Tradition and what I had been fortunate enough to have been able to learn from my teacher and what came to him from his teachers before him. So I just stuck with that to the greatest degree I could, and I do things I know are not the fastest or most efficient way to do them but I feel that they have depth as a result of those methods, so although I do use a lot of materials and modern equipment in my work, I use it in a judicious way, and some things I just stick with doing regardless – the old way of doing things, for example hand planing. I could buy a planing machine, I used them in Japan, but that is just one line I will not cross. I love hand planing and it gives a different look to the work and the energy involved – just stubborn [laughs].

YG: what keeps you going? That does not need to be limited to woodwork…

DB: The work is more than just a style of wood working, it is more a way of life. When I started out my teacher was in California and he was new there and knew very few people. In doing that he was teaching classes 2 days a week, Friday and Saturday, so when I started working with him it was four days a week for the first couple months. It was totally exhausting. It was all new, and trying to keep up with him and expectations that I had for myself and he had for me, it was all I could do. But when I started working with him full time it was 5 days a week. Then we moved out to a farm for two years where we had a project to build a house, it was the biggest project of my apprenticeship. We were living and working at the site 6 days a week. We did take off Sundays. I slept most of Sundays, but I thought that was putting a lot of energy into the work, and devoting myself, and it was all absorbing and it was a great experience to be involved to that level. But then I went to Japan, it was before the economic crash, we took off 2 days a month. Usually on those2daysIfeltaneedtogooutand study. Because when I was working, I mean I was studying the buildings I was working on, but I didn’t have a chance to go look around very much. So on those two days off we’d go look at temples or historical buildings that I could learn more from. So it was a gradual upping the ante of energy output through my life. Then I came back from Japan and started my own business [laughs], there is no end to the amount of energy that can go into that. So that hasn’t really stopped. Life seems to present more and more challenges all through the years and when I look back, gosh, when I started out I thought that looks pretty easy [laughs]. So I suppose 20 years from now if I am still here I will look back and say, piece of cake [laughs]. What I guess has changed is I no longer feel that I deserve anything other than this. I feel so appreciative and fortunate to do what I do. Short answer to your question, that’s what keeps me going. I can’t wait for another moment to do more.

YG: the process is its own reward…

DB: Right… life has led me to this point where I am now to show me that I can be appreciative of every moment.

YG: Maybe something a little lighter, [laughs], talk a little bit about the process of writing your book on sharpening and how it has been received. I have read it and heard many good things (about it), so how was the process of writing it been for you?

DB: Well that was really eye-opening. I had the idea for the book when I first came back from Japan about 30 years ago, and I actually wrote most of the text about that time because I had a little time to do that. And then as my work developed and my business developed, it got put aside and I didn’t do much with it for years, and then eventually I felt that there was a need to have the information that I could offer there available. So I kept in the back of my mind, “ok I’ve got to do that book, I’ve got to do that book.” Eventually there was a chance when the economy was down a few years ago to devote some time to something, so that is what I did. Going back through the text and started taking photos and when I reinitialized that whole process it still took a couple years of down times and in-betweens to bring it to fruition. The process was a long one, in definite steps, and it is just so eye-opening into how much effort goes into making a book. I never would have dreamed it. Now when I go into a book store I am just staggered. My jaw just drops. Just so much effort has gone into them (the books). I had a customer a few years ago who built a library of sorts into the main hallway in their house, it was a big one… and with this hallway that the grand staircase was in, both walls were lined with books floor to ceiling. I was impressed and I said, “gee, you really like books, you have a lot of books here.” And she (owner) said, “you know, I haven’t read these books. These books represent the energy of all these people. Their life energy that’s here and just enriching the atmosphere of my house.” And at the time I thought wow, that’s pretty neat. But now I really know what she was talking about. So the book, I am so glad I was able to pull it together. I would love to do another one someday. We’ll see. I know now what it is going to take. And as far as how my book is being received, I just put it out there and offered it. I have had a few comments and it seems like it is… not too bad…. I do not follow forums and I haven’t really had much feedback other than a few things you’ve said and a couple other people who mentioned that they liked it, but I don’t know if they were being nice or not. I don’t really feel a need to know, I just put out the information that I have…

YG: Are you the only way to get the book through your website?

DB: There are a couple of retailers who are offering it, including Mokuchi (Yann’s site). It’s not on Amazon or anything like that…I was pretty surprised at how many did sell right up front, particularly when I first put it out. There was a pretty steady stream of interest. We are still on the first printing, which is ok. We printed 500 copies, and were almost 2/3 of the way through. Which is pretty good for something so specialized.

YG: Everybody I have sold a copy to who told me about it were just so grateful because it is so clear, so thorough. There is nothing else exactly like it out there. So the motivation to write it, what was the motivation?

DB: As you know, traditionally this type of knowledge, how to make these tools work, is passed on through direct teaching, apprenticeship. And the apprenticeship is not really teaching, it is more like absorbing from your teacher by being with the teacher and watching carefully and trying, and trying to copy and mimic what that person does, with a pointer here or there, perhaps, from the teacher – depending on who that teacher is. Which is a very excellent way to learn, and what that does I believe not only cultivates humility in the student but the student also learns how to learn. When you’ve tried all the different things that don’t work yourself, you really know what to look for. You’ll watch with very crisp, open eyes – you are ready to learn. So there is a lot of value to traditional teaching, and I’m fairly certain that’s why there is not a lot written. To this day it is still largely taught that way in Japan. I understand that there are some trade schools that have sprung up in recent years, it’s just the reality of modern life. Young people, well they don’t have patience, nor did I when I was young [laughs], but they have many alternatives. Much more than when I was young. So I guess things are changing, even in Japan, but I think for the most part things are taught in the traditional way. So when I was younger I did not think, it wasn’t really of much value, to have something written down like this, because you couldn’t really absorb it to the depth it needed to be absorbed to. But I feel very different about that now. I have been teaching in class-type venues for 8 years now. When I see the joy that people have in getting their tools working even in a week they can make tremendous strides in sharpening or learn how to make a plane to work, they won’t have it down like they will after a number of years of use or maybe they’ll never get it down to the point as someone who has come through a real apprenticeship, but maybe they will. Who am I to say that that … isn’t of value. If I can contribute to that for anybody, it’s wonderful. So the book is an attempt to fill a need, mostly for people who are unable, for some reason or another, or can’t afford to go to a formal instruction class. If I think back when I was 24, I wouldn’t have paid to go to a class. I couldn’t have. Almost on principle only I wouldn’t have done it [laughs]. If there had been a book like this I might have paid for that, and if I could have benefited from it then all the better. So that’s really what it’s aimed towards. And also to augment classes, too. Even a person who goes through a class in a week, there are some many details they won’t be able to absorb. So they’ll have a resource to look back on and fill in some details that they didn’t pick up. Though some have tried to scribble it all down [laughs].

YG: What do you hope for looking ahead, both for yourself and the Japanese woodworking community in itself?

DB: The dream I have always had was to have a large project here in the US that could bring together Japanese trained or Japanese style woodworking community… could gather and work as a team. Together. Because there is a really rich atmosphere and… individuals here with the skills, but because we are so spread out across the country and we end up doing such diverse work we just get kind of isolated doing our own things. So having a large project that would allow people (to work) together – it’s the best way of getting to know each other. Spending time shoulder to shoulder focused on a joint project, a goal that we are all trying to achieve, it would just be a great thing to do. So that is my dream.

It would also be nice to have a greater voice in the use of wood in the US. I don’t know how far one could ever go with that because there are some forces controlling that. So those kinds of dreams are always on my mind.

YG: Any words for any woodworker?

DB: Don’t be shy. You will get out of it what you will put into it. It is not like you go to a teacher and gain from the teacher the ability to do woodworking. Yes, you do receive guidance from the teacher in one way or another but you do it. You have to pick up the tools, you have to put the energy into it. It is your own initiative that makes it happen. Again, you will get out of it is equal to what you put into it. Just pick up the tools and do it to the greatest degree that you can and that you can enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. But woodworking is pretty darn easy to enjoy, I think [laughs].

See Dale’s website for more information: