Tag Archives: ecohouse

Finishing the bookshelves

We’ve been away visiting family in Japan. Before we left, there was one final thing to do to finish the bookshelves, which was to find and install a nice cherry top for the cabinets. Jeremy Balint, one of great local carpenters, just completed the job. The cherry is still quite pale, but we’re going to use an oil and resin finish and it will darken and deepen significantly over time…

If anyone’s interested in the furniture that’s partly visible in the final two pictures, you’re in luck because we’ll be putting up a post about furniture very soon!

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The Japanese Room

Since the house was declared complete, there has been one room that has remained unfinished. It’s pretty visible too, right at the top of the stairs, there has just been a pile of boxes and wood on the subfloor. We’ve just been telling visitors, “and that will be the Japanese room.”

Now, finally, it is the Japanese room!

After the excellent bookshelves downstairs done by Jeremy Balint, this time it’s the work of another brilliant local carpenter, Joe Calnan. Joe is multi-talented as you can see from the projects on his website: historian, educator, guide, boatbuilder, historic building restorer – and just occasionally, lucky people get to have him do some interior woodwork. We had him in mind for this project from the beginning as he’s also interested in Japanese joinery, and we’re delighted he was able to find the time to fit us in.

What we are calling the Japanese room is a typical multipurpose space that would be found in a small house or apartment in Japan, known as a washitsu. Japanese rooms are generally measured by floor area, in tatami. Tatami are thick mats woven from a special grass straw and filled with another kind of grass stuffing (although many these days have some kind of artifical foam instead), often edged with fabric. The sizing is slightly complicated by the fact that tatami are traditionally slightly different sizes in different parts of Japan, but generally they are around 90cm x 45cm and arranged in various different patterns depending on the exact shape of the room.

We had designed in this space along these dimensions from the beginning, to be a 4.5 tatami space (yojohan), plus tokonoma (alcove) and chigaidana (cupboards). In most traditional rooms, the tokonoma and chigaidana are next to each other, split by a tokobashira, a pillar that is often deliberately rustic, and sometimes even just a whole tree branch. However, in some the alcove and cupboards are arranged vertically, and this is what we decided to do because it makes the cupboards, in which we will store guest futon mattresses, more easily usable, and it also makes more a potential feature of the top of the low cupboards. We will still have a tokobashira in the centre but the ash branch from the island we are going to use is still still drying. The tokonoma has certain other traditional features too, usually a flower arrangement and scroll, both of which are changed seasonally or more frequently. Ours also has an otoshigake, a valence at the top of the alcove. The room is not divided from the upstairs hallway by walls and a door but by shoji, translucent sliding screens (although it could also be fusuma, which are opaque screens).

Our tatami mats and shoji screens both came from the Vancouver-based Lilin, who were really excellent to deal with and very reasonably priced for quality products. The shoji are made of fir, and this really determined the choice of the rest of the materials in the room – and outside. We had already choicen to use a fir top for the stair rail, and Joe used fir for the frame post and kamoi (top rail) for the shoji, and carefully matched pieces of fir for the valence and the cupboards. The tatami mats are held in place by a narrow fir frame and the base of the sliding screens and cupboards. However, the shikii (base rail) for the shoji is clear maple, the same as the floor of the upstairs landing. Maple is also much harder than fir, which makes it more suitable for the shikii, which will need to be hard-wearing. We’ve generally tried not to use any foreign or unsustainably-harvested wood for any part of the house, but Joe had a large piece of Honduras mahogany, which he has had in the store in the back of his workshop for quite a few years, which was absolutely beautiful and was almost exactly the right size for the cupboard top. All Honduras mahogany is now supposed to be sustainably harvested or cultivated, and this was certainly not from Brazil, where that is often not the case and mahogany is frequently illegally harvested.

The tokonoma is lined in this really special hand-made silk wallpaper from Ubushina in Japan, which has ‘grain’. Inspired by pictures on their website, we decided to hang it as equal size squares, alternating the direction of the grain for each so that the light would catch it in different ways. It made the cutting and hanging processes a little more complicated but the result is beautiful.

And finally, we sorted out the lighting. The tokonoma is lit by a flexible LED strip around the inside of the valence. This can be set to all kinds of color outputs, and even has some sort of ‘disco’ settings, which FK loves, but generally, a warm yellow light works best with the wallpaper and wood. The main room light is another one from Toshiyuki Tani, who also made the birch-bark shade in the lounge. It’s a simple washi-paper shade in the shape of Mt Fuji.

Overall, we are delighted with the room.

Built-in Bookshelves

Over the winter, we’ve been trying to get a few jobs done in the house: sorting out furniture (post to come soon), building the Japanese room upstairs (which is happening as I write this post, so there will also be something on that soon), and the subject of this post: building-in bookshelves downstairs. I grew up in a house with books, and even in this age of ephemeral digital media, there is something I love about walls of books. I don’t want to look at screens all the time. I love the smell, feel and look of real books. So built-in bookshelves were always part of our design. I guess they also add some insulation value to the walls but that’s really just a by-product.

Neither of us are particularly skilled at woodworking, but we’re very lucky on Wolfe Island in that we have a number of excellent carpenters here, not just your average people who are handy with a hammer but really skilled craftspeople. Joe Callnan, who is upstairs working on the Japanese room right now, specializes in historic woodwork and boatbuilding, but also has an interest in Japanese joinery, and for the bookshelves we turned to Jeremy Balint, who has the most beautiful and tidily kept barn-workshop, in which he produces excellent cabinetry – when he gets the time. Luckily he has had some time for us!

The shelves were based on designs I drew up originally with no practical knowledge of how shelves would actually be built. I had envisaged them as solid wood, but Jeremy looked at the designs and convinced me that a high-quality plywood would be much better as the basis structure, with solid wood fronts. He also advised us to get composite doors for the cabinets at the base of the shelves from Caron, a company in Quebec. Their ordering system looks complicated at first, but it means you can get exactly what you want. However, you have to order through a recognised cabinet-maker – they don’t want to undercut artisans, which is highly ethical and I agree with that approach. Luckily, Jeremy had an account with them already.

The shelves have a fixed frame around the west window and along part of the north wall, within which we have moveable shelves. The cabinets run along the bottom of the west portion. We decided to paint all the shelving white (and have the cabinet doors also pre-finished in white) to contrast with the natural woods that are everywhere in this place. The only exception is that there will eventually be a beautiful oiled cherry shelf-top on top of the cabinets, but we are waiting until we find the best wood we can get for this.