This One Rings a Bell

Following up from some recent postings on the subject of Japanese bell towers, or shōrō, I’d now like to introduce the subect of about a gajillion posts to come: the design and construction of an actual Japanese bell tower. I could have equally titled this thread “Saved by the Bell”, as I had been wondering if the opportunity to build a purely Japanese traditional structure would ever come my way. And it has in a big way – I have become engaged in the drawing process in the past few weeks and it looks very much like the project will take up a good chunk of a year’s time to follow. It was a long wait for a job of this awesomeness to come along, but definitely worth it.

Sometimes I need to pinch myself to check that this isn’t some sort of dream that I will wake up from. The client has commited funds and he is serious. So, onward we go.

Usually one might expect some compromises in doing any larger structures of a Japanese flavor out here in North America. The residential architecture is a loose fit at best since not many of us live on the floor, so to speak, and few of us in the colder climatic regions would be content in the archetypal Japanese uninsulated house with thin walls, huddling by the kerosene stove in the winter, so adapting the useful and paring off or modifying the rest is the order of the day in most parts of the continent. Almost everything of this sort, save for the odd detached tea house, is a product of compromise and of varying design success.

A bell tower is another kettle of fish altogether. Here is the opportunity to build a purely Japanese traditional temple structure without trying to adapt it to Western lifestyle or needs. There are no plastered walls, in most cases, so most of the structure is exposed to view. It’s a unique building designed with a definite functional purpose in mind, and yet one with a large range of aesthetic and structural possibilities. Very intriguing.

This is a really exciting opportunity for me, and one for which I feel I am feeling very well prepared after my extensive study/exploration of Japanese roof carpentry as well as splayed post structures of various kinds over the past dozen years. This bell tower is for a temple garden complex in Southern California. I’ll be doing the design and cut out here in New England and, when it is done, plan on taking it all out to the west coast to assemble the structure to completion.

The bell has been cast and is currently being packed for shipment. It weighs 2600 lbs., about 6′ tall and with a 46″ mouth. Here’s a picture:

This is a serious bell. It’s not kidding around at all.

I’ve been drawing the support structure for the past few weeks and have just started in on the roof design. I’d like to share a few pictures to start off this thread, though the design will undoubtedly evolve over the coming weeks and months.

I’ve looked at hundreds and hundreds of different bell towers and, in consultation with the client, narrowed down to a tower deriving from the early form of open-framed tower first seen at Tōdaiji the type with the flanking posts at each corner. I’ve looked at many examples of this type as well, and compared structural systems, which can vary quite a bit. There is no standard form really when you get down to brass tacks.

My design employs cylindrical corner posts with rectilinear flanking posts:

Here’s another view:

In the middle of the run of two beams you can see a strut, termed a ‘bottle-neck’ strut. I’ll be talking more about those later. The raftering will be of the fanning variety, and the roof will be curvilinear. In the above two drawings the straight hips and commons are only in place provisionally as part of a method of determining eave projection. The curved parts will be created on separate drawings and added in shortly. At this point the eave depth looks to be a little over 5′ (160 cm).

The roof will be a hipped gable, or irimoya, and I will be using the hidden roof/decorative roof system, along with concealed cantilevers inside the roof. A drop ceiling will conceal the interior of the roof from being seen from below.

If one could combine into one project some of the most difficult technical layout issues in Japanese carpentry practice, it would be a bell tower like this one. It’s a big challenge for me, and certainly the most complex structure I’ve designed. What makes it so difficult? Well, consider some of the features inherent in the design:

– the corner posts are regular compound splayed, cylindrical with piercing tie beams
– the flanking posts are irregular compound splayed, with piercing tie beams
– the visible hip rafters are regular in plan and curved
– the hidden hip rafters are irregular in plan and curved
– the perimeter fascia is comprised of four levels, completely curved with no flat sections, shaped to compensate for visual foreshortening, and features the infamous ‘fuki-ji‘ problem (more on that when the time comes)
– the fan rafters are unique in length and cross section at each position, are also individually uniquely rhomboid in cross section and differentially curvilinear
– there will be use of compound-angled through splines in several locations in the roof structure
– the interior roof cantilevers are compound fanned and rhomboid in section
– the gable roof end will be curvilinear and has the minoko feature
– there are to be several carved elements, including but not limited to the bottle-neck struts, pillow blocks, bracket arms, barge boards, gable pendant (gegyo) and beam ends, etc.

The wood for much of this, by the way is Yellow Cedar coming from Alaska. One of my favorite woods to play with. I’m hoping to use a fair amount of Black Locust on some of the hidden roof components, depending upon whether I can find good material. The roof is to be shingled in copper, a task which I will also be undertaking.

There’s a lot to occupy my mind on this project that’s for sure and I’m looking forward to the fun. There’s so much to explore, learn and share and I hope you’ll come back to follow the thread. I will occasionally be blogging on other topics in upcoming months, but this bell tower will be the focus.

As John Donne said, Ask not for whom the bell tolls. The bell tolls for thee.

–> On to post 2

5 Replies to “This One Rings a Bell”

  1. Wow!!! That's all I have to say. Even the model is a work of art. Is this a solo project??

    Ian Lawford

  2. I am so looking forward to this project! I have been reading your blog for a while now and really enjoy your work, your whole process and your thoughts in general. I am not a carpenter, but am trying to change careers, and your work and your blog are an inspiration.

    Thanks again!

    – Ben

  3. Hi Ian,

    glad you like the model so far. I'm really keen to see how the roof form comes out in the next couple of weeks.

    Solo project? At this point, yes, though I imagine I'll be needing some help at some point, especially when it comes time to raise it.


    I appreciate your enthusiasm, and feel free to chime in any time during the build.


    the wood will be ordered at the conclusion of the design stage, and after said design has been presented to the building department for approval. The location of the tower is pretty much right atop the San Andreas fault, so I imagine they might want me to obtain an engineer's stamp. I have some engineers I can contact in CA who will look over the drawings and can stamp if it meets their standards, so I think that should go relatively smoothly. Hah! – famous last words perhaps!

    Fortunately this structure is not a dwelling and is smaller than a house (though bigger than a shed), so as an 'accessory structure' it will likely not be subject to as many code requirements as would a house. I think that with the bell hanging in the center of the splayed-post tower and not rigidly connected to it, it is an incredibly stable arrangement of timber.

    I expect the wood might be arriving in my shop sometime around October of this year – we'll see.


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