Japanese Hutch: Mizuya

Well, seems like it’s time to do a design/build thread. My wife and I are contemplating some kitchen remodeling in the next year or two, and regardless of what we do with the kitchen, we are looking for a freestanding piece of furniture to store dinnerware and flatware. That means a sideboard, Welsh Dresser, Hutch, or similar. I’ve been considering different ideas. One of the nicer hutches I have come across is this Black Walnut piece by Tony Konovaloff:

While a few parts of this cabinet do not appeal to me, it is overall a beautiful and well-crafted piece. Top and bottom are separate units, connected to one another with a concealed sliding dovetail. Lotsa dovetail joints in that piece.

I looked at classical Ming furniture, but really couldn’t find any examples of cabinets to store kitchen/dining stuff, though the Chinese practice was to store everything in cabinets and boxes, so the omission seems a bit odd. Most of the cabinets I’ve come across sit on legs to keep them well off the earthen floors and any dampness, and for my application that wasn’t a consideration. I prefer the visual and literal grounded-ness of a sill.

Then I started look at tansu again. While I have never been a fan of the construction employed in many tansu, which is, well, usually on the lighter side, there is much to admire in the form and storage logic. There was a type of tansu made for storing dining ware, called, in western Japan at least, a mizuya (水屋), which literally means ‘water room’. What the term suggests is that this is a cabinet for use where the water is used in the house. A couple of other terms for ‘kitchen cabinet’ are daidokoro-todana (台所戸棚), literally ‘kitchen doors and shelves’, and zen-dana (膳棚) – nothing to do with Zen Buddhism, here the character for ‘zen’, 膳, means ‘serving tray’, and ‘food offering’. A modern term used to describe kitchen furniture meant to store both food and dining utensils, etc., is shokki-dana (食器棚). Finally there is the term nezumi-irazu (鼠入らず) used to describe a type of kitchen storage cabinet. Nezumi is a mouse or rat, 鼠, and these cabinets feature compartments screened with wire mesh to keep rodents from getting at food. Today, daidokoro-todana is a generic term for kitchen cabinets of all kinds, built-in or freestanding, and many Japanese have no idea what the term ‘mizuya-dansu’ means – they’d likely have to Google it. Mizuya are not a typical piece in the Japanese house of today, where the standard melamine-faced cabinets have made significant inroads, just like everywhere else on the planet.

I’ve been scoping out various example of mizuya. One common type of mizuya you see has the horizontal frame members extended so as to have protruding ‘horns’:

Frankly, I’ve never much liked these horns, seeing them as something to catch loose clothing on, and suggesting, to me at least, a certain, well, crudity. Notice with the piece though the characteristic assembly of two cabinets, one sitting atop the other. Both cabinets are of the same size though the upper cabinet is often the taller one of the pair. It’s a nice idea to have the two cabinets, as it would allow them to be separated and configured as two independent units if one liked, but a drawback is that you end up with a slightly thick band of double framing exposed to view where they meet. Having the cabinets demountable does facilitate installing them in places where it would be hard to maneuver in a full size piece, but in our kitchen on the first floor, access is not an issue so I’m thinking the demountable feature may not be a factor in this case.

Here’s a cabinet with much of the look of the ‘horned’ type, but with the projections trimmed off and the frame edges mitered:

One also sees mizuya with the exterior frame members mitered together on their broad faces:

The above example is also a one-piece unit. With a two piece unit and mitered frames, you end up with this sort of thing:

Notice the screened-in sliding doors in the middle, and the sorta tacked-on looking cornice.

There are mizuya that are not of the frame and panel type but are carcase-joined pieces, like this example:

I really like the unusual bow-front drawers on this example, and the rounded upper carcase junctions. Note the glass-paneled sliding doors and the incorporation of staggered shelves for displaying pottery, etc.. I really like this piece but I’m not really decided at this point as to whether to employ frame-and-panel, or carcase-joined construction. They are both good ways to build furniture.

I do like glass panels in the sliding doors, and you see many examples of mizuya from the 20th century with just such a feature:


So, much food for thought at this point. The parameters controlling design at this point are primarily those of the available space, which happens to be about 20″ deep, and 50″ wide. So, a cabinet that is taller than is is wide will be the sort of piece I will construct.

I’ve made a start on a drawing in SketchUp, just working on rough massing and proportioning – here’s how things look at this early juncture:

This first one is a frame and panel cabinet, however I am still thinking about drawing a carcase-joined one as well. I’ll see if my wife has a preference one way or the other. I like the frame and panel for the connection (no pun intended) to timber frame construction. Making a cabinet like a little building does appeal, however there are differences in the logic of construction that manifest in differ schemes for component sizing and joinery decisions. We’ll see where the ride takes me for the time being.

And materials are another factor. I have a bunch of cocobolo and a large slab of bubinga kicking around the shop with nobody’s name on them, so those materials are definitely in the running. I may go for a lighter colored wood though. There’s also the question of monochrome or mixing species. And then there’s the hardware…. We’ll see what happens and I hope you’ll return next time to see what sort of trouble I’ve landed myself in. thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way. On to the next post.

8 Replies to “Japanese Hutch: Mizuya”

  1. Hello Chris,

    Great! looking forward to this thread. I have a stack of walnut with no name yet and have been leaning toward a similar project.

    N. Idaho

    PS, had one of the best sausages of my life at the people's pint this summer during a visit your way.

  2. Chris

    This is exciting!

    Before you get too far in the design, I vote for a drawer arrangement like that in the fourth photo and barred doors like those in the third photo. Elm would get my vote for the primary wood. It IS an election year, after all.

    Looking forward to a series of enthralling posts


  3. Chris in N. Idaho,

    glad you got a chance to sample the delights at the Peoples Pint. They make a fine brown/farmers ale.

    Thanks for your comment! If you make your walnut hutch, send me pics.


  4. Tom,

    well i can see you certainly are in a voting frame of mind! What is it about the 4th photo, with the two sliding door sets and the middle cluster of 4 drawers that appeals to you? Elm is a wood i haven't worked with much and it isn't commonly available around here, though the local hardwood supplier did have an elm slab last year. A tricky matter to decide….


  5. Chris –

    Really looking forward to this thread and seeing what you come up with and how you put it together. I built a fairly big (roughly 7' long and 5' tall), two piece walnut tansu inspired cabinet for my kitchen a couple of years ago and very much enjoyed combining drawers, doors and sliding doors in the design. I like the asymmetry in a lot of Japanese pieces, which I don't see much in western cabinets, or when present, seems to me to be particularly uninspiring.


  6. Chris

    How embarrassing! I marked the wrong ballot!

    I meant to vote for the fourth 'mizuya', which is the fifth photo. The lower case is really brilliant, with 10 drawers (can't have too many drawers in a kitchen) in three groups and the asymmetrically placed sliding-door cupboard. The upper case is not as nice, but the barred doors in photo four, the third 'mizuya', could work really well in place of the screened doors. You don't even need handles, since any bar will work to slide the door.

    I saw an antique chest of drawers made of elm once…very dignified wood.


  7. I know this is an old post, but I was wondering where the source for the picture of the mizuya with the carcase joined pieces with he rounded edges came from. I just found that exact cabinet on Craigslist and was researching it before we made an offer. Any information is helpful!! Thanks!!

  8. Julie,

    I can't remember where I came across that image, however I seem to recall it was on a Japanese site or possibly auction site. It's a handsome cabinet form.


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