This Week: Discover the Beauty of Japanese Carpentry in the Garden

By Rumi Tsuchihashi


As all garden enthusiasts are well aware, structures truly enhance the way you experience gardens, by adding to the beauty and tranquility of the space. Japanese gardens are no exception, especially in roji tea gardens where the architecture and fine craftsmanship of the buildings beautifully complement the refined, understated nature of the plants, trees, and stones nearby.

One of the structures in our roji tea garden is about to be transformed. We invite you to visit the garden in the next two weeks and witness traditional Japanese carpentry in action—the intricate process using finely hand honed materials will be much like an art demonstration, and it's a unique opportunity you won't want to miss.

We interviewed Dale Brotherton of Seattle design/build firm Takumi Company, who is heading up this Japanese carpentry project, to give you a glimpse into the extraordinary preparation, skill, and tools involved..

Q: Can you tell us about the structure you're rebuilding?

A: We're putting a new roof over the machiai. The machiai is where tea ceremony participants first go to rest before they transition to the tea house. It acts as a threshold between the exterior world that people arrived from, and the interior world they're about to enter as they receive tea.

The carpentry of the machiai roof will share the same meticulous attention to detail that's present in the garden itself, and it'll add to the  ense of tranquility.

Q: How will the new roof be different from the existing one?

A: Like the tea house, the new shingles will be made out of 8" pieces of hand cut copper which we hand bend at all four corners before installing them in an overlapping row. The woodwork of the new roof will be done with Western Red Cedar that we've selected very carefully for grain quality. The current roof has deteriorated significantly, and the materials were not the same quality as that of the tea house itself. After this rebuild is finished, people sitting at the machiai will notice a deep sense of calm. People may not be aware of why, but they will feel the care and attention placed on the details of the carpentry work,

Q: It's interesting to hear you talk about careful material selection contributing to a sense of calm. Can you tell us more about that?

A: A lot goes into creating calm, and yes, it begins with the material selection process. We compare pieces to make sure the wood grain of adjoining pieces match up. Because wood grain orientation sends a subliminal message, we take care to make sure that the grain is placed in alignment to the tree itself; pieces from the top of the tree are placed at the top of the roof. The surface of each piece of wood is carefully hand shaved using traditional tools. When the preparation is complete, the surface has a glow, and that glow is maintained overtime after it's installed and exposed to the elements.

After it’s finished, people sitting at the machiai will notice a deep sense of calm.
— Dale Brotherton

Q: What can visitors coming by to see the construction in action expect to notice?

A: The first thing they'll notice is that it's very quiet. The fact that it isn't noise is already very different from a typical construction zone.

The next thing they'll notice is the smell of the cedar, and how the raw materials the look. Because they've been carefully selected, prepared, and custom milled, there's a notable refinement to the materials. Most people are amazed by the quality of each piece we use, even in places that no one will ultimately see.

Originally from California, Dale has been running Takumi Company in Seattle for over 30 years. He uses specialized hand tools that have been in use for many centuries in Japan, where he apprenticed to hone his skills working primarily on tea houses. Even after all these years, he says Japanese carpentry is still intriguing and continually challenges him to be awake and attentive to his surroundings at a deeper and deeper level. To him, "it's a delightful way of making a living" and for those of us who get to witness his craft in action, it's a delightful process to watch and learn from.

Dale Brotherton will be working in the Seattle Japanese Garden starting March 22 through approximately the first week of April, Monday through Friday. For further information about his work, please visit his company's website.

Rumi Tsuchihashi