Shoji are, to put it simply, awesome.
I discovered them through Toshio Odate’s book “Making Shoji” one day wondering through the book section of a local Woodcraft store. I have Odate’s book on Japanese tools and their use and it has been one of the most important sources of knowledge for me as I have developed skill with hand tools. The fine grain of the wood, the clean lines, the subtle light through the paper; all combine to create a simple elegance that few outside of japan have the pleasure of enjoying in their homes. I looked around the web and found several companies that make shoji in the US for prices of $300-$1000 a panel plus installation. That may seem like a lot of money, but for the joinery involved, it makes sense.
Odate describes how a professional shoji maker in Japan, back when he apprenticed after WWII, would be expected to produce two panels in two days. And that with hand tools. So, I suppose, I should be able to do better with all the power tools in my shop. If only that were the case, it took me about a week to make these two panels. I use a table saw and bandsaw to cut material to rough dimension, and then bring things in to square with hand planes. The joinery was also cut with hand tools.
The distinguishing feature of the mortices for shoji are their depth. So much so that the Japanese tategu shokunin employs a special bottom cleaning chisel to scrape the bottom of a mortice beautifully clean and close to the opposing side. Odate employs a single mortice of 3/8″ width, which with a slightly tapered fit to the end grain of the mortice, gives excellent strength to the main frame elements without requiring clamps for assembly.
The hipboard was edge glued together from pieces about five inches wide. It would have been nice to use wider boards, but it is very difficult in my part of the country to find wide boards of quality lumber that can be resawn to 3/8″ without warping badly from drying stresses. The lumber that I used for this project was very good quality vertical grain Douglas Fir. The finished thickness of the hipboard is 1/4″, so it is very important that the glue up go smoothly, and the edges join such that the panel is not warpy. To achieve this I jointed the edges such that they were ever so slightly concave such that no gaps opened up on the outside edges of the joints.
Here you can see the hip board together with the rails and kumiko. The kumiko were assembled first, and then the hip board fitted to the bottom and middle rail. You can see that even without the stiles for side support the kumiko tenons provide enough strength for the partial assembly to stand on its own.
Both stiles get fitted to the rail tenons at the the same time. Its a real moment of truth, because with the compression joinery of the mortices you are not supposed to pre-fit your joints. I had to wack the stiles pretty hard to get them seated, but had no joints crack or split.
Here you can see the pair of assembled shoji. I made these to standard demensions without a particular track opening to install them into, so I ended up leaving the horns on the stiles and adding some small feet on the bottom so that they could be used as free standing screens.
The layout of the kumiko was spaced to accept traditional 11″ wide strips of shoji paper, which I glued on with some home made sticky rice glue.
I learned a great deal about accurate layout during this project. The half laps for the kumiko joinery was a real moment of truth for doing accurate work with a saw. If you’re interested in shoji don’t hesitate to give it a shot. Shoji represent a real elegance with an economy of material. Like poetry, the best words in the best order. Here, the best quality wood in the best orientation.