Make a sliding shoji screen
Shoji screens have been a big part of Japanese residential interiors for centuries. They’re not overly complex to build, don’t require much material and look great. It’s true that they don’t have the same level of protection against sound or cold temperatures as a standard door, but in an interior setting that’s not always needed.
A closet is a great opportunity to include a shoji screen in your home, though they could also work well as a bedroom or home office door. It really depends on the situation. This is a single track screen, but a track for two or more screens could easily be made.
Japanese craftspeople are famous for making many things, but one of my personal favourites is handmade paper, called washi. Although many machine-made papers are available, it’s handmade paper that has so much character, strength and beauty. Surprisingly, one of the biggest selections of handmade Japanese paper in the world is in Canada, so we have no excuse not to use these great papers in some of our woodworking projects. A cottage industry in Japan provides so much variety there’s something for everyone’s taste, no matter what project they’re working on.
Mortises and Tenons
Mortise and tenon joinery will keep the shoji screen frame together for years, though many other options are available.
Since the groove to accept the panel will have rounded corners, Brown marked and cut rounded corners into the panel.
Rout a Groove
With the frame dry assembled, rout a groove into the frame to accept the panel
Mark the Kumiko
So they can be reassembled in the same orientation that they were cut from the board, mark the ends of the kumiko panels before you machine them.
With the blank for obtaining the kumiko cut to length, Brown adds pencil marks to account for the total width of the kumiko running in the opposite direction onto the side of the blank. He them measures the remaining distance (in this case, almost 30-3/4”) and divides that by the number of negative spaces between the kumiko.
Half-Laps Then Rabbet Joints
After machining the dadoes across the kumiko blank, Brown adjusts his fence to cut rabbets on the ends of the kumiko blanks. Notice the stop block clamped to the rip fence to assist in positioning each blank before Brown cuts the rabbet joints.
Dress to Thickness
To ensure a good fit, carefully dress the kumiko in your thickness planer, being careful not to take too much material off. To protect against snipe, Brown uses a sacrificial length of wood to lead all the parts end-for-end through the planer. He’s also shown here running that same piece of material to protect against snipe on the final piece he machined.
A Bit of Glue
Once you’re sure the kumiko fit together, disassemble some of the parts and glue them back together. Use glue sparingly, as squeeze-out can get messy.
Take It Away
Remove any squeeze-out with a sharp chisel or plane iron.
Fit the Kumiko Assembly
Once the kumiko assembly is dry you can shave a bit off it to ensure it fits the frame nicely. Next is to glue the assembly to the frame and add the final rail and stile.
A routed groove, just like for the panel, is all that’s needed to give the upper and lower tenons and home. Stop the groove about 1/2" before either end of the screen.
Take It Home
It’s never a bad idea to take the tracks to their future home to size them up perfectly and ensure the grooves are going to be in the correct location. Although this is midway through adding trim and baseboard, this shows the relationship between the lower track and the door opening.
Put the Paper in Place
Brown applies the tapioca paste to the backs of some of the kumiko, positions the paper, then presses the paper to the kumiko so it sticks. He then continues to apply paste to the backs of the other kumiko and rolls the paper into position before pressing it all into place. He needed three sheets of 40"× 28" paper for this shoji screen.
The right design
The design of this shoji screen is fairly traditional, though playing around with the horizontal and vertical slats, called kumiko, will change the look to suit your design aesthetic. I added a lower panel for strength. Not only does it solidify the entire screen but it protects against an errant foot kick. The weight of the lower panel is also a benefit while sliding the screen. A very light screen tends to bind in the track, while having a bit of extra weight down low helps the screen sit flush on the track and slide open and closed easily.
This screen is single-sided, meaning it looks great from the front, but the back isn’t finished for viewing. To make it double-sided I would make the stiles and rails thicker, then make a removable latticework grid that could be inserted over the paper from the back.
It’s also possible to mitre the four outer corners for a different look. I chose standard butt joints reinforced with Domino floating tenons, but traditional mortise and tenons joints also work great and are strong. Dowel joints could also work, though they would likely be a little weaker. Whether you can get by with a weaker joint or not depends on you and the location of the screen to be installed.
You can also adjust the size of the screen to work with your location. This screen covers the door trim for a simple look when it’s closed.
To get the dimensions right I find it easiest to make a full-sized drawing of the detail you are trying to figure out. Whether it’s the cross section of the track and tenons or another detail, you’ll thank yourself later.
Height is critical
It’s critical that the dimensions of the lower and upper track not only guide the shoji screen to the left and right, but also allow the shoji screen to be installed and removed easily. To install the screen, you insert the upper track tenon into the upper track then move the lower track tenon over the groove in the lower track and lower it into place. The overall height of the screen, as well as the length of the upper track tenon and the depth of the groove in the upper track tenon, are the most important factors, while the lower track tenon length and depth of the lower track groove have to be accounted for. Making a to-scale drawing will help you size these details correctly.
There are different types of metal track hardware you could use to allow the screen to open and close, but the benefits of a wood upper and lower track are numerous. Wood tracks are usually less obtrusive because you can make them fairly thin. Wood tracks are also low-maintenance and last a long time. A metal track makes more noise when opening and isn’t as flexible in its function as a wood track. If you have a wood floor you can even rout the lower groove into the floor to eliminate the track altogether. And because a shoji screen is a very traditional fixture, the thought of a metal track just doesn’t sit well with me, from an aesthetic point of view.
There’s surprisingly little solid wood in a screen like this. I was able to obtain the two stiles and three rails from the same piece of lumber to give me a more uniform look. The main thing to consider is that the long stiles are fairly straight, as they will form the main structural components of the screen.
I prefer a somewhat simple, straight-grained wood for these screens, but that’s personal preference. Traditionally, the Japanese would use a softwood or possibly bamboo for the screen.
First, the frame
Break out the rails and stiles of the frame and dress them to final size. If you’re using mortise and tenons be sure to account for the extra length needed in the rails to machine the tenons.
I used my Festool Domino XL DF 700 to cut 40mm deep × 12mm thick mortises then test-fit the tenons. With the frame assembly dry fit together I used a 3/8″ wide rabbet in my router to machine the grooves to accept the panel in the lower area of the screen.
Although a panel isn’t technically needed, it does offer strength and protection to the screen, especially useful in busier areas or around people who might not be careful with a screen like this.
A simple flat panel in contrasting wood is what I chose, as that’s a bit more in keeping with a traditional approach. I used a plywood panel, as opposed to solid wood, as I could glue it into the frame and create a stronger screen. Solid wood would need to move with the seasons, so it couldn’t be glued in as thoroughly.
There’s nothing saying you couldn’t have fun with this aspect of the design, though. Using a panel covered in figured veneer would work well. You could also look at traditional Japanese furniture design and use lots of slats secured with prominent hand-cut nails.
At this point I could obtain the size of the panel, cut it to size and machine the rabbets in its edges to fit it into the routed grooves. Because I routed the grooves there was a radius on the interior surface of the grooves at the four corners of the panel opening. Although you could chisel these square, I thought it would be faster and easier to round the corners of the panel to fit. I used a circle template to mark the same diameter as the rabbet router bit on the corners and removed them with a bandsaw.
Some fitting was next, and I used my shoulder plane to sneak up on a good fit. At this stage, another dry fit was in order. Then I sanded the parts and assembled the panel and all the frame except the top rail and one side stile. It’s easiest to fit the kumiko grid assembly to the frame with these two parts unassembled.
Another part of this project that’s open to your design aesthetic are the horizontal and vertical slats, called kumiko, that form a striking pattern on the upper portion of the screen. A traditional approach, which is what I went with, includes a series of evenly spaced horizontal and vertical members, and the sky is the limit here. Having said that, more isn’t always better, and can negatively affect the visual simplicity of a shoji screen.
Whatever design you go with, half lap joints secure all the joints, and they will be machined next. If your design has a simple, even look this stage is much easier. Rather than machine the kumiko, then cut the half lap joints, I machined a few blanks to the finished thickness of the kumiko, cut dadoes across one side of the blank where the half lap joints will be, then ripped the individual kumiko from the blank and planed them to width so they fit the half lap joints perfectly.
One kumiko will run around the perimeter of the grid pattern on all four sides. These pieces will create a surface to glue the entire kumiko assembly to. All the joints that secure the kumiko to each other are half lap joints. The vertical kumiko will be cut in length to the exact distance between the top and centre rails, while the horizontal kumiko will be cut in length to the exact distance between the left and right stiles. Getting a good fit with no gaps isn’t overly tricky, though it does require some careful measuring and cutting. If the opening isn’t square you can make the kumiko assembly slightly large and use a sharp block plane to trim it to size.
How many kumiko?
This is mainly a question of personal preference. More kumiko means the handmade paper will have a bit more protection from being hit and damaged, but you also have to consider pattern and proportions of the kumiko and the negative space they leave between them.
As I mentioned above, I usually opt for a traditional approach. For this screen I used two centre vertical kumiko, in addition to the one extra kumiko on each side of the assembly. I worked backward from this dimension and used the golden mean ratio (1:1.618) to determine the spacing of the horizontal kumiko. I had to be flexible here, as the ratio almost never works out perfectly. It did give me something to aim for, though. With the negative space between the vertical kumiko about 10-1/2″, I divided that distance by 1.618 and got about 6-1/2″. This meant I needed about nine negative spaces between the horizontal kumiko, and 10 horizontal kumiko in total. Again, this is just one approach, and you can use the spacing you prefer instead of my approach.
After determining the lengths the two types of kumiko need to be, machine two blanks; one for the vertical kumiko and one for the horizontal kumiko. I like kumiko that are 3/8″ wide, but you can adjust this if you’d like. This means that once the kumiko are cut from the blank they each need at least 1/2″ of material, once you account for the saw kerf. Sizing them slightly larger will give you a bit of insurance.
Dress the blanks to 3/4″ thick and ensure one edge on each blank is straight before ripping the blanks to a uniform width. At this point the blanks should be cut to exact length so they will fit in the frame opening. While you’re dressing the blanks to final thickness it’s also a good idea to machine a small setup board. This will come in handy when you’re dialing in the height of the half lap joints.
Lay out half laps
If the kumiko are spaced evenly this process is simplified. To get the spacing, mark the width of all the kumiko on the blank then measure the remaining length and divide it by the number of negative spaces you’re including in your design. I laid out the location of the half laps directly on the blank and marked the centre of the half lap with an “X” so there would be no mistakes. Just make sure to account for the kumiko at each end of the assembly. At this point I also marked the ends of the blanks with a long “V” so I would be able to reassemble the kumiko in the order they were cut from the blank, ensuring grain and colour would be even.
The kumiko I used in this screen are 3/8″ wide, so I set up a 3/8″ wide dado set in my table saw. Using my mitre gauge, I made passes on the setup block I made while dressing the kumiko to thickness. Sneak up on the correct height so all the half lap joints are nice and even on both surfaces. At this point you can run the half lap joints in both blanks. Don’t worry about the half lap joints at the ends of each blank for now.
When you’re done making half lap joints, adjust the fence to cut a 3/8″ wide rabbet, but don’t change the blade height. After checking the setup with the setup block, machine all the ends of the blanks.
Now it’s time to rip the kumiko from the blanks and dress them to final width so they fit together nicely. Everyone has their own method of ripping small width workpieces, so use the approach that works for you. I like to rip the kumiko a little less than 1/16″ thicker than they will finish, as that gives me just enough material to dress the kumiko smooth with a thickness planer. As you rip parts from the blank keep them in order so they can be reassembled in order later.
Once the parts are cut to rough width you can use the thickness planer to bring them down to final thickness. Heavy passes risk blowing out the thin areas around the half lap joints. We also have only a small amount of material to remove before the kumiko become too thin, so sneak up on a nice fit. Remove no more than 1/32″ with the first pass, then flip them over and bring them to final size. Because these parts are thin it might even be necessary to end-for-end them to ensure tear-out is minimized. The final fit should be quite snug, as some sanding will bring the kumiko to their final width.
Assemble the kumiko
Lightly sand the 3/4″ wide surfaces and the outer faces of the kumiko, then ease their edges. Dry fit the entire grid, keeping the parts in order as they were cut from the blank. Hand sanding will likely be enough to ensure the parts fit together.
Once the fit is good, remove one of the horizontal kumiko and apply a small amount of glue to the half lap joints. I start with just the interior joints, and leave the four perimeter pieces for later, but there are no hard rules with this step. Small clamps keep the half lap joints together until they dry. Use a chisel or plane iron to remove any glue squeeze-out once partially cured.
Once the assembly is complete you can test fit it in the frame and size it with a sharp hand plane. At this point you can carefully add some glue to one of the mating surfaces and install the grid assembly. Once the kumiko assembly has been installed you can add the remaining stile and top rail.
At this stage a groove will have to be routed in both ends of the frame and the solid lower and upper track tenons glued in place. I use a bit slightly wider than the top and bottom track tenons to run the groove, but ensure the groove doesn’t exit either end of the frame. I find it easier to put the track in place and mark where the groove should start and stop, and also ensure the door will slide clear of any trim.
Break out the upper and lower tracks, machine them to final dimension and mark the grooves on the tracks. I find pencil lines ensure I don’t mess up this part. With a router and edge guide, machine the two grooves. The deeper upper groove should be machined in a few passes.
Although you can grasp the frame of the screen and slide it, you could also rout a groove into the frame to provide a finger pull.
Apply a finish
You can use pretty much any finish you want, though I find spraying a finish on all the kumiko is much easier than wiping or brushing it on. I use Varathane Professional urethane in an aerosol can to coat the screen and tracks, sanding between coats.
Apply the paper
Visiting a local retailer of handmade Japanese paper is the best way to choose what paper to use, but there’s also a lot of information you can get online and by calling a retailer. A great place to start is JapanesePaperPlace.com. Though you can buy one piece of paper that will cover a large screen, it’s likely not going to be handmade. Having said that, it will still be a durable paper. If you want to use a type of paper that’s smaller than the whole kumiko grid area of your screen purchase multiple pieces and overlap them on the kumiko.
I usually use a tapioca paste that I buy at my paper retailer, but I’m sure some other adhesives would likely work, too. Regular wood glue is going to set too slowly and be too watery to work well, not to mention it won’t allow you to easily soften it to remove the paper once it gets damaged. A regular glue stick might even work, though the downside is also going to be paper removal once it gets damaged. Tapioca paste is easy to soften down the road.
Apply the tapioca paste or glue to the backs of the kumiko and apply the paper before letting it dry. Once dry, mist water onto the paper from the front. It will initially get looser, but once it dries the paper will become taut on the kumiko. To remove the paper I spray water on the backs of the kumiko, wait a few minutes for the tapioca paste to soften, then peel it off.
Position the lower track in place and fix it to the floor. It doesn’t need to be bombproof, as gravity will help keep it in place, though it does have to resist any errant foot kicks. The upper track is next, and should be positioned carefully height-wise. There needs to be enough room to position the door over the lower track, yet also the upper track tenon needs to be captured in the groove in the upper track when the screen is sitting on the lower track.
A bit of furniture wax on the tenons and track grooves will give smooth operation for years to come.