the Carpentry Way: Something to Get off my Chest                                                          

Something to Get off my Chest


Traditional Japanese Chests is Kazuko Koizumi's follow up to her most excellent work Japanese Furniture. See the 'worth a read' sidebar to link to either of these two books on Amazon. Her first book pretty much stands alone in its class, there being very few other works of note on Japanese furniture, especially in the English language (or any other language besides Japanese for that matter). One good one on Japanese Chests is the book Tansu: Traditional Japanese Cabinetry, by Ty Heiniken (also linked in the sidebar).

Ko-izumi's (I hyphenate the name in this instance so as to clarify how it is pronounced) new book is quite a fine work, covering the history and development of tansu and containing many superb color plates. Some of the pieces were quite novel, to my eyes at least. Here's a detail from one 'handy-chest' (temoto dansu) dating from 1902:

The use of a 'see through' to the drawers in behind is pretty cool if you ask me. Another chest in the book stores a small writing desk within.

Looking through the 150 pages of this book, it struck me afresh how tansu, which are really quite unremarkable in terms of their construction, are really all about the metal work in most cases. If not the metal, then the lacquer. In many tansu, the metal work covers 75% of the surface area and does more, by far, to define the look of the pieces than does the wood. It seems to me that if a person were to get right into making tansu, that a period of intensive metal-smithing study and application would be part and parcel of that - or, failing that, working in collaboration with a metal artist.

As an aside, there are commercially available pieces of metal hardware available, from Lee Valley or Chiseler for instance, but these are a pale and cheesy shadows of the handmade pieces you see on the finer examples. Why would you want to put stamped out and mass-produced hardware on a tansu that you spent weeks lovingly crafting? And tansu without the intricate hardware, for the most part, are less interesting, at least to my eyes. Without the hardware, in many cases, all you are left to look at is a finger-jointed box with pegged drawers and a flimsy back. Like I said, traditional tansu are not often all that well crafted, though the exposed surfaces are invariably finished to a high standard and the drawers and doors are well-fitted.

The book is not without its shortcomings, and these appear to lie, I suspect, more in the English translation work or proofreading than anything else. There are minor grammatical errors here and there, which one can set aside I suppose (especially as I am guilty of the very same thing here on my blog!), however, this following one caused me to burst out laughing:

I do believe what they meant to write there was sweetmeats, which are a type of preserved or candied fruit, crystallized heavily with sugar. The term 'sweatmeats' hardly conjures up visions of tasty delicacies, now does it? An unfortunate gaffe really, on one that should have been caught by the translator Gavin Frew, or another proofreader later in the production process. Hopefully that will be corrected in any subsequent editions that come along.

At the end of the book there is an interesting section on the history and development of tansu, which brings to light information not previously available in English. Curiously, in that entire section no mention is made of Korean chests which are, at the very least, quite similar in respect to the Japanese ones in their use of applied metal decoration, is not mentioned. I tend to think there is likely a connection.

The section of the book on step tansu and kitchen chests is a bit short I thought, only depicting three examples of kaidan dansu and 4 examples of the kitchen pieces. As those two types are, it seems to me, among the most spectacular varieties of Japanese furniture, and I would have therefore thought the section could have been a bit more extensive.

Woodworkers hoping to find detailed construction plans of tansu, and details of the joinery will be disappointed. The section on woods used for making tansu was interesting, and I noted that the wood described as being Shi-tan, which is the Japanese pronunciation for the Chinese 'Zitan' (and written with the same characters, '紫檀'), is dalbergia cochinensis. Chinese furniture scholarship, a far more extensive and developed field of study than than that of Japanese furniture, suggests that several woods may have been termed Zitan over the centuries, however the most likely tree species would have been pterocarpus santalina or pterocarpus indicus (relatives of Padauk), and no mention is made of any dalberiga species. So that leaves me a little uncertain in the assertion made in the book that Shitan is a dalbergia.

It would have been most helpful, I think, to have added material to this book detailing, say, the steps in forging a piece of tansu hardware or in applying lacquer, or in constructing the boxes. That's useful background information and would have certainly benefited this book I think.

All in all though, Koizumi has added a nice work to a field not exactly littered with books. I think readers with an interest in tansu will want to add this work to their collection. I'm glad it is in mine.