bookmark_border“Smallest” Cypress Karabitsu Project

Way back in 2012, I made a regular size karabitsu entirely by hand from cypress 1×12. I developed a set of ratios that enabled me to design a karabitsu based on the width of the wood. The length of the lid is twice the width of the wood, and so on down. Later, I made a small karabitsu out of cypress 1×10, using the same ratios. I decided to make a pair of even smaller karabitsu out of cypress 1×8, planing the wood down to half-inch thickness because I had purchased a planer. I cut all the pieces to length, and started cutting the joinery, but then life intervened. The pieces sat in a box next to my workbench for at least a year. Then we moved. Then the peces sat in a box on my workbench for four years. It was time to complete this project and get these dang things off my workbench.

I cut all the joinery by hand, but I quickly gave up on doing everything by hand. I used a band saw to cut the legs, a router to shape the legs, a sander to smooth out the boxes, and a drill to make holes for the pegs that secure everything. I did decide to use rice paste to assemble the boxes instead of using modern wood glue. I used more hand-mixed blonde shellac for the finish, and now finally these are done.

Two Small Cypress Karabitsu

Here’s an image showing all four karabitsu stacked up, so you can compare sizes:

Four Cypress Karabitsu

I don’t know quite what use I had in mind for these when I started them. They might be useful for carrying one person’s worth of fest gear or something. I’ll have to make some braids for them. At least with two of them, they can balance at either ends of a carrying pole.

bookmark_borderPine Boxes with Rabbet Joinery

A “rabbet” or “rebate” is a slot cut right at the edge of a piece of wood, as opposed to a “dado” which is a slot cut somewhere in the middle. Last Spring, when I was trying to get the BMDL woodworking guild going, one of the workshops I put together was about how to make these simple wooden boxes. The rabbet joinery is much stronger than butt joinery. Glue along two axes is stronger than glue along one, the rabbet around the bottom keep the whole thing square if you do it right, and the rabbet around the lid lets the lid fit snugly. I wound up making three boxes myself. Two were prototypes to test my process, and one was the “follow along” version made during the workshop. These sat around for about a year, but then I decided to practice finishing with shellac. I declared them “done” just recently.

Three pine boxes with rabbet joinery

I used some ancient Zinser-brand amber shalleac on two of them, in a futile attempt to get rid of the last of that stuff. On the third, I used a blonde shellac that I mixed myself from flake shellac and denatured alcohol. Some people don’t like the the color of the amber shellac. I think it’s OK. The blonde shellac looks a lot more natural,though. Here they are with the lids off:

The thickness of the walls i kind of overkill for a box this size, but planing the wood down just wastes it. If things ever get back to near normal, I should run a finishing workshop. A lot of people hate finishing, because nobody ever taught them how to do it well. I’ve learned so much through trial and error that I don’t mind it, even though it takes up a lot of time and delays the completion of projects.

bookmark_borderKarabitsu Lid Repair

Going on 13 years ago, I made five white karabitsu to replace the plastic “tucker totes” we had been camping with up until then. They have held up pretty well, all things considered. I sold one of them as surplus, but the remaining four have been camping with us at Pennsic and other events ever since. I did fail to anticipate how often they would get used as seating, however, and the constant flexing of the lids had led to some deteriorations. One of the lids was damaged a few years ago, and repaired, so it was time to extend those repairs to the remaining chests. Here are the lids with their final coat of paint drying.

Paint drying on karabitsu lids

How to fix karabitsu lids: First, sand all the paint off the top of the lid. Then, cut a rectangle of plywood slightly larger than the top of the lid. Coat the lid with exterior wood glue, and clamp down the rectangle. Once the glue is dry, trim the edges of the wood with a router. Then, round off the corners using a different router bit. Now, it is time for finishing. I did two coats of primer (with Insuladd), three coats of flat white enamel, and two coats of gloss white enamel. That should be enough.

Next year, I’ll repaint the exteriors of the bodies. Some of the corners are looking a little beat-up.

bookmark_borderCherry Surplus Box Project

Just in case you are under the impression that everything I do is always perfect, here’s a little project I had to make because I messed up my first try on the Sake Cup Box project. Sometimes I kind of “wing it” on projects, making decisions based on dimensions that are are penciled on cardboard boxes or post-it notes instead of sitting down to draw up formal plans and doing calculations. As you might expect, sometimes this bites me in the butt.

I made this box bottom, then when I tried it out with the dividers to check for size, I realized it was too small. I set it aside while I started over on a new box bottom, kept it aside while I made a lid for the Sake Cup Box, then I made a lid to fit this “surplus” box bottom instead of smashing it to bits in frustration.

Surplus Box Bottom

This time, the top of the lid is made from more strips of cherry, edge-glued together. I am getting tired of seeing this big stack of cherry scants in the shop, so this was a good way to use up a handful of them. The walls are also cherry strips, but I was able to get better glue joints this time, so there is no metal hardware. Hopefully, the whole thing doesn’t wind up smashed to pieces at some point.

Cherry Surplus Box

The floor is maple, resawn and bookmatched, but as this was my first try it is much more uneven than the floor of the Sake Cup Box. In a way, it’s a good thing this one was unusably small because the bottom it’s definitely not as nice.

The whole thing got the same walnut oil finish as the Sake Cup Box, because why not, so it also spent the last month in the drying closet. I’m no entirely sure what I’ll use this box for, but I am sure that I will use it for something. It’s big enough to hold 16 tama and some braiding supplies, and since it obviously matches the Cherry Marudai, maybe that’s what I will use it for.

bookmark_borderSake Cup Box Project

It spent a month in the furo, and now it’s ready to show off. This was one of my big projects last month, and it has been on my to-do list for a while.

Back at the SCA 50-year anniversary event, we purchased a dozen sake cups for a very good price from a merchant. Since a dozen is one box of cups, the merchant threw in the box so we could safely transport the cups home. This was just a cardboard box, so we have been keeping the cups in a plastic bento box ever since. The cardboard dividers between the cups got destroyed at Pennsic last year, so I made some new dividers from cherry, but still sized to fit in the plastic bento. Now, I have made the final box.

The Sake Cup Box

The top of the lid is made from some rough-sawn lumber I salvaged from Mr. Arimoto’s workshop during the restaurant furniture project. The walls of both the lid and the box body are made from off-cut cherry strips from making maurdai. I was having some trouble gluing the strips to the lid and floor pieces, so all the joinery is secured with brass escutcheon pins. This should also make it a little more durable. It’s finished with food-grade walnut oil, which is why it had to spend a month in the drying cabinet. That oil takes a really long time to cure.

Here’s what it looks like with the lid off:

Sake Cups in Box, with Dividers

The dividers are neither glued together, nor are they glued in. If I need this box for something else later, they will lift right out. The floor of the box is some resawn and book-matched maple that I had in the shop. I didn’t have enough or thick enough cherry left over. It started as 4/4 (roughly 1-inch thick) maple, so I resawed it to roughly half-inch thickness, then sanded it smooth and even.

Empty Sake Cup Box

I am really super-happy with the way this came out. It is significantly larger and heavier than the old plastic box, but it is also significantly classier.

bookmark_borderAttack of the Clamps

Making a couple of small karabitsu footed chests, and reached the stage of gluing the body of the chest together.

That’s a dozen clamps

It’s quite possible that if I was just better at cutting joinery, I woould not need quite so many clamps. Also, I’m using rice paste and not carpenter’s wood glue, so it takes hours and hours to dry fully.

Once the paste is dry, I can use pegs to fasten all the joinery, which includes securing the floor of the chest. This is the second of two karabitsu, so later this week I will be able to move on to the sanding phase.


Almost two years ago, I received what is called my “Laurel Writ”, which is basically a command to present myself to the Crown of the local SCA Kingdom and accept (or decline) elevation to the Order of the Laurel. The Laurel is a “peerage” level award, recognized Society-wide but awarded at the Kingdom Level. In terms of rank, it is the equivalent of a Knighthood, but for arts and research instead of for fighting prowess and chivalrous conduct.

My “elevation garb” was a “Bunkan Sokutai“, the fanciest and most formal outfit my SCA persona would ever have had reason to wear. There are a lot of parts to this outfit, meaning not only several layers of garments, but several vital accessories. Sharon did all of the important layers of garments, and I did most of the accessories. One accessory I did not have ready in time is the gyotai.

Gyotai translates as “fish bag”. This accessory is reserved for courtiers of high enough rank that they have access to the Imperial palace. Apparently, it started as a belt-hung charm that was actually shaped like a fish, but eventually became what you see below.

Gyotai (possibly Gyoutai)

I started with a block of red oak, 2.5 inches by 4.75 inches. Then, I covered it in real ray skin, attached with epoxy adhesive. Then, I hammered the brass strip for texture, and nailed it in place. It is bent over at the top, and riveted to hold the ring for hanging. The fish are pewter buttons. I had to paint them gold, and spray coat the gold paint for durability. On the other hand, the shanks of the buttons made it very easy to drill a few holes and attach the fish to the surface. There is one more fish on the back of the gyotai, and the brass strip covers up the terrible seam in the rayskin.

So, this project was two years in the intention, but it really only took two days in the shop to get all the work done. Considering that I haven’t even seen one of these in a museum, it feels so good to have one of my very own.

bookmark_borderKute-Uchi Hands

When I was in Japan for the TV show, they gave me the opportunity to visit with Makiko Tada in her studio and while I was there she taught me how to do “Kute-Uchi” hand loop braiding. I have since taken more classes in it, and done more studying. This craft, like finger loop braiding, has the disadvantage that once you start a braid, there is really no way to put the work down until it is finished. Also, if you want to experiment with the multi-person braids you actually need multiple people. That is, unless you have some “helping hands” to hold the loops for you.

I’ve seen several designs for these, but most of them seemed either too primitive or too engineered. Some are made of PVC pipe or other humble materials. Some have magnetic bases to keep them from shifting, but then you need a metal table. anyway, I thought that some wood would be nicer, and friction would probably be enough to keep them from shifting. A few hours in the shop, and here we are!

Helping hands in use, from above

Here you can see the kute-uchi hands in use. This is just a simple 5-loop braid, but I can stop at any time by sliding the loops off my hands onto the dowel ends. The bar in the center keeps the two sides separate, and fiction between the wooden base and the tablecloth keeps tension on the loops. If I need more tension for some reason, I can always put a weight bag on the base to increase the friction. the hands do need to move forward, as uptake from the braid makes the distance between the hands and the fixed point shorter as the braid progresses.


Here’s a closer shot from the front. The dowel just goes through the upright post. A set screw keeps the dowel from sliding out. The upright is in a shallow mortise for stability, and a screw comes up from underneath to keep that attached. There’s no glue, so I can remove the screws if I need to take the whole thing apart for travel or something. There’s a bit of sealer on it to stabilize the wood, but no finish to make it slippery.

I actually made three of these. I needed at least two for making two-person braids, and why not make an extra one while I was working? I had three good pieces of dowel in the surplus rack.

I’ve been wanting these for a while, so it is really good to finally get around to making them.

bookmark_borderRosewood Armrest Coaster

Some months ago, in the beforetimes, I made an armrest coaster from walnut. This was nice, and well received, but we decided that another one would be handy. The local Rockler store was getting ready to move, and they had all their exotic lumber on sale. They had this rosewood board left, and Sharon loves rosewood, so into the basket and onto the todo list it went.

Rosewood armrest coaster

There are some cracks in the wood, and i tried filling them, with only limited success. It should not effect the structure, though. Most things about the construction were the same here, except I had to cut my own splines. I should have done that on the band saw instead of on the table saw. A bit of tape to keep the splines from falling into the saw after cutting made this much safer. The gluing went a lot better this time than last time. I guess I was more patient and more practiced. Anyway, here’s what it looks like in situ:

Coaster on armrest

A couple of doses of boiled linseed oil to seal the wood, and it’s ready to use.

bookmark_borderMasu, 1 Shou

Back in October of 2016, when I was in Japan for the TV show, I had a few “free” days in Tokyo when they weren’t shooting video and I could go do whatever I wanted. One of these, I walked from my hotel near the Shiba Daimon Gate up to the Tokyo National Museum, a distance of some three or so miles. One of the displays in the museum that day was a collection of wood and lacquer items. Within that display was a small collection of masu measuring boxes from the 15th century. Ever since that day, I’ve been wanting to recreate at least one of these boxes.

Masu in the TNM

Most people here in the West are familiar with masu as the wooden sake cups one sometimes receives with cold sake in sushi restaurants. That size, is a 1 gou masu. Five of the six masu in the TNM were 1 shou masu. They have ten times the capacity of a sake cup masu. A thousand gou is a year’s supply of rice for one person, called a koku. A shou of rice is about the amount a person might buy in the market for a family.

The way a rice merchant would use a masu is to dig into the rice bushel with the box, and lift out a mounded boxful of rice. Then, drag a rod across the top of the box to level off the measure, much in the same way a baker uses a metal spatula to level off a measure of flour. ! shou of rice is about 1.8 liters, usually described as “about a half gallon”.

Here’s a better picture of just one of the masu in the museum:

Probably the best masu in the collection

This image shows some vital details necessary for recreating this kind of 1 shou masu. The bottom is not captive within the walls, it is applied and extends to the full footprint of the box. This one shows significant wear, rounding off the bottom edges. The joinery at the corners is simple, more or less “box” joints, but with the huge half-height “fingers” I am used to seeing on boxes from this era. Interestingly, the joints “chase” around the box, and all sides are Z-shaped. The joinery is secured with two pegs per finger. The rim of the box is covered in copper strips. These strips keep the top edge of the box from being worn down by the rubbing of the leveling rod. the copper strips appear to be nailed on.

Anyway, it’s taken me some time to get around to completing my masu. First, I had to calculate the measurements needed to achieve the 1.8 liter volume. If I planed down some cedar boards to half-inch thickness, my walls needed to be (amusingly) seven inches long and three inches tall. I’m told that the actual volumes of the masu in this collection vary significantly, but whatever. I started working probably two years ago, ut the planed boards sat on my workbench until recently. I even got some sheet copper and cut it into strips, and that sat waiting too. My copper is about half as thick as the strips in the museum masu, and I think that the walls of the boxes may be thinner, but I do what I can. I was able to cut all the joinery by hand, and hand-drill the holes for the pegs using a yotsume kiri gimlet. I glued everything together with rice-paste glue, which may or may not be authentic, but is certainly closer than if I’d used wood glue.

Anyway, here’s my masu with its measuring rod:

I was even able to get copper-plated nails to attached the strips. It feels so good to finally complete this project after all this time. This kind of common object is the kind of thing my SCA persona would have been familiar with as a mundane object in the marketplace, so it helps me complete the mental picture of what his world was like. I can now hold in my hands something I’d previously only seen behind glass in a museum.