By Ryo Isobe, FLEACT Yokosuka Public Affairs
YOKOSUKA, Japan – Looking out over a sea of haze gray ships in the harbor, one can imagine what it must have been like in the days of yesteryear when wood was crafted instead of steel.
In the U.S. Navy, the Carpenter’s Mate was a Navy Sailor’s rating until 1947. According to The Bluejacket’s Manual (1917, 5th Edition), their responsibilities included maintaining ship ventilation, watertight control, painting and drainage. However, the need for these skills dwindled over time as vessels decreased their number of wooden parts. Unlike the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force where carpenter jobs have been retained, the rating of the U.S. Navy Carpenter’s Mate was dissolved and included in the U.S. Navy Damage Controlman rating.
While naval wooden ships are a thing of the past, time has not forgotten Yokosuka Ship Repair Facility and Japan Regional Maintenance Center’s (SRF-JRMC) carpenter shop. Walking into the vast carpenter shop is like walking into ingenuity itself: a unique and harmonious balance between the future and the past.
“As time changes, we have to adapt,” said Carpenter Shop Head Munenori Tsunoda, “At the same time, we should keep our skills as woodcraftsmen alive for the next generation.”
Tsunoda added that traditional craftsmanship could be learned only from hands-on experience. “We accept apprentices and newly employed personnel and train them as carpenters,” he said. “We develop them into skilled journeypersons for two years at the training room and for another two years at the job site. Now we have about 40 carpenters at the shop. We train them as we execute jobs and meet requirements at the same time.”
In the training room, one of the trainees was making a cabinet. “I am making this for another department’s order,” said Carpenter, Shipbuildingman Kento Fukase. “I have been in this shop for two years. I get a lot of orders like this and can finish it in three days.”
“I started to study carpentry from scratch,” said another Carpenter, Shipbuildingman Hayato Sekizoe. “Every day I have to learn new things, but it is rewarding.”
Tsunoda showed the carpenters’ training room. In the room, there were traditional Japanese carpentry tools, including saws, axes, machetes, chisels, hammers and planes.
“We take care of them very carefully,” he said, picking up a small plane. “Sometimes we make tools by ourselves.”
According to Tsunoda, Japanese saws are very different from western saws. “Our saws are made to cut wood when pulled, but the others function in the opposite way,” he said.
Japanese saws often have alternately faced teeth, known in Japanese as asari. Due to this specific pattern, they can reduce friction between the blade and the wood, creating a smoother cut through the back and forth motion while producing less sawdust.
Gazing around the carpenter shop, seeing many tools and projects makes one wonder: what exactly do modern carpenters do at SRF-JRMC? Surprisingly, one of the most crucial tasks – requiring the greatest precision – in the entire command is performed by this team.
The job includes placing wooden keel and side blocks on the floors of dry docks – which, of course, goes without saying that it must be performed as perfectly and accurately as they can. Keel blocks are what supports the ship in the dry dock. On the floor of the dry dock, wooden keel and side blocks sit on concrete bases and fitted to the ship’s hull as precisely as possible. When docking ships, the dry dock floods with water and the vessel enters. The water is then pumped out of the dock slowly and the ship settles on the blocks.
Carpenters busily prepare for the installation before ship docking occurs. They place dozens of keel and side blocks inside the dry dock.
Besides installing keel and side blocks in the dry docks, the carpenter shop constructs furniture, metallurgy wood patterns, inspects life rafts, repairs vessel hull cracks with fiberglass, matting rubber on decks, and secures small crafts or barges in the docks in case of anticipated typhoons. They also support line handling for docking and undocking of ships.
Like a ship relies on the wooden keel and side blocks for support, SRF-JRMC relies on the carpenter shop’s services. For a shop that could have been left behind with the times, the shop continues to harbor a talented workforce maintaining the carpentry tradition and remains flexible to modern changes.