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JOEL Joel's Blog

Three of Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji


Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi

Christie's auction house is currently exhibiting one of the few complete sets of woodblock prints known as "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" by the Edo-period master woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai. The set, which was printed in 1830-1835, is Hokusai’s "most iconic print series," according to Christie's. The complete set actually consists of 46 prints because Hokusai added 10 prints to the series. If you're thinking of adding the series to your own walls, bear in mind that Christie's has set the estimate between 5 to 7 million dollars. These prints were made by printing from multiple carved wooden plates, each with a different color. This is hard to do. The prints' detail and complexity show the work of a true master of the craft. Of the set of forty six prints, three are of special interest to woodworkers.

The first of the three prints (above), "Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi," shows two sawyers slicing up a giant beam with a gentleman at the bottom sharpening up a saw. I find it interesting that they are each using a one man saw, and cutting different kerfs. In the West, this would have been done with two-person saws, on a horizontally laid log, one sawyer at the top, another at the bottom. The log also seems to be pretty huge, and I don't know if this is reality or an exaggeration for the print - which could explain the absence of a two-person saw. In Toshio Odate's "Japanese Woodworking Tools" Odate shows a one-person timber saw, exactly like the one in the print, but no two-person saws. I do not know if two-person saws were a thing in Japan. While all the prints are fairly small, the detail in them is amazing. These close-ups are at most an inch across.

Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Saw Filer
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Saw Filer

For any big sawing job, you would naturally want a saw filer sharpening saws as you worked so that you could switch to sharper saws during the day. This saw filer is focused on his job with his left hand steering the file and holding the saw steady, while the other hand pushes the file. The handle of the saw has been removed, though I do not know why.
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Top Man Sawing
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Top Man Sawing

While the tooth profiles are draw in all the saws in the print, they seem more stylized than accurate. But both sawyers are putting their back into it and exerting a lot of effort.
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Bottom Man Sawing
Mount Fuji from the mountains of Tōtōmi - Detail of Bottom Man Sawing

Fujimi Field in Owari Province
Fujimi Field in Owari Province

The other two images were ones I'd never seen before. In "Fujimi Field in Owari Province," we see a bath maker at work (I am pretty sure it's a bath, not a large flat barrel). Baths are made essentially the same way you would make a large barrel, by tightly fitting the staves of the sides together. The maker is using an early predecessor of a Japanese plane called a Yari-Kanna to smooth the inside areas in which the bathers would lean against. This operation would probably not have been needed on a barrel.
Fujimi Field in Owari Province - Detail
Fujimi Field in Owari Province - Detail

Honjo Tatekawa
Honjo Tatekawa, The Timberyard at Honjo, Sumida

Finally, we have "Honjo Tatekawa, The Timberyard at Honjo, Sumida." On the left side of the print, there is a huge pile of wood, carefully stickered and stacked to dry. A guy at the bottom of the pile is throwing a sawn board up to the man at the top of the pile to continue stacking. On the right another man is sawing more lumber into thinner boards. He has already started a few kerfs at the top so he won't have to move the board again past the support until he has sawn all the boards. Notice the little wedge stuck in the top of the kerf he is working on. It also seems that once he is done they tie together boards from the same log so customer can get matching grain if they want. It initially struck me that in both prints of sawyering that having the board on an angle, not flat, would be annoying and dangerous, but after a bit of a think it makes a lot of sense. The sawyers are all bending over to work but if the board was horizontal they would have to pull their saw straight up, which would be physically a lot harder. Having the board at an angle makes the sawing a lot easier on the back.
Honjo Tatekawa
Honjo Tatekawa, The Timberyard at Honjo, Sumida - Detail

PS - for information on the process used in creating these prints there are many great YouTube videos. But for a book - here is a book from 1916 on the subject of printing using Japanese block printing techniques.
Join the conversation
03/20/2024 Roy Underhill
Joel,This is wonderful! Thank you!
03/20/2024 John rowe
I've seen the barrel maker image explained as tubs for fermenting soy sauce. I have no skin in the game, just thought both are interesting interpretations.
03/20/2024 Dave Fisher
Thanks so much for sharing these images and your thoughts, Joel. Seeing these so close up is a whole new experience. The fluidity and delicacy of line the carver has achieved through the carving technique is mind boggling.
03/21/2024 James McHugh
Hello Joel,

Re: Two Person Saws in Japan,

As I read your post 1-2 days ago I was reading Ty & Kiyoko Heineken's "Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry". They made a passing note about two person saws being a step in the history, but I didn't think much of it.
Just now I got to the color picture pages and #13 is a picture of two sawyers using a saw similar to a continental frame saw. The caption says "13: Two-man saw (Oga). From 'Sanjuniban Shokunin Uta-awese Emaki', late fifteenth century." Searching for some or all of this phrase may bring up the image.

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