Doesn't wood wood swell and shrink in japan?

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Forum topic by natenaaron posted 08-17-2013 06:38 PM 2176 views 0 times favorited 14 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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442 posts in 1790 days

08-17-2013 06:38 PM

Get yer heads out of the gutter.

As sometimes happens, I got sucked into woodworking videos on youtube the last couple of evenings. Thursday I happened on some folks making small Japanese cabinets. The drawers were so tight fitting that, in one video if you closed one drawer the air would push another open. When you opened a second drawer the first would close from suction. I spent last evening looking at every video I could find with people making the cabinets.

So, is the humidity in japan pretty much constant to allow for these tight tolerances? During monsoons here, where I live, the bathroom door will not close and my wood floors buckle. I didn’t install them. The rest of the year it is dry enough that the floors are perfectly flat, and the bathroom door allows privacy. If I built something like this where the drawers were seamless it would surely explode when the monsoons showed up.

Am I missing something in the design of these that takes movement into account?

14 replies so far

View Mark Shymanski's profile

Mark Shymanski

5621 posts in 3706 days

#1 posted 08-17-2013 06:44 PM

A good question. Something I never would have thought about prior to woodworking :-)

-- "Checking for square? What madness is this! The cabinet is square because I will it to be so!" Jeremy Greiner LJ Topic#20953 2011 Feb 2

View juniorjock's profile


1930 posts in 3758 days

#2 posted 08-17-2013 11:37 PM

Reckon they were using mostly plywood?

View redSLED's profile


790 posts in 1886 days

#3 posted 08-17-2013 11:46 PM

I’ve been in the Phillipines and Japan a few times – there’s always humidity, and if not that day, the next day for sure. Unless you’re way up in the mountains.

-- Perfection is the difference between too much and not enough.

View Loren's profile


10371 posts in 3641 days

#4 posted 08-18-2013 12:04 AM

That’s a way of fitting drawers that shows a lot of skill –
and making them right makes sure they don’t get too
loose when the weather is dry.

I think Japan is humid at the coast and probably dry at
altitude. Traditionally objects would not travel too far
from where they were made. Japan’s topography didn’t
lend itself to speedy travel before the railroad era.

Worst case scenario is the chest acclimates to its new
home and the drawers stick. You take them out and
plane the sides down a bit.

Shop humidity is an interesting topic. I like to have a
hygrometer in the shop; a habit I got from building
guitars, but also interesting to study over time in
furniture making.

View ward63's profile


351 posts in 3080 days

#5 posted 08-18-2013 01:50 AM

I’ve lived in Japan for 30 years, started woodworking out of boredom. I apprenticed as a carpenter for houses.
I started using hand tools and was taught how to sharpen them also, then moved to power tools. I changed to cabinet making since I have no car. The same rules apply…... in the winter it’s dry, the summer very humid. I was taught to make the joints as tight as possible. Gaps are not visually appealing.
If I make something in the winter, it’ll be super tight in the summer-add wax to smooth the joints.
If I make something the summer-pray there’s no gap!

View MrFid's profile


874 posts in 1897 days

#6 posted 08-18-2013 02:52 AM

Here’s a good article by Rob Porcaro (great blog) outlining his feelings toward the “piston fit” drawer. If they were making them out of solid wood, it’s highly likely that either:

their drawers only fit for half the year or so, or

they live in a place with a very constant humidity level.

Or, they were working with plywood, which doesn’t expand or contract enough to make a difference.

Anyway, here’s the article. Enjoy.

-- Bailey F - Eastern Mass.

View mantwi's profile


312 posts in 1889 days

#7 posted 08-18-2013 04:01 AM

I’ve seen the videos as well and believe the secret to successfully making drawers of this type is choosing wood that is dimensionally stable and using narrow widths. Some hardwoods expand and contract as little as 2 to 3% which is an extremely small variation in width. I just googled looking for the answer and this appears to be the case. For instance mesquite is one of the woods that only changes 2 to 3% in the states. In the far corners of the world there must be others. The old guy building that small chest is no fool, you can bet he knows what he’s doing. I’m going to be looking looking at the characteristics of Japanese lumber further to see for certain over the next few days. Man you got me. The OCD is kicking into to high gear, I just gotta know.

View ward63's profile


351 posts in 3080 days

#8 posted 08-18-2013 01:58 PM

mantwi, great article! Thank you!
In this video… they are using kiri (paulonia) which expands and contracts well with the humidity. It has about double the density and strength of balsa wood.

View mantwi's profile


312 posts in 1889 days

#9 posted 08-18-2013 05:11 PM

Ward63: thanks for the input. I googled kiri also known as paulownia and it fits the bill nicely. You can find details about it at This thread has been an eye opener for me. I will now be looking for other woods with these characteristics available at local dealers and incorporate them in my projects. I don’t like gaps either, you’re right they are not attractive.

View ward63's profile


351 posts in 3080 days

#10 posted 08-18-2013 05:21 PM

Excellent site!!! Thank you again mantwi.

View TravisH's profile


576 posts in 1928 days

#11 posted 08-18-2013 06:12 PM

I haven’t messed with paulownia in a long time but always wanted to get some larger stuff to build something with after reading about the use in Japan. I have a small box of it for lures but never have sourced any appreciable quantity of it for a larger builds. They were pushing the wood hard here in the states not too long ago since it grows so quick.

View natenaaron's profile


442 posts in 1790 days

#12 posted 08-18-2013 09:40 PM

So, those drawers should stick, at some time.

That paulownia wood is pretty expensive.

Is there a list some where that describes how much specific woods expand and contract?

View Loren's profile


10371 posts in 3641 days

#13 posted 08-18-2013 10:07 PM

View mantwi's profile


312 posts in 1889 days

#14 posted 08-19-2013 01:46 AM

Good find Loren. Here’s another site that’s a lot less technical and easier to navigate that I just found searching wood movement. It has a wealth of valuable information. And here’s a chart that list tangential movement on a variety of species based on changes in relative humidity. In a house the seasonal change is usually 5% and they use 12” boards.

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