How to Build a Shoji
Wood and paper panels were brought to Japan from China as early as the 8th Century. The Japanese adapted the form to separate rooms and create walls in buildings on the semi-tropical islands. They also made screens, lamps and other artifacts with rice paper and bamboo. Crafters may use bamboo sticks and sheets or shower curtains to make their versions of these graceful artifacts, but true shoji require traditional supplies, some woodworking skill and considerable patience.
Make mortise and tenon joints at the corners to build your frame. Rout out a one-inch deep slot (mortise) on the 60-inch upright parts of the frames, and carve away tenons on the ends of the 18-inch top and bottom pieces. These pieces will form your frame---check for square with a carpenter's square before proceeding. Then make a matching frame for the other side of the panel.
Assemble the mullions by laying 1-by-1-inch uprights and cross-pieces out and marking with a pencil where they will cross. Make half-inch deep and 1-inch wide "lap" cuts at the junctions so that the mullions will fit together flat. Repeat for the second set of mullions, using the same layout as the first set---if your layout is not symmetrical, be sure to make your second set of mullions a "mirror-image" of the first so they will match when put back-to-back.
Rout out 1-inch "dovetail" slots on the edges of each frame member where you will set the ends of the "mullions" or inside strips of wood that will separate the "panes" of your shoji panel. Fit the assembled mullions into the dovetail slots on the frames. Upright mullions should have their lap cuts showing on the side that will be papered so that from the front they appear to be one solid piece and the cross pieces appear to be cut.
Clean off the edges where joinery cuts have been made with fine sandpaper. Assemble each side of the panel before beginning to glue to make sure that each fits together and they mirror each other exactly. This part of the process is very important. Once the pieces have been fit properly, attach the mullion lap joints with a dab of wood glue, then glue the mortise and tenon joints on the top, one side and the bottom. Put a dab of glue in each dovetail slot and set the mullion assembly in. Then dab glue in the dovetails of the remaining side and into the mortise slots at the top and bottom. Slide it into the frame underneath the mullions and slip the mortise and tenon joints together at top and bottom. Clamp the frame and set books on the mullion cross lap joints and let it dry completely. Repeat with frame for the opposite side.
Trim the rice paper if necessary to fit exactly on the back of one of the frames. Put a spare bead of wood glue along the "in-side" of each frame where it will hold the paper. Be careful to avoid getting glue near the inside edges where it might drip. Flatten the glue out with your fingers and remove any excess. Lay the paper across the back of one frame and cover it with the other. Drill one hole at each corner through the mortise and tenon and secure with a piece of dowel. Clamp the corners and allow the panel to dry before trimming and sanding the dowels.
- Assemble the panel flat and don't stand it upright until the glue dries.
- Stain or lacquer parts before assembling panels--put a small piece of tape in each joint to keep coatings off the wood that will be glued.
- Add any decoration to paper before framing. Although traditional Japanese panels don't have decoration, Chinese tradition allows ink drawings of trees or birds. The majority of the detail should be toward the bottom of the screen--eye level for someone who would be seated on the floor near it.
- Do not use too much glue. It will wrinkle the paper or, worse, drip on it.
An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.
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