A while back a reader wrote to me and mentioned that he had thought (to the best of my recollection) that Japanese joinery was noodly until he had come across my blog. By inference, therefore, that I was doing something unusual. I had shifted his understanding a bit, which is good to know.
I’m not up on the latest slang, so the word ‘noodly’ didn’t have meaning for me, though I sensed a certain negative connotation. Checking my two hulking unabridged dictionaries, one for British English and the other for American, I could find no listing for noodly, though was surprised to find that noodle can mean “think creatively”. Japanese joints are often indeed creative in their approach to solving given demands. Searching further, on the internet that is, I came across the following definition on Urban Dictionary, the authority of which I have no real idea, but at least it provided a listing:
“Being of or like a noodle; wobbly, tired, floppy, drooping onto the person next to you.”
Ah, I see, so the fellow who wrote me had the impression that Japanese joinery was perhaps weak and insubstantial, likely to collapse possibly. I was a bit flummoxed by this assertion, however I sat on that and never actually replied to the fellow with an explanation. My impression of Japanese joinery is quite the opposite of noodly – I would use words like, elegant, refined, well-thought out, evolved, clever, stout, etc., and I hardly feel a need to defend that.
Anyhow, the other day I was surfing around the net looking for one thing and another when I came across a website of a furniture maker from New York (who shall remain nameless, and I must stress it is not my intention to pick on anyone here). On his site the maker asserts,
“A key aspect of the furniture we make and design is the hand cut joinery. Largely inspired by Japanese carpentry, these joints are critical not only in their sturdiness but also in the design.“
That sounds pretty good, and then I looked at the pictures….
This is a joint described as mechigai-dome:
While the fit between parts is reasonable, the joint is frankly absurd. It’s, uh, noodly. The U-shaped bit on the end of one of the sticks would break if any bending or rotational load was imposed on the joint. That is not a Japanese joint, at least not as far as I’m aware, however the joint is described with a Japanese name, so, sufficiently intrigued, I figured that the name had to have come from some source and I did a little investigation.
There are very few books on Japanese joinery in English, and of the, oh, half dozen that have been printed covering the topic in any detail, only two are relatively easy to track down. One of those is Japanese Joinery: A Handbook for Joiners and Carpenters, which is a translation of a work by Yasuo Nakahara (now bundled up with another work to form The Complete Japanese Woodworking, or something like that), and the book The Art of Japanese Joinery by Kiyosi (sic) Seike. His name would actually be Kiyoshi I might add. I’m familiar with both books, and rarely refer to either. The translation of the Nakahara work, Japanese Joinery, is missing two chapters from the orginal Japanese version, and there are numerous typos in the translation, including some critical ones in giving proportions of parts, etc.. The illustrations however are clean and show a stylistically-normal sample of Japanese joints.
The Seike work, on the other hand, has some downright odd commentary, and the joints are often quite poorly cut, and often of odd proportions. I thought to look at the Seike book to see if it listed a mechigai-dome. It did:
“These joints are not particularly strong structurally, but when carefully made they give a very nice appearance to the finished work. Although tome, or dome, means “miter joint”, these joints are grouped with the mechigai-dome, or rabbeted stub tenon, and ari-dome, or housed dovetail, so we could more properly consider all these joints as belonging to a class of corner finishing joints. The purpose of these joints is to create a firm joint while concealing the actual structure of the joint.“
Well, I’ll just say from the outset here that I don’t care much for Seike’s book, and think it presents a number of problems, some of which I would like to now get into.
I happen to have quite a few books on Japanese joinery, some very comprehensive, and nowhere in them will you find a joint referred to as “mechigai-dome”. Before we go on, since I will be using the word tome/~dome a fair bit, and assume most readers are not familiar with spoken Japanese, here’s how you pronounce it: toh-may/~doh-may; the word is two syllables, unlike the English words “tome” (a thick or lengthy book) and “dome” (a hemispherical structure). The Japanese word is read “tome” when standing along or starting a phrase, and “~dome” when appended to another word as a suffix.
Written in kanji, it looks like this: 留
The character ‘留‘ is further broken down into two parts, ‘卯‘ on the top, and ‘田‘ on the bottom. The piece on the bottom, ‘田‘, is a picture of a rice paddy, a sectioned agricultural field. The bit on top, ‘卯‘ stems from a pictograph, which comes in two variants:
These are both pictures of a pair of hinged doors. The upper pictograph has a bar across it, which means that the door is barred to prevent forced entry. In the lower one, the bar is absent, which is taken to mean that entry has been forced already. The meaning of ‘卯‘ then is bend, force to bend, exert force and bend. When ‘卯‘ is placed atop rice paddy, ‘田‘, to make the kanji ‘留‘, the resultant original meaning is field worker rounding his back, stooping with exhaustion. This has led to modern senses of ‘留‘ along the lines of stop, temporarily stay, fix in place, settle, and so forth. In Japanese woodworking joinery, the term tome is applied to mitered joints. So, Seike, while he acknowledges the meaning of tome/~dome, errs, I feel, by putting the joint he calls mechigai-dome in with that class of mitered (tome) joints though the joint shown has no mitered abutments whatsoever.
Now then there is the matter of the term mechigai. I’m not going to delve so deeply into the etymology this time, however, I can show that it is written with the following pair of kanji: 目違. The first of these kanji, ‘目‘ read me (pronounced “meh”) is a pictograph of an eye and means eye, while the second one, ‘違‘, read chigai, means different, or difference. The meaning is not “different eyes”, but rather something which presents a difference to the eye. This refers, in woodwork, to a rabbeted ledge along a stick of wood, a ledge or step found on the end grain of a piece, or a stub tenon. When the kanji refers to a stub tenon, the word mechigai is shortened to mechi.
The joint described by Seike could be called mechigai, however this term is rather generic since there are numerous arrangements and configurations of stub tenon, both in right-angled and in splicing joints. The technically correct name for the joint depicted in the Seike book is kaki-komi-ko-ne-tsugi (欠入み小根接ぎ), ko-ne being another word to describe a stub tenon (or in other cases a diminished tenon).
Okay, so one can quibble with the nomenclature, and as there are several Japanese joints which are described with different terms in different books, that contention may be moot and largely set aside. That’s fine.
More to the point is Seike’s contention about such joints,
“The purpose of these joints is to create a firm joint while concealing the actual structure of the joint.”
Let’s look again at it:
What part of this joint is concealed? The rebate is obvious, as is the stub tenon. This joint seems to fail the purpose it was intended for, at least as described by Seike. Now, mitered joints do have this function however.
Seike does note correctly, “These joints are not particularly strong structurally“. There’s the rub. Some mitered joints are strong, but many are not. None of the simple stub tenon joints are structurally great. The problem with the presentation in that text is that the joints are presented often as disembodied entities, without much in the way of useful context. One might choose to use a joint such as depicted above for a ground sill, bolted to concrete and turning a corner (and having no post on top), preferably someplace under the floor and well out of site. That would make sense, though I would still choose other connections myself. The rebate and stub tenon give it some mechanical interlock, the rebate preventing the connecting stick from moving sideways in only one direction, and the stub tenon containing the piece from wanting to spring upwards or downwards. But! – to take the joint and use it for something like a connection between, say, a leg and rail in a table, would be ill-advised to say the least. Such a joint would be of course completely dependent upon glue, and once the glue bond ultimately failed, the joint would have almost nothing left to keep it in together. Seike doesn’t tend to make much mention of applications when he is describing various joints.
I might add that the fellow who shows that “Japanese” joint on his site also has taken an inherently weak connection and made it even worse through adaptation- let’s look at it again:
You have to look pretty hard in fact to see the starting point for this creation in the Seike book. My supposition here is that the maker is not looking at such a connection from a structural logic point of view, but rather than from a sculptural/aesthetic view only. And that’s a problem. While woodwork joints can indeed be sculptural to one extent or another, they are intended to serve functions first and foremost. When the joint is intended to have structural use, it had better have some structural integrity. Most Japanese joints are designed that way.
If the above assemblage were simply glued together as an art object, meant to be displayed on a table, then I would have less to grumble about I suppose, however to use the joint for a frame of a bench, say, for effect alone (I can only presume), well, that rubs me the wrong way and I feel it gives Japanese joinery a bad name. I would be happier if the maker described it as his interpretation of Japanese joinery and intended it purely as a sculptural piece. Instead, he goes so far as to claim, and I quote again, “these joints are critical not only in their sturdiness but also in the design.“
Joints are indeed critical, but the one shown is hardly sturdy, nor do I see how it would be critical to any design. Pfft! I think its time to throw a Rage Against the Machine cd into the player….
Okay, enough grousing for one day – my apologies! Nonetheless I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Carpentry Way today. Steer clear of the noodly!