Anyone who appreciates fine crafts and precision can marvel at the complexity of traditional Japanese woodworking. Furniture, cabinets, and buildings constructed with these spare, precise wood joints are intricate in their internal mechanisms yet outwardly simple and smooth.
Japanese woodworking is also a craft that do-it-yourselfers can practice with just a few tools. It’s a slow, meditative craft that helps the woodworker feel a closer bond to the natural materials they're working with.
What Japanese Woodworking Is
Japanese woodworking uses only wood—no additional metal fasteners or glue. Pieces attach by friction; thus, precise measuring, cutting, and planing are required.
Joints are often created by shaping the two pieces of wood so that they perfectly attach to each other. In some cases, a tenon or peg fastener of wood may be cut to fit into a hole or mortise in the two wood pieces.
Japanese woodworking techniques are built on long-standing traditions that emphasize simplicity, harmony, and precision.
Origins and History of Japanese Woodworking
Japan’s traditional temples, homes, cabinets, and furniture have long been built with a special type of joinery called tsugite. This joint mechanism was developed in the 12th century and flourished for the next eight centuries.
Because Japan has long been a lumber-rich country, it made sense to use wood for as much of the construction as possible. Only after the importation and adoption of metal fasteners in the late 19th century did traditional Japanese woodworking techniques wane in popularity.
Primary Tools For Japanese Woodworking
The primary tools used for Japanese woodworking are manually operated and small in number. None of them are electrically powered.
Ryoba Hand Saw
A ryoba saw is a flat, paddle-shaped saw. The adjustable wooden handle allows the handle to be turned to the blade at any angle up to 90 degrees.
As a combination rip and crosscut saw, a ryoba saw can cut parallel to or perpendicular to the wood grain. The 9-1/2-inch ryoba saw is the most versatile saw for Japanese woodworking projects.
Most squares will work, though it’s usually helpful to have a try-square and a small adjustable square.
Genno hammers for Japanese woodworking have a flat face on one side of the head and a curved or convex face on the other side. Do not use a framing or claw hammer.
Chisels are both for raw cutting and carving, as well as for fine, detailed work. For this reason, it’s helpful to have both a broad chisel in the 30 to 42 mm range and a narrow chisel in the 18 to 30 mm range.
Kanna planes differ from other woodworking planes in that the wood is shaved by pulling the plane toward the user. Other woodworking planes are pushed across the work material away from the user.
A natural stone and a diamond plate are used for sharpening the plane and the chisels.
Primary Joinery Techniques
An ari shiguchi joint is also known as a dovetail joint.
One piece of wood, cut to a flared V-shape at the end, is fitted at a 90-degree angle into a receiving piece of wood cut with the negative of that shape.
Ari shiguchi is one of the most fundamental joints in the roster of Japanese woodworking joints.
A kane tsugi joint is also known as a three-way pinned corner miter joint.
Two pieces of wood meet at 90-degree angles at their ends. One piece of wood has a square section that slides into a receiving area of the other piece. On the top, both pieces have a square or round hole. A tenon is hammered into the hole to hold the pieces together.
Sumidome Hozo Sashi
A sumidome hozo sashi joint is a tongue and groove shoulder miter joint.
As a locking joint, sumidome hozo sashi fits snugly without the need for a tenon. When the two pieces of wood are forced together, they attach by friction and are difficult to accidentally pull apart.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Japanese Woodworking
Intellectually challenging art, much like solving a puzzle
Tight bond that can be broken only when the wood itself breaks
Finished product is completely free of fasteners and other protrusions
Construction must be far more precise than if using metal fasteners
Exacting craft that does not lend itself to speedy production
Tools are specialty items (except for the squares) and can be rather costly