Japanese Joinery & Philosophy

Lately, in terms of wood craft,  I have been thinking about the Japanese philosophy of Simplicity, Modesty & the Appreciation of Nature. But then I have always, for many years anyway , had an interest in Japanese Joinery, the apparent simplicity of their tools and the wonder of their craft. I even made a few Japanese hand planes or Kanna, some years ago. See two of them below:

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The one on the right even has a genuine Japanese forged blade.

The Japanese believe that, at some stage in our lives, we choose to either go with nature or go against her. And trees, it has been said, hold the earth and the heavens together; the branches reaching up and embracing the sky, and the roots holding firm in the ground. Somewhere in between, in that great arboreal space, lies art and the work of the artist.

What could be more in tune with nature than working with wood. But it’s also how we work with it and what we make. Using automated machinery and mass production to make loads of mundane stuff  that will be discarded and end up in landfill (and destroying the world’s forests in the process), does not feel like working with nature to me. Hand-crafting something with genuine care and reverence for the wood, using hand tools; something that will be treasured and kept by future generations seems to be more conducive to working with nature.



This Hand Plane was crafted by Japanese master Syuji Ohgata in Nagaoka, Niigata province (It makes my own attempts look wholly inadequate).

Working with nature is very important in Japanese philosophy and culture as they believe that a spirit or soul abides in every thing; especially in trees. This is because according to ancient legends, the first Japanese descended from the heavens by climbing down cypress trees. In particular, the belief is that man and nature are equal and thus, represented on a horizontal plane. This is a very interesting concept and contrasts radically with the vertical hierarchy followed in the west, with God at the top, man in the middle and nature at the bottom. Moreover, Japanese unique methods and techniques developed over centuries and handed down, were designed to find the spirit or essence of things. This search for essence is fundamental to Japan’s success in the modern technological era. Traditional craftsmen believe that first you must follow your own nature. If you are natural and firm in your beliefs yet flexible in the way you encounter life, then your spirit will inhabit the object and make it perfect.

Nowadays, ancient know-how and modern technology often stand side-by-side in Japan. For example, the ancient techniques for forging the legendary swords of the Samurai  are used in industry to manufacture perfect blades for micro-surgery today. Indeed, Japan is a world leader in the manufacture of blades. What the ancient masters learned (whether sword makers, hand plane makers, clay and ceramic turners or joiners) was the essence of their materials. In another example of the ancient still influencing the modern, Japanese manufacturers of high-tech ceramic circuit boards trace their origins back to the ancient ceramic traditions of 17th century of Kyoto. Instead of crockery, they now make electronic components. Just like the ceramics of old, the material can be molded into any shape; modern scientific research into the essence of the material and the addition of suitable ceramic oxides, now allows the material to have exploitable electric properties. Thus, the birth of miniature ceramic circuit boards.

Perhaps the most amazing  example of the application of an ancient Japanese craft to modern technology is the manner in which the magic mirrors of the Samurai period have now morphed into state of the art technologies for checking the surface flatness of the tiny silicon wafers of microchips, down to an accuracy of two or three nano-meters; that’s two to three billionths of a meter. It would take too long to explain the process here but an interesting Youtube video entitled ‘What the ancients knew – Japan’,  is well worth viewing in this regard.

It’s all down to finding the essence. The ancient’s quest for essence and the deep understanding of their material paved the road for Japan to move from ancient tradition to technological leader and economic powerhouse.

But I am not interested in making technological marvels or becoming an economic behemoth. No, I am drawn more and more to the idea of making things without hardware, screws or bolts; no brackets. Just joints. And to do it, as much as possible, with hand tools. For sure, I have always loved to do dovetails by hand and I commonly use a Japanese saw to cut them. But it’s not only dovetails but all the joints that might be required to hold a piece together. I want to find that essence or spirit in my chosen material (wood) that will enable me to make a truly beautiful object.

In Japanese culture, a truly beautiful object should inspire in the observer, a feeling of serene aloneness and quiet self-reflection. It should inspire the observer to contemplate and appreciate the passage of time and the imperfect nature of life; to sense the aesthetic of WABI-SABI.

Wabi-Sabi is not a style (like Chippendale, Art Nouveau or Shaker) defined by superficial appearance or design; it is something deeper. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet, sensitive state of  mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible. The word ‘wabi’ is a poet’s word, and a little bit melancholy. There are many descriptions for what it means; one of the best is “the feeling you had when you were young and waiting for your lover”. ‘Sabi’ on the other hand means “the bloom of time” , implying patina and the enchantment of aged things. Brought together, the two words have become an appellative for a philosophy that embraces the passage of time, accepts the cycle of growth, decay and death, and sees beauty in the imperfections of life and nature and everyday things. In a way, it is a philosophy that celebrates the life-cycle of an object, from the moment it is made to the moment when it decays to dust.

A practical example of this philosophy is the Japanese art of Kintsugi (golden joinery, 金継ぎ) or Kintsukuroi (to repair with gold), which involves the repair of broken pottery with laquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats the breakage and repair as part of the history of the object and embraces it rather than trying to disguise it (or worse, throwing it away), deeming the piece to have become more beautiful as a result of being broken and repaired (in human terms, suffering and growing from that experience in character and wisdom). It is only through a crack that the light (wisdom) gets in.

According to Japanese architect Tadao Ando,  the Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated and trimmed away. There is something of the austere in this; a humble simplicity with the weight of material things absented from our lives. It is the hermit’s hut or Yeats’ small cabin “of clay and wattles made”, or Thoreau’s log cabin with a little plot where (like the Irish Poet, Paddy Bush) we dig in the clay of our own thoughts. It is life stripped back to raw beauty.


We live in an age derailed by a culture of possessions, hubris and greed. Wouldn’t we be better if we lived a life guided instead by a spirit that celebrates silence and simplicity, the acceptance of change and the happiness of others.

I am drawn therefore, to move more and more back to my hand tools, to simplify my work and use my mistakes as a learning experience; not something to become frustrated by (or beat myself up over) but something from which to learn wisdom. Then perhaps someday, if I am lucky, I may succeed in making a truly beautiful object.

Sashimono is a traditional craft of furniture in making in Japan. Over the centuries, Japanese techniques of joinery were refined to a high art. So important was the woodworker’s art in Japanese culture that furniture became known as Sashimono (literally, fitted things) in recognition of the often complex  interlocking joints that were used in the construction. Conspicuous in this technique was the absence of nails, screws or bolts for holding the piece together. Only joints were used. All were carefully crafted by hand, in the main using basic hand-tools; saws, chisels, hand planes. For this great art form do I now aspire; to find the essence.

花鳥風月     Literally: Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon (Japanese Proverb Meaning: Experience the beauty of nature and in doing so, learn about yourself; i.e. gain wisdom) .

1 Comment

  1. Bernard Brown

    June 8, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    Read all of the Japaneses joinery and philosophy beginning to understand your inspiration to make such magnisifent hand tools and your involvement with wood

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