BCM Tansu Repair

The Boston Children’s Museum commissioned me to repair a couple of old tansu that are located within the Kyo No Machiya, a 19th century Machi-ya, originally from Kyoto, and now located within the Museum in its own dedicated space.

Check this link out to get a better idea of the place:


One of the tansu is a mizuya-dansu, or china cabinet, located prominently to the side of the kitchen – or ‘water place’ as mizuya literally means just that – while the other is an large heya-dansu (lit. ‘room cabinet’) located in the front room of the house, tucked inside a closet. I’m not sure, but it may have been used for storing merchant’s wares at some point, and if so, it might be better termed a shōhin-dansu.

I rented a box truck yesterday and went to Boston to extract, with help from Museum staff, the cabinets from the house and out of the Museum and take them back to my workshop. That all went incredibly smoothly and quickly.

Each cabinet is composed of two halves, an upper and a lower, which can be readily demounted from one another. Here’s the lower half cabinet from the sitting room:

Locating pins are supposed to be in place to help register the cabinets to one another, however nearly all of these pins are missing.

And this is the upper cabinet of that pair:

The newer-looking piece on top was added to make up for the gap between the top of the cabinet and the top of the closet opening.

The upper half of the kitchen cabinet set:

The lower half is already in surgery, flat on its back:

These cabinets exist within an unusual context as far as most tansu are concerned, namely within a children’s museum full of interactive models and equipment, over several floors. Now, picture groups of 10~15 kids descending, wave after wave, upon the Kyo no Machiya, after those same children have been primed for action, as it were, by all the other action-oriented stuff in the museum. Naturally, when entering the house, they want to grab and pull and push vigorously on everything they can touch. I’ve watched this in action and it is something to see. So, all the sliding doors in the house, along with the sliding doors and drawers within the cabinets, receive extraordinary amounts of wear, and much of the handling they do receive is not of the most gentle sort, as you can well imagine.

The biggest issue on these two cabinets concerns the sliding doors and their track, the surfaces of which have worn to a point which might be described as eroded, a near-driftwood-like wear pattern. The doors are very loose and do not track well in these cabinets at all.

On this first piece to be dealt with, the lower outer rail has severely worn tracks, to the point where there really isn’t much left. I was able to demount the joinery at the corners and remove the rail, the connections being haunched and wedged through-tenons:

Curiously, the tenons have two wedging kerfs and yet are only flared and wedged on one side. Not sure if that was a cut out error or an item which was overlooked in the construction phase.

I had wondered how the cabinet managed to present a slimmish look for the lower front rail, which is near to a 2×4 in size, when looking at the exterior corner of the rail, and yet accommodate two doors and two tracks, much wider than the rail itself. The solution employed was simple enough, and not something I would have ever considered: they nailed on a scab rail on the inside of the frame member, rebated that scab-on piece on one side to form a track, and on the other to accommodate the end of the floor boards, which were themselves nailed down to the scab-on piece.

Toshio Odate wrote, somewhere, that Japanese craftsmen have a “different feeling” about using nails as composed to Western furniture makers. I’m not entirely sure what that feeling is/was, however it does look like enthusiasm if nothing else. Lotsa nails on these cabinets. Nails that stick out and scratch drawer sides, puncture your skin, nails that rust, work their way loose, split boards, etc…

I’m not a fan of nails for cabinet work. They have their place in construction of course.

The nails for these scabbed-on rails were quite corroded and the rail itself was easy to remove. Then I routed out the old track, or shiki-i, section entirely:

A closer look:

I leave a lip on the front so as to maintain a continuity of appearance when the repair is complete.

A rusted remnant of one nail was unfortunately found by my router bit in this spot:

These cabinets are constructed from a softwood, namely sugi (cryptomeria japonica), and the fresh cuts above indicate its natural color. They used stain of some kind to give it a dark brown appearance, on the areas which show most obviously.

I was struck by how crudely these cabinets are made. All the attention in terms of how they were made went to the wood on the facade, while the rest of the cabinet, back , floors, drawer internals, etc., consists largely of rough boards nailed in place. Here’s the top of the sitting room cabinet:

The low humidity in the Museum also did the woodwork not help, as most of the wider panels have shrunk severely and cracks and gaps are ubiquitous. The low humidity also exacerbated the propensity of cheaper cuts of wood, such as are used on the back of the cabinets, to warp significantly.

The back of the lower half of the sitting room cabinet:

The back of the upper half of the sitting room cabinet:

I believe the six longer rear boards you can see were added at a later date, and serve to cover over large shrinkage gaps between the original panels.

The back of the upper half of the kitchen cabinet has one especially warped panel:

As for the lower half of the kitchen cabinet, at some point in the past, probably when the building was put into the museum in the late 1980’s, repairs had been undertaken, as these fresher-looking floor boards and lower crosspiece demonstrate:

Unfortunately, the floor boards had been simply nailed down, and I guess sugi is somewhat prone to splitting:

It’s too bad they didn’t take an extra 20 seconds and drill a pilot hole, or used blunted nails, so as to preclude the splitting, which was present at every nail hole. Nor did they bother to stain the floor panels to match the old ones.

The sliding doors for the cabinet I’m working on presently have also been repaired at least a couple of times in the past, with scabbed-on tongues applied across the top of the upper rails, and even some wedges glued atop those pieces, all to accommodate gaps from the tracks and lower door rails wearing severely. While it worked temporarily I’m sure, such approaches are hardly a great way to fix such doors. After I’ve renewed the tracks, I’ll see how the doors might be best dealt with. I’m aiming to turn over this repair work within a couple of weeks, so look for a few more posts to come on this topic before we return to the other cabinet build I’ve got going on.

All for now, thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way. On to post II.

15 Replies to “BCM Tansu Repair”

  1. Jonas,

    since that particular question has been asked about a dozen times in the past here on the Carpentry way, and I'm feeling slightly cheeky, I'll narrow it down to a multiple choice….

    Is it…

    ….a decorative paperweight?
    …something neat I found inside one of the cabinets?
    …a machinist 1-2-3 block that I use as a 90˚ chisel paring guide?


  2. That was an amazing virtual tour of the residence(I think I'll stick with the western style toilet tho!)
    I hope you show the finished work on the restoration, it does look like time and low humidity has taken its toll.
    As for the 123 block question….mine serves as both 1 and 3 answers…and a door stop sometimes.

  3. Guess I have missed reading a couple of your entries 🙂
    My first guess was actually something that you had made on your new milling machine, but since that isn't mentioned as a choice I'll have to go with the one one I think is correct.

    By the way options 1 and 2 are pretty cool too 🙂

  4. Looking forward to how you work out the repairs on these tansu Chris. I've seen a few tansu here in Brooklyn at antique shops, and while they look nice at first glance, most have the same issues you are dealing with…. nailed on split boards, and severely shrunken panels. I've never understood how/why craftsmen built tansu that way in Japan. I've heard it said that this style of construction works in Japan because of higher humidity but I find that somewhat hard to believe. I would think they would still have swings in humidity throughout the year that would put stress on nailed panels not allowed to move.
    Keep up the good work,

  5. I got to be shop assistant to Odate three years running for classes he taught here in Atlanta. He said of nails “Americans treat nails like measles! This is unfortunate!” There followed a 5-minute lecture on how to drive nails, the most important aspects of which were unspoken (his grip on the hammer, a pantomime of the point of the nail insinuating itself between wood fibers). I have detailed notes somewhere . . .

    The conclusion of the mini-lecture was to show us his traveling tool boxes, all of them nailed together. He said that to see those boxes dovetailed or finger-jointed just wouldn't “feel right” to him – – so you don't like nails in cabinetry, he likes nails, this is all about feelings? I feel like I mostly agree with you on this question, but thinking about it has raised this question: if your only tool is a pattern mill, does everything start to look like a sliding hammerhead joint?

    Odate was flabbergasted that Highland Hardware doesn't sell nails, and I was sent out to fetch some so he could show us the proper way to make a two-nail planing stop on the planing beam I had provided for the class. I offered to sharpen the head of one of the Spax screws we had in abundance, and the offer was nonverbally rebuffed in a quite decisive manner.

    Good times.

  6. Also very interested in seeing how you go about repairing this! One of my friends recently visited the BMFA and the BCM and she really enjoyed your work.

    Those nailed on back panels are common in western work, the logic in my understanding is that they do not care if it splits and they use nails because there is some flexibility in the connection. It's always seemed a bit slap-dash to me, especially on otherwise nice work. Cutting grooves and a rebate is hardly even considered additional work.

  7. Hi Jon,

    I appreciate your comment. I don't really buy the higher humidity argument, since all parts of Japan have their times of higher and lower relative humidity. It should be noted though that in houses without central heating, the environment overall is a lot less dry, and pieces like these will not have nearly the issues that come into play in a museum with year-round very low humidity.

    I think nailed on panels are simply an economical means of construction, suggesting that the craftsmen don't build these pieces with ultimate longevity in mind. After all, if they did, they wouldn't choose to use a softwood to build a piece of furniture.


  8. Jim,

    thanks for sharing. My comment about Odate's comment was nothing about Odate himself – his work speaks for itself – rather only the comment as it stands.

    Fasteners are certainly not 'all about feeling' for me. I see nails as an inferior means to put furniture together. They are economical and fast. If the Japanese craftsmen were so excited and proud of nails, then why wouldn't they place them prominently at the junctions of the frame members, on the front of the cabinet? Why bother with mortise and tenon in those locations, unless somehow you think those traditional connections connote something a little different than nails?

    And that's just it for me – the nails are used in places that don't show obviously, and thus the cabinets present one appearance to the front and sides, and have a reality rather different when you lift up the hood, so to speak.

    I understand your attempt to connect the idea that if all you have is a hammer then the world starts to look like a nail, and transfer that over to pattern mill + sliding hammerhead. A little off the mark though – those particular joints in my cabinets were made on the router table, not the pattern mill. Besides, the craftsmen who built these pieces of furniture hardly were limited to a hammer, any more than I am limited to just one tool or another. They made choices as to how to construct, not limited by their tools. In some places, they chose to use mortise and tenon joints and polished wood surfaces, and in other places, rough wood, nails carelessly banged in, and so forth. It's not a mater of what tools they had, it is a matter of how they chose to construct. It expresses what they believe about how a piece of furniture should look, and how it should be built. I don't see eye to eye with those methods or philosophies myself, though I certainly like aesthetic aspects of some tansu.

    Like I said, nails have their place in some things, and have their benefits to be sure, but for me, they do not belong in well-made furniture. I choose not to use them – other makers can make their own decisions I'm sure. I don't use nails either as stops for my planing beam, preferring a low cleat of wood, screwed down.


  9. Brian,

    good to hear from you as always. I agree with the slap-dash aspect which nails connote. Quick-and-dirty would be another way to put it. I think if they were in a not-so-dry environment they would do better .They would also have had better luck if the panels were largely quartersawn, however that does not seem to be what they used, as far as I have observed to this point.

    I'm not sure why they didn't take a little extra time and forming frame and panel with tongue and groove joints; just as you note, is isn't a whole lot of extra work, and there are rebates on some parts so it was within their tool set, so to speak.


  10. Ian,

    I guess I'm airing what might be seen as some 'dirty laundry', but a clear view is helpful in gaining an understanding, and I hope others think so too. Thanks for your comment.


  11. Two items come to mind. The first is how annoyed I get whenever I've visited a “hands on” museum with its busted and nonfunctioning displays and demonstration models. Mueum specialists seem compelled to design their exhibitions for the average unruly 8 year old.
    You've made the case that nails have their purpose in woodworking and that it's not just the question of nailing but how they are applied that determines their appropriateness. Are you approaching this job as a conservator or as a craftsman? Do you intend to return the cabinet having rethought the construction or maintaining the traces of workmanship of the original maker(s)?

  12. Potomacker,

    Thanks for the comment and question.

    As I am a craftsman and not a conservator, I look at these cabinets a bit differently. It should also be noted that the entire context is quite a bit different than with the usual museum, in which the pieces receive no handling at all.. Here, the condition of the cabinet is a direct outcome of the fact that it receives heavy direct handling and has worn significantly.

    The mandate I have is to repair the cabinets so that they are functional again, not to remake them or refinish them. I intend to keep the appearance/patina of the cabinets the same as they were when they came to me, but with parts working again and a new lease on life. That's what the craftsmen who installed the cabinets in the museum did back in the late 1980's as the cabinets would have been quite old and shop-worn by that point in time, however I tend to think that I can do a better job of it – one more sympathetic to the original manufacture of these cabinets- than they did. We'll see.

    I will approach this repair work in the same way as for the battari shogi (folding bench) that I repaired several years ago. There, I entirely replaced the frame as is was nearly eroded away, and kept the existing well-worn main panels. I changed the wood from stained sugi to wenge, which maintained nearly the same look as the original. I improved the construction of the hinge points, using lignum vitae pins, as the original sugi pins had not stood up well at all. The end result was a bench with freshened appearance which looked near identical to the old but with much better wearing characteristics. Seven years later, after a huge amount of use, that bench looks virtually as good as the day it was put in.

    I'm focusing on returning the sliding doors and tracks to working condition, and attending to other minor issues as I find them, not intending to leave a pronounced mark upon them that they are my works, but leave them looking much as their original makers had when they left them at the museum in 1986 or so.


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