The HDG Foundation - Reviving the Zen of Wood (Part II)


2010-01-08
/ Report by Greg-Niederhaus-

Last month wfd focused on the awesome collection PP Mobler furniture amassed by Professor Lin Tong-yang at his showroom in Taipei. Humbled by the precision of the joinery, the elegance of the design, the curves, ergonomics and flow of each piece; there's no doubt to the utter love of the craftsmen that will live on for centuries in the furniture. The focus this month, however, is towards the hands-on process involved in creating such art. After 24 years teaching furniture design at the National Taipei University of Technology, Lin ventured out and established the HDG Foundation.

This is where wfd got to witness 15 different students working on their own individual projects. Inspired by some of the greats in woodworking history, hints of Maloof, Wegner and Krenov seemed to permeate these works in combination with the original designs by these modern day hobbyists. In actuality, we watched the action for quite a while before determining who were the pupils and who were the masters. The level of skill was spellbinding.

A Place for the Zen of Wood
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After our visit to the showroom we headed to the outskirts of Taipei where Professor Lin was born. Nestled in a jungle valley and perched above a river, one finds himself in the perfect environment to really become one with the wood. Professor Lin mentioned that when he set out to establish the learning center he was riddled with mockery, people in the industry who scoffed at the idea of modern day city dwellers veering away from the bustle to get into the Zen of wood.

However, other big name machinery manufacturers came through and donated each and every piece of equipment in this fully equipped facility, where there is a combination of panel saws, band saws, lathes and planers, along with European style solid beech work benches, jigs, scrapers, chisels, vises, clamps and all that is used in solid woodworking by hand. "We have students from all walks of life," he explains. "People in their 20's, people in their 60's, those who drive Mercedes and those who come by bicycle. About a third of our students are female, and one even brings her daughter." There is a waiting list for those wanting to study under the masters at the academy of at least one year.

The Atmosphere
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When we learned we'd be visiting the traditional woodworking academy in Taipei, we assumed that we'd see students carving the intricacies found in Traditional Chinese furniture. We hung around just watching the activity for a while. Although one student was building a table of Purple Heart incorporating 3-way joints which is a method born in China, most of the pieces were inspired from the west. Most carpenters are so involved with what they are doing that they do not like those on the sidelines distracting them with small talk. The mother/daughter team was busy dry fitting the styles and rails of a solid birch cabinet with multi-stepped, or haunched tenons expertly formed.

Another young lady was relieving a solid chunk of Walnut to form two legs of a coffee table with repeated passes of a router. From the side profile, one may imagine an oblanceolite type leaf, wide at the top and curving outwards to a sharper geometry at the bottom. The flow resembles something from a palace in Saudi Arabia. One man building a dovetailed tool chest from Ash said, "Don't look too close, it's just a box." Judging from the precision of those hand-cut joints, one could imagine what his furniture must be like. One of the masters was demonstrating how to set up and fine tune a fence on a router. He hollered something out and the whole room of students crowded around to observe how to relieve the rail of a piano bench to make the single long hinge fit in just snuggly. In general, the camaraderie at the academy is intense, with everyone intent on his/her project yet happy to stop and lend a hand when needed. Each had a detailed drawing of their piece, with step by step procedures already planned out. We also noticed that each had their own personal set of finely sharpened tools and measuring calipers.

A Mystery Joint
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One man in particular had something special. Poking out of a rolled up towel was a single piece of Purple Heart. What caught our attention was the joint. We finally had to ask, "Where is this guy?" Out on a deck suspended over a river and surrounded by jungle folia there was very intent man doing some planning. He came in to explain his project. This form of joinery comes from the Ming Dynasty, and the closest Western term suitable we can think of is a "scarf joint".

One European craftsman we consulted guessed it to be called a "Secret Miter." Picture a table with the leg joined to the two top rails at one corner of the table. No end grain is visible, rather two simple seems joining three lengths at the end grain. In essence, a compound miter saw could be used to cut the angles necessary to join three pieces exactly 90 degrees to each other. But the problem of how to interlock them arises. After all, gluing end grain to end grain simply does not work. And back in the Ming Dynasty they did not rely on glue to hold furniture together, so they developed very intricate joinery. What this man did was to include angled tenon key slots which provide a glue surface of straight grain. That is how the two horizontal rails of the table top fit together. The leg is similar, but it has two upright square shaped sub tenons. They fit into one mortise per piece of the already joined rails, which literally locks all three together. It's like a Chinese locking block puzzle. The result is three pieces joined at the end grain, and all that is visible are two seems. Ingenious. Further research bestowed us with the term, 粽角榫 "zongjiaosun" explained as a "mortise-and-tenon joint at which three square members meet at one corner." There is a unique type of Chinese treat eaten at Dragon Boat festival which is sticky rice wrapped with banana leaves and shaped like a three dimensional triangle. The name was derived from this.

A Challenge
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Professor Lin Tong-yang has crusaded in his career of forestry and furniture design to keep the traditional art of carpentry alive and flourishing in a day and age where heavy machinery, high output and CNC technology threaten to squelch out the Zen of wood. It has been a challenge, but he is succeeding step by step. With a waiting list that just keeps getting longer, the HDG Foundation is gaining new respect from an industry that generally had no time for it. On that note, Taiwan's woodworking industry has seen a fall from its previous ranking as third in the world for output. China swiped it, but they aren't famous for quality, nor service. Like the affiliate members of ACIMAL and EUMABOIS in Europe, there is a growing need to reinforce Taiwan's identity as a source of woodworking machinery that offers excellent quality and lifelong service. Professor Lin is about the environment, the Zen of wood and the creation of furniture that lasts longer than it took the tree to grow. In a way, his crusade serves to set an example for those in the industry to strive towards. Annually, HDG holds a competition among works submitted by its students, and the photographs are published in his yearly publication. In parting, Professor Lin invited wfd to submit a project of our own. The invitation is an honor, but we don't expect to win… We're just happy to be given the challenge!
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