Category Archives: Shoji

If you can make an axe handle

If you can make an axe handle, you don’t have to buy one from the company store. And in the making of it you have a story. And when you pass on the tool, having made something of quality, the story can grow.

I think of how many people have grandpa’s old axe rusting in a corner of the shed. So often we focus on the steel, who made it and to what quality. The end user side of the story is the handle, a little different for every one made by hand, speaking of place and the tools the person had to get the job done.

Back to story for a second. Having considered what I find compelling about a good woodworking text, it comes down to story. Its as simple as that. If you want to write a good woodworking  book, it needs the life told of the people that use the tools! Think of the books Toshio Odate has written. The knowledge is important, yes, but we live in an age where there’s an exponentially increasing body of free knowledge to those who have internet access. My favorite part of Odate’s work is when he relates some little anecdote about his apprenticeship, or of some other story he’s heard. It puts in context how as woodworkers we don’t have some slavish love for the tool a priori. It is the relationship between the tool, the user, and the work that is bonded with love and to which we give our passion.


When you make something, you make it worth so much more than the steel. In someone else’s hands it becomes your story, writ in the curves of the making and the patina of use. So make something and tell a story.


This is a cheap and poorly tempered axe. That’s okay, you need one for certain things. Like chopping roots in the ground, chopping a hole in a roof, chopping through a door, you get the picture. Its not great, but you could certainly chop tree’s down too. Hell, even practice a bit of bump hewing and impress the ladies with your axe skill (women care about that, right?).

I’ve never made one of these before and I left it a little fat around the upper neck of the handle. I used the broken fiberglass handle as the pattern for the new one.


They should teach this in primary education, how to hang a tool on a handle with a proper wooden wedge and good fitting. They could use the knives they would get in the fourth grade for sharpening their pencils!


I’m taking my tool storage mobile, with a 40″ long tool crate, plenty of room in there. The only joinery I changed was using tongue and groove for the top and bottom boards, because I don’t have anything dry that is wide enough. I love any chance I can get for using my plow plane to cut tongue and groove, love it!


I had made a smaller tool crate not too long ago, and its small enough to fit inside the new one. The dimensions came straight from Odate’s “Japanese Woodworking Tools”, its really of a size that can house a whole trade’s worth of hand-tools. Its really nice to have it right behind me as I work sitting down. I’m a gonna make me a six foot long version of this one day to be buried in.


And finally, a bit of joinery. These are the pieces for mitsu-kude (三つ組手), the three way joint for forming a hexagonal kumiko jigumi (wooden lattice work). Some of the coolest and most expensive kumiko-zaiku patterns have hexagonal jigumi, so of course I must try this, even though there are much simpler square patterns I still need to learn.  You don’t learn what you don’t care about. I’m not going to slog through a bunch of patterns I’m not excited about just for the sake of consistency. Learning happens when you say, “That’s stellar! I have to know how that works!”

Des King on cutting mitsu-kude

Two of the three are the same. Its most interesting to note how the layout here revolves around a center line of the mitsuke (thin edge) of the kumiko. That should be obvious for the two outside pieces pictured, but the middle piece has cuts on either side of the edge. When I first looked at it I wasn’t sure what the orientation was of the lap cuts relative to each other.


The first two pieces go together, leaving space for the third. Cool!


Finally I can make wooden snowflake ornaments for Christmas with proper Japanese joinery, haha! I’m going to have to make the jigs to cut a proper jigumi and mount it in a frame, this is just really awesome.

Up next I’m working on a custom piece of furniture, a built in rolling closet unit for an unusual space. I’ll be going all out with some new joinery I haven’t tried before in White Ash, its sure to be a bit of a Chris Hall moment.


Futae Kaku-Tsunagi Pattern


Finally I have a chance to put the new hikouki kanna I made to work with a little kumiko pattern exercise from Desmond King’s first book “Shoji and Kumiko Design”.  Futae Kaku-Tsunagi roughly translates to double right angle connection and is a great trial of accurate kumiko lap cut joinery, as well as careful fitting of mitered corners.

I cut a slew of 1/4″ thick kumiko from redwood, which takes a beautiful polish from the kanna. Any pattern starts with a plan, and for this one it can be layed out on a single story stick. As complicated as this pattern looks, it involves only two separate groups of kumiko.


My workspace. The concrete gets pretty hard to sit on by the end of the day, but its worth it to not have my back feel like hell from spending so much time hunched over a bench.


The POV for one of the fundamental tategu sawing positions, kneeling in front of low saw-horses. If your dozuki technique is not good you’ll bind in the cut and have a hard time holding the kumiko steady on the horses.


Transferring marks from the story stick to each group of kumiko to be cut. The pencil line tells me which side of the line to cut on and mark for the other side of the lap cut that allows these pieces to fit together.


Nakaya Eaks 210mm kumiko saw really leaves an amazingly thin kerf. I’ve cut kumiko joinery with a larger dozuki saw, but the Nakaya really has me spoiled. The problem is that the slightest slipup tends to kink the blade, and they have to be ordered from Japan. Time to stock up!


With both groups of kumiko cut the assembly fun can begin!


The jigumi gets glued together, hopefully with the right kumiko in the right place, with its proper up/down or left/right orientation. Somehow I always manage to turn one around and am left hoping that my layout was stellar enough that everything is perfectly symmetrical. In traditional shoji screens the kumiko are often sort of woven together, its not a true weave, but the notches tend to alternate top to bottom. With a jigumi like this where notches are all on one side of a given piece of kumiko you end up with a warped screen if your lap cut notches are too tight.


All of the mitered end pieces are cut from the same stock of kumiko made previously, just with certain sections cut away. It wastes some lumber, but saves a tremendous amount of time from allowing you to cut the lap cuts as a group.  Pretty cool, it took me a long time of staring at this pattern to see that the whole thing is based on only two groups of kumiko.


In order for the mitered corners come together tightly every piece is individually marked and trimmed so that it is slightly proud of its theoretical proper length.


The horizontal pieces were cut for the top half first, and then verticals added. Because I was only installing a small piece from each kumiko at a time I had to keep things organized, and numbered each left to right.


Finally you can see where this pattern thing is going, double right angle connection. It never ceases to amaze me how awesome some carefully cut bits of wood can look.


Fitting kumiko is quite time consuming, and I stopped at the end of the day to go look at some logs of my neighbor. Its difficult to get an idea of scale, but the large ones in the group are just over 16″ diameter, pretty good size. But really long dead, super dry, and checked all to hell. As it turns out there’s quite a range in log quality when it comes to beetle kill lumber. I was recently trying to work out the value of a given log. I ran across a sawmill website:

Bascially, price payed by a saw mill is given per thousand board feet, determined by the cosmetic grading of the log and a calculation of volume using the diameter at the small end of the log and the Doyle scale.  The best I can tell a reasonable price per board foot would be something like $0.10. So a two foot diameter beetle kill log eight foot long, containing 200 BF of usable lumber by the Doyle scale is worth about $20 USD, haha. Try that with Black Walnut and the numbers come out much, much different. Of course, if you buy a peeled log from a sawmill of that diameter it will probably cost upwards of $15 dollars a linear foot! As it turns out, the price for blue stain pine at my local lumber dealer, at $2.82 per BF for flat sawn 4/4 is quite high, $1.50-1.75 is much more average across Colorado from what I can find online.


I continued on the pattern work the next day, today, but got an email from another neighbor about the trees I had previously marked, and a chance to get them in my truck!


I think I marked three trees, this is just one of them, the bottom half actually, cut into three 8′ sections. Finally, a big log at 16″! How do I call this big? Yes, there’s bigger out there, but just try to move this sucker! It was a real struggle just to get it in the truck, and the bar on my chainsaw wasn’t long enough to buck straight across.


Standing dead, so still a bit of checking, but really beautiful by beetle kill standards. Only 1/8 twist in this tree compared to the 1/4 twist of the last one, with also very little taper. So much lumber! Cut with a hand-saw! Ok, I’ll save my excitement for tomorrow when I have to actually saw them. But you can tell, yes, I’m going to make some beautiful slabs and quarter saw. I sealed the end grain cuts with some wood glue thinned down by half with water, trying to head off additional checking.


And came back inside to finish up the kumiko pattern. I hope you’ve enjoyed the juxtaposition of my day between large/heavy and small/refined, I do seem to get around. Lets just hope I can do at least one of these things well!

Making Hikouki Kanna (Kumiko Thicknessing Plane)


I dediced to take a break from the fuigo build to make a hikouki kanna. Actually what happened was that I’ve become really tired of the intense morning light that shines through my shop windows. I want to make a set of screens to cover the windows, but had told myself I wouldn’t do any more shoji work before making this tool, used to accurately plane thin strips of wood to thickness.

Odate refers to it as Kumiko-Kezuri-Kanna, and there are western examples as well, but if you’re looking to buy one online its ‘hikouki’ kanna. Just a touch expensive.

“Hikouki Kanna” By Inomoto

Des King references it as well: Hikoki Kanna, although as he mentions in his book on shoji, he thicknesses kumiko with a bench top drum sander before a final finish planing. I suppose that’s both fast and accurate, but I’m not yet at the point of needing such a machine.

Kanna for Planing Kumiko

This is what I started with to thickness kumiko. Its a very cheap 50mm kanna from Tools From Japan with home made runners on the bottom that determine the finished thickness. Its a small plane, so I can only work one piece at a time.


The problem with that is wood moves.  When you cut thin strips, they’re going to warp a little. This is a picture of some 1/4″ Hemlock kumiko, the worst warping off the saw that I’ve ever seen. It was a shame too because the board had such nice tight grain.  When you go to plane warped material to thickess it wants to flex up off the planing beam and push into the cutting edge, even when the depth has been reached on the bottom runners. The result is a lack of dimensional control. I’ve resorted to finish planing each piece with a dial caliper to check in several places along the length of the piece being worked. With care and attention its possible to keep things within a few thousandths of an inch, but terrible slow and tedious.

Consider that Odate relates how his master could plane kumiko to thickness by touch alone. Obviously I have much to learn, but in the mean time there is a better faster way.


Cut the dai. I’ve blogged about the process in an earlier post, Making a Dai. For this second dai I used ink on layout, and added a center line to the bottom and top of the block. It measure 11″ in length, and was built to fit the one large blade that I own, and change among various dai. I’m really getting my money from this blade!


I also used a center drill to start the holes that house the sub-blade holding pin, no worries of drifting off the mark like last time. Placing this hole still feels iffy to me, thankfully the sub-blade has a forgiving amount of flex to it.


The magic of the hikouki kanna centers around a small spring loaded bamboo bar that pushes the kumiko flat in front of the mouth of the plane, insuring it lies flat to the planing beam. To help hold it in there it sits in a sliding dovetail cut into the dai. I’m a big fan of using wooden cut fences for starting dozuki cuts. Here’s a simple one made out of some kind of nice tropical hardwood cut for a thick veneer. There’s a lot of work where you won’t have space to use a cut fence like this, in which case a scrap piece of kumiko works great. I just give it a little lick to help it stick to the wood while I’m starting the cut, haha. Even though the cut will be angled to match the sides of the dovetail I start the kerf perpendicular with a few strokes. I also used my rip tooth dozuki, even though this is cross-grain, because the teeth are less liable to catch and break off in this oak.


With a clean straight kerf started the saw is angled to match the dovetail, same as with a jiguchi rail extension cut. I also cut down the center of the dovetail so that the waste is easier to clear out with chisel.


A nice clean sliding dovetail, ready for the spring mortise. Notice I still haven’t cut the mouth open wide enough to let a shaving pass through. I wait to do that until the blade is bedded.


As for flat spring stock, you can buy it I pretty much any size or thickness and then temper it yourself. As it is saw plate has close to the right temper for a spring. A good Japanese saw might be too hard to work without breaking from the fatigue, stick to the softer cheap plates that are closer to a purple temper, they’ll probably last longer.


I settled on a thinner spring from a disposable ryoba blade. I have no analytics as far as the required force for the spring. The drawing in Odate’s tool book shows an adjustable tension mechanism with screw adjustment. I can see how that’s useful if you’re planing a wide range of thicknesses. The simpler way is to just bend the spring until it has enough bow to give good tension. I also peened it a bit on the anvil to set the curve and stiffen it up. I used to work as a musical instrument repair technician, flutes to be specific, which use a lot of very small flat springs and wire springs (I’ve been told I have a talent for small exacting work). Seriously, you just bend it to change the tension.

I cut a mortise in the bottom of the sliding dovetail to house the spring.


Small parts require tweezers. If nothing else you gotta have a good pair on hand to pull all the splinters you get out being a woodworker.  The mortise for the spring has to be deep enough that it gives it full housing when the bamboo bar is depressed. So, I can’t say how deep to make the mortise, that depends on how you bend your spring.


My bamboo bar, from pre-finished bamboo flooring. Somebody send me some fresh bamboo! This stuff sucks for making sumisashi. I planed it to fit, and then made it loose enough that about 1/16″ sticks out proud of the sole. It needs to be planed down in thickness as well, such that it can be pressed slightly below the sole of the dai.


Here’s my smoothing plane for comparison. Really the closest I could make to a copy, but with American red oak and not Japanese white oak. The next time I make a dai I’ll try hickory.


The runners on the bottom need small recesses cut to let the bamboo bar stick out. I also cut a little notch to keep the blade edge from pushing out the runners.


I tried it on a few pieces of practice kumiko and it held tolerances of four thousands of an inch, right on the money for good joinery. If I flatten my planing beam again it might do even better. This plane is also wide enough to handle two pieces of kumiko at once. It represents at least a four fold increase in the speed with which I can dimension material, awesome!

Finishing the Garden Gates


Its been a long time in the making! There seemed to be almost constant interruptions for other things that had to be done, so the gates took a long time. That’s just part of the growing season. With all of the joinery cut and the final finish planing done, the gates are ready for assembly.


For the top and bottom rails I haunched the tenon to give it extra resistance to twisting. With this gate exposed to the harsh extremes of Colorado winter and summer, it needs all of the strength it can get.


I started by assembling my kumiko. Normally the kumiko notches alternate, at least on the horizontal, but having all of the vertical kumiko with an uninterrupted line is a cleaner look. If the lap cuts for your kumiko joinery are too tight the lattice will bow. Thankfully my practice has paid off and I’m getting pretty consistent with good fits.


Darla thinks my pile of finish shavings are a nice place to bed down. Adorable!


With the kumiko jigumi glued together I started assembling the frame elements. No glue on these mortises. I’ve been wondering about that of late, not using glue here. My primary source for skipping the glue is Toshio Odate. Both Jay Van Arsdale’s book and Des King’s book have you cutting kumiko mortises that are less deep, and King seems to glue absolutely everything that touches together. You’ll notice with Odate’s kumiko mortises that they are always as deep as humanly possible. Like, you know you’re deep enough when you’re ready to throw your mortising chisel across the room because the mortises are so difficult to clean out. That’s what I went for here. The kumiko mitsuke (thin edge) is 1/2″, the mortise 1/4″ wide, and 13/16″ deep.  Though, this is the first time I’ve used a brace and bit to speed my mortising up. A single hole down to depth in the middle of these small mortises makes things much faster. My bit was slightly undersized so that the chisel always sizes the width of the mortise.

Maybe I’m crazy for putting so much work into something that will be outside. How else do you know how your work will hold up than to see it weather? After all, these gates are just made from 2×4 construction lumber.


With eight foot ceilings in my shop I was cutting it pretty close to get the top rail and kumiko attached.


I set my planing beam down on some low saw horses to get the stiles on. I decided not to glue the mortises on the stiles either. If this piece holds together, it will be because of solid joinery.


With the doubled tenons I used, and two wedges per tenon, I had to cut a lot of wedges. These are red oak, about 1/2″ longer than the depth they will be driven to.


Okay, so finally I used a little glue. I don’t know if its technically necessary, but it can’t hurt. If I get six years from these gates and the wedges are still holding strong I’ll be happy. When you’re using a wedge either side of the tenon make sure to start and drive both wedges at the same time. If you only drive one it will make it really hard to get the other wedge started in the kerf.


After the glue dried I trimmed the wedges and tenon flush with the stile. The stiles were made slightly thicker than the rails so that the edges could be chamfered, necessitating a shallow recess be cut in the stile to have the hinge lay flat. Its still feels funny for me to take a finished set of shoji and start drilling holes for hardware.



I used some pretty standard stock gate hinges, with threaded bolts. You always wonder if you took your measurements correctly when dimensioning something to fit an opening. There’s added variables when you add space for hardware, and I wasn’t relaxed about the installation until both gates were up and hung plumb. I still need to buy a gate latch. For now, a piece of rope works a treat.

Well, how’d they turn out? The kumiko for the asanoha pattern was cut from redwood to set it off a bit from the rest of the kumiko. Hand plane finish, all natural. Finally, some gates that are tall enough to keep the deer from jumping!

The Gates to the Food Forest


Well, here they are. Two nice garden gates. Just need a bit of cutting big sticks into little sticks and putting them together. I decided to go with Douglas Fir because, well, its very cheap. But if you get into a fresh bunk of it there are some really good pieces.

Its been drying for a couple months now. It always amazes me how wet framing lumber is these days. As if trucking it by a kiln is the same as kiln dried. So it sits and dries and warps up a bit. Using 2×4 is intentional as well. I know you can get some good pieces of vertical grain from either side of your average 2×12, but 2×4 almost always have tighter grain these days. No more old growth big timber in the construction lumber market.

Each piece is marked at the end for what I will use it for. If I’ve learned one thing about what craftsmanship means as a woodworker it is orienting the grain. Or rather, a sensitivity to the material that allows each piece to find its best potential. You work with what you have and make the best of it, literally.


It was very hot today and I really enjoyed working barefoot with my feet on the cool concrete floor of my shop. In permaculture there is a saying, “the problem is the solution”. The problem is that you want to punch yourself in the face when you drop a tool edge on concrete. The solution is sitting on the cool concrete while you work, at the planing board, staying cool through the summer, and not dropping your tools.

You know, I’ve never heard of Japanese shokunin using winding sticks. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s just one more thing I don’t know of yet, but they sure are handy. My warpy sticks become straight, with the help of a 24″ Spiers infill jointer. Would you believe somebody I didn’t even know  just handed me this plane? But that’s another story. Oh, it came to me decked out in the obligatory white paint flecks, a universal constant for antique tools in the western world. I hear in Japan old tools come with red paint flecks.


And then I became distracted thinking about cutting angles on scrapers. My test scraper is an on Nicholson file, with the end re-quenched to get it glass hard through at the end. I sharpened it on my 220 grit white grinding wheel. The saw plate is probably around RC 44-46 so take it for what its worth when it comes to Japanese saw plate. An 86 degree angle was pretty similar to what I first tried with my carbide scraper. The little curls of metal you see resulted from the corners of the scraper digging in, not good.


At seventy degrees the scraper finally started to feel like it had bite. The volume of material I was removing increased two fold, and almost all of it was nice curly shavings and not small flake. The cutting edge works smoothly at about 20 degrees from the saw plate, no galling at the edge like the carbide scraper. Much different than the high angle I am used to when scraping cast iron.


At sixty degrees the cutting edge was very nice for the the first few strokes, and then promptly dulled. I’m definitely thinking of making a few scrapers.


This is the goal. It was obvious I needed the control and leverage of the drawknife style handles. I’m deliberating now between making a handle from flat stock and a cutting blade from OF steel that can be screwed on to the handle, or going the full way and trying my hand at forge lamination.  I’d rather have a usable tool than an over-heated piece of badly laminated tool steel.  Either way I’ll need to make a Japanese bellows  and pick up some fire brick to get be able to heat treat a chunk of steel that size. I’ve used an prop-oxy torch for smaller heat treating, but its quite limiting if you want to heat something larger than a small carving knife, and not at all good for forging work.


The work continues. Tomorrow is cutting and planing the kumiko, probably get a good start into the rail/style layout, and then into the kumiko joinery.  These gates are going to be big, 4’x8′ side by side.

I can’t think of a better way to enter the new food forest than a beautiful hand-crafted set of gates.