Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Getting a Handle

I spent a few hours this morning trying to render a handle in SketchUp, and due to the shape I was after, curving and continuously changing in diameter, the drawing was not especially profitable. I did spend some time looking at various shapes and sizes of Japanese tansu drawer handles, and thought it would be worth making an account here. There are accounts out there of this form of traditional hardware in a few different publications, most notably the Koizumi book, however after a bit more research I think I might be able to fill in the picture a bit.

What follows then is meant to be a glossary of tansu handle types, or hikite kanagu (引手金具) as they are termed. Hikite (pronounced: he-key-tay) refers to 'pulling with the hand', and kanagu means 'metal hardware'. The word hikite can mean pulling in any direction, so hikite are also used to describe the recessed pulls found on sliding doors. Another term for drawer pulls is totte-kanagu (取手金具), the word totte meaning 'seize(d) with the hand'.


Kaku-te (角手) : literally, 'square/angled' (角 ) 'hand' (手) , these have an angular shape with 90˚ corners:

 Considered, by some sources, to be the oldest form of handle used on tansu.

The squared form seems especially common on funa-dansu, shipboard chest, as in this example, a Sakata-made (a town in Yamagata prefecture famous for tansu) coin and document safe, in Keyaki:

As you'll see with this and other pull forms, it is the handle's shape that is the primary categorizing factor, not the shape of the back plate, which may be absent, as in the second example above, and replaced by a pair of escutcheons.

Mokkō (木瓜): literally, 'tree' (木) with 'melons' (瓜), referring to the Japanese Quince, Chaenomeles japonica. The characters are also read 'bo-ke', especially if you are talking about the tree and not the form derived from the shape of the fruit. Confusingly, the same characters, 木瓜, are used also to describe the Papaya tree today. More confusingly, these handles are described in English-language Japanese furniture books simply as 'melon-pulls',  when in reality a quince fruit has nothing to do with a melon at all, the tree being a member of the rose family.

The Japanese quince has small, apple-shaped fruit, 3~4cm in diameter. Here's what the quince tree's fruit looks like, cut open:

And here's the handle shape based on that:

A more modern styling:

The form may be based on the interior seed cluster shape, or on the exterior shape of the fruit. Mokkō is a popular motif in Japanese art. There are several variants of Japanese crests, or mon, using it - here's one:

Kaku-mokkō-gata (角木瓜): Putting the angular kaku-te form together with the quince form yields this type:

Yama-shina (山科): might be best considered a variant on the mokkō. A cusped type of handle associated to Kyoto, Yamashina being the name of a ward in that city.


Kushi-gata (櫛型); literally, 'comb' (櫛) 'shape' (型).

For reference sake, here's a typical Japanese wooden comb:

And a drawer pull based on that form:

Another, mass produced and inexpensive:

This form is widely used in many Japanese traditional objects, like this shoulder plane:

Gunbai / gunpai (軍配): refers to a wooden, metal, or wood-metal military fan, carried by generals and used in feudal era battles to direct troop movements, ward off arrows, and act as an impromptu sunshade:

Gunbai are also currently used by sumo referees to point to the winning side after a bout is complete.

For some reason one also encounters the word 'gumpai' to refer to these fans, however as there is no terminal ~m consonant in the Japanese language ('軍' is gun, not gum), this is one of those cases where an erroneous transliteration has stuck in English language materials. A couple of western books on tansu continue to use the misnomer, as does at least one website I came across.

Here's a real gunbai, lacquered black and red and with mother-of-pearl inlay:

The drawer pull which employs the same form:

A Paulownia cabinet, kiri-dansu, with the gunbai pulls:

Hiru-te (蛭手): the 'leech' (蛭) pull. In Japan, the leech being modeled is a terrestrial leech, Haemadipsa zeylanica, also called a yamagiru, (山蛭) lit. 'mountain' (山) leech. I did a lot of hiking in Japan but never saw one, so they must be local to places in which I hadn't lived, or they are uncommon. Kinda glad I didn't meet one, though in reality most leeches dine on decomposing bodies, not living ones.

Leeches, perhaps, don't immediately bring inspiration to mind in terms of hardware:

However I am guessing that the key point is the shape of the sucker:

They have these suckers, in one form or another, at each end. Oh, and a brain at each end of their body as well. Unusual little gippers.

The is the drawer pull handle based on that form:

The handle is the leech body with suckers depicted on each terminal end. In this form, the handle always enters the back plate's loops from the inside.


Another, of a more modern cast:

One more, from a sword storage cabinet:

Warabi-te (蕨手): warabi is bracken, or fernbrake, teridium aquilinum:

The furled fronds of this plant, among several fern species are harvested as a vegetable, are referred to as 'fiddleheads' of course. The kanji for warabi (蕨) is not in common use in Japan and the plant name is often written phonetically in Japanese either in hiragana (as わらび) or katakana (as ワラビ).

The tansu drawer pull based on the plant form:

Another, by Avigal David:

I would say that the warabit-te handle is the most common form encountered on tansu, and could be considered one of the 'classic' forms, along with the squared, leech, quince, and military fan styles.

Hana-giku (花菊): Flowering (花) Chrysanthemum (菊) pattern. Here, the back plate is the primary decoration:

Kan (鐶): ring-shaped pulls. An old form, and quite common, especially on skinny drawers. Here are some variants:

This one is in copper, by Avigal David:

This one has the hana-giku style back plate:

Hangetsu (半月): the half-moon shaped pull.

I guess it might be called a 'D-shaped' pull in English.

Hamaguri (蛤 or 浜栗): a pull which is shaped like a saltwater clam, meretrix lusoria. The second way of writing the word hamaguri, '浜栗', is the more interesting to me, as it is referring to a clam as a 'beach' (浜) 'chestnut' (栗), which I find amusing.

Here's the mollusc:

Here's the handle:

Ume-komi-shiki (埋込式): recessed pulls. also called hako-hiki-te (箱引手). One of the more modern forms of tansu hardware.


Uncategorized: at the the time of publishing this blog, I was unable to ascertain the correct technical name for these pulls, however that will change after a bit more research:

This one looks a bit like the hiru-te form in certain aspects, however the handle ends are different

This one has a shaped plate for a pull:

I can't quite put my finger on what this handle form is called, however it is very similar to one used for pagoda corner chimes:

I've also seen something similar on Japanese bushi helmets:

I have a feeling the shape  relates to the pine tree. I just looked through an entire book of Japanese design motifs but couldn't find a match. Can any readers help out?

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.


  1. Nice post. I have no clue where I would have started looking for anything close to true tansu handles, not the modern mass produced handles easily accessible today.

    Could you share what book(s) you use for Japanese design motif reference? Thanks!

    Keep the posts coming. love the content

    1. Hi Adam

      For Japanese motifs, I think a great source is the Dover publication "Japanese Design Motifs". It's really a book on Japanese crest designs, or 'mon'.

      Thanks for your comment and glad you're getting something out of the content here.



All comments are moderated:

Anonymous comments will be deleted

Spam will be deleted

Comments containing links unrelated to blog content will be deleted