How to Do Japanese Joinery For the First Time

Japanese joinery is very sophisticated and complex, not to mention there are tons of joints included in it. But the best part of all is that if you want to make it you can do it without any power tools and can even be done with just hand tools. If you want to learn how Japanese joinery works though then you need to polish up on its basics. In this article, we will teach you how to do Japanese joinery for the first time.

To start off Japanese joinery, you need to practice making the basic joints. However, most of all you will need to improve your skill with the chisels as Japanese joinery mostly depends on carving using chisels and cutting using hand saws. Some of the basic joints that you need to first practice on are the Kigoroshi, Kane-tsugi, Kanawa-tsugi, and lastly the Koshikake-ari-tsugi. Once you master these joints, you can basically move on to more complex ones without trouble.

Japanese joinery is the result of the lack of metals in the older days of Japan. But it is still in practice in the modern-day by traditional carpenters in the country. Lately though, there has been an increase in demand for furniture made using Japanese joinery techniques worldwide. The reason is, it plays on the strength and durability of wood instead of using any glue or metal fasteners. Not to mention it looks absolutely beautiful as well when you use different colored wood.

What is Japanese Joinery?

As we said before, Japanese joinery is the result of the lack of metal in the olden days in Japan. Because metal was so precious, Japanese woodworkers came up with ways to make wooden buildings, structures, and furniture without using nails or glue. To do so, complex joints were used to combine two pieces of wood that connect seamlessly. It created a durable bond that does not break apart and stays sturdy even during calamities.

If you dissect Japanese joinery techniques, you can see how they use techniques similar to dovetail joints and tenon mortise joints. Though it is on a much-advanced scale where the wood just seems to slide into slots and combine like it is one piece. At times it becomes difficult to differentiate two pieces of wood that are joined with Japanese joinery. That is how snug the wood sits together with another.

In reality, it is not much different than how you would create dovetails to join wood. But the complexity of these improves its durability and reduces the chance of it coming apart easily. These days people actually use different colored wood to show off the aesthetically pleasing joints in Japanese joinery.

Step by Step Guide to Making Japanese Joinery Yourself

There are many Japanese joinery joints you can work on if you know their ins and outs. But this article focuses on the ones that will help you start on your journey. For the first one, we will focus on the most simple joint in our opinion, the Kane-tsugi. It is basically a mitre joint in which two pieces of wood are joined by a pin or dowel.

Step 1: Marking Your Wood

So for the first step, you will need to mark your wood at the places where you need to carve it with a chisel. For this joint, you will need to carve out a square hole in two pieces of wood. This is where a square dowel will be hammered into the pieces of wood once they intersect. So the marking should be on the top side of the wood.

Now mark another square around the small square that you will be carving out. This square will be around three to four times bigger than the smaller square. You will also mark a 45-degree line from the corner of the square to the corner of the wood. This will be needed to cut at this angle using a handsaw.

Step 2: Carving out the Dowel Hole

Take a sharp and thin paring chisel and start carving out a square hole in the area that you marked before. You should take it slowly and carve it out by lightly tapping it with a mallet. Take out the loose material after every few taps so that it does not obstruct your carving process. Make sure you carve it through and then clean up the corners.

You can use an extra piece of wood as support to shave any wood by hand to ensure that the square is perfectly even with the measurements and markings you drew.

Step 3: Cutting the Wood Using Saw

Since this is a mitre joint, you will be cutting at an angle. Using a hand saw cut the wood where you drew the markings for the 45-degree mitre cut. Take it slow, you don’t want to cut too deep into the square that you drew around the dowel hole. Once that is done, it is time to use the square as a guide and cut that from the side to the 45-degree cut. After that is done the piece will come off if both the cuts have intersected properly.

Step 4: Carving Between and Outside the Square

Once you do this with both pieces of wood, you have to hollow out one square while thinning out the other to create a mortise and tenon. The tenon piece will slide inside the mortise and a dowel will join these both together. To hollow out one of the squares use a chisel to carve it out. As before, carve out a small quantity of material to ensure that it does not split or tear.

To thin out the other square to create a tenon you need to draw a guiding line as thick as the mortise in the other wood. Use chisels to carve it with care and precision. Do not overly thin it out or else it will not fit snugly together with the other piece.

Step 5: Driving the Dowel or Pin in the Wood

Once the joints are carved, you need to slide the tenon in the mortise and drive a dowel in the small square or dowel hole you carved. Use a hammer to drive it all the way through. Once it is through, use your saw to cut the excess piece and lightly sand it so that it is leveled with the pieces.

With this, you have now joined two pieces of wood together using Kane-tsugi. 

Also, once you are done with this joint, you can now try making the other joints, like the Kanawa-tsugi and Koshikake-ari-tsugi. For the latter, however, you need to know how to cut a dovetail with hand tools.

What is Special About Japanese Joinery?

Japanese joinery uses the idea of basic mortise and tenon, raises it to another level, and creates very complex joints. These joints are so durable that they do not require the use of nails or glues at all. In fact, some of these joints are so strong that once the pieces are joined, they cannot be taken apart by normal means.

The best part about it is that all of it can be achieved only via using hand tools. No power tools are a necessity to create these joints, but having those definitely improves the timing in which you can create these joints. Also with hand tools, you have the control in your hands allowing for no margin of error.

Traditionally, though, all Japanese joinery is done by hand and even today in Japan apprentices work under craftsmen to learn this art. With the help of Japanese joinery, you can join wood at perpendicular angles or join wood together. 

There are around 30 basic joints used for this purpose and many of which are used in combination. Like the Kanawa-tsugi is a combination of half-blind tenoned, dadoed, and rabbeted scarf joints.

Beginner Japanese Joinery Projects

As a beginner, the first thing you will want to make is either a toolbox or a step stool. Both of these are easy to make, and can be made using hand tools only. Not to mention it does not involve any complex joints. 

But it will give you good practice on how to use your tools efficiently. Both these projects do not require a lot of lumber either. So the cost to pull it off is also minimal, minus the tools you will need if you don’t have them already.

The one we recommend is the step stool since it does not require tons of complex joints and is very easy to carve using both hand and power tools. A step stool is a very important asset when trying to access places out of your reach because they are too high. This video here illustrates how this woodworker uses both power tools and hand tools for this project:

If you want to learn more about Japanese joinery and how to use it in your daily woodworking projects, this book by Hideo Sato and Yasua Nakahara called The Complete Japanese Joinery will be of ample help.

First Time Japanese Joinery Tips

Here are some tips that will help you out with your Japanese joinery techniques.

  • Always make sure your chisels are sharp before working on any project. If they are not sharp they will not be able to carve with efficiency and precision.
  • Draw markings with precise measurements for every project that you need to work on. Use guides and gauges when necessary. 
  • Try working with Japanese hand tools if possible. If you don’t have a shop nearby that sells these tools, try looking online. These tools were designed with Japanese joinery in mind. If not available either online or at a local hardware store, then you can substitute with western tools.
  • Always keep in mind the kerf and cut outwards the markings that you have drawn on the wood. If you cut right on the line, chances are you might be cutting inside slightly. Precision is the key when it comes to Japanese joinery, so the pieces fit snug together.
  • When carving with a chisel, don’t be hasty and try to take off too much material at a time. Take your time and carve slowly, take off as little material as you can to ensure proper measurements are followed.


Are Japanese tools and western tools different?

Japanese tools and western tools are pretty similar, but they have slight differences to them. For instance, a Japanese Ryoba cuts on the pull stroke compared to the push stroke in a western handsaw. These slight differences make Japanese tools unique to their trade of woodworking.

Is Japanese joinery different from western joinery?

Japanese joinery is very much similar to the joinery found in Europe and the west. However, Japanese joinery solely relies on wood joint techniques, while western joinery incorporates the use of nails and such where necessary.

Can you use power tools in Japanese joinery?

Yes, you can use power tools for Japanese joinery techniques. They will help reduce your time and help you finish projects faster. However, in Japan, they still use hand tools for their projects as a sign of respect for the tradition.

Final Thoughts

Japanese joinery is a long passed tradition amongst the people of the country. Using only the technique to join wood with complex joints and combining them is very much the essence of it. If you are starting off, then practice using the chisel with one of the basic joints. 

If you are successful try making slightly more complex ones. You can mix up these joinery techniques in one project to test yourself further. Hope this article helped you with the question on where to begin with Japanese joinery.

Martin Swizz

Hi! This is Martin, I like to research, experiment, and learn new things related to wood carving and other kinds of woodworking.

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