There’s no nail like no nails at all.
In your high school woodshop class, it’s likely you constructed a bench, or coffee table, or shelf of some kind as the culmination of your semester’s experience. If you think back, you’ll almost certainly recall using a hole saw drill bit to pull plugs out of some lumber, and then tapping and gluing those plugs into the holes you recessed the shiny, phillips or torx stamped screw heads into. The end product, once your sanding and finishing was done, was noticeably better than it would have been had you left the gaps alone, but no matter how well you hid the screws… they were still noticeable, which is the problem with western carpentry.
Are hands still the best power tool?
Sometimes it seems that way. A hand saw won’t cut through large rounds as quickly as a chainsaw, or through a two by four with as straight an angle as a mitre saw, but where precision and minutia are concerned, anything automated is an automatic failure.
In the Japanese tradition of carpentry, metal rarely marrs or scars the integrity of their all-wood furniture. Instead of screws, nails, and staples, they developed joinery techniques centered around fitting together carefully shaped, interlocking, puzzle piece-like keys and locks, which are carved into and out of the ends of whichever pieces of wood are being attached. In order for each one of these pieces’ sides and corners to fit together in exact congruity, they have to be individually shaven down with hand tools.
Even the crude first step of cutting these out is done in a more precise manner than you might expect; the Japanese saw’s teeth cut when the hand is being pulled back toward you, instead of when you push, or in the case of some small saws like on a leatherman, both ways. This makes for slower cutting, but also allows for more control. The blade is also very thin, and flexible. The flexibility can seem clumsy and render some people dangerously accident prone, but in the right hands, it can be used to accomplish curvatures no other tool can.
You’ve probably seen more examples of joinery than you think…
I came across a pretty neat way to wrap people’s heads around the concept of joining wood without hardware at this website: https://architizer.com/blog/japanese-art-of-wood-joinery/
Looking at the corner joints in legs and braces beneath your dining tables, there’s a good chance you’re eying something that looks like the final frames of these GIFs (and if not, you’re sure to at least recognize a few of them).
The third and eighth GIF illustrations are some of the most familiar. From the outside, they look simple enough, and the excess wedges and pieces sticking out are often assumed to be for an aesthetic flair—but they’re actually part of an intricate series of matched edges, balancing opposing pressures so that your chairs, tables, and benches (or even walls) don’t fall apart.
A quiet strength.
A quiet strength is indeed what joinery not only utilizes in physics but represents in our lives. A craft nurtured by a time and people whose spirituality held a lot of sway over their everyday thoughts and actions, joinery is a practice that feels as wholesome as it does difficult. Worth every long hour spent patiently fine tuning, building even just a single butterfly joint is an experience that doesn’t leave you…as funny or cliche as it sounds, I have to say that as you carve it, it carves you, too.
Your Woodworking Expert,