Japanese Cabinetmaking: A Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context


If you’re interested in Japanese woodworking at some point you run across the Japanese cabinetmaking tradition, sashimono woodworking, and tansu. Unfortunately most of the text references for sale are centered around collectors of tansu, not so much for the craftsman. As it happens Carol Ann Link published a doctoral dissertation on the subject back in 1975, “Japanese Cabinetmaking: A Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context”, that was referenced a long time ago in an article in Fine Woodworking magazine, and Mark Grable actually went to the effort to get a copy printed from the microfilm.

This is one of those texts that is a little bit obscure, hell, I doubt most people know it even exists. Says a lot about academia that so much useful work like this is pretty much fossilized in university libraries.

That’s where I come in, bringing you a few useful bits that you probably won’t see discussed any where else. I’m not at all concerned in giving a book review that one could call comprehensive, just the stuff that interests me.

The first half of the text is devoted to an anthropological discussion of technical definitions of technology and technique, not terribly helpful.

According to Link, “The research took place in the city of Kasukabe in Saitama Prefecture from September 1972 until July 1973”, during which time she undertook a modified apprenticeship with sashimono-shi Mr. Yusaku Tsuzuki and his son.


Of great interest to me was the many illustrations of functional and decorative tansu that formed the basic production repertoire for the Tsuzuki’s workshop.


I’ve never seen a Japanese music stand.


In the discussion of material, primarily Kiri (Paulownia wood), Link was taught that, “One major goal of a cabinetmaker is to finish high quality Paulownia so that the surface is ‘like the light colored, smooth body of a beautiful young girl.'”


I’ve often said that a shooting board is one of the more under appreciated fixtures in a woodworking shop, and the Japanese versions are rarely seen outside of videos of shokunin on Youtube.


Have you ever wondered about the Japanese version of a router plane? Me too, me too.


The more you work with wood the greater your appreciation for the initial selection and placement of stock. I had never considered that you might want the grain towards the front of a cabinet different from the grain towards the back. In Japanese cabinetmaking there is a great deal of subtle refinement in every detail.


The “technical context” that Link frames her discussion around is quite developed in its form and detail, unlike any other woodworking text I’ve read.


Of particular interest was her description of Ita yaki, literally toasting the wood over a charcoal brazier to straighten the planks prior to joining.


Just like fire straightening arrow shafting from natural tree shoots, the simplicity of the description belies the complex interactions necessary for success. Practice is the best teacher.


Every detail of the tansu makers craft is optimized for speed an accuracy, including glue up of boards to make panels. Speed does not necessarily mean a loss of quality if you have a highly developed technique. Unfortunately there is precious little information out there about how to work quickly.


Great stuff! Is it worth it for you to seek out this text? That I’m not so sure, perhaps if you’re dedicated to making tansu. This was written before the internet, before Youtube and the proliferation of blogs, like mine, dedicated to mining this gold and sharing it freely.

All the time I wonder at the fact that craftspeople come and go with this knowledge like a fart in the wind, blink and you miss it.

Usu and Kine


One of the advantages of working with an accomplished woodcrafter is borrowing tools that I don’t have. The azebiki nokogiri, what a useful tool! And I would have had one but for a hot mess ordering from Japan woodworker. But Mark has four azebiki noko in different sizes, so I set to work with his smallest cutting the handles on my usu for mochitsuki.


In the end the azebiki didn’t get me deep enough and I used the radiused edge of my hollow rocker kanna to get the ledge of the handle deep enough to give purchase to my fingers when picking the usu up. The layout for the handle was a simple semi-circle, easy to draw with a compass, and with leaving the gouge marks from the spoon bent gouge it looks quite artfully like a sea shell.


Having previously made the through wedging handle for my kine I set about marking for the mortise. The blank for the mallet head wasn’t close to square or parallel so I used a center line layout and sashigane to locate the mortise width on top and bottom. The photo doesn’t show this correctly, the sashigane should be referenced along the center line, but it would have fallen off if I had left it there for the photo…


One big mallet. Kine for mochitsuki vary in size, the one I made is probably on the large side, but I wanted it to double as a commander mallet for timber framing. You can see Marks commander mallet on the left of the photo above, made from apple wood.


At night I retire to my place by the wood stove. What a wonderful way to cook some tasty cornbread. And it goes really well with an American style stout brewed locally at Joe’s.


Baby Bird Kanna and Perseverance


The birds around here are tame enough to alight on a branch mere feet away and chirp.

I managed to get the bowl on my usu roughed out with the chainsaw, but then was left with the rather awkward task of smoothing out the bowl. In my mind I imagine a very large and heavy lathe with a faceplate I could bolt the thing to. At the least maybe a scorp or a serious looking swan neck gouge? Thinking of an episode of “Begin Japanology” with Peter Barakan on Sashimono woodworking though I remembered seeing a box of baby kanna with various shapes. So what leapt out at me was making a tiny hollow rocker plane from a piece of ebony and an old file for the blade.

Its nice to be working with someone with a collection of good steel lying around!


I used one of Mark’s baby kanna blades as a pattern and ground the file to a taper on a bench grinder after torch annealing so that it wedged properly. And of course it wouldn’t be complete as a tool without a little name, would it? The furigana dictionary I looked this up in has ‘tsukusu’ translated as v. “perseverance”, but my phone translates it as v. “serve”, apt in either case, and lots of fun chasing kanji and hiragana with a cold chisel, even if I didn’t get the stroke order on the top character correct. Only the tip of the blade is hardened, which allowed for the chasing of the characters.


Perfect for sculpting chair seats, or the sound board of a violin, and takes up very little space so I’m happy to have made one.


The sole is curved in both axis, across the width and length, which meant that the shaving escapement surface had to be curved as well. I had to cut the blade bedding groove with a fret saw as it was too small even for the nokogiri I had made specially for the purpose.


Considering that the heat treatment was done with a propane torch I’m really pleased with the edge holding, probably the best job I’ve done with a steel edge to date, maybe its just the good old steel.

Once again I find myself making a tool to make a tool. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a bunch of black locust end grain to take down, thank god its green lumber.

I can already taste the sweet mochi, so near!

Yataiki’s Calligraphy and a song from Kyushu


I’ve been remiss in not posting sooner as to my goings on up here at Mark Grable’s place. What can I say? Lots of interesting stuff to do, sake, and a poor cell connection (though I have internet access). Its been fascinating for me to hear a bit more about the time that Yataiki spent in Iowa teaching, how he made his aesthetic decisions, the many skills he engaged in other than saw making, including the above calligraphy.


Working on a wood floor is so very nice! With my tool box right behind me everything is generally within easy reach.


Here’s a little entryway vestibule that Mark built not that long ago, looks good on a house in Vermont.


There are some black locust trees recently felled on the opposing side of the pond from the house, leaving a stump large enough to make an usu for mochitsuki. Lots of work for me carving with a chainsaw, sucking fumes which does tend to reck that peaceful feeling of working in the woods.


Once the stump was cut free from the ground I was able to lay the usu on its side on top of a wheel barrow and carve the bowl with the tip of the chainsaw, rotating the bowl as I worked to keep the cutting action to the bottom of the chain which cut properly down the grain.


Of course, pounding delicious sweet rice into mocha requires a wooden mallet, called a kine, which I also have begun to shape out of black locust. Seriously dense stuff! I’m kinda having a love affair with this locust at the moment.


Mark’s hizumi anvils for saw work. The steel anvil on the right is from Japan, makes a very beautiful sound when struck by a hammer, seriously hard, sent by Yataiki. Evidently it belonged to a blacksmith friend of his who passed on.


Quite a gentle radius of curvature.


Curved evenly on both axis.


I needed a hatchet to split up some kindling and Mark had an un-hafted one lying around, so more black locust and a fun morning spent shaping a handle with my Gransfors Bruks 1900 series broad axe, which is small enough to use one handed as a side hatchet. Its green wood so I coated the whole thing with hot paraffin wax to prevent splitting and slow the drying.


In Mark’s shop there is stuff like this lying around.


And when you look up you see koyabari.

In addition Steve commented on an earlier post of mine about an inscription on one of my maebiki oga in Japanese, one of the most excellent and greatly appreciated blog comments of all time I should think, and entirely worth sharing.

“The song lyrics inscribed on your saw are of a folk song from Miyazaki Prefecture, in Kyushu Japan. This song would be sung by the workers using this saw. My wife is translating and researching the meaning of the lyrics for me. Old Japanese can be debated like old english as to the true meaning.
The lyrics are are a reflectlion of the the life of sawyer working in the mountain side. There is a story within the song of an older sister marrying to a sawyer, and being drawn apart from her younger sister. It seems as though there is a comparison being made to the seperating of the trees from the mountain side, as the workers remove trees belonging to the same family.
My wife (Japanese ) has trouble to understand the song, as the lyrics are from a bygone era.”

This is link to a performance of the song:
“Hyuga Kibiki Uta” (songs name)

Making a Journey in Search of Woodcraft


Last Saturday evening I set off from Colorado in my 6.5 Liter diesel GMC Sierra pickup truck for a two-thousand mile drive to Springfield, VT, to dwell a spell with metate Mark Grable and help him build a forge. I was still surprisingly lucid when I arrived after driving for two days, finding Mark in good spirits, both welcoming and gracious, with lots of good conversation about woodworking. There’s a giant stack of hemlock to be worked for the forge frame, but before we can get to that, how about a deck with black locust posts?


I’m definitely going with the flow, trying to see with eyes wide open and not constantly ask too many questions. Mark had a saw to work on today and its raining in a steady downpour so I’ve taken the opportunity to drive into Springfield proper and find a good internet connection. There’s a lot of work to be done, rest assured that after I get fully recuperated from my travels I’ll be in a mind to take plenty of good pictures and describe the work to come!


The property Mark’s on is located near the top of the valley that overlooks Springfield, its a totally different environment from my home in Colorado, but the mountain views give me a sense of the comforts of home. I hope everyone out there is finding the work that they want to do and is in a place that inspires them to take the time to make something beautiful!