The Main Hall at Horyu-ji Temple in Nara, Japan, is more than 1,300 years old and is said to be the oldest wooden building in the world. Only a short distance away stands Todai-ji Temple, which said to be the largest wooden building in the world.
These two temples and many other temples, shrines and other wooden buildings across Japan have one thing in common – they were constructed without the use of nails, screws or any other kinds of metal fasteners. In fact, nails and screws were invented centuries later. Yet the old structures still stand after many typhoons and earthquakes, so one has to wonder what holds them together.
The answer is “kigumi” or Japanese joinery, or wood-to-wood connections. Joinery does not require materials such as nails, screws, metal fasteners or glue because of the amazing, elaborately carved, interlocking joints. Used centuries ago because there was no other means of connecting pieces of wood, the same techniques are used today in temples, shrines, houses and other structures for the strength, flexibility and durability, but also in interior carpentry, furniture and other wood items because of the aesthetic value.
Through the centuries, four categories of Japanese carpenters and woodworkers have used two types of jointing methods with amazing results. There are four categories of workers who use these jointing methods. The four are “Miyadaiku” or those who build temples and shrines, “Sukiya-daiku”, those who build homes and similar kinds of buildings such as teahouses, “Tateguya” who are those who do interior finishing such as making shoji (sliding rice paper covered doors), construct decorative recessed spaces called tokonoma where beautiful scrolls, pottery and other special art pieces are displayed, and “Sashimono-shi”or those who construct cabinets and furniture such as tables, chairs and other household items.
They use only two types of jointing methods, but within those two types are many different variations of the joints. The two types of joints are called “Tsugite’ and “Shiguchi”. Tsugite is a jointing method to connect two boards end-to-end to make one longer board.
Today, we make a longer board by putting two boards end-to-end and use a third board called a “scab board’ nailed or screwed to the end-to-end boards, but early Japanese carpenters or woodworkers had no nails or screws, but connected the boards by joinery.
Shiguchi is the second jointing method, used to make either an “L” shape or an “X” shape and there are many types of such jointing methods, some of which are very elaborate. For centuries, the joints were cut with hand tools and most are still cut primarily by hand today because the woodworkers take great pride in being able to cut the joints. The primary tools are handsaws called nokogiri, wood planes called kanna and chisels called nomi.
Both the saws and planes cut on the pull stroke which is opposite western tools, but by cutting on the pull stroke the blade of the saw can be made much thinner than western saws and with razor sharp teeth the cuts are very clean and smooth. I have three Japanese saws I bought in Japan in the early 1990s and have used no other handsaw since that time.
Some of the saws have teeth set to only one side so that when making joints, pieces can be cut flush with the main board without damaging it. We have a black lacquer coffee table and matching end tables we purchased in Japan in 1964 which have no nails or screws. The legs are held in place with slotted joints.
Fifty six years later, the legs are still in place, although having assembled and reassembled them many times, the joints are not as tight-fitting as when the tables were new, but they still work well.
While Japan continues to move forward in today’s modern world, it continues to value its past and hold on to its ancient traditions including its amazing joinery.
Larry Jones is a member of the Stillwater Sister Cities Council.