Introduction: Shoji Screen Closet Doors
I wanted to replace my closet doors with something that fits more closely with the furniture I build and the renovations I've been doing on my house. I've always hated bypass doors on closets - they make a closet seem dark and cramped, they're a pain to use, and it always seems that what you want to get to is on the side where the doors currently are - so there's lots of sliding, fumbling, cussing, etc, etc. I wanted some closet doors that were light, airy, and allowed full-access to the whole closet at one time - so I settled on bi-fold doors. Now, I know what you're saying "Bi-fold doors!? Are you kidding?" - to which I'd say, "Read on" - but first some disclaimers:
Because each installation is fairly unique (your closets aren't going to be exactly the same size as mine) I won't be giving a detailed set of plans. I'm assuming (dangerous, I know) that you have some modicum of woodworking skill before tackling a project like this. Although it IS a fairly simple project, it does require some precision.
You do not need to have a shop full of tools to build something like this, however, you will need to make up for whatever tools you lack (like a jointer and planer) with outstanding hand-tool skills, or, a trip to a cabinet shop where they can dimension the lumber for you.
For those who are familiar with traditional Shoji design, construction, and installation, you will see that I used a lot of ... uh... "alternate methods" which work - but aren't exactly "traditional" - I hope the Shoji Gods forgive me :) I recommend Jay Van Arsdale's book "Shoji: How to Design, Build, and Install Japanese Screens" to anyone interested in traditional construction and installation.
Finally, the project cost about $400 total - that's for the wood, shoji paper, finishing materials, and quality hardware - not exactly cheap, but also nowhere near what these would cost if you had them made.
Step 1: What I Started With... Yummy
It all began when I started to renovate my master bedroom. I know, I know - who would want to get rid of these beauties!? Vinyl-covered press-board was all the rage in tract homes in the 70's.....
These doors were pretty beat up and bowed, and they were definitely hard to live with. I salvaged the press-board to make router templates and the aluminum and steel in the frames to keep on hand for reinforcements on other projects. Yes, I'm a packrat.
Step 2: Dimension the Lumber
Traditional Shoji are made from a variety of woods - most of which are expensive and pretty hard to find in the sizes you would need to make screens like these. I chose Poplar because it's readily available, machines easily, takes finish well, and is easier to find in larger (thicker) dimensions in my area. I guess that technically you could buy thinner stock and glue up your own thick stock - but I'll leave that up to you to decide. There are 16 stiles total in this project (the vertical sides of the door panels) which will require that you find some 8 foot x 8/4 (2" thick) stock that is fairly straight - and you'll end up machining a lot of material off to achieve flat and straight pieces- so buy plenty of extra. Final dimensions on the stiles: 1 3/16" thick by 1 5/8" wide. Final on the rails: 1 3/16" thick by 3 1/2" wide. The Kumiko are 1/4" wide and 3/8" deep.
I also want to mention that I always make several extra pieces in any assembly like this - it's just a good habit to get into. I don't think I've ever built anything and regretted having extra pieces since I inevitably mess at least ONE of them up.
The ever-handy Board Trick : Let's say you have a board that's perfect in most every way, except it's bowed along it's length. This can be salvaged by splitting the board along it's length (as close to exactly in half as possible) then flip the pieces so they are face to face (bowing away from each other) and glue them back together - preferably clamping them against a straight edge while they cure. The "bowing" forces in the board will cancel each other out and give you a straight board. I use this technique a lot, and it lets me make use of stock I would otherwise have to reject.
It's also worth noting that for the vast majority of gluing, I use polyurethane glue - my preferred brand is Gorilla Glue. I also use carpenter's glue - usually Titebond - but yellow glues should never be used on laminations as yellow glue actually remains liquid (like glass and asphalt) and seams will "creep" over time - so for the board trick - you want to use polyurethane (or any glue that actually *cures*).
Step 3: Alternate Kumiko Method
OK - so here's where I break from tradition. Alternate method #1:
As you can see in the illustration above, traditional Kumiko are half-lap mortised into the frames. This is awesome - and necessary in the case of traditional Shoji because traditional Shoji don't make use of any glue. In the version of Shoji that I'm making, I'm using a simplified kumiko which in my case is held in place with a drop of glue and a friction fit - and it works very well. I machined my Kumiko stock based on the width of the router bit that I was using to cut the slots and half-lap joints - making the kumiko just a *tiny* bit thicker so that the press-fit would require some effort, but they would be self-supporting.
Step 4: Machining the Stiles
I really believe in jigs and fixtures. The amount of time spent building them pays off dramatically in speed and accuracy - and they're around for use later if you need them again. Jigs can be as simple as a board screwed to another board, or, as complex as machined polycarbonate and UHMW plastic - just depends on what you need it to do, and how much you plan to use it. I built a handful of simple jigs for this project, and the time spent was well worth it.
I start this part by sorting and matching the stiles - finding which boards are the best matches for each other, and which sides on those boards should face in, face out, and make sure to mark them so they are easily identified.
Once paired up, I place them face down on my bench (an old door from a school that was being renovated) butting them up against a block screwed to the table (to keep them flush) and then clamp them together. I'm going to cut the slots for the kumiko using a router and a jig.
Step 5: Machine the Kumiko (lattice Parts)
The lap-joints for the Kumiko are cut much the same way as the slots in the stiles were cut. It's critical to keep the pieces clamped tightly together as vibration from loosely clamped parts will equal sloppy joints at best and destroyed stock at worst.
Kumiko are stabilized by a series of alternating lap-joints. You will cut at every other mark, then flip all the pieces, and cut the alternate slots. On complex Kumiko patterns, the joints can be a challenge to keep track of - it's pretty easy to cut the wrong side. Take your time, make *sure* you're cutting in the right place - triple check before you turn on the router - it's easy to get caught up in the moment and make a mistake - at least it is for me ;) Thankfully, the pattern I used was pretty basic and the parts were reversible - which was nice.
Once again, these Kumiko were dimensioned for a friction fit in the slots cut by the router bit I was using. The router bit was cutting a slot that was almost exactly 1/4" wide, so I machined the Kumiko to around 9/32" thick - but you should do some test joints to make sure that whatever thickness you settle on is going to be a nice tight fit without being excessively compressed. How's that for vague? lol.
Step 6: Assemble the Kumiko
Assembling the Kumiko can resemble (in a crude way) weaving. The alternating lap joints create a strong, stable, self- supporting structure. Precision in your joints pays off with a nice, tight lattice that is surprisingly strong and light. I used a tiny drop of polyurethane glue at each joint - but be very careful with the glue as it will expand (assuming polyurethane is what you're using) and those little bubbles of squeeze-out are a pain to clean up (and finish over) - so be a litte stingy with the glue ;)
Step 7: Machine the Rails
Since the rails only had two cuts, I built a quick jig and set it up so that all I had to do was cut the slot, flip the pieces 180 degrees and cut the other slot. Note once again that the rails are clamped face-to-face (edge-to-edge) so that the router bit doesn't blow them out.
Step 8: Assemble the Frames
Once again, parts are sorted and assembled into sets and marked. I'm a big fan of blue painter's tape and a permanent marker. The more stuff you mark, the less chance of putting something in the wrong place or forgetting where something goes (or which side is IN and which is OUT).
A small 1/16"chamfer is cut on all edges of all frame pieces - I use a small block plane to do this as it's much faster than any other method. This chamfer adds a nice detail, makes the corners tougher to damage, and also allows a little bit of leeway in assembly.
This is also departure #2 from tradition - traditional Shoji screens use wedged mortise and tenon construction on the frames. I'm not that patient - at least not with closet doors :) I decided to use biscuits because it made construction extremely easy, and when properly used, biscuit joints are very strong. This is one place I will use yellow glues BTW - the moisture in the glue helps the biscuits expand into the joint making for a very strong joint.
Step 9: Assemble and Finish the Door Panels
Due to the structure of shoji - having lots of fine edges and lots of faces to get finish on, I decided it would be best if I sanded and finished the frames separate from the lattices (Kumiko) and assemble them after they were finished. this also reduced the possibility of breaking a lattice with an errant hand, or a dropped mallet, or whatever.
Traditional Shoji are usually finished with oil which brings out the beauty of the wood - but Poplar isn't all that pretty - but it takes stain and dyes very well - so I used a combination of NGR dye (Non Grain-Raising or Alcohol-Based dye) and tinted conversion varnish for the finish (Sherwin Williams "Kem-Var" Water-White Conversion Varnish). I sprayed the NGR dye using a HVLP conversion gun, let it dry, and then followed with the tinted conversion varnish (tinted with universal dyes). This gives an extremely dark color, but still has transparency allowing you to see the wood grain. In actuality, you could use just about anything for finish - it just depends on what look you want, and how tough you need it to be - tung oil, acrylic enamel, water-based polyurethane - it's up to you.
Once the finish dried to a point where it could be handled roughly - about 12 hours in this case - I was able to assemble the Kumiko into the frames.
The Kumiko were lightly tapped into their slots, and I made sure everything was straight - tapping here and there to align and straighten the longer sections - before using a block and hammer to drive them home into the frame. I glued some of them at the beginning, but it became apparent very quickly that it wasn't necessary. I live in a very dry climate - so moisture doesn't play as much a part as it might in places like the Midwestern US in regards to wood movement. In more humid climates, I'd probably have used a drop of glue in each joint, or, a small-gauge brad as a bit of extra insurance.
Step 10: Hardware and Shoji Paper
NOTE: It's a very good idea to PRE-INSTALL the doors BEFORE you attach the paper (see Step 10). Install your hardware on the frames, install them in the closet, adjust them per the hardware instructions, then just snap them out of their mounts and install the paper. This will make final installation go much more smoothly and reduce the risk of damaging the paper.
Once the frames were assembled, it was time to install hardware and "paper".
The Shoji paper I used is actually very tough - it's PVC coated paper that's .45mm thick. It's not so much like paper as it is thin plastic - I'm not worried about punching a hole in it - at least not easily. I sourced what I used through eShoji.com - great selection and service - but I'm sure there are other suppliers as well. (I used e-shoji p/n #C4502 - ~$55 each - I used two sheets)
Bi-fold door hardware is not all created equal. The usual stuff you find at the big-box hardware stores is NOT what you want to use. Pay a little more and get some commercial quality hardware that will be a joy to use and install. After a LOT of searching, I bought a set of Johnson Hardware model 1700 BiFold Door Systems for $36 for each set of four doors - so about $80 for the hardware (JohnsonHardware.com ). I bought the door pulls from Lowes.com for something like $4 each on sale - they're perfect for this application.
The paper comes in rolls that were just wide enough that I could get four "strips" out of each roll - so I only needed two rolls. I used a pretty heavy paper - you could easily get away with one of the .3mm papers as well - and they'd be less expensive.
The hinges and hardware are straightforward to install - just follow the instructions. The paper is also pretty simple - it installs with a very strong double-faced tape that you will need to get from the same source as your paper. The tape makes the installation go very quickly and smoothly and after several months of use I haven't seen any indications that anything is coming loose.
Step 11: Installation
My house doesn't have a straight wall in it - and my closets were no exception. I was forced to build a valence around the doors to ensure that the frames were visually the same width all the way around - this added another day and a half to the project. Hopefully, your house is square and plumb, and you won't have to do anything like what I had to do.
I wanted to point out that I would *highly* recommend getting all the hardware adjusted and set up before installing the paper. It's so nice to be able to reach through the doors when you're setting them up - not to mention not having to worry about damaging the paper. Once they're in and working smoothly, you can just snap them out, install the paper, and reinstall them.
I also installed lights into all of my closets (I hate dark closets) and the shoji make a pretty sweet nightlight if you're into that kind of thing :)
I hope you enjoyed this instructable!
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