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

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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.

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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.

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I’ve never seen a Japanese music stand.

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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.'”

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

10 thoughts on “Japanese Cabinetmaking: A Dynamic System of Decisions and Interactions in a Technical Context”

  1. I am so envious!

    I first saw reference to this work only a few years back, but exactly as you say, it’s hard to get your hands on an actual copy. What you have highlighted looks like some good, practical aspects of an increasingly obscure craft. While the physical techniques are now to be found on YouTube, the reasoning behind the aesthetic choices in structure and materials selection are not well conveyed. Thank you (and Mark!) for sharing this.

    The ita-yaki technique you mention….it’s something that I’ve been meaning to try. I assume that the effects must be somewhat temporary, figuring that the distortion would return as the moisture in the wood comes back into equilibrium. I bet that this is a holdover from the days of nice air-dried lumber. You cut the large stock into smaller components, exposing fresh surfaces to increased drying, the board warps, so you use ita-yaki to straighten it back into shape.

    Great stuff (as alway)!

    1. Speaking of ita-yaki, I should have included the rest of the pages covering the different modes of distortion that can be taken out. She covers not only cupping but twist and bow as well, where pressure is applied to flex the board until it cools and sets in the new position. I’ve wetted one side of a board to temporarily remove cupping so that it could be properly planed flat, and I assume that also in the case of toasting the wood the effects are somewhat temporary. Though for the other cases of bow and twist it would seem to be a fairly permanent way to deform the board to a flat state, just like steam bending or forming a curve in green lumber and letting it dry to that shape, the correction has to be over-shot a bit so that as it returns back slightly to a straight condition. Tsuzuki mentions that the wood is not merely heated to suppleness, but somewhat browned from the heat, which would suggest a permanent change to the structure of the wood on a cellular level. The toasted area has to be shallow enough to be planed out after glue up of the panel. A great use for some of that guava charcoal you’re making (aside from hibachi grilling tasty mochi and tofu!)

    1. I’m glad you like the music stand! Based on the proportion of the drawing I’m assuming its made for use while seated in seiza, while kneeling for playing the samisen or shakuhachi, though I see no reason why it couldn’t be changed a bit. The cabinet drawer at the bottom for music is a nice touch, is it not? It would really help to give balance to the whole affair and makes the stand look visually balanced as well.

  2. funny how sexual the work becomes eh? I had it when making a violin, the shapes and colour made me thing again and again of an old girlfriend of mine. I guess what they are trying to point out is not the colour but the tactile, sensory desire the wood awakens on you. Hope you have access to a scanner over there. And I’m envious too of course.

    1. If you have access to a library, preferably a library at a college, you might be able to InterLibrary Loan a copy of the dissertation (though your results may vary as Universities can be a bit touchy when it comes to lending out copies of dissertations/theses).

      Or, if you’re nearby, the following Universities claim to have copies: University of Delaware, University of Illinois, Cornell University, Stanford University, University of Hawaii at Hilo (of interest to Jason on the Big Island, I’m sure) and then 2 universities in London and one in Japan.

      I’ll put in a request for myself (I should mention I’m a librarian and woodworker, hence the knowledge) and if I can get a copy, I’ll share it out. Not necessarily ethical, or legal, but better to share it than let it get lost.

      1. Hi Collin, I didn’t notice your comment until today, sorry! I managed to get the woodworking portion of Link’s dissertation scanned and into .pdf form. If you’d like I can save you a bit of trouble and send you a copy.

        1. Hi, Gabe. Oh, no worries. I didn’t notice the response until now. I actually have the microfilm of the dissertation in my possession. I’ll have the whole thing scanned by this coming Friday. All 260 odd pages of it. As a librarian, this is the kind of stuff I live for anyway. lol

          I appreciate the offer, though. 🙂 Also the awesome content. Hope the stool/sawbench comes out okay.

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