How to Build a Shoji Screen
Paper shoji screens provide privacy without completely blocking light, and traditional Japanese houses include them as sliding door features. It isn't always easy to adapt a western house to accommodate sliding shojis, but you don't have to.
Three of these lightweight panels held together by hinges makes an unpretentious and easy-to-maneuver room divider. You can buy the wooden pieces premilled or mill them yourself. If you have moderate carpentry skills, you can put a shoji screen together with basic hand tools. Look for the special paper known as washi at arts and crafts, paper stores or specialty Asian craft stores to cover the frames so that your screens are as attractive and authentic-looking as possible.
Things You Will Need
- Tape measure
- One-by-two lumber
- Carpenter's glue
- 1 1/2-inch finish nails
- Japanese rice paper
- Rice glue
- Utility knife
- Spray bottle
- 4 cabinet hinges
If you want to paint the wood or black-lacquer it, do it after assembling the frame and before you attach the paper. Even though it's more complicated, you can also make panels with a interlocking mesh of 1/2-by-1/2-inch lattice pieces, called kumiko. This requires accurate measurements and precision notching with a Japanese pull saw and a chisel. If desired, you can make your shoji screens any height you wish, but 7 feet is the traditional height.
Apply common sense, caution and safety practices when working with tools.
Wear protective goggles when cutting wood to protect eyes from flying bits and splinters of wood.
To protect your hearing, wear sound-deadening ear muffs or ear plugs when running the saw.
Rip six lengths of one-by-two lumber that are 7 feet long from larger boards, and 18 lengths that are 30 inches long on a table saw, or have the wood milled at your local home improvement center where you bought it. You can also pickup lengths of one-by-two lumber in 8-foot sections and cut to size. Cedar is the traditional material used in Japan, but you can use redwood, fir or any any other knot-free hardwood or softwood.
Construct three identical panels. Once they're done, you'll assemble them with hinges to form the screen. Assemble the frame for one of the panels by laying out its two stiles -- which are the vertical side pieces -- on the floor. Put carpenter's glue on the ends of two of the crosspieces and use them to join the tops and bottoms of the stiles. These two crosspieces are the rails of the panel. Mount the bottom crosspiece an inch above the stiles, to allow for feet for the panel.
Join the rails to the stiles by driving 1 1/2-inch finish nails into each of the corners of the stiles. Allow the glue to set while you construct the other two frames in the same way.
Position the rest of the crosspieces between the stiles to form a series of identical rectangles up the length of the individual panels. Put glue on the ends of the crosspieces and drive finish nails through the stiles to hold the crosspieces in place.
Unroll a sheet of washi, or Japanese rice paper, large enough to cover one of the panels. Spread water-soluble rice glue -- available where pick up the washi -- on the faces of the stiles and crosspieces on one side the panel. Lay the paper carefully, starting at the top of the panel and pulling slightly as you work toward the bottom to work out the wrinkles. Don't pull hard enough to dislodge the paper from the glue.
Set the panel against a wall and wait for the glue to dry, which takes about 6 hours. When the glue dries, cut the paper flush with the outside of the frame, using a utility knife. Mist the paper with water from a spray bottle. As the water dries, the paper will shrink and tighten up on the frame.
Attach two cabinet hinges to one stile of the middle panel, then connect two more to the other stile on the opposite side of the panel by inserting wood screws through the holes on the hinges. Join the two outside panels to the middle one by connecting them by the hinges, inserting wood screws through the holes in the hinge to the panels. When you're done, the screen should fold in and out like an accordion.
Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.
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- GOTO_TOKYO/iStock/Getty Images