SBP Blog

The Meticulous Art of Traditional Japanese Woodworking

Intern Intern - Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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.
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Stone Bridge Press mailing list to receive bi-weekly newsletters detailing our latest upcoming books, special deals, promotions, book giveaways, excerpts from our newer titles, and other SBP related news.
For daily content and news on East Asian culture as well as info on our latest titles, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Written by Nikolas Bunton



Like our blog? Please share it!


Subscribe to the SBP Mailing List

New Releases

Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan

Going to Japan? This unfussy modern guide guarantees you keep it polite and get it right!

Easy and Fun Katakana

Learn the second key Japanese syllabary from every angle: reading, writing, and real-world examples.

Exploring Kyoto

This revised and updated edition of the Japan travel classic and cultural guide gets you wandering from downtown quarters to remote mountaintop temples and features expanded information on new museums and gardens now open year-round for viewing.

My Year of Dirt and Water

Married to a Zen monk in training, an American woman in Japan chronicles her own year of growth and discovery.

Tag Cloud

book publicity announcement 1960s Korea Chiune Sugihara Translation student teacher danica davidson peace osamu dazai hitler Culture seppuku literary prize no longer human new books Christianity in Japan Japanese aesthetics expat matcha chinese comics award swastika michael emmerich book anime wife musical Tokyo Olympics astrology koun otakuusa Chinese history Poetry Japanese art tea garden japanese culture Language how to order in japan Japanese literature gratitude in japan Children's Books World War Two book hoarding Second World War gaijinpot japanese travel rachel manley Spirituality journal of a zen monks wife in japan kansuke naka japanese book in the woods of memory tourist min kahng pottery journal Chinese Astrology diary takuma sminkey my year of dirt and water t.k. nakagaki comic history shun medoruma japanese people haiku books purification how to travel in japan ningen shikkaku guide japan restaurant Asian Studies bowing in japan Christianity Interview Coming of Age Day Olympics journal' monks wife center of east asian studies tea the silver spoon sensei leonard koren japan food monk understandind china through comics eating in japan Children's Literature UCLA japan travel japanese bath reviews Basho's Narrow Road frederik schodt politics and prose AAS gaijin pot suicide History yukio mishima drinking in japan 2020 Olympics etiquette Ukiyo-e Japan review China non-fiction how to a shameful life memoir, tracy franz, zen monk, buddhist japanese customs asia literature henry kiyama classic japanese literature japan guide mark gibeau 1960's Japan haibun behavior Chinese New Year jing liu bookstore japanese zazen book blurb Okinawan literature the fourth string green tea book tour zen monk eastern and western philosophy ritual manners japan custom book review publicity suehiro maruo stone bridge press janet pocorobba hiroaki sato stone bridge cafe manga china history Year of the Dog religion washington dc comics Spring Festival Chinese culture Anime/Manga/Comics Nikolas Bunton university of chicago tricycle magazine four immigrants monks wife tracy franz Korea what do in japan japanese etiquette The Colorado Review japan etiquette Travel Basho Korea photography buddhist shamisen holocaust WWII poetry of consciousness internment illustration travel Japan photography zen memoir World War II Art/Design japan memoir Japanese holidays amy chavez author tour blurb literary review the buddhist swastika the japan times Shoah author world literature today japanese drunk william f sibley