Building Without Nails: The Genius of Japanese Carpentry

Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese car­pen­try impress­es us today, not so much with the tools its prac­ti­tion­ers use as with the ones they don’t: nails, for exam­ple. Or glue, for that mat­ter. Here on Open Cul­ture we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured intro­duc­tions to Japan­ese wood join­ery, the art of cut­ting wood in a man­ner such that pieces slide togeth­er and solid­ly inter­lock with­out the aid of any oth­er mate­ri­als. Though it may seem like mag­ic, it’s real­ly just physics — or rather, physics, and engi­neer­ing, and the branch­es of biol­o­gy rel­e­vant to grow­ing the right wood. For the tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese car­pen­ter him­self, it all comes down to exten­sive train­ing and prac­tice.

Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese car­pen­try need not even be done in Japan. Take Miya Sho­ji, the New York City shop pro­filed in the Chi­na Uncen­sored video above. Under cur­rent own­er Hisao Hana­fusa, who came to the Unit­ed States in 1963, it makes and sells fur­ni­ture craft­ed using canon­i­cal tech­niques, but in ser­vice of par­tic­u­lar pieces quite unlike any found in Japan.

Part of the dif­fer­ence comes from the wood itself: as it would be sourced only local­ly in Japan, so it’s sourced only local­ly in the Unit­ed States. This video shows the felling of a 300-year-old tree, killed by Dutch elm dis­ease, and its trans­for­ma­tion into slabs des­tined to become Miya Sho­ji tables.

There­after, the dry­ing process could take twen­ty years. “By the time the wood hits the cut­ting bench, it is already near­ing the end of its jour­ney.” But the car­pen­ter still has to craft the joints need­ed to hold the fin­ished piece togeth­er “like a three-dimen­sion­al puz­zle” — and with a set of hand tools, at that. The very same tech­niques have been used to con­struct tem­ples in Japan that can stand for a mil­len­ni­um, and indeed go back even deep­er into his­to­ry than that, hav­ing evolved from car­pen­try per­formed in 6th- and 7th-cen­tu­ry Chi­na. Here in the 21st cen­tu­ry, con­nois­seurs of every nation­al­i­ty have come to appre­ci­ate the wabi-sabi aes­thet­ic and tran­scen­dent sim­plic­i­ty of fur­ni­ture so con­struct­ed — a sim­plic­i­ty that sure­ly does­n’t come cheap.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery: A Kyoto Wood­work­er Shows How Japan­ese Car­pen­ters Cre­at­ed Wood Struc­tures With­out Nails or Glue

See How Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Car­pen­ters Can Build a Whole Build­ing Using No Nails or Screws

Japan­ese Car­pen­ters Unearth 100-Year-Old Wood Joiner­ies While Tak­ing Apart a Tra­di­tion­al House

Mes­mer­iz­ing GIFs Illus­trate the Art of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Join­ery — All Done With­out Screws, Nails, or Glue

Watch Japan­ese Wood­work­ing Mas­ters Cre­ate Ele­gant & Elab­o­rate Geo­met­ric Pat­terns with Wood

Free Soft­ware Lets You Cre­ate Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Wood Joints & Fur­ni­ture: Down­load Tsug­ite

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • brian says:

    Car­pen­try with­out nails is in no way a pecu­liar­ly Japan­ese phe­nom­e­non, and it has an extreme­ly long and mul­ti­cul­tur­al history,particularly in naval archi­tec­ture.
    For exam­ple, the world’s old­est shipwreck,a bronze age Greek ves­sel found near Kos, Turkey, is con­struct­ed entire­ly with nail­less mor­tise and tenon join­ery, as is the “solar bar­que” of Cheops, found buried next to the Great Pyra­mid

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