Friday, August 7, 2015

Japanese woodworking books....."The measure and construction of the Japanese house"



Tools tools tools......I love 'em, but the #1 tool, bar none, is your head. Knowledge.


For the last 3 years I have immersed myself in the "how's" of fixing and using Japanese tools (and recently, the more complex joinery), but an important element has still been missing. There is now ample information about setting up a kanna (though next we need to work on the finer points of using one, but that will come), Project Mayhem joinery practice is helping us to figure out some of the finer points of cutting the more sophisticated joinery, and Sebastian has made great inroads into teaching us how to sharpen the saws, but still essentially what we have been doing is making attractive and educational display pieces.


The most commonly available books on Japanese woodworking will help you build shoji screens, but you are on your own when it comes time to mount them. The other books will give you ample inspiration for improving your own joinery skills, but provide little in the way of how to actually cut the many exquisite examples, being little more than picture books. I love seeing the many examples of joinery, but even an enthusiast like me wonders....where does this fancy stuff fit? What's the big picture here?



Big picture.

Hilo public library had a copy of "Measure and construction of the Japanese house ", by Heino Engle, sent it right over to me in Mountain View. You got to love the interlibrary loan program. I didn't even have to go into town (not the big town anyways ).



All those complex joints that we have been marveling at and cutting our teeth on? Here is how they are actually used, in the wild as it were.



Two pages of pictures, from an old instructional Japanese carpentry scroll. Azby Brown makes mention of these instructional scrolls, in his book "Just Enough", saying that the 1800's Edo Japanese government produced many of these, sort of a public service outreach program. Our departments of agricultural, forestry, and building agencies have done the same over the years, but seeing these 200 year old joints, and actually trying to replicate some of them, really gives me a thrill.

These examples have shown me something else. The joinery that we are now working on is challenging, but this stuff is significantly more so. Another interesting thing is that many of these examples show only 1/2 of the joint. Who needs to see both sides, really?



Foundation details!



This goes here, use that joint over there....




That awning that I made a few weeks ago? If I had waited just one more day, I would've seen these many, excellent examples.

That might have inspired me to step things up a notch in my own design.


God knows, I've looked at hundreds of Google images online, but didn't see much that was of interest. Most of what we build is just streamlined copies of what other people are making, and everything is designed for simplicity and efficiency. Certainly not beauty.



There is an entire chapter on "Movable space controls", being the shoji and fusuma screens.


Dimension standards, joinery and other construction details, also how the screen track ties into the structure as a whole.

Odd though this might sound, I'm actually not a huge fan of Japanese style living spaces. I like having lots of my crap around, and I just find the traditional Japanese house far too spare for my liking. What I do like, is the convertible nature of rooms that is enabled by having sliding wall panels. Try to find good information on sliding doors/walls in house design. Maybe you'll have better luck than me, but I found almost NOTHING , aside from basic shoji and a ton of pocket doors. That's not what I'm looking for.


In trying to design our "Hawaii dream home", I keep coming back to the desire to have walls that disappear, or turn into screened panels when it's hot, but then can be closed up for the colder periods. In our last home, I incorporated a ton of French doors to give a similar effect, but here that would be too much, too heavy, and not what we are after. I want old school, simple and lightweight. I didn't find anything, because I didn't know that what I REALLY want is the Japanese shutter system that used on the traditional house. I want "amado", wooden Japanese shutters, I just didn't know it.


There is an entire chapter dedicated to "house enclosures", the sliding shutters and doors, latches, joinery, sliding windows and much.



The amado are stored in a wooden closet of sorts, attached to the exterior of the house. I was previously aware of the shutters and their storage, but I was missing many of the key details of their design.

God is in the details, and here they are. Now I know exactly how to build what I've wanted all along.

This is a book that I was able to check out from the library, which is great, because this library book is only an extremely abridged version of the original, "The Japanese House" (now out of print ). I didn't know that I would find anything of interest, but within 30 minutes of opening the cover, I had seen so much information that I had found nowhere else, I immediately ordered the original, unabridged version. I ordered on Friday morning Hawaii time, and by Tuesday (Freaking amazingly fast shipping by the seller! Carefully wrapped and a hand written note, hoping that I would enjoy it, it must have been a personal copy. Incredible.....4 days to Hawaii!)


The abridged has no pictures, only engineer style diagrams. The original has many pictures, pictures that try to conveigh some of the beauty and aesthetic behind the traditional house design.




The book is only in part about the actual construction of the house. The majority deals with design and culture, why things are as they are, and how it all relates to the people.





This book kind of tied things together for me. The key details are in the abridged version, which is widely available, and would be perfectly adequate for most anyone. The original is special though. The original has so much more. Stone, tile, paper. Recipes for the mud used in the wall structure. Tatami mats, garden and space, family and seclusion, climate, philosophy and religion.....these are just some of the different chapters that are from the original.


Heino Engle was a professional German architect who travelled widely before settling in Japan, teaching at Kyoto University for 3 years (1953-56). While this book offers glowing praise of the remarkably thoughtful and refined design inherent in the traditional Japanese house, he also offers some critical commentary of his perceived deficiencies. This is good, because it shows the full depth of his study and admiration (and make no mistake, he admires it greatly), but proves that he is not a blind fan-boy.



In the forward to the original edition, the publishers write.....






Well....Maybe a bit of a fan-boy. It's certainly not for everyone, haha.



  1. Just looked at getting a copy of "The Japanese House", not cheap by any means. It reminds me of my copy of Azimov's "Chronology of Science and Discovery", worth every penny. Thanks for reviewing this book, it looks like it has important detail not found anywhere else that I know.

  2. Haha, couldn't resist, just bought the abridged version. If it has even a little bit of the full edition I'll be a happy man.

  3. I feel that I am reviewing these books in the reverse order, but this is how I am actually reading them. This is the one that was available at our library, so....

    In any event, this book feels more like a "masters" level course, as opposed to something written for a trade school. This book tells you nothing at all about "how", but tells you the "why" in a way and detail that I haven't seen before. Make no mistake, this isn't a book for people who just want to build something in the Japanese style......this book is helping me understand why the Japanese house is the way that it is. In my case, I want convertible wall panels and I hadn't found ANYTHING applicable....until finding this book! I literally bought the book because of the chapter devoted to wooden shutters! It's not like this book is full of secrets or anything, but the depth of study that the author engaged in makes me feel that,....Even if I don't fully understand now, I might in the future.

    I paid $60 for the original unabridged version, EXCELLENT condition, and delivered in 4 days (over the weekend, no less!). I feel that the abridged version would be good enough for most any seriously interested student, but the original is......more. This book is akin to taking a University level course on the philosophy of the Japanese traditional house design. It DOES NOT tell you how to build one, however, haha.

    1. The whole freaking reason that I started writing about Japanese tools in the first place, was because the online resources were so crummy! Not that my input is any better, but at least I can give a hint!

      I read again and again, buy this, buy that, but very little reason why, exactly. The advice isn't necessarily wrong, but I desired more, you know? Without an understanding of why things are made in a particular fashion, you can't hope to innovate or improve. Or more than that....At least if you have a clue of what is contained in the books, THEN you might be better equipped to choose. That is my intent.

  4. Sixty dollars? Its up to close to $100 now for a used copy on amazon. Damn their automatic pricing algorithms. You deserve a thank you, by the way, for not being another of the silent sage school about what you have learned. I have learned a tremendous amount in the time since I started reading you blog, the connections I've made have been a great benefit in my life.

    1. Gabe, the feeling is mutual. I am continually going back to your older posts on sawing timber...... As far as I know, the ONLY record of resawing Japanese style in the western world. I suppose it's like e-exercise, haha.

      The beauty of being able to post this information to the greater world is that it is is out there, available to the right person at the right time. As tedious and mundane as I find my own writing, you just never know.... It might be just that "one little thing" that brings things into focus for someone. I spend terrible amounts of time searching for information online (I've got lots of questions, I suppose, haha), and every single thing that I've found is due to somebody taking the time to write about it and post it online. I am profoundly thankful, and only hope that I might pass a small bit on. You need to wade through mounds of garbage to find it, but.....

      It honors me that you have found something of value, because I know that I have.

  5. I just finished reading the abridged version. WAH!! I want the big book! At least this has joinery detail for fusuma and amado, do you know of any other books that contain this info? In the end what is lacking from "Measure and Construction" is photos of the spaces. I find myself wanting to buy several other picture books on traditional Japanese homes, but should I maybe just spend that money for the unabridged version?
    Also, I'm curious if you have an opinion on the lack of diagonal bracing in the walls? Engel seems to think its rather primitive, so I'm wondering how modern designers deal with this. I need to get back to reading the archives of Chris Hall's site. I love the clay infill for walls, its good even in my climate, but how about strategies for incorporating the modern electrical and plumbing without drilling holes everywhere or building a secondary dimensional lumber framed wall to carry the services. My order of "Complete Japanese Joinery" Just shipped, I'm hoping it has info on layout for round timber connections.

    1. That's one of the questions I had for ever. I would like to make the experiment to see if more complex joints as the japanese are actually weaker than with bracing. But maybe that's not the point, who wants a house to last forever? Please let me know if you find out.

      Maybe Don the shinglemaker knows about plumbing, he uses the european version of the clay infill for walls. (All the old houses in Valparaiso also do, I love them.)

      And about electric wiring, I think this guy showed some:

    2. The abridged version seems to pull nearly all of the information together that would be of most interest to architecture and building students. I had to return it to the library, so I can't make any definitive statements, but I think that most of the plates and diagrams are reproduced. The original has many pictures, some of the interior spaces (sad to say, I find them rather bleak and uninteresting, but that's my predilection), but a great many pictures of the exterior details and material textures (and that stuff I love). The original photographs are beautiful and evocative, but I can't help but wonder how this would compare to a newer "coffee table" book.

      What was removed from the original work is the HUGE amount of written material, of which I've only skimmed the minimum so far. Much of that deals with culture, climate and tradition, but there are also a muriad of building details. There are two pages of recipes for mud wall infill, for instance. I guess that some of the greatest value will be found hidden in the text, some crucial little tidbit of knowledge that is to be found nowhere else, but as for might be interesting to find what is available through your library system? Interlibrary loan is a wonderful thing.

      There are some basic details on amado and fusuma construction in "Japanese woodworking", a bit more in "Japanese Joinery" by Nakahara. Unfortunately, a few of the details look a bit off to my eye, so it is good to have "Measure and construction" too, I think. "Joinery" has some good stuff on roundwood joinery (but essentially, make a flat, then draw the joint. Not really joining round/round.) and scripting and treats diagonal bracing as a matter of course. The difference between these two books("Measure " and Joinery") is that "Measure" is an architect writing about a TRADITIONAL structure and it's relationship to culture. "Joinery" is about how to build a house in the MODERN Japanese fashion. In the modern structure there are traditional elements, but there is also the admonition to use power tools to save time and money, as well as use fasteners to build more strongly.

      Funny, I was just reading Chris's old posts too, haha, just last night! I love that building! I would not choose cob infill but a "light straw" construction certainly has appeal. Were I too install plumbing and electrical, I'd design the structure with a central utility trunk, then work from there

    3. Yes! I've yet to come across any other mention of the wire knot technique that he used to tie together the round wood rafters and perlins, very interesting. I've seen the oblique scarf splice used in Swedish log building, for the ridge beam, but never any word on how you mark accurately on irregular/round timber. The closest I've come to such work was cutting wooden sliding dovetail bearings into the round uprights of a spinning wheel, where I was able to use a piece of 90degree angle iron to mark lines parallel to the long axis, but everything goes out the window when the wood is conical like the average tapered tree trunk. I can imagine making some kind of box like jig that would sit over the timber and be oriented and leveled to the center lines, but nobody is giving up the goods knowledge wise. Perhaps some kind of direct scribing technique? Its a tough nut to crack!

  6. Thank you for this post! I'm designing a Japanese-styled bathroom and was having a difficult time finding any resources on traditional Japanese shutters, which I wanted to mimic for the cabinet doors. This at least gives me a better idea of how they're constructed.


Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.

Thanks, Jason