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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