Japanese vs Western Woodworking – Differences Compared

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Of all the different countries which have various styles of woodworking, Japanese woodworking is one of the most unique styles. It is set apart from the western style of woodworking. You can learn a lot from the Japanese style of woodworking. It is an ancient form of woodworking passed down from generation to generation.

Japanese vs western woodworking is a very interesting topic of discussion between woodworkers. Where the western style of woodworking uses metal fasteners like screws, nails, and staples, the Japanese style uses no metal except for the blades that cut the wood. Japanese woodworking is extremely precise and western woodworkers can improve their techniques by studying it.


Japanese saws and plane in white background

The Japanese have always set themselves apart from the West in all aspects of life and their culture. Japanese woodworking is similarly unique in that it has a different approach to woodworking than the western style.

Japanese woodworking adopts a philosophical approach that borders on the spiritual. While western woodworking is a means to an end, the Japanese woodworker becomes one with the wood that they work with.

Western woodworking is not accompanied by specific philosophies. Japanese woodworking on the other hand considers that they do not use wood merely for utilitarian purposes. The Japanese woodworker gives the wood a second life, a rebirth in the form of various wooden objects.

The most appropriate ways of comparing the two styles of woodworking are through the techniques and tools used. So, let us consider each aspect individually.

Japanese vs Western Woodworking Techniques

Both styles of woodworking involve cutting and joining wood. But the difference between Japanese and western woodworking is that the western style adds a lot of metal and glue to the wood. Japanese woodworking, however, adds no metallic objects or glue to the wood.

Here are a few prominent joints of Japanese woodworking:

Dovetail Joint

Pins and tails of dovetail joint — Photo

The dovetail joint is one of the most popular joints in Japanese woodworking. You get variations of this joint. The most intricate type of dovetail joint in Japanese woodworking is the Japanese sunrise dovetail joint.

The Japanese dovetail joint is quite similar to that used in the western style of woodworking. The main difference here is that the pins and tails fit so seamlessly that there is no need for glue, nor is there any space to accommodate it.

The Japanese dovetail joint is a joint in Japanese woodworking that you can pull apart after fitting. But with Japanese woodworking, these joints are extremely tight and are made in a high precision manner. This type of joint eliminates the need to use screws and bolts.

Mortise and Tenon Joint

two freshly cut woodworking mortises and a tenon isolated against a white background

The mortise and tenon joint is common to both the Japanese and western styles of woodworking. This type of joint comprises a square or rectangular peg that fits into a similarly shaped hole.

Glue plays a prominent role in a mortise and tenon joint in the western style. We also add fine nails for extra reinforcement. You will find mortise and tenon joints in chairs, tables, cabinets, and door frames.

The Japanese mortise and tenon joint looks the same as its western counterpart but the woodworker uses no glue or nails in the joinery. Also, the Japanese version is much more precise and tight-fitting.

Sampo-Zashi Joint

The Sampo-Zashi joint is a combination of the mortise and tenon and a dovetail. It is extremely precisely made down to the last millimeter. It is the type of joint that only experts can make.

You will find the Sampo-Zashi joint in houses and large temples. It is unique to Japanese woodworking and you will not find its equivalent in western woodworking joints.

Japanese Wood Carving

three famous Tosho-gu wood carvings "see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil" of the three wise monkeys

When we talk about Japanese wood carving, we allude to the Japanese Enami style of wood carving. You can consider this style of woodworking even far superior to Japanese joinery techniques.

The most significant aspect of Japanese Enami wood carving is that you don’t need to use files. It is a highly tedious and time-consuming form of wood carving. You can find typical samples of this style of wood carving in the numerous temples across Japan.

Japan Enami sculptors use only chisels and knives to create their intricate wood carvings. This form of wood carving can perhaps be compared to some extent to whittling with a knife but intricately more intricate and exquisite.

In Japan, you can find several traditional wood carving workshops in Nanto City even today that follow the Japanese Enami style of wood carving.

Japanese Lacquering Techniques

While discussing Japanese woodworking, the lacquering techniques they use are something worth mentioning. The finishing for furniture and wood carvings is done by applying lacquer.

The method of Japanese lacquering is not merely spreading a coating of lacquer over the carving or the furniture surface like in the western style of lacquering.

In Japanese lacquering, you have multiple steps where the raw lacquer is filtered and a whetstone serves the purpose of final polishing to bring out the wood grain. You can see one such polishing method in the Kujro technique.

Japanese lacquering goes much deeper than bringing out the pattern of the wood grain. You can also see rusted metal, porcelain, and even patinated bronze effects on the Japanese lacquering finish.

The process of Japanese lacquering is so elaborate that as many as 33 stages and as many days can be part of the lacquering process with some lacquers.

Japanese vs Western Tools

Coming to the aspect of the tools by Japanese and western woodworkers. Here again, the differences are worth mentioning. Western woodworkers use countless types of tools. In contrast, the basic tools that Japanese woodworkers use are only saws, planes, and chisels.

With this in mind, here we take a closer look at Japanese saws, planes, and chisels and compare them to those used in the West.

Japanese vs Western Saws

There is a wide range of western saws and Japanese saws. The Japanese call their saw “Nokogiri.” The difference between Japanese and western saws is in the action. With a western saw, we cut by pushing the blade forward, whereas in the Japanese saw we pull it towards us to cut.

The primary benefit of the pulling action of the Japanese saw is that you can use much thinner blades. It results in high-precision cuts. Here are a few of the prominent Japanese saws. Each one serves a specific purpose.


Japanese Saw named Dozuki take apart
Image Credit: Joachim Müllerchen via Creative Commons

It is essentially a backsaw. We can translate the word “Dozuki” as “attached trunk.”  It alludes to the stiffening strip behind the tool.


Japanese Ryoba Photo
Image Credit: Simon A. Eugster via Creative Commons

This double-edged saw has a cross-cutting blade and a ripping blade on either side respectively.


The azebiki is a miniature version of a ryoba and it helps to cut on a flat surface because the blade has a convex curve.


This is a kind of a keyhole saw that allows you to cut in a curved direction.

Japanese Planes vs Western Planes

The Japanese plane has a roughly similar construction to the western plane. The primary difference is that the planing action is done on the pull stroke as against the pull stroke of the western planes.

The Japanese call their plane Kanna. It has basic parts similar to a regular western plane. The main difference is that the body is made of wood.

Another difference is that the Japanese plane has fewer parts than the western plane. It makes the western plane slightly more complicated than the western plane.

Japanese vs Western Chisels

The Japanese chisel is a very specialized and intricate tool. It serves the same basic purpose as western chisels, that is to chip wood. However, the Japanese chisels are much more precision-oriented.

You can have a range of about nine to ten Japanese chisels. Each has an allocated name in Japanese. A major difference between Japanese and western chisels is the width.

The primary difference between Japanese and western chisels is the blade material. The blades of Japanese chisels are composed of blue or white steel. The quality of the steel is significantly superior to western chisel blades.

Due to the hard material, the sharpening process of Japanese chisels is much more challenging than that of western chisels. Today you can find a hybrid version of the chisel which possesses the best features of Japanese and western chisels.


We have highlighted the difference between Japanese and western woodworking. As you can see, the Japanese style of woodworking is different from the western style in so many different styles and levels.

The difference is not only in the tools and techniques used but in the approach and philosophy in each style. You may not get an opportunity to learn Japanese woodworking, an art that has been passed on from generation to generation.

However, you can study the method and take some of the best practices from Japanese woodworking and try them out in your day-to-day woodworking projects.