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Heritage Week – Tools of the Trade: Japanese Boatbuilding

Side view of Japanese wood plane tool on top of crinkly white paper
Heritage Week “Layer by Layer”

BC Heritage Week celebrates and showcases local heritage across the province to encourage our communities to visit, share and learn more about the heritage of our own backyards. This year, BC Heritage Week takes place between February 19 to 25, 2024, with the theme “Layer by Layer”. Discover the layers of heritage at Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site through the stories of the Richmond Boatbuilders building. Submitted by N.Hassan, Curatorial Assistant.

Japanese Canadian Boatbuilding in Steveston – from the Kishi and Atagi Boatworks

Looking along the Steveston waterfront, it is fascinating to imagine that over twenty Japanese Canadian boatworks operated on these shores prior to the Second World War. Boatbuilding families such as the Atagi, Kishi, Murakami, Mukai, and Nakade applied traditional Japanese tools and techniques to Steveston’s fishing and boatbuilding industry, and produced high-quality vessels that lasted the test of time. By exploring the boatbuilding tools from the Kishi and Atagi Boatworks, we can appreciate the craftsmanship and historic presence of Japanese Canadian boatbuilding families in the region.

Kishi Boatworks

This collection of Kishi family boat building tools, on loan from Glenn Kishi, was used in the operation of two major Steveston boatworks: Kishi Boatworks and Richmond Boat Builders. Saeji Kishi established Richmond Boat Builders in 1936, while his uncles Teizo and Otomatsu Kishi and his cousin Kiheiji Kishi operated Kishi Boatworks until 1942, when they were forcibly uprooted during Internment. After the Second World War, Saeji’s sons Jim and Wayne Kishi reopened the Kishi Boatworks. These tools were passed down to Glenn Kishi from his father Yoichi (Jim) Kishi.

Ryoba (Double-Edged Saw)

This Ryoba, a double-edged Japanese hand saw, was acquired in the late 1950s-60s by Jim Kishi for the Kishi Boatworks. As with all Japanese saws, it cuts on the pull stroke, resulting in more controlled, accurate cuts than Western saws. The saw has larger teeth turned downward on one side for cutting with the grain, and finer teeth on the other side for cutting across the grain, making it a very versatile tool for boat building.

Closer look: Notice the “Kishi” name engraved on the wooden handle on the third photo – Jim Kishi typically engraved his name by hand in tools in order to distinguish them from tools belonging to the many neighbouring boatworks along the Steveston waterfront.

Convex Plane

This Japanese hand plane (or kanna in Japanese) features a convex blade at the base, intended for hollowing out curved surfaces. As with the Japanese saws, Japanese planes also cut on the pull stroke, providing more control of the plane and rendering them easier to keep flat on the work surface. Beyond the standard flat smoothing hand plane, or Hira kanna, hand planes come in a variety of styles such as this for shaping a specific part of the wood.

Closer look: Notice the additional handle that was attached onto the plane. Jim Kishi altered the plane by screwing on a chisel handle onto the top surface in order to make it easier to grip when pulling.

Atagi Boatworks

The collection of Atagi family boat building tools, recently donated to the City of Richmond collection, was used in Atagi Boatworks in Steveston. The boatworks was established by Tsumematsu Atagi in 1905 and operated until 1942 when he was interned at Celista BC for the duration of the Second World War. After the Second World War, he re-established the boatworks at the BC Packers Cannery with his sons Kaoru Atagi, Hisao Atagi, and Kenji Atagi. These tools, which mostly date back to 1950s-1960s, were passed down to Ron and Shirley Atagi.

Groove Plane

This hand plane, featuring a thin blade protruding at an angle from the body, would have been used for shaving thin grooves into a plank of wood. It reveals more of the wide variety of kanna that the Atagi boatbuilders used in order to shape different parts for a wooden fishing boat. The simple design allows for easy adjustment, re-sharpening, and precise cuts, and has continued unchanged through the years.

Closer look: Notice the spots of blue paint that mark the side and back of the plane body. The various boatworks along the Steveston waterfront often employed different paint colours or engravings to mark their tools in the 1950s-1960s; for the Atagi family, blue paint markings such as these were used to identify their tools.

Sharpening Stone

This Japanese sharpening stone from the Atagi collection was used to maintain the blades of their woodworking tools, such as chisels and plane blades. With the stone fixed in place, boatbuilders would move tools back and forth on its surface in order to obtain a lasting cutting edge. As important as the use of various saws, chisels, adzes, and other hand tools in the construction of wooden boats was the maintenance of these tools, and the Atagi family ensured their tools would last through the years.

Thank you for joining us on this exploration of the legacy of Japanese Canadian boatbuilding in Steveston for BC Heritage Week 2024. Visit Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site to discover more about the diverse workforce of the fishing, canning and boatbuilding communities, and don’t miss the Richmond Boatbuilders exhibit, re-opening in Spring 2024.