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Kumiko follow-up

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

What I learned

Do you know how it is when you’re at a cookout and they’re roasting big, juicy bratwurst, and you have one, and it’s as tasty and juicy as it looks, and you just have to have another one, and maybe even a third one, much to the dismay of your wife...?

Well, maybe it’s not the right comparison, but just so you get an idea how I was after I did my first asanoha (see previous post) - I just wanted to do some more!

I remember watching Toshio Odate at a woodworking show in Chicago, (or was it in Detroit?) making a shoji screen with the traditional asanoha decorative pattern in the middle and being fascinated and intrigued at the same time. It looked so easy, so smooth, almost poetic. The simple tools, the unhurried flow, the translucent shavings emerging from the throat of the plane while gliding over the Kumiko...

More than 30 years have since passed, time in which I almost forgot about that weekend at the show. Occasionally, while passing by my bookshelf I’d notice the title on the spine of a thin book, “Making Shoji, Toshio Odate” and I would be startled, wondering where the time has gone.

Having a family, raising kids, making a living, all these things don’t leave much time for poetry, or Kumiko. But now that I’m retired, I can attempt to do some of the things I dreamed of, before arthritis takes complete claim over my hands.

After making the asanoha, I thought ok, now what? So, I decided to make something that would incorporate the decorative motifs found in traditional shoji screens while looking for ways to streamline the process. There goes the poetry!

In this post I want to share how I went about doing that and what I learned in the process. The three table-top free-standing screens all have basswood Kumiko, a walnut outer frame, and a spalted maple bottom panel. What I realized early on was that Kumiko work requires precision and consistency, and because I don’t have the skill for that level of precision, I rely on jigs and machines.

After thickness planing the basswood boards to 5/8 inch, I cut the Kumiko strips on the table saw to 1/8 inch thick - a good ripping blade will do a decent job of it. This size Kumiko I think is appropriate for the diminutive screens I am making. On the table saw I have a blade that cuts a 1/8 inch kerf and I put together a small cross-cutting sled that has two runners sliding in the table’s two grooves. It is nothing elaborate, just a piece of melamine-covered MDF with a crosspiece held in place with two screws. This will enable me to quickly and accurately cut all the half-lap joints on the Kumiko.

Traditionally, shoji consisted of vertical and horizontal Kumiko joined together with half-lap joints and held inside a frame by way of mortise and tenon joints, and occasionally they had sparse, decorative in-fills such as the asanoha. I believe it to be a more recent development where some screens are very elaborate works of art, purely decorative objects, a tour-de-force of the craftsman’s skill and imagination. I will stick to the former.

In the planning stage, I make a full-size drawing which will help me determine the spacing of the Kumiko, and at the same time, the notches I need to cut into the crosspiece atop the sled, where the 1/8 inch peg engages the kerf on the Kumiko. The drawing will also tell me how many vertical and how many horizontal Kumiko I need for each screen and what their lengths should be. When making the bundles, I cut one extra for each length and I hold them together with Scotch tape.

For cutting the tenons on the ends of each bundle, I raise the blade 1/3 the width of the Kumiko above the sled and make the cuts on each side. That places the tenon dead center. For the rest of the cuts, I raise the blade to 1/2 the width of the strips and make the cuts according to the diagram, moving the peg as needed and that completes the work for the grid.

There’s plenty of hand-work left to do, starting with cutting the mortices in the frame (the two extra Kumiko come in handy in laying those out), and of course, the decorative motif which is done by hand also. For the hanagata-kumiko, or decorative patterns, I chose the asanoha which I had already made once, the yotsuba kaku-tsugi or clover leaf, and the izutsu-tsugi.

I cut the angles on the pieces that make up the decorative in-fills using a Kiridashi knife on a shop made jig with a stop. The jig has 45 degrees on one end, and 30 degrees on the other. I also made a miter box that I use for cutting Kumiko at 90 degrees, which I do with the dozuki saw.

A warning here, whether one uses a knife or a chisel for trimming the angles, those tools need to be extremely sharp, and if they are, they will slice effortlessly through the fine-grained basswood, also through your fingers, should they be in the way. So, keep your fingers out of the way and behind the sharp edge of the tool!

As a wrap-up, I would say that shoji making isn’t all that hard and can be quite enjoyable, even relaxing, but it does require focus, and precision on the initial set-up.

I won’t say anything about attaching the paper onto the screen, since there are probably plenty of tutorials on the subject already. Will I make more Kumiko? Probably, but not for a while. Right now I feel like I've just had four or five bratwurst!

The three finished screens (still need the paper)

The cross-cut sled, the jig for cutting the angles on kumiko and the tools I used.

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1 Comment

Judy Moyer
Judy Moyer
Mar 31, 2022

A beautiful gift for Ana. It is gorgeous... What is the covering? I don't know if it's a covering but the paper look behind the wood cutouts?

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