10 June 2019

A Shojimaker along the Kiho Bypass

Safety Frist
The visa bearer and her spouse

My wife informed me that a bank that issued her a credit card would give us a pair of roundtrip air tickets. She refuses to tell me which bank out of a superstition that if the promotion becomes too well known, she might lose it. Last year she got a free weekend at a hotel from the same bank. We debated whether to travel to Taiwan or Japan, neither of which places we've visited and both require her to obtain a visa. Eventually she persuaded me to go to Japan with her. Japan is the most popular tourist destination for mainland Chinese where due to the use of kanji,  Chinese tourists can read Japanese as though it were Chinese.  For example the city of Osaka is known to Chinese as Daban. This causes problems for me and my wife. When I tried to insist that we chose one name for the Japanese name, she protested that she doesn't know the English names.
Suzuki garden ornament

Interacting with the local wildlife
To her credit, my wife chose to avoid the major destinations that draw in typical Chinese crowds. After touching down at Kansai International Airport, we rode the JR line to Tanabe to spend our first night in a guesthouse converted from a century old single family home. This is where I first learned that much of Japanese architecture is not accommodating to tall outsiders. I thought that this might be due simply to the guesthouse being an older generation building. The next night after travelling to Kiho, just across the Kumano river from Shingu, we stayed in a guesthouse newly built by rice farmers where my scalp also suffered.
Vernacular landscape

Oversized bracing

Sea Turtle Park

Egret and Heron paddy interlopers

We took advantage of the two bicycles at the guestroom to wander the many hillside pathways and intensively channeled watershed.  I came across several dilapidated and neglected traditional timbered framed structures that find footings on nearly every bit of terraced slope, allowing agriculture to hold the flatlands.
the workshop between the railway and rice paddies
Somewhat late in the day it was after exiting a drugstore that I caught sight of enough recognizable kanji. I readily spotted 家具, which means furniture in the country that I had just come from, but in Japan is pronounced, kagu. The characters 木工 mean tree/wood and work. My curiosity was piqued and that of my wife. too.
I could hear activity inside the building as we approached so I thought I could, at least, sneak a quick peak as a fellow woodworker. Body language and hand gestures should never be underestimated when communicating internationally. While my wife was still struggling with her translator app, I simply held up my camera while politely asking for permission to photograph and pointed to the inside of the building.  The owner, Mr. Hiromasa Nakano whose name I learned much later, nodded his assent.
cutting a laminate board with a vertical panel saw

a low table, perhaps
There was only Mr. Nakano and another older worker in the shop as I began examining some of the machines. All were Japanese makes, evidently purchased some time ago and well maintained. Nakano-san explained that he is a third generation woodworker. The other term on the business sign, 建具, tategu, means 'joinery', which might be a term for shojimaker.
Screw presses

Mortising machine

Tenoning machine

Surface planer
After clicking some pics of the machinery, I focused my attention on Mr. Nakano since he was assembling some shoji screens. He had already prepared the components and went through the process of gluing and assembly. He squeezed a perfect amount of glue into the mortises to accept the double tenons in the four corners, which are the only joints that received glue. The mortise and tenon joints of the thinner member were tapped in dry.
chamfered tenons
driving rail onto uprights

After the components of the first screen were adequately assembled, Mr. Nakano moved it to the 'clamping machine'. This was the first time my mind was blown. The upper section compressed the frame parallel and square. Unexpectedly, the corners slid in rather easily. To compensate, the craftsman placed a wooden block to maximize pressure on the dryfit joints. After withdrawing the screen from the clamping machine, he casually brushed the corner joints with a bit of water. There was no glue squeezeout. Later on, I gestured with my hands whether this was to expand the wood fibers, and he nodded knowingly.
Clamping machine

focussing pressure to close up all gaps
The screen was then laid upon the workbench which was clearly made specific to shoji construction. On the working side was a block along the full length upon which the craftsman applied his tools to the screen; on the far side, another parallel block supported the unworked length of the screen, allowing tools and detritus to accumulate between the two risers.
Tapping the doorpull into a mortise

planed flush
Mr. Nakano then deftly proceeded to apply a modicum of white glue into a shallow mortise and tapped a hardwood doorpull into the void. When it was flush with the surface, he pulled a smoothing plane across the two surfaces and then started on the second screen. I assumed that he must have made this doorpull as any other component but he showed me the box that the doorpulls were shipped in. (yes, I should have photographed the box.)

subtle bowing from head to toe
I attentively paced around the workshop, trying to visually absorb as much as I could manage, noticing the handtools and the other bench. When Mr Nakano had finished, I examined the screen still lying on the workbench and I saw for the first time that the shojiscreen had a noticeable bow from top to bottom. This appeared to be a defect.  I asked naively whether this would be pressed flat with the screwpresses that lined the northeastern wall. He shook his head and sketched a diagram, showing a triple screen arrangement and explained using mainly hand gestures and relying on the insight of a fellow woodworker that the two outer screens were intentionally made to bow out in order to reduce potential for friction. Mind blown a second time.
Nakano-san and Laowai

The screens were put aside to let the glue dry. The end of the workday was upon us and before leaving to do some birdwatching I confirmed with Mr. Nakano that I would return early the following day if he were also working.
Body weight holdfast

When I arrived the next day, the craftsman was already cleaning up the corners of the rabbets that would receive the paper sheets. As he chiseled out waste freehand, I thought about using a router. It shortly dawned on me that the rabbet was merely to define a pasting zone for the paper and to bring the paper below the wood surface to protect from abrasion. Sharp chisels and straight, clear grain made quick work of this task.
sawing with screen supported on parallel blocks

Marking the end grain
cleaning up the end grain surface after sawing

the mystery ryoba
Mr Nakano positioned a screen on its side and marked with a pencil and square to cut off the horns of the bottom. After he sawed off the length, he extended the width of the sliding bit that gets inserted into the floor track with a marking gauge and he removed the wood, using a sawblade that he must have known that I had not seen before. I even took a photo of this saw side by side with the other more common ryoba style. But that photo somehow got lost. I gesticulated that this was specifically for cutting inside cuts and he nodded.
Studying on bent knee
Stage completed
 I've searched online for any mention of this ryoba (if that's also its proper name) and cannot find a reference to it. So there is a mystery and my mind was blown a third time. It might be that this saw is simply modified by a clever saw sharpener on a piecemeal basis or it's available directly from the marketplace if one knows what to ask for. The craftsman that day only trimmed the bottoms of the screens and set them upright, declaring that his work was stopped for the day. I asked for his business card and thanked for the generosity of his time before departing.
Work & Tool parking lot

Shoji components

Shoji DIY items
The last time my mind was blown on this topic was while staying at another guesthouse near Kawachi-Hanazono Kintetsu station, a brief train ride to Osaka and the Kansai airport for the return flight. I came across an home center and home improvement outlet where I found commercially milled shoji components.
between tree and artifice
 I don't know why I would have resisted the idea that such a product might be available. My first exposure to shoji was in Toshio Odate's book, where he details making shoji entirely with handtools. That impression stuck with me, discounting that shoji are also just a basic component of Japanese homes. Perhaps the deepest impression on me is one that I have already concluded, Japanese consumers are some of the best educated of any country I know. Nakano-san still operates his workshop because despite having cheaper alternatives, there are consumers who can recognize the qualities of handmade shoji screens and are willing to pay a premium. He remains in business and his skill set thrives because enough consumers continue to recognize the distinctive value of his craft.
Nunobiki Falls, Kobe

DuanWuJie Kualie!


Jonas Jensen said...

Very interesting post.
I wouldn't have thought that the shoji screen bent on purpose.


Potomacker said...

I don't know how common this refinement is. It might be equivalent to setting floor joists belly up. If the screens do ever bow inwards, then they will only be plumb and still not rub against the other screens.
Thank you for commenting,