Hello and welcome to my blog, in today’s post I will detail the making of shoji screens to cover a bathroom window. Shoji are sliding doors, windows and room dividers of traditional Japanese architecture, they consist of a wooden frame and lattice work backed by washi paper. Shoji, when backlit, allow a soft diffuse light to enter a room.
I’ve taken an increasing interest in traditional Japanese interiors that has grown along with my interest in woodwork and Japanese tools. Japanese traditional interiors feature a masterful balance of rationally designed formal elements working harmoniously with natural elements such as peeled posts and freeform timbers. A similar balance is struck in surface finishes, where the fine polish left by the hand plane is contrasted to the wavy texture imparted by the spear plane and to the rough hewn scallops of the broad axe and the adze.
Shoji are a very prominent feature of traditional Japanese interiors and possibly the first feature that comes to mind for so many when they think of traditional Japanese interior woodwork. Shoji, in my opinion, are easily adopted to use outside of traditional interior work. Here I will use them in my otherwise contemporary American interior.
The materials used in shoji vary greatly, but traditionally they were made of high quality softwoods such as Hinoki cypress. Densely grown softwoods allow shoji to be light yet strong. Traditionally, shoji are finished with a hand plane and without oil or film finishes. High quality softwoods take a on beautifully smooth and highly polished surface when cut with a hand plane. That surface repels water and resists taking on dirt, it also cleans with ease and never requires reapplication of film finish. The materials used in shoji can now include western red cedar, Alaskan yellow cedar, Port Orford cedar and Douglas-fir amongst other woods available in America. It is the job of the maker to ensure that quality materials, those which would live up to hinoki cypress, are utilized.
I’ve decided to use Alaskan yellow cedar for this build. After taking many shavings in preparation for NYC KEZ, I could not help but desire to build using that same material. This material grows very slowly and so it has an incredibly tight grain structure allowing it to work very nicely with sharp tools. After cutting the cedar into a vertical grain orientation I begin preparing for the mortise and tenon joinery which will connect the outside corners.
Shoji are made of a joined construction using twin mortise and tenon joints at each corner to strengthen their light frame. These twin tenons each feature a haunch and a jaguchi joint. The jaguchi joint is a mitered shoulder made to receive the chamfered interior edge of the stile.
Once the tenons are marked out I make rip cuts along the scored lines, carefully leaving the line in tact.
This is followed by cross cutting the shoulders and haunches, then coping out the waste between the tenons. The surface between the two tenons is then pared flat.
Finally the waste between the jaguchi and the tenon is pared flat and the tenons are chamfered.
Next the stiles are prepared, seen here I am chamfering the interior edges.
Then cutting the twin mortises.
The resulting joint, clamped up in a test fit. Test fitting is not looked highly upon in traditional Japanese work, but working alone in my shop no one is there to mind.
The process is repeated seven times to complete the frame. Next begins making the interior lattice work known as kumiko. Kumiko are made from material which is cut very thin, because of this their grain orientation is absolutely critical and they must be made from clear vertical grain material. After they’re cut to size and roughly thicknessed they are then planed to exact thickness and chamfered along their edges.
Next the kumiko are fitted into their respective frames to ensure that the assembled lattice work will fit snugly.
Shown here I am trimming the pieces to length.
The kumiko lattice work is first joined together utilizing half-lap joints and then joined to a framework known as tsukeko with many small mortise and tenon joints. Here I am cutting the half lap joints. The kumiko are ganged up and clamped, then marked and cut all at once.
Next I zip out the waste with a long paring chisel.
Finally the ends are cut into tenons. These tenons will join into mortises cut into the interior frame known as the tsukeko. Here I am using a traditional Japanese Jorgensen clamp to keep the material tightly bound together.
The interior frame, which holds the kumiko in place, is joined at its four corners using a mitered mortise and tenon joints. I start by cutting the tenons first, then paring their shoulders for a clean fit.
Next the receiving mortise is pared followed by test fitting in the frame.
The many mortises along the tsukeko are cut next, and finally the kumiko can be assembled as a unit. Next, the final step before assembly, is to cut a rabbet into the top and bottom rails. This rabbet will allow the frame to be fitted into a track upon which the shoji will sit.
The shoji are assembled, and once the glue sets the stiles can be trimmed to match the adjoining rails. The stiles are left proud, the extending horns are used to adjust the shoji frames once they are seated in their tracks.
After the horns are sawn, they are pared flush to the rabbet.
Shoji are traditionally backed with a type of washi paper known as Kozo. Kozo paper is made from the bark of the mulberry bush. I’m using handmade kozo paper for these shoji, the handmade variety of kozo paper shows a very subtle texture. This subtle texture imparts some interest into the otherwise plain looking white background of the shoji panels.
I begin applying the shoji paper by laying a sheet on the panel and taping the edges. I leave the top an bottom edges long so that the area effected by the tape can be cut off leaving a clean edge.
Next I trim the paper to width using a knife.
I will use pre-made rice glue to apply the kozo paper.
The rice glue is applied to the lattice work.
Then the paper attached to that. Once the glue has cured I cut off of the excess at the top and bottom of the panel.
Finally my shoji are ready to diffuse light.
I’ve created a framework to hold the shoji in place which replaced the sill and molding previously surrounding my window. I used white ash, a hardwood, to make the frame. White ash is surely not traditional, but I find it to compliment the alaskan yellow cedar of the shoji while offering balance to variety of light colored woods that are featured in the bathroom. Shown below are my tub and tile, otherwise known as lingering remnants of the 90’s. Still, some work remains in completing the frame, such as building stops, but the overall appearance will remain as such.
I hope that you have enjoyed following along and I look forward to your comments. I owe a thank you to Desmond King for providing such incredible insight in your books on Shoji and Kumiko and through conversation, along with Stan Covington, Jim Blauvelt, Yann Giguere and Chris Hall amongst others who’ve helped me so much in preparing for and creating this work. While I work alone in my shop I never feel disconnected from this community which has helped to guide and inspire me.
Update with photos of my more current work: