How well you sharpen a Japanese planer blade with your whetstone depends on how you hold your mouth. So goes the legend-and Paul Discoe, who has delicately hand-sharpened many a blade in his Japanese timber-framing shop, has found it to be true. He's still using a set of tools he brought back from Japan, where he studied Buddhist temple design and construction from 1970 to 1975, and he's still applying the techniques he learned there to design and build custom timber-frame homes, workspaces, and temples.

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Paul Discoe

Credit: Photo: Jeff Singer

In an age where woodworkers use power tools almost exclusively, Discoe's employees each have a set of traditional Japanese chisels, planes, and pull saws that enable them to do highly refined and exacting work. These tools can be more keenly sharpened and can cut more accurately to the line than their American counterparts. Handling them requires the utmost concentration as well as an athletic ability to move in just the right way. Discoe likens his woodworking to riding a bike instead of driving a car to your destination. It takes longer, but you notice more along the way and enjoy more flexibility and personal participation.

As part of his work, Discoe has had to come up with creative ways to conceal metal fastenings, hold-downs, and rods to maintain the integrity of pre-industrial Asian design while also meeting modern building codes.

His successful melding of East and West has led to jobs for clients such as the San Francisco Zen Center and Oracle's Larry Ellison, who commissioned 10 15th-century Japanese buildings, including a main home and guest and tea houses, for his estate. Parts are built in the shop, then shipped and assembled on site.

His latest design is an economical modular house that comes in a kit and can be arranged in any shape based on an 8-foot grid, making his high-end craftsmanship now affordable for folks like you and me. Just be sure to hold your mouth just right during assembly.

–Anne Dixon