By Robert Kroll
Hanging art in a small apartment, with few walls that don’t have doors and windows can be a problem. What if your furniture, your dining table, buffet or cupboards were created so that art could be displayed from them?
That was the task I set myself to in my Dumbo design studio. By chance, I happened upon an article about an obscure Japanese wooden joint, known as the Kakushi Ari Kata Sanmai Hozo joint, that set off light bulbs in my head and sent me to the drawing board,
The joint can be described as a mitred dovetail that is used at the corner of a table or cabinet to join two timbers at right angles. If you were to lace your fingers together at the knuckles, palms down, then twist your hands slightly toward each other, you’ll get the general idea.
Like so much in the world of Japanese joinery and woodworking, this joint is self-sustaining, meaning it holds itself together without metal fasteners or potentially without any adhesive.
In the drawing the dark areas are the ends of horizontal support/beam at the top of a table. The light areas are the end grain on the top of each of the table legs at the corner. The joint is made like an inlay, i.e., a picture, and the inlay is half an inch thick. This is an extremely strong joint in every plane. It can’t be twisted in any direction. The legs and top of the table become like one.
Theoretically, a high-rise building could be put together with a steel frame and this type of joinery instead of rivets and bolts.
What’s the point of this type of joinery and what are its virtues, its opportunities, and its meaning in the greater scheme of things?
In Western style table design, the slab top is actually a part of the structure of the table and gives it sheer strength. Anyone who has had a table that has gotten weak or collapsed at the joints and had to be re-glued, screwed together with thick steel straps and still have a wobbly table will understand. This table is one and done. Absent abuse, it will last several lifetimes and can be passed through generations. Anyone who has purchased an oak or mahogany table from an antique shop, or, God forbid, an Ikea mass produced table from Thailand, expects to get a couple of good years use out of it before putting it out on the sidewalk for recycling.
But the more important feature of this structural method is that it creates an extremely strong “picture frame” at the top. Artwork, especially photos, can be inserted in the frame and the whole table covered with a thick (1/2”) sheet of glass. Now you are displaying your art collection in a way and in a place that in the normal course of life would be covered with place mats and condiments.
The artwork could be an oil painting, a watercolor, any two-or-three-dimensional piece or even one that is backlit from below by a light box. Among the endless possibilities for framing art in a tabletop are selfies; photos of one’s grandchildren or grandparents; a Torah scroll parchment from your bar mitzvah, or anything you might want to view during a meal to calm the nerves after a hard day’s work.
Mark my words: you will never, or long remember, the phrase Kakushi Ari kata san mai hozo. Don’t even think about Googling it.
Robert Kroll is a woodworker, Co-op Super, retired lawyer and legal journalist.
Photo shot from above table top at one Sanmai Hozo joint by Robert Kroll.