How to Make Japanese Sliding Doors

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Sliding doors are a Japanese tradition.
Sliding doors are a Japanese tradition. (Image: Japanese culture image by Sammy from Fotolia.com)

The climate of Japan is temperate to tropical, with cold winters only at the higher elevations in the central Alps. The people traditionally made their houses from wood, and used sliding doors covered with paper to separate the rooms. While these doors may seem flimsy from a western perspective, they inhibit the flow of air just enough to allow a room to be heated in the winter, while allowing needed air circulation in the hot summer months. These doors are called shoji, and making them requires a certain level of skill and patience.

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure
  • Cedar or redwood lumber
  • Table saw
  • 3/4-inch dado blade
  • Hammer
  • Finish nails
  • Level
  • Shims
  • Door casing
  • Japanese pull saw
  • 1/2-inch chisel
  • Carpenter's glue
  • C-clamps
  • Mucilage
  • Rice paper
  • Utility knife
  • Water sprayer

Making the Door Frame

Measure the width of the opening where the doors will be installed. Rip two pieces of redwood or cedar lumber to make 1-inch by 4-inch boards. Cut the boards so they are equal to the measured width.

Fit a table saw with a 3/4-inch dado blade, which is a series of blades joined together used to make grooves. Set the depth of the blade to 1/4-inch and cut two grooves in the middle of one of the boards with a spacing of 1/2 inch between them. This will be the bottom runner. Then reset the depth of the blade to 5/8 inches and cut two similar grooves in the other board. This will be the top runner.

Nail the runners to the top and bottom of the door with finish nails pounded into the center and edges of the runners, but not into the grooves. Be sure to put the runner with the deeper groove on the top.

Rip two more 1-by-4 boards and set these into the sides of the door frame. Use a level to make sure they are plumb, inserting shims behind if needed, then nail them to the frame with finish nails.

Trim around both sides of the frame with door casing. Cut the ends of the casing to a 45-degree angle with a pull saw and set it around the frame so one edge bisects the edges of the sides and the top runner. Nail the casing with finish nails.

Making the Doors

Measure the distance from the inside of the top groove to the inside of the bottom groove. Rip four pieces of 3/4-by-1 inch lumber and cut these 1/2 inch shorter than the distance you measured. These will be the vertical sides of the doors. Measure the width of the opening and rip four more pieces that are 3/4-by-1 inch and cut these 1 inch longer than half the width of the opening. These will form the tops and bottoms of the doors.

Make a line on each end of each board on the 1-inch face that is 1 inch from the end. Set the depth of the table saw blade to 3/8 inches and rabbet, or notch, the ends of the boards to the lines by repeatedly passing the wood over the blade. When you are done, each board should have a 3/8-inch notch on either end that is 1 inch wide. Temporarily assemble the doors on a flat surface by laying the top and bottom boards on the sides so the notches fit together, then verify that the doors are square.

Make a mark in the center of each board, on the 3/4-inch edge that will face inside, then make marks at regular intervals moving away from the center towards the ends of the board. Chisel out a 1/2-by-1/2-inch hole on each mark so the mark is in the center of the hole. The depth of each hole should be about 3/4 inch. Make sure the holes on opposing sides of the door are exactly opposite each other.

Rip 1/2-by-1/2-inch boards for the lattice, cutting these to the inside width and height of the door plus 1 inch. Lay the lattice on top of the door, then make marks where the boards cross each other and cut notches on the marks with a pull saw. When all the lattice boards are notched, fit them together and assemble the frame around them, making sure the ends of the lattice boards fit into the holes on the frame. Then glue and clamp the corners of the frame. When the glue dries, reinforce the corners with finish nails.

Putting on Rice Paper

Spread mucilage on one side of one of each the doors. Make sure you cover all four sides of the frame and the surface of each lattice board.

Lay a piece of rice paper on top of the door and press it into the glue. Let the glue dry for four to eight hours, then trim the rice paper with a utility knife.

Set the doors into the frame, then spray the rice paper with a fine mist of water until it is fully soaked. When the paper dries, it will tighten on the wood.

Tips & Warnings

  • Traditional Japanese carpenters use a plane instead of sandpaper to smooth wood. If you don't have the time or confidence to do this, you may want to sand the frame and the doors with medium-grit sandpaper.
  • Spread wax or soap in the bottom grooves to help the doors slide more smoothly. An old candle works well.
  • Use caution when ripping and dadoing with a table saw. Keep your hands away from the blade and never reach around it. Use a push-stick to direct wood through the blade.

References

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