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Book 1 now available

After more than seven months of writing and rewriting and tearing my hair out over Microsoft Word, Shoji and Kumiko Design: Book 1 The Basics is now published. Details about purchasing the book can be found in the link.

Front cover - blog

Four years ago in April 2008 I was fortunate to be in a position where I could spend the following 12 months in Japan devoting my time to learning about shoji at a Japanese technical college (Shokugei Gakuin) that focused on traditional carpentry and woodworking methods and hand skills. This gave me a solid foundation from which I could begin to explore the intricacies and beauty of
kumiko zaiku (kumiko craft and art).

Although it does become frustrating at times trying to fit pieces of kumiko that are no bigger than 1.2 mm thick and 3–4 mm long together when they don’t want to cooperate, I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and I’ve always hoped that in some way I would be able to help woodworkers outside of Japan to feel this same enjoyment when designing and making shoji and kumiko. This is what motivated me to put pen to paper, or font to screen, or whatever the term is these days, and write the book. It sure wasn’t the idea of reaching the New York Times bestseller list and buying that stable of Porsches I’ve always dreamed about.

Thank you for reading this far and I hope you do buy the book, and for this I will be very grateful.

However, before you click on the button to buy, I would ask that you continue reading this, because I want you to have no misconceptions about what is and isn’t in the book. I’ll group this under headings so it’s a bit easier to follow.

First of all, this book is self-published. Self-published means that I was totally responsible for what I included in the book, what I didn’t, and how it is presented. It’s Mariko’s and my ISBN, and we are listed in all databases as the publisher. CreateSpace, which is an Amazon company, is responsible for printing and distribution, and had no input whatsoever in the book, other than making sure that I formatted my manuscript files correctly when I uploaded them for printing. There was no publishing company or editor telling me how I should approach the book.

Why did I choose the self-publishing path? Mainly because by self-publishing, I own the copyright to the book and everything in it entirely. I don’t need to ask a publisher’s permission before I make any decision regarding the book, or to take out parts of the book and use them wherever and however I feel, as I did in my blog entry on the
ito-ura. I have also experienced the annoyance of editors with limited knowledge about the subject (not necessarily woodworking) changing things because it “sounded nicer” or “looked better”, and in the process completely fracturing the meaning or thrust of what was written. I’m not interested in going through those arguments any more.

Self-publishing is almost entirely based on “print on demand” (POD). This means that the book is printed when there is an order for it. Traditional publishing requires large print runs, and often the unknown author is required to pay for some of this, or at least purchase a substantial number of books. POD is digital printing, and to my understanding, traditional publishing is usually offset printing. Offset printing is only economically viable when books are printed in their thousands, or at least in large runs; POD is economical from the first book.

However, the quality of offset printing is better than digital printing, from what I’ve seen. Photos seem to be somewhat clearer. That said, though, over the months I’ve ordered a total of five proof copies of the book from CreateSpace, and the photos and diagrams are more than acceptable, and certainly clear enough. If, however, those who have bought the book aren’t happy with the clarity of the photos or some of the diagrams, I will upload them on to this website. There will be limits on this though.

I was entirely responsible for the layout, and I will be the first to admit that the layout is unsophisticated. Diagrams or photos are immediately before or after the text that refers to them, or if they have appeared before, a clear indication where they are.

I find nothing more off-putting that having to hunt back or forward several pages trying to find a photo or diagram to which the text refers. This kind of layout where photos or diagrams are placed to fit may look attractive when browsing, but it’s a pain in the butt when standing at the workbench trying to follow the text or instructions. So I’m quite satisfied with my unsophisticated layout, and I hope you will be too.

The expanded table of contents I uploaded
here is fairly close to how it finished up, with a few minor adjustments. The book is divided into two sections. The first quarter of the book deals with the kanna and looking after it, and the remaining three-quarters is on shoji.

I included the part on
kanna because to me a lot of Western woodworkers think too deeply about this wonderful tool, and are often taken in too much by its so-called mystique. There’s nothing mysterious about the kanna. As with Western planes, it’s a sharp chunk of steel held in a jig. Hopefully the explanations I’ve included in the book can help to dispel some of the myths surrounding the kanna, and perhaps persuade you to at least give it a reasonable try.

That said, I state this a couple of times in the book, but
you do not need a complete set of Japanese tools to make shoji. There are a couple of readily available Japanese tools that will make the job easier, and I highlight these, but for the most part, Western planes, chisels and other tools are more than adequate.

Sharpening is one area that seems to attract everyone’s attention, especially on the woodworking forums. I’ve included a couple of pages on sharpening, but these contain mainly broad generalities. I sharpen all my blades free-hand, even when I was using Western planes, but there is no secret handshake or secret hold that makes free-hand sharpening easier, so there’s no need to look for one in this book. Hand and finger sizes are different from person to person, so how I hold the blade for sharpening is different from how you would hold it. And the way I hold my 70 mm
kanna blade is different from how I hold my 48 mm kanna blade. Sharpening free-hand requires practice, practice and more practice. That’s the secret.

The book contains step-by-step instructions on making three shoji. The first is a standard shoji with a simple kumiko arrangement, while the second and third are slightly more complex. And there are a few kumiko patterns included to keep you interested. These are mentioned and shown in earlier blog entries.

I’ve structured the shoji section on how I learned shoji at Shokugei Gakuin — start off with the basics and gradually work your way up.

Before launching into the complex kumiko arrangements or patterns, I would advise you to complete at least one side of the first standard shoji pair using the dimensions in the book, even though it may not be the size you want. Use any old timber you have, it doesn’t even have to be the same type throughout, but make your initial mistakes on this, rather than on the good timber you’ve saved up for a complete shoji.

The joinery I use in the book is the joinery I learned and used at Shokugei Gakuin, so it’s the type of joinery that is currently used in Japan. Simple but effective. There’s a range of joints that can be added to make the joinery much more complicated, but these are rarely used in standard shoji, and are totally unnecessary. So the kinds of joinery you’ll cover in the book are both current and appropriate.

I list the basic kinds of kumiko arrangement in shoji, and how they generally relate to the standard kumiko arrangement used in the first shoji. Diagrams show the general feeling the different arrangements convey. I go into extensive detail on how to calculate the space between kumiko in any kind of shoji you decide to make. There is, however, no set ratio or proportions for designing kumiko arrangements in standard shoji. It’s largely a matter of “feel”, or as my instructor always said “
kan” (). Adjusting the thickness of the kumiko is one way of fine-tuning the balance within the shoji, but ultimately “kan” will determine the number of kumiko and intervals, based on the size of the shoji, and whether you want the bulk of the kumiko action to be horizontal or vertical.

I have not included any unnecessary photos of shoji examples just to fill up space. The book is black-and-white, so if you are looking for examples of how you can fit shoji within a room, a google search will bring up a large number of coloured photos that will give you some design ideas. This was beyond the scope of the book.

The shoji in the book slide along grooves, and I give clear dimensions for these grooves. How to install those grooves will differ from place to place, so if you aren’t confident about this side of it, the best thing I can advise is to ask a qualified carpenter to do this framing work for you. From this book, you will have the skills and knowledge to make up the shoji itself.

And finally, there are no recommendations in the book on where to buy any of the tools or equipment needed to make the shoji. Here, again, google is your friend. There are numerous places, especially in the USA, that sell shoji paper, glue, and Japanese tools. I buy all my gear from Japan when I go to Japan, and all of those businesses would go into a mild panic if they suddenly had a query from overseas in English, or any language other than Japanese.

Self-publishing is on a bit of a roll at the moment, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. In the fiction area especially, it has given many more people the opportunity to get their work in print, or on the Kindle or other e-readers. Many would argue that this means there’s a lot more junk people have to wade through to find the literary gems, and I don’t disagree with that. Mind you, I’ve read some trash from many of the established and well-known publishing houses as well, so I don’t think self-published automatically means rubbish. There’s good and bad in both forms of publishing.

I haven’t been able to find any other woodworking books that are self-published, so I could be a bit of a trailblazer in this respect. I’ve already started to work out the overall structure of the next book and also design and make some of the shoji for it, and it, too, will be self-published. The whole self-publishing exercise has been a fascinating journey, and I would encourage anyone to give it a go. Over the next few blog entries I’ll give an outline of the overall self-publishing experience.

Thanks for persevering and reading down this far, and I hope you enjoy the book and find it useful.

Back cover blog


Back bevel and ito-ura

A very good question about back bevels was raised in the comments section of the previous blog entry on the ito-ura. I tried answering it in the comments section, but my reply was probably too long for the commenting system to handle, so I’ll answer it here.

The question was: “
I understand why a back bevel isn’t a good thing with a chisel, but why is a very slight back bevel not ok with a plane blade?

The back bevel is convenient on a normal Western plane blade because without the hollow (urasuki) of the Japanese blade, there's a fair bit of real estate on the back of the blade to keep flat. Back bevelling (David Charlesworth's "ruler trick" is possibly the classic example) reduces this to a fraction of a millimetre at the cutting edge. I use this for my block plane blade, and also on the blades in my Stanley planes, which unfortunately are feeling fairly neglected as I haven't used them for a few years.

A properly formed
ura with the ito-ura, doesn't have this large area to keep flat. It's only the thin flat (uraba) at the cutting edge and the two thin flat areas (ashi) to the sides of the uraba that have to be kept flat. Provided the blade has the ito-ura, essentially all the advantages and benefits of the Western blade back bevel for sharpening are already inherent in the structure of the laminated Japanese blade.

So as long as you don't allow the 
atama to sag when polishing the back to remove the burr, it's really quite simple to keep the very thin ito-ura area flat, and a back bevel would simply be an additional unnecessary step.

The second, and probably less significant, reason is that on the final finishing plane (
jō-shikō kanna) the chip-breaker should be set back 0.1–0.2 mm, and about 0.2 mm on the intermediate finishing plane (chū-shikō kanna), which is very close (in Japan, this is referred to as "kami no ke ippon" — the width of a hair). A back bevel has the risk of interfering with the contact between the uraba and the chip-breaker.

Forming a back bevel to increase the cutting angle for planing difficult hardwood is a different matter. I still wouldn't give the Japanese blade a back bevel though. For hardwood with difficult grain I'd either use a
kanna dai with a higher cutting angle, give one of my Stanley blades a back bevel, or use a bevel up plane with the blade sharpened to a higher cutting angle (I have the Veritas low-angle jack plane for this).


Ito-ura and problems

The blade ura is one area that highlights where there may be problems with either the sharpening technique, or the ura-dashi and ura-oshi technique. I cover this in some detail in the book, and I thought I would include this section from the book here, because the ura and trying to maintain it in its optimum shape certainly is one aspect that can cause a degree of frustration and exasperation.

This is directly from the book. It is, of course, not the book layout. The copyright marks on the images are purely for the internet. They are not in the book.

Shokunin in Japan are very particular about how the blade ura looks. It can be a source of pride, or it can cause shame and embarrassment. A properly shaped ura not only makes the blade and the kanna more efficient, but is also a testament to the shokunin’s skill and his respect for his tools. A badly shaped ura shows a lack of care that is more than likely to be carried through to the shokunins work.

In this section, I’ll describe in detail how to create and maintain an
ura you can be proud of, and how to avoid the bad habits that will prevent you from achieving this.

The type of
ura to aim at is an ito-ura.

01 P27

Ito is the Japanese word for thread, and in an ito-ura the uraba is as thin as a thread, or in reality about 1–2 mm. The hard steel and soft iron lamination structure of a kanna blade is different from that of a chisel, so they have different ura, as shown in Photograph 28. The chisel ura is broader, and is known as beta-ura. A reasonable beta-ura is normal on a chisel, but not on a kanna blade. This is the type of ura you should avoid.

02 P28

There are a number of faults that can create a badly formed
ura, but the advantage is that they all affect the ura in a different way so if you are having difficulties in obtaining or keeping a good ito-ura, the ura itself will tell you where the problem is.

The main faults are: a failure to tap out adequately, and closely linked to this, honing the back too much, especially on the coarser grits; an uneven distribution of strikes when tapping out; honing along a single line; honing at an angle not perpendicular to the stone; and, perhaps the most common, allowing the blade
atama to sag while honing.

Failure to tap out adequately
This can be a common problem when tapping out from the uragire condition, but it can also occur if you don't properly tap out a new blade that has a slight elevation at a point along the cutting edge. This aspect was covered in the Adjusting a new plane section beginning on Page 25.

The following diagram shows what happens when the tapping out is inadequate. This can often be caused by a degree of tentativeness when tapping out, especially in the early stages. Although not as bad a problem as not tapping out at all (see Page 39), over time the problem will continue to worsen.

03 D41

The way to solve this is very simple indeed. If, after tapping out, you hone the ura on the coarse stone and the scratch patterns reach both sides of the blade but the uraba has not widened sufficiently or not at all, STOP. Don't try to force out the uraba on the stone.

If you continue honing until a reasonable
uraba appears, you will hone too much, and while you may end up with a thin uraba, the ashi on both sides will be too thick. Once this happens you are virtually stuck with fat ashi for the rest of the life of the blade.

This is also the case if you don't tap out adequately on a new blade. If you’ve tapped out adequately but hone too much on the coarser stone, you will end up with a

Tapping out must be a careful and deliberate procedure, but that does not mean you should be tentative. Tap, check, tap, check, and continue until a sufficient bulge appears, regardless of how long it takes.

Uneven tap distribution
In this case, tapping has been concentrated too much in one area so the bulge in the urasuki isn’t uniform. The following diagrams show what happens when the tapping is not even.

(1) Tapping too much or too strongly in the center and not enough on the sides: This can be a tendency in the early stages, where the center seems the safest.

04 D42

(2) Tapping too much or too strongly to one side: This quite often happens if the uragire is more to one side, and you fail to account for it .

05 D43

If you find that your uraba is beginning to look like this as you hone, in either of these cases, simply stop and tap out some more in those areas that are too shallow. An uraba that’s too wide can be fixed after a few sharpening sessions, but once one or both ashi become overly wide, that’s the way they’ll remain.

Honing along a single line
If you hone the ura along a single line on the sharpening stones you will create a ridge, which is another sign of poor technique. Therefore as you hone the blade along the stone, especially the coarser grit stones after tapping out, gradually move it backward and forward 10–20 mm to prevent the ridge from forming.

06 D44

Honing at an angle
When honing the ura, the blade should be perpendicular to the length of the stone. If the blade is at an angle you run the risk of an ura that looks like the following.

07 D45

Sagging atama while honing
This is perhaps the most commonly seen fault. Kanna blades are quite large and heavy, and there is a tendency to let the atama sag while honing the back, giving the ura somewhat of an hourglass shape. The following diagrams show this.

08 D46
09 D47

When honing the back, you should have a feeling that you’re lifting the
atama up slightly with your supporting hand as you apply pressure to the bevel with your other hand.

10 D48

You shouldn’t actually raise the
atama as this would give you an unwanted back-bevel, just feel as though you are. That way you are giving the blade proper and even support, and you’ll avoid the hourglass shape. Unfortunately, once you have the hourglass ura, you’re stuck with it until you’re able to sharpen past it, which could take several years.

I mention earlier in the book that a properly formed ura is not just a matter of aesthetics. There is a very sound reason for the ito-ura and avoiding ashi that are too wide. Hopefully the above can go some way to help you achieve that.