CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — It is noisy, yet peaceful in Douglas Brooks’ boatbuilding class. He has been doing this for more than thirty years.
“I had started this career as a museum boat builder,” explains Brooks. “Then, I got to Japan and discovered this amazingly deep tradition of wood craftsmanship [and] wooden boatbuilding.”
His first visit was in the 90s. Brooks has been to Japan more than 20 times since then.
In those trips, he completed nine apprenticeships with elderly boatbuilders. He learned the craft the traditional way — no textbooks allowed.
“[It is] just a master and an apprentice with almost nothing written down,” says Brooks.
But there is a sad story behind the beauty of these Japanese boats. Brooks was the sole apprentice for the majority of his teachers. Elderly practitioners have no one to teach.
“Sadly, in Japan, there was no new generation of apprentices,” explains Brooks.
That is why he continues to pass down the knowledge to college students through special courses. Most recently, in collaboration with the U of I’s Japan House.
Illini students are spending the week building a boat from scratch. They all have different majors, and pretty much no woodworking experience.
But they do have Brooks’ experience to learn from.
“When he’s demonstrating, I find myself paying closer attention to what he’s doing because I know he’s not going to explain everything,” says computer science student Jeffrey Tang.
Observation is key. The students are not only studying wooden boatbuilding, but also the style of Japanese apprentice learning.
“In Japan, they say that you shouldn’t coddle students too much. They really need to learn to self-regulate and figure it out for themselves,” explains Japan House Education Associate Diana Liao.
The students have read up on the craft a little bit, but it’s mostly all watch and learn.
“[It is a] little nerve-racking making sure that we’re doing it the right way,” says music student Ben Macke. “It’s one thing to read about it, but now, [we’re] getting a first-hand observation watching Mr. Brooks do it. Then, [we are] just jumping right into it. It’s a really unique learning experience.”
Brooks says minimal talking in the workshop means better concentration.
“I see the students hunger for working with hand tools because it’s something so alien to their generation,” he says. “It’s really rewarding to watch them both do it and really succeed at it.”
The students will be launching the boat into the pond at Japan House. It is scheduled for Saturday, April 2 at 4P.M.
The boat will also go up for sale once finished. All proceeds will benefit Japan House.