The Well of Heaven (VII)

Finishing off this post series with a look at installation of the coffered Japanese ceiling.

I had anticipated that installation could be completed in one day, but it was not to be. In the end, an extra half, uh, maybe closer to 2/3 of a day, was needed, and that was for myself and my helper Matt. As expected, fitting the perimeter rails took the first half of day 1, and it went fairly well, though I had to make a few last minute mods to a couple of the joints to facilitate assembly. Fitting to wavy sheetrock is not among life’s pleasures, though the miters came out well.

With the perimeter framing, mawari buchi,  in place and fixed to the wall, we brought the interior framing members, sao buchi, into place. These all fitted without a hitch and every joint to the perimeter frame was nice and free of any issues. The half lapped double-mitered intersections were secures with angled trim head Spax screws.

Then a couple of issues did crop up. First of all, since this ceiling is only a couple of inches below the existing ceiling sheetrock, the room to operate was highly constrained. Further, the sheetrock was not even level, so one end of the room – the ned we started with – had even less room for the new ceiling. This made fitting the panels and their cleats far more of a chore than had been intended, as I could not get my forearm all the way into the space between the two ceilings.

Next: while I had spent a day fabricating aluminum bars to serve as the cleats, I had neglected to do a trial run of fitting the panels after the cleats were in place. This came back to bite me as the width of the aluminum cleats were a bit over that of the top of the frames, and thus the panels would not slip down past the edge of the cleats when they were turned to align with the frame members. This then necessitated either planing the edge of the panel enough to get it to fit past the protruding cleat edge, or notching the panel to clear the cleats, or removing the cleats, fitting the panel and then replacing the cleats. Taking the cleat fixing screws in and out with just about 2″ (50mm) of working space was troublesome. So, panel fitting did not proceed near as quickly as anticipated, simply due to the width of the cleats combined with the tight space available to do the work.

Also, once the panels were in place, the next step involved pushing in some wooden wedges to clamp the panel down between aluminum cleat and the frame, and in nearly every location, there was one wedge at the back which was so far in back in such that I couldn’t push it in place with my fingers as I couldn’t get my arm in to the narrow space. On top of that, I was standing on top of a step-ladder, my head jammed against the sheetrock ceiling sideways in a struggle to get an eyeball on the location to which I was trying to push the wedge.

For the first day I managed as best I could using the rule off of my combo square as a push stick to set the wedges, however, taking my cue from a New Caledonian Crow, back at the shop between sessions I made myself a special tool, just a notched stick really, with which I could place those recessed wedges.  That really did the trick on the second day, allowing the panels to go in at a much, ahem, faster clip.

An added bit of work concerned the fluorescent lights affixed to the ceiling. Though I anticipated that these would have to be shifted somewhat in location to be centered within their frame openings, I had not clearly grasped just how bulky they are.

The solution was to cut away some sheetrock and recess the lights up between the floor joists, a task handled in its entirety by Matt, who is a self-confessed Mafell fanboy, and will tell you, “I’m not an electrician”. Apparently this ‘Mafell stage’, essentially a terminal stage if truth be told, is reached after Festool disenchantment sets in, something which I can understand. Fortunately, online support groups do exist, and his regular employer even seems supportive of the condition generally.

We didn’t have time to take any pictures until I was fitting the last of the panels into place:

The completed ceiling with light covers installed:


A better view:

A closer look:

Another one:

And one of the corners:

I was pleased with the way the ceiling came out in the end. It suited the room – indeed, I think such a ceiling would suit a lot of rooms, western and Japanese alike.

At the conclusion of the ceiling work the new slider was fitted to the mizuya:

And the re-papered shōji were fitted to the round window opening:

That left the four shōji which partition the tearoom off from the rest of the house. When I first visited the house a couple of months back the doors were out of their tracks and leaning against the wall, which I presumed had something to do with the previous contractor’s work. I had brought them back to my shop and had repapered them and was looking forward to buttoning up the job by slipping them back into place – tah-dah! –  however the doors wouldn’t go into their openings. The the openings were too tight.

Closer inspection revealed two problems, the first of which was that the upper track was both sagged down in the middle and wavy, and slightly twisted. The second was that the lower track, shiki-i, was quite crowned in the middle of its run, to a degree far outside of what might be considered acceptable. Of the two issues, the bowed lower track was by far the largest problem, and not something which was either part of the scope of work or which could be addressed in a few minutes of tweaking. Even after trimming a shōji at the top just to get it to squeeze into the opening at one side, it would bind when slid towards the middle.

I explained the situation to the client and they decided that for the time being it would be okay to fit two shōji, one to the left side and one to the right of the opening, to more or less frame the opening and leave passage between. The slope in the lower track was sufficient that neither left nor right side had an even meeting between shōji outer stile and the wall post, however it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. I don’t think that the client is likely to want to address the issue in future, as it would require a bunch of work to sort out, so that’s how things were left. The client was delighted with their new ceiling and our work. I received final payment and we took our leave. The job had been done to the full satisfaction of the client, and that was the main thing.

I learned a few things through the troublesome fitting of the panels on this job, and will be armed and ready the next time I am in a similar situation. Self-inflicted wounds need not be repeated. A minor change to the width of the aluminum cleats would have made all the difference, and some rethinking of fasteners and how to get them in and out of constrained spaces will be required. All good, take the lessons learned and move on. Looking forward to the next opportunity to tackle a project of this nature.

Next week I will be back to the world of those bubinga cabinets, so it will again be a stark shift in material working qualities. Thanks for visiting the Carpentry Way.

12 Replies to “The Well of Heaven (VII)”

  1. The ceiling looks great Chris. I've always admired this type of ceiling, and I completely agree that it would enhance many rooms and be a welcome change from the standard textured sheetrock ceiling.

    Looking forward to seeing the next phase of work on the Ming-inspired cabinet.

  2. Nicely done Chris! Hopefully your clients have followed along in the process, to gain further appreciation of the work involved.

    Also, I'm certain that it will be hard for you to resist adding such a ceiling above your soon to be new cabinet!

  3. I looked back to Post 1 in this series and as expected the old ceiling was nothing compared to what you've done. Really beautiful.
    Your client must be very happy.
    The alternate orientation of the panels is due to the different shrinkage behavior?

  4. Brian,

    funny you mention that. Among the various places in my house where I've been thinking of adding a ceiling, above the room where the sideboard will be located is just one of those spots. Still, $2500 in material per room means it won't happen all at once, put it that way…


  5. Marc,

    good question. No, the panels are not alternated for purposes of compensation for wood movement, just for aesthetics – in this case, a variegated look.

    Normally the paneling is done with boards that have a portion of flatsawn cathedral in the middle and thus the alternation of direction is more obvious. When you do it with such boards, each panel needs to have dovetailed battens on the back side to keep flat. In this case, there was simply no room for that, and I went with CVG Western Red, which will hardly move at all, and a cleating system, which will keep them tight to the frame.

    Given a greater budget and an extended time frame, it would have been nice to source some material which would have allowed for a more perfect checkerboard look- I'll keep this in mind for the next time a project like this materializes.

    The camera flash and angle of photo, in truth, makes the alternating grain run effect much more pronounced looking than it appears to normal viewing in a room with the diffuse light from the shōji .


  6. Thanks for the detailed answer.
    A last one: Is it necessary to incorporate hanger to the sao buchi to prevent sagging? Or is the whole assembly (framing and wedged panels) rigid enough that sagging is not an issue?

  7. Marc,

    hanger are a good idea and I had planned to put them in, however the ceiling itself seemed sufficiently rigid when all together that I decided to forgo the few hanger I had planned.

    The ceiling itself should sag very slightly in the middle, by the way, to counteract the foreshortening effect. A dead flat ceiling will look like it arches upward ever so slightly.


  8. Julie,

    thanks. My neck was sore for two days afterwards.

    Working in a shop day in and day out, I get physically conditioned to certain patterns of movement, while in the field, unusual demands can be encountered that can be a challenge. I'm sure you can relate.


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