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.