Traditional Shoji Screens

Grace Riggan ([email protected])

Grace Riggan, who has shared with us her thoughts on building, is a member of the Austin Zen Center. She and Joshua Bowles design and craft homes and spaces through HomePlace Architecture + Carpentry. Their work can be seen at

Shoji screens have captured my imagination for many years, although I have never visited Japan. It is from films and books that their magical, luminous quality entered my imagination.

There are many shoji screen simulacrums available in the American marketplace, but shoddy construction and cheap materials disabuse us of their pretense. The essential qualities that I wished to create were excellent craftsmanship, smooth and light gliding action, harmonic proportion specific to the room, and the proper effect of light diffusion.

Embarking on the research and practices that would reveal these qualities to me, I was drawn further still into the allure and the simple virtues of these elegant space dividers.

First, I sought out the proper materials and tools to practice traditional Japanese woodworking methods, outside of which the special qualities of shoji seem to vanish. I learned the proper tune and use of Japanese hand planes, hand saws, chisels, marking gauges, and other tools. I learned to make my own gauges and squares for project-specific accuracy and facility. I made my own simple, traditional work stations that allowed for the best posture for careful craftsmanship. In practicing these postures and techniques I began to know what type of wood to seek for various members of the shoji assembly.

I settled on antique, reclaimed cypress for its clear, colorful grain and relative hardness as a “softwood”. For the frame members I used “tank” cypress — large planks (2 ¼"x6 ¾"x11') that had previously been made into cylindrical tanks for pickling. For the panels at the bottom of the screens, called “hipboards”, I selected “sinker” cypress. Sinker cypress lumber comes from logs that sank to the bottom of bayous or rivers when harvested long ago, and has now been reclaimed and milled. This type of cypress has a lovely range of colors in its grain as a result of the uncommonly oxygen-deficient environment underwater.

With a large stack of rough, old lumber in our shop, I took on the challenge of making 2 sets of shoji screens. I determined that I would use a modern table saw for the rough milling. But first, I wanted to understand the unique properties of each piece of lumber. I studied the grain and character by visual examination, with pencil drawings, and by handplaning. Planing the wood acquainted me with its working qualities, and showed me which end was the trunk and which the top of the tree.

Understanding the character of the various pieces and knowing how the tree stood in its lifetime would help me orient the wood within the shoji assembly for the most appropriate and pleasing configuration. This was the first step in working the wood with respect.

The design of the assembly followed traditional rules where possible. The layout and proportions were refined to create the most harmonious proportions for the installation. The rough mill of the lumber — that is, milling the rough lumber to pieces a bit larger than final dimensions — required critical judgment and precise workmanship. Respect for the trees, translated to respect for the lumber that was cut from them, demanded that the wood should not be wasted. I laid out the rough mill to create the proper cuts such that the panels would best reveal the beauty of the grain and character, but also to minimize the left-overs.

With the rough mill complete, the process of selection and layout continued for the individual panels. There were to be 2 sets of 3 panels each. From this point on, stiles, rails, kumiko (the woven lattice pieces), and hipboards were assembled with traditional joinery, cut and chiseled with traditional hand tools. Shoji joinery is quite simple — blind mortise and tenon, and dado joints primarily. Inspired by the writings of Toshio Odate, I tried to create paper thin blind mortises for the greatest strength, and to cultivate the experience of unseen quality.

The kumiko, or lattice pieces, are “woven” to give the panels lateral stability and strength. There are no fasteners in the shoji screens. The wood joinery set in place with homemade rice glue impart the greatest strength and durability. I worked on one set of shoji at a time in an assembly-line fashion, clamping groups of pieces together for layout and cutting. Much of the precision with traditional hand tools can be achieved through good working posture, inner calmness, and unwavering attention. These are qualities that I seek to cultivate in my yoga practice, and these screens would eventually be my constant companion in my yoga space.

Each set of shoji has hundreds of mortises, tenons, and dadoes. The precision of the layout for these joints was essential; they would be matched up only when all of the finished pieces were ready for assembly.

Planing, and the care and sharpening of our planes and chisels, became a daily ritual. After days (or weeks!) of patient, repetitive work, when the pieces for 3 panels received their finish plane, I cooked a big pot of sticky rice and happily partook thereof before mashing the rice glue.

The kumiko were woven together, the rails met stiles, panels slid into slots. It was a rather rapid conclusion after so many hours of preparations. I made 3 panels in each cycle of work.

The installation was another exercise of careful layout, preparation, and final touches.

I built these screens in 2003. With no applied finishes, no hardware, no fasteners, their appearance and function has hardly changed in 6 years, which is a testament to the wisdom of traditional craftsmanship.


Unknown said...

A well written tribute to an unappreciated craft. Exceptional, insightful narrative.

Anonymous said...

These are absolutely beautiful! If I could afford to build a small teahouse (or meditation room), I'd want these in it.

MJ Shapiro said...

beautiful work. Thank you for sharing. I am just starting on a shoji screen building adventure. I am thinking about wood. I am not so sophisticated in wood selection. I am an amature any ideas for a easily available wood in chicago. Also I plan to disassemble my teahouse seasonal use only


Kim Mosley said...

I'm not in touch with the couple who did this... so I can't help you. I'm sure good wood is available in Chicago. Just Google fine lumber Chicago.