24/04/2020

Woodworking Arts: how the Japanese of a millennium ago built to last

An art that lasted for a millennium and will continue to do so; Japanese woodworking is more than a traditional craft. Learn more about the wonders of the art of Japanese woodworking and even yet, experience it for yourself.

Inspiration and history of Japanese woodworking

History of Japanese Woodworking

Japan has some of the world’s oldest and most well-known architecture. They range from temples, shrines and other historical heritage sites that were built hundreds of years ago but still stand today. These buildings are open to the world to see and are flocked to by tourists every year. One of the most famous is Hōryū-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nara. The main hall of the temple, Kondō, is considered to be the oldest surviving wooden structure in the world. It was reconstructed some 1,300 years ago. In Nara, you can also see Todaiji, one of the biggest wooden structures in the world. These two impressive historical structures draw many tourists to Nara every year. 

Other than the momentous structures in Japan, other proof of great woodworking art is the Japanese Joinery technique. Japanese Joinery requires no nails, adhesive or screws. It relies on sheer timber manipulation where the carpenter must connect pieces through locks and design. The woodwork must accommodate the spaces perfectly and is thus more complicated than simple modern carpentry. The complexity of Japanese Joinery only inspires hobbyists and carpenters alike, igniting a fusion between physics and art. The novel and joy or creating new designs are always priceless. Some people even dubbed the thousand year art as Tetris of woodworking.

What makes Japanese woodworking unique, especially the joinery, is the pure ingenuity and combinations. Because the carpenter doesn’t use nails, he must be creative in making designs to display the aesthetics and practical use of the art. The ancient Japanese had been successful as they had built several structures that lasted hundreds of years. Because of the freedom a carpenter has, the art has improved over the past thousand years. Numerous combinations were recorded and made and the woodworking of a hundred years past is still used today.

Inspiration for Japanese Woodworking

Unlike the modern world where minerals can be imported from other countries, ancient Japan had limited materials. One of the reasons why Japanese woodworking and carpentry mainly focuses on the timber is because of the lack of iron for making nails. They had to be efficient with what they had, and being efficient is what they did. They learnt how to manipulate timber, and bind them without traditional iron nails. The art is used not only in practical architecture but also for the aesthetics of shrines, temples, and furniture. Thus began the thousand year art of Japanese carpentry, and it never ended. 

Merits of Japanese woodworking and joinery

Aesthetics and Practicality in one

A thousand year art not perishing is proof of its use. The same art created many famous structures in Japan and is still continuing today because of its aesthetics and practical benefits. Japanese Joinery does not use nails and using it has its own merits. The building would look more beautiful because the materials used naturally melds into a single, profound structure. Nails are also prone to rust, something that can be avoided. Japanese woodworking also places emphasis on the type of wood used in building, an essential step in making architectures that will last through the ages.

Hones the body and mind

Woodworking is a physical and mental activity. The body needs to shape and manipulate the lumber but the mind is the one that designs the form it will take. Woodworking enhances bodily coordination. As the hands of the carpenter hones the lumber into shape, woodworking hones the body and mind of the carpenter.

There are myriad combinations to how you can design your work. Explore, navigate your creativity, have fun!

Japanese Woodworking tutorial, guides and workshops

Tools and Terms used in Japanese Woodworking

Japanese saw or nokogiri 鋸.The blades of a Japanese saw are thinner compared to the designs of other cultures; moreover it is meant to be used in a pull stroke rather than the push stroke.

Japanese plane or kanna 鉋.The difference of the Japanese plane compared to other wooden planes is that the support bed for the blade is convex rather than a flat surface. It is also comparatively thinner than its global counterparts.

Japanese chisel or nomi 鑿. There are many various types of chisels for various usages, such as dovetail chisels, fishtail chisels, mortise chisels, carving chisels and heavy timber chisels. There are numerous chisels because it is necessary that the carpenter is able to carve and navigate through the wood effectively and not damage it. They vary in both usage and design, thus getting to know the chisel types may be one of the earliest lessons a beginner should have.

Japanese gimlet or kiri 錐. It is used to make circular holes in the early phases of woodworking. The gimlet is easy to use but hard to master. It needs preciseness in both force and direction.

Japanese hammer or Genno玄能. There are various types of carpentry hammers, each fulfilling their different purposes. Some are to be used in tandem with chisels, some for hammering nails and alternatively pulling them, and other purposes.

These tools come in different variations in sizes, thickness and hardness. They serve to effectively grind, cut and manipulate timber to fit any design the carpenter has in mind. Other than the tools themselves, another factor is the lumber. Different kinds of lumber may vary from toughness and malleability.

The traditional and modern tools used in Japanese woodworking

To know more about Japanese woodworking, there are a lot of programs in Japan specializing in teaching people the wonders of the art within a set amount of days. The programs may last from a few weeks to a month, depending on how many skills one wants to learn.

The programs available may offer the following:

  • Introduction to woodworking tools
  • How to maintain tools
  • Basics of Japanese Joinery
  • Other important techniques

Discover Japanese Woodworking Yourself

Japanese woodworking and joinery had long proven to the world that it never went out of style. A millennium old art that still walks the world and is improving by the day. Learn and experience the wonders of partaking in this thousand year journey and contribute your creativity to the ever growing Japanese woodworking art.

You don't have to worry alone anymore A Q&A community about Japan

Related articles

Express Genuine Appreciation; Tips for writing a Formal Thank You Letter in Japanese

When simple messages and internet chats fail to express our appreciation, we turn to the traditional letter writing. But the western take on writing may not necessarily be applicable everywhere. Writi...

Culture communication vocabulary phrase

Traditional Japanese Custom: Sending Greeting Cards

Sending greeting cards to friends and family far from home has been a long-held Japanese tradition. Greeting cards can express things like appreciation or concern and has been important as part of the...

Culture New Year's greeting card season phrase souvenir/gift