Kumiko

Kumiko (組子 - also 組子細工, kumiko saiku) is the name given to both the crafting technique and the objects created using such technique. It is a traditional craft from Japan where one creates decorative objects by fitting together minute pieces of wood without the use of nails or any other metallic objects.

Overview

Kumiko begins with the right wood choice (often conifers). The wood is cut, shaped, smoothed and sanded. The craftsman will carefully sharpen the angles, proceeding to fit each piece individually into a simple structure using a hammer or short wood slats. Smaller pieces are added to weave them together and create several different shapes and visual effects. Sometimes multiple layers are used to create even more complex figures.

According to estimates, there are more than 200 different shapes ready for use. Each differ from one another in length, width and angles. In some cases, an object measuring as small as 10 x 10 cm (less than 4 x 4 in) is made using about 200 pieces.

The sizes used to interweave the pieces need to be precise. The margin of error is less than 0.1 mm (0.004 in) which is about the width of a piece of paper. Imperfect sizes and shapes will make a kumiko object uneven, causing it to look warped and become unstable.

Japanese decorative woodworks kumiko on KiGinKin - Elaborate patterns
Japanese decorative woodworks kumiko on KiGinKin - Japanese artisan on wood

Long years are dedicated to learning different cutting, shaping and hammering techniques in order to become a kumiko artisan. These artisans will also need to fully understand the unique properties of each shape and angle they cut, to know their strength and resistance when placed into more complex objects.

After about a decade of learning the artisan will be able to shape and arrange pieces in order to allow serial manufacturing. There is always room for creativity, which will lead some artisans (such as those behind J Life Gifts) to create unique art objects. An example is the Zen-inspired Rinma.

Japanese decorative woodworks kumiko on KiGinKin - Rinma artistic woodworks kumiko
Japanese decorative woodworks kumiko on KiGinKin - Patterns

Origin

It is believed that kumiko, in the form that we know today, was developed during the Edo Period (1603-1868). However, decorations using the kumiko technique were found in the Hōryū-ji Temple in Nara (built between 588 and 607 A.D.), which also lodges beautiful kanagu decorations. This dates kumiko's origins back to the 6th and 7th century.

Kumiko was used in the past to create ornaments for the iconic Japanese sliding doors, called shōji, or the fixed panels above them, called ranma.

Authenticity

Thanks to the strictly ornamental purposes of kumiko, any kumiko-like decorative object made in Japan without the use of nails is considered authentic. That can include anything from a coaster to a decorative panel, from wall decorations to boxes.
Not everyone agrees on what patterns may be included in an object to categorize it as kumiko. Doubts arise, for example, when artisans include detailed, elaborately carved pieces of wood to in the shapes of animals, flowers, and other figures.

Some manufacturers use computers to cut and shape the wood which allows for faster production of high-selling products. The process also creates perfectly identical pieces, taking the uniqueness out of the object. For this reason, more traditional customers desire that the object be made by hand accompanied by human-assisted machines. In fact, many believe that this brings out the true spirit of kumiko.

Although most kumiko objects feature art that is two-dimensional using straight lines, multiple layers or curved pieces of wood are sometimes used in order to expand the suggestiveness of an object.

Did you know?

• Besides pattern complexity and object size, there are a few elements that determine the price of a kumiko object:
- Larger manufacturers use partially or totally artificial materials that resemble wood, not dissimilar from what is used to make low-cost desks you could buy at home centres or IKEA. This virtually eliminates the risk of warping, however the drawback is that it is not an authentic kumiko.
- Straight, mature trees with higher temperatures produce a stronger object that will last longer with lower chances of warping and cracking. The age of the tree and the time necessary to select the best parts of the tree cause higher costs. Unfortunately, in many cases it is not easy to recognize the difference between high and low quality so there is a chance that a buyer will end up purchasing an object made with wood of lower quality which can quickly change in color and shape.
- Glue made using formaldehyde (containing formalin) are cheaper than natural glue, leading to lower costs and lower prices. The problem? Toxic!
• Kumiko is also a female Japanese name.