Continuing our series profiling makers who’ve immersed themselves in Japanese woodcraft traditions, we interview Des King. A shoji and kumiko art woodworker based in Australia, Des began his lifelong passion studying at Shokugei Gakuin – the International College of Craft & Arts in Toyama.
JWA: Des, you’ve devoted over a decade to making, writing about and teaching kumiko, what is it about this type of woodwork that makes you so passionate?
Des: I was initially attracted to the beauty of shoji many years ago, and this was the area of my studies during the first half of my course at Shokugei Gakuin in Toyama (see below). Here I gained an understanding of the fundamentals of shoji-making, and this formed a firm foundation for when I decided to branch out and concentrate more on kumiko patterns. Without this shoji foundation, exploring the various kumiko patterns would have been much more difficult and frustrating than what it actually was.
I think the main thing that attracted me to kumiko patterns was the intricacy and the amazing designs that were possible simply by joining small pieces of wood at different angles. From the first time I saw a kumiko exhibition during a local display in Toyama in the early days of the course, I knew this was the area of shoji-making that I wanted to focus on.
JWA: You completed a post-graduate course at the Shokugei Gakuin, Toyama International College of Craft & Arts, please tell us about this experience.
Des: I suppose a brief rundown of my background would probably help readers understand how things turned out the way they did. I studied Japanese full-time for 12 months at the Australian military language school in 1974, and later, after gaining my commission and completing my regimental duties, I was posted to Japan for two years in 1978-79 for advanced language studies at the US Foreign Service Institute in Yokohama (1 year) and practical studies and application at the Australian Embassy in Tokyo (1 year). So I’ve always had a deep interest in Japan and things Japanese.
After leaving the Army in 1986, I eventually drifted into Japanese-English translation work with my wife, spending a number of years living in Tokyo. It was during this time that I started to notice and develop an interest in shoji.
Jump ahead almost 20 years, and we felt it was time for a change. I had been woodworking as an increasingly serious hobby for quite a few years, so in 2006 I visited Shokugei Gakuin, subsequently exchanged quite a few emails, and at the beginning of 2008, I sat for the entrance test, and was accepted. I started the 12-month post- graduate course (because of my prior woodworking experience) in April 2008. The language side posed no difficulties, although I was completely lost when anyone started talking in the local Toyama dialect.
The College was established in 1996, and the shokunin spirit is central to its philosophy. Traditional hand skills and techniques are at the heart of the college’s training. So these were the first aspects I had to learn—what the Japanese shokunin spirit entails, and mastering Japanese hand tools. I decided very early on to concentrate on making shoji and kumiko patterns predominantly by hand, so this meant honing my hand saw skills. This was probably the most difficult aspect, and involved countless practice cuts with the hand saw every day.
My graduation piece (pictured below), brought together all the knowledge and skills I gained over the previous twelve months. The bottom pieces are a shoin shoji with a fairly straightforward hitoe-kōzu and asa-no-ha shoji and an asa-no-ha ranma. The top piece is a more complex ranma with asa-no-ha and goma-gara patterns. As part of the graduation examination, I had to give a detailed explanation of the processes involved, naturally, in Japanese.
JWA: You mention your instructor Sawada Sensei at Shokugei Gakuin, what was the one thing he taught you that you remember to this day?
Des: The thing I noticed with Sawada Sensei almost from the first day was that there was not one wasted movement when he worked. His work was incredibly precise and deliberate, but also very fast, simply because there were no unnecessary movements. This is the main quality in his work that I’ve tried to emulate. Getting there, but still a long way to go.
JWA: What advice would you give to any of our readers wanting to learn Japanese woodwork and kumiko in particular?
Des: The best advice I can give for those wanting to learn kumiko is to be patient, and persevere. Don’t be overly critical of every gap that may appear in your work. Each pattern you make will be slightly better and easier than the one before, and if you decide to make the patterns by hand with a hand saw, practice, practice, and then practice some more.
JWA: What is your favourite kumiko pattern and why?
Des: In the square arrangement, my favourite pattern would have to be the kōzu patterns. These were the first patterns I made other than the standard vertical and horizontal kumiko design for shoji, and it was after making this pattern that I realized that I wanted to focus on kumiko. So these patterns have always had a special place in my heart. The kiri (paulownia) is also a very pretty pattern. Of the hexagonal patterns, I enjoy making the yae asa-no-ha, mainly because it has great wow factor, but is relatively easy to make.
JWA: You’ve been a kumiko expert for well over a decade now, are there new skills you can learn? What’s your next big challenge in kumiko?
Des: There are always new skills to learn, and existing skills to keep polishing, so kumiko, as with most things, is a life-long labour of learning. My next challenge is to make a major kumiko piece to hang in a tokonoma in a Japanese home. This is a long-term project, and is planned to be the biggest kumiko piece I’ve made.
JWA: With the pace of progress in technology and AI, do you see a point in the future when a machine might make kumiko as good as the best craftsman? What’s your view on technology and kumiko?
Des: Machines will never take the place of shokunin in kumiko work. These days, computer-controlled cutters (CNC saws) cut kumiko joints to an accuracy of probably less than 0.01mm. This makes assembling the lattice frame much easier than if the kumiko were cut by hand. But, ultimately, the internal pattern pieces have to cut and trimmed to the exact size, and fitted in the correct place and sequence, and a machine will never be able to do this.
From the beginning, I decided to do all my kumiko cutting by hand. Not because I’m some kind of Luddite, but simply because there isn’t the range of blades available in Australia that there are in Japan. At the college, the other students used a table saw and jig to cut kumiko joints, and if the design called for kumiko 5mm wide, the student would grab a blade with a 5mm kerf from the wall. If the kumiko was 2mm, a 2mm kerf blade would be fitted to the table saw. This range of blades isn’t available in Australia, so rather be limited to the standard kerf sizes of 3.2mm and 2.8mm, by hand, I have complete design flexibility with kumiko thickness.
However, I have nothing whatsoever against using machinery to achieve the same result, and people should use the table saw and jigs if that’s their preference. There are some very good table saw cutting jig designs on YouTube.
JWA: What is the Japanese tool you use that gives you the most pleasure and why?
Des: I would have to say my favourite tool is the hand saw. I use the Nakaya Eaks kumiko saw, and it really is a pleasure to use. The saw will determine whether the kumiko are a firm fit, or an absolute disaster, and this is the part I enjoy most about this tool.
JWA: Which Japanese woodworkers inspire you?
Des: Ryohei Morita is an outstanding kumiko shokunin from Amami Ōshima, and I always enjoy looking at his work on Instagram (www.instagram.com/ryoheimorita/).
In July 2011 I visited the national tategu exhibition and competition in Gifu Prefecture, and the piece by Kawaguchi Mokkōjo (Workshop) was unbelievable. The workshop is a multiple winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize. This competition and exhibition displays the top work from Japan’s best kumiko shokunin, and is well worth a visit. It’s held every year in a different prefecture around June or July.
JWA NOTE: The National Tategu Association has information on the annual competition. The website is https://www.zenkokutategu.com (only Japanese). Unfortunately because of coronavirus, this year’s event in Niigata Prefecture has been postponed. It’s tentatively scheduled for September next year (2021) in Niigata.
JWA: What is the future of kumiko in Japan? Are there enough young craftsmen and women taking up the skill for it to be around in 100 years time?
Des: There certainly has been a falling number of young Japanese entering the shoji and kumiko area over the past few decades, but I believe there will always be an interest in this craft with sufficient numbers to keep it going well into the next century. If anything, the advent of the CNC cutters reduces the time spent on producing individual pieces, and this in turn makes them more affordable, and within the reach of most people who are interested in living in the more traditional Japanese style homes. The larger, more complex doors etc. will always be limited to hotels, inns and private homes with a lot of money to spare, but the smaller pieces with slightly less complex patterns or combination of patterns are quite affordable.
JWA: With a changing market (younger demographic, less traditional houses, fewer ranma) what’s the most innovative and inventive use of kumiko you’ve seen?
Des: The tategu exhibition each year is a showpiece for kumiko innovation. The main prizewinners are, naturally, the traditional shoji doors, but there are various other prizes for slightly less traditional pieces. Folding and non- folding screens, lighting and lamps of various kinds, tables, draughts games, and even a bike (obviously not for riding) all featuring kumiko are just some of the innovative ideas shokunin are coming up with to find new markets and customers.
JWA: For those wanting to learn kumiko hands-on in the UK, can you recommend anyone?
I’m not sure of anyone teaching kumiko in the UK, but YouTube is a good source of information and videos to get started. I have several videos that start at the fairly basic, and move on to quite advanced patterns. I think these are worth watching for those interested in having a go. My channel is at www.youtube.com/user/kskdesign1
Literature: These books below, written by Des King, are all available on Amazon
Main featured image on this page: Des King’s major piece for the cultural festival at Shokugei Gakuin. The main kumiko pattern is the futae-kōzu.