Japan is a country with one foot eagerly frolicking in modernity and the other firmly planted in tradition. While it produces some of the most advanced technologies, from artificially intelligent androids and computers to virtual reality entertainment and bleeding edge electronics, it also cherishes steadfast traditions and preserves its centuries-old wooden buildings and furniture.
Structures such as the Seven Great Temples of Nara (Nanto Shichi Daiji) and Kyoto’s many machiya townhouses have withstood the test of time thanks in part to preservation and restoration efforts. However, the bulk of the credit must be passed down to the careful craftsmanship that went into them to begin with.
More than just a trade, Japanese woodworking is also an art that draws upon Japanese aesthetics and philosophy to produce robust and consummately crafted works.
Core values of Japanese culture such as patience, perseverance, meticulous attention to detail, discipline, simplicity, and harmony with nature all dovetail into the very architecture of traditional structures.
Japanese woodworkers aim to work with, rather than against, nature. Wood is viewed as a living tissue that expands and contracts with the environment and is given a second life in the structures it becomes.
They typically use wood from local trees that died of natural causes, respect the wood’s natural curvature, and maintain nature’s order by using wood cut from the sturdy base of trees to form the base of structures.
In other words, structures are created around wood’s natural elements rather than turning the wood into the structures.
Traditional Japanese structures and furniture are held together with wooden joints. Without using a single screw, nail, bolt, or other metal hardware, Japanese woodworkers use joinery—wood-to-wood connection—to build furniture, houses, and ornate Buddhist temples with the strength and durability to weather hundreds of years.
Everything is held together with compression: the tightness of the joint against the end grain of the wooden recess.
Using this all-natural technique, structures are much stronger and more flexible. Joints accept the motion of the building rather than splitting, allowing them to easily withstand the destructive earthquakes so common to Japan.
Although this traditional approach is fundamentally simple, woodworkers must be painstakingly meticulous when carving the wood to ensure that each piece fits together perfectly. This is particularly difficult given the use of traditional Japanese hand tools.
Ranging from saws (noko-giri), planes (kanna), chisels (nomi), marking gauges (kebiki), and stones (ishi), this repertoire of hand tools “rewards woodworkers with a satin smooth finish that reveals the natural beauty of the wood” (The Care and Use of Japanese Woodworking Tools).
Despite requiring time-consuming attention to detail and rigorous labor, these carefully maintained tools allow for a clean and personal precision that’s more difficult to achieve with electric jigsaws and sanders.
The use of hand tools and joinery embodies a preindustrial approach to woodworking and architecture that is deeply rooted in Japan’s cultural past. Wielding these age-old methods and dedicating innumerable hours to each project, traditional Japanese woodworkers are able to create works of art that not only align with the natural world, but can also last much longer than the more expedient postindustrial methods.
If you’d like to learn more about the not quite lost art of traditional Japanese woodworking, Kip Mesirow and Ron Herman’s The Care and Use of Japanese Woodworking Tools is a classic book on the subject that guides the woodworker or hobbyist through these processes step by step using detailed line drawings and concise how-to explanations. Highly recommended!
And if you’re jonesing to get to it, Kezurou-kai USA is holding an immersive weekend-long Japanese woodworking course in Oakland, CA on October 21st and 22nd. Kezurou-kai USA is a diverse group of designers, builders, and makers with a deep interest in learning and perpetuating the practice of hand tool woodworking.
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Written by Nikolas Bunton