Japanese joinery might be tough to pick up but seeing those complicated joints that do not even budge once they are locked together is a work of marvel. So your interest in it is well placed because as of late Japanese joinery has become very popular. If you’re keen on learning more about it, then we will walk you through everything there is to know about Japanese joinery.
The most exciting part about this art is that there is no use of glue or nails anywhere. Not just that, but you can’t even use screws and most of the work is done by hand in Japan. The people there who have mastered this technique are respected throughout the nation. Any woodworker will agree that if one can achieve mastery in such a high-level technique they deserve all the praise.
What is Japanese Joinery
Japanese joinery is basically a technique for joining wood without using glue, nails, and screws. By combining various types of joints that consist of pins, tenons, mortises, and more, you can join two pieces of wood together without needing anything else. This isn’t just for the sake of looks either, it has a much more practical usage.
In the early days of Japan, the land was rich with woods, but it lacked iron. What little iron they could extract from Tamahagane or iron sand, they used in tools and weapons. So they had no metal to spare to craft nails that could be used to construct temples, shrines, houses, and castles.
This gave birth to the technique known as Japanese joinery which did not require the use of nails, screws, and glue. Since the temples and shrines were constructed using that, it was imperative that the knowledge was passed on in case they required maintenance in the future. This is why even now, there are Japanese craftsmen who not only practice this joinery but also teach it to people who apprentice under them.
Once these joints are locked together, the wood becomes inseparable. Japanese joinery is very durable, as even after all the natural disasters, the joints barely budge from their places. So it is not just for the sake of the aesthetics either, it is very much practical in approach.
Is Japanese Joinery Strong
As we have mentioned above, Japanese joinery is very durable. There are tons of examples where natural disasters have struck but the older architecture is left unscathed. Japan is situated in a very active seismic region, so earthquakes are commonplace there. With so much volcanic and seismic activity, it is important that their architecture can withstand such catastrophes.
The whole idea of creating houses out of wood was to avoid damage in case of such events. Japanese joinery techniques were created with durability and strength in mind. Not to mention, that these can be disassembled by master craftsmen and repaired with ease without trouble. So they had created and constructed structures with maintenance in mind.
Techniques Used in Japanese Joinery
As we briefly touched on this before, Japanese joinery uses a combination of joints. It is divided into two kinds of techniques, one that is used to join two pieces of wood adjacent to each other, another is to join wood to extend them. Both of these have their purpose and use and each one is achieved using unique joints.
But it is just a complex form of basic joints and techniques. This is why you can learn Japanese joinery if you master these basics. If you are planning on learning Japanese joinery for the first time, then this article will help you start off your journey.
Mostly these techniques consist of using dowel pins, tenons, and mortises. Not ordinary ones though, but exceptionally difficult ones that make it seem like the wood joins together seamlessly.
Precision plays a huge part in this too, as you need to make precise and accurate cuts. If you do not do so, the wood does not join together perfectly. There is no margin for error in this technique, which is why it takes apprentices years to learn and master this technique.
What Tools Do You Need for Japanese Joinery
With the availability of power tools, it is often hard to imagine people not taking advantage of woodworking. But the traditional Japanese joinery craftsmen avoid using power tools. This is to keep the tradition of using hand tools for the purpose of making these joints alive. In some places, it is considered disrespectful to use power tools as it takes out half the hard work in the process.
So to do Japanese joinery, you just need hand tools alone, you can of course use power tools to aid your task. But, in case you don’t have any, then hand tools will suffice for the job. The list of hand tools is as follows:
1. Japanese Chisels (Nomi)
Japanese chisels perform similarly to their western counterparts. However, there is a huge defining difference between them and the Japanese chisels. Nomi or Japanese chisels are made of two kinds of steel, soft steel, and hard steel. The bottom or hollow face side is entirely made from hard steel. While the top part where the bevel is situated is made from soft steel.
There are two types of Nomi available, ones with a metal ring at the edge of the hilt. These are designed to be driven in to carve wood using a mallet. While the ones without the rings, typically with a longer handle, are used to carve by hand. The longer handle gives ample support to allow that.
2. Japanese Hand Saw (Ryoba)
Ryoba or Japanese hand saws are very different in terms of how they function from their western kind. The Ryoba typically cuts in the pull motion while the normal hand saws cut on the push motion. These Ryoba are also very thin, so there is minimal waste of wood due to the kerf.
Japanese believe that the pull motion allows them to exert much more pressure compared to the push motion. Which gives their saws a significant advantage over normal hand ones.
3. Marking Gauge (Kebiki)
A Japanese Kebiki or marking gauge allows you to mark your cut using a blade. The stock on a Kebiki is typically wider, and unlike normal gauges, you leave a clean line instead of points. This gives your saw a pilot mark to start cutting into as the knife carves in that line. This tool is very helpful, not just for Japanese joinery, but other projects as well.
4. Block Plane (Kanna)
Japanese wooden block planes are fixed blade planes with remarkable capabilities. They, just like the Ryoba, shave wood in the pull motion rather than the pushing one. This allows you to plane while in the seated position as well.
But you can use your whole body for more power behind your pull motions. This block plane has a blade that is tapered and has a convex bed rather than the flat one. The tapered blade sits in the wooden block without any support from a wedge.
Why Do Japanese Chisels Have a Hollow Back?
The Japanese chisels have a hollow back that is made from hardened steel. There is a significant reason behind it as well, it was not just made for the show. The beveled edge of the Nomi or Japanese chisel is made of soft steel.
The hard steel at the bottom makes it very difficult to sharpen a chisel if the back was flat. The hollow allows you to sharpen a very little area of the back near the edge, making the job much easier.
One more thing to keep in mind, you need to keep grinding the back if you want to keep using the Japanese chisel since the hollow is very close to the edge. You need to grind the metal around the hollow to move it back so you can retain an edge around it.
Best Wood to Use for Japanese Woodworking
The best wood which is used in Japanese woodworking is the Hinoki or Japanese Cypress. This wood is chosen for large-scale projects in the country for multiple reasons. One that has a clear grain structure, which gives it a beautiful look. Aesthetics aside, functionality-wise, the Hinoki is resistant to rot, allowing it to age longer. It is very durable and has a lot of strength even after aging for a long time.
The Japanese red pine or Akamatsu is also widely used in Japanese woodworking too. It has reddish heartwood and pale sapwood giving the grain structure a defined look. It is used in construction mostly, due to its high resistance to rot, making it ideal for bridges and such.
The Japanese cedar or Sugi is also another wood that is used for making pillars, ceilings, furniture, and such. It is insect resistant and this makes it ideal to use inside the house.
What Makes Japanese Woodworking Unique
Japanese woodworking is all about principle, discipline, and hard work. The lack of power tools is a testament to the hard work put into mastering the craft. Using unique and creative ways to avoid using screws, nails, glue, this art is passed down from master to apprentice. Even with the advent of power tools, the craft is still practiced by hand as a sign of respect towards their heritage, culture, and traditions.
Without metal fasteners, the Japanese made structures that still stand tall even to this day. Their temples, shrines, and gates, which have survived countless catastrophes tell the tale of how much care, hard work, and respect has been poured into woodworking by craftsmen.
This has been passed down through the generations to this day, as these wooden structures still require maintenance, which gives them renewed life and strength. It becomes hard to tell the difference between parts that have been renewed and repaired, and the ones that were already present from before.
Not to mention, all of this is possible by technique alone without the use of any metal fasteners, nails, screws, or adhesives is what makes Japanese woodworking so unique.
How do Japanese joinery techniques join wood without using any metal fasteners, nails, screws, and glue?
By using a combination of joints, Japanese joinery allows the wood to be locked together with complex mortise, tenons, pins, and such.
Can Japanese woodworking be done without using Japanese tools?
Japanese woodworking can be done without using Japanese tools. You can even use power tools where you want to save time. However, using Japanese woodworking tools will give you a better idea of how it was originally done and conceived.
Do Japanese chisels require frequent sharpening?
While western chisels do not require frequent sharpening, as they can hold their edge pretty well, Japanese chisels or Nomi require frequent sharpening as the hard steel and soft steel combination makes them fragile to breaking. So keeping it sharp will allow it to do its job properly without having to use excessive force on your end.
Why was the Japanese joinery technique invented in the first place?
The idea behind Japanese joinery was to invent a technique in which there is no requirement for metal fasteners, nails, screws, and adhesives. The land of Japan was rich with trees, giving them an option to work with wood wherever possible.
But it lacked the metal to mass-produce nails and metal fasteners. So well-thought-out joints were combined together to lock wood together without having to use anything else other than the wood itself.
If you were reading this with the query about Japanese joinery in mind, then hopefully this article gave you the understanding and principles behind it. Although, primarily part of their culture and tradition, it is a widely accepted fact that Japanese joinery is not just for show, and has incredible durability and strength. This is why it is still practiced in Japan to this day and people in other parts of the world are also fascinated and interested in learning this craft.