There are no vises on Japanese benches. In fact, to a craftsman accustomed to Western woodworking, Japanese benches don’t look like workbenches at all. Author Toshio Odate notes: “Traditional tategu-shi do not use workbenches for planing. Planes are used either while standing at a planing beam (when working long material) or sitting at a planing board (for shorter material).” The planing beam is a smoothed and squared timber with one end held elevated on a triangular horse, while the other end rests on a block of wood. This is then butted against a wall or other immovable support. For a planing stop, usually a pair of nails driven into the beam suffices.
Andrew Hunter, a furniture maker based in upstate New York, has been a student of Japanese woodworking for 20 years, incorporating many skills and methods from that tradition into his woodworking. I asked him recently about his perspective as a Westerner approaching the workholding methods and floor-sitting practices of the Japanese tradition.
“To be honest, I wish I never sat in a chair. I would work from the floor if I could, but having not grown up sitting on the floor it is very difficult to make the switch. My knees eventually told me that I needed to compromise. I try to work as low as I can, but I do it in a way that is comfortable for me.”
It’s certainly true that Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, lag behind much of the world in general flexibility and mobility. Our more sedentary lifestyles in recent decades have led to increased obesity as well as decreased range of motion – a typical day in the life of an American worker might involve trudging from bed to a chair at the breakfast table in the morning, settling into a heated leather seat for the commute to work, craning our necks for hours in an office chair in front of a computer screen, slumping back into the car for the ride home, and an evening spent in the recliner in front of the television before heading off to bed. We rarely extend ourselves below chair level.
A lifestyle with such limited exercise and high degree of inflexibility carries with it a great number of health risks, as well as a decreased range of motion and lack of ability to engage the body for different workholding situations. Most Americans can’t pull off the flat-footed resting squat, a typical posture at Asian bus stops and on city streets, due to our stiff joints and foreshortened Achilles tendons. “Sitting on the floor requires flexibility, which encourages health,” Hunter said. “There are fewer back problems in Japan compared to the West. Also, working closer to the floor lowers your center of gravity, offering better balance and more control. You are able to work for longer hours with less fatigue if you’re sitting.”
–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Freedom From Vises: Workholding Solutions from Three Traditions,” in Issue Seven