Ancient Chinese Magic Woodworking Without Nails

Ancient Chinese Magic: Woodworking Without Nails


Ancient Chinese woodworking is still evident until this time as seen on their traditional furniture pieces and heritage sites. Most of the old western buildings and architectural systems were erected with stones, which are magnificent and still are existing today with the influence of Chinese woodworking.

The ancient Chinese woodworkers were excellent at using wood and creating a complex structure of the notch and spike joint to incorporate the unique aesthetics of ancient Chinese wood architecture.

It is so interesting learning ancient Chinese woodworking, knowing how beautiful their temples and pagodas are. Let’s get a deeper grasp of the Chinese woodworking without nails!

Nailless Joinery
Nailless Joinery – Image Source

Many temples, palaces, and pagodas in ancient China were beautifully and intricately built with wood. The old structures were durable, energy-efficient, and environment-friendly, but were easily destroyed by fire in history. Luckily, there are still existing ancient Chinese gems of wooden architecture preserved until today.

The stilt-style wooden architecture founded on the Hemudu Site of the Neolithic Age is the oldest to date, with a history of more than 6000 years. The mud and wooden walls of the Banpo Neolithic Village have a rich history for 5000 years. The fact is that many archaeologists found large-sized imperial tombs and wooden palaces in Henan Province, which dates from 1400 BC to 1100 BC during the Shang Dynasty.

Pagoda – Image Source

For 3000 years, the Chinese wood architecture still retains its magnificent and prominent features. Of the 50 UNESCO heritage sites in China, most are cultural heritage related to architecture.

Learning Ancient China’s Nailless Joinery

Because of the climate in China, Korea, and Japan, why joints were complex in these countries. The humidity and temperature changes throughout the south-east and central Asia are huge. In fact, many European colonists discovered furniture pieces because they were impressed with the woodworking of these Asian countries. At first, the furniture pieces fell into pieces because the animal glue that was used eventually softened due to heat and high humidity.

Traditional Japanese And Chinese Joinery
Traditional Japanese and Chinese Joinery – Image Source

So the woodworkers of China and other Asian countries like Japan and Korea found that they need to make interlocking joints with great mechanical strength instead of only relying on glued joints. Oriental furniture pieces did not rely heavily upon glue which is similar to the 18th-century Continental chairs tended to be glued and pegged as opposed to British furniture pieces which were only glued.

One could probably argue that the furniture pieces of the Continental stood up better to high humidity as compared to British furniture!

 It is important to keep in mind that the entire assembly of a Chinese furniture piece highly depends on the interlocking joints to ensure greater stability. In China, one of the roles of a furniture restorer is to replace and tighten used dovetail wedges when the joints loosen. One of the techniques include the top part without glue, while the legs are glued on, and the frame is responsible for holding the top boards and the legs anchor the frame. Finally, to anchor the entire lot together,  the dovetail wedges are utilized.

Chinese architects and Chinese woodworkers have used mortise-and-tenon joints so pieces of wood are joined together. A rectangle-to-rectangle tenon,  square-to-square or “peg” fitted into a “hole” or mortise, or “hole” were some of the techniques used. It is crucial to carve the dimensions of the tenon precisely yo mirror the mortise so the two will successfully fit together.

As an ultimate rule, screws, and nails have never been used in any stage of the process. Indeed, history has proven that the creation of furniture pieces with nails and screws tend to wobble, unlike furniture pieces that were precisely joined using mortise and tenon, wherein individually carved pieces fit quickly into one another.

Chinese architects and woodworkers used mortise-and-tenon joints for centuries to build temples and houses. Many Chinese furniture makers used the same woodworking technique in the construction of chair, tables, and cabinets to ensure that beautiful furniture pieces were built to live for a lifetime.

Traditional Chinese Timber Frame
Traditional Chinese Timber Frame – Image Source

We can say that the mortise-and-tenon technique promotes superior sturdiness, strength, and seamless wood joint construction. It’s an elegant and long-lasting solution that’s why many woodworkers are still using this technique up to this today.

Before the Ming period in China, no term existed to describe an object as a “furniture” because chairs, cabinets, tables, and beds were called “household implements.”

By becoming aware and knowledgeable of the woodwork joinery, it promotes the Chinese hardwood furniture connoisseurship. The techniques employed by Chinese woodworkers may seem an unusual approach for a first-time learner but an aesthetically inclined observer will be astonished and impressed.

There is integrated conceptualization because the joints are so connected, forming a functional object. The techniques were conceived from ancient Asian technological culture that developed through time and the evolution of architectural systems. During the Ming and Quing dynasties, further refinement and sophistication were reached along with hardwood furniture making.

Characteristics of Ancient Chinese Wooden Architecture

Did you know that Chinese wooden architecture has five characteristics?

Here are the five characteristics of the structure of Chinese wood architecture. Firstly, wood is the primary material, and the formation of transverse beam columns, wood was commonly used. The Dougong or the brackets inserted between the upper column and the crossbar are crucial. Third, due to the limited size of the wood, a single building cannot be as large and spacious as the stone or brick building, so the traditional Chinese architectures are in groups like the Siheyuan courtyard dwellings.

Fourth, the design meets bilateral symmetry. Fifth, Chinese wood architectures are refined with unique decorations and colors, like wood carving, stone carving, brick carving, and enamel decoration. Old building techniques are attached to wood without glue or nails

In the past, wooden screws and tails were complicated, and Japanese craftsmen utilized interlocking joints in a series for connecting beams and wood structures. At present, there are many methods of interlocking joints in carpentry, but in general, all require some type of additional coupling. Wood glue is traditionally used to create sheet beams and other connections, but with a perfect joint system, nothing else is needed.

Interlocking System
Interlocking System – Image Source

The interlocking system is activated by a wedge that is hammered into the open grooves left in the wood by design. This method requires a lot of detailed work of the wood, but when the tails or the screws are not an option, these unions are perfect.

Not to mention, the joining of the wood in this way creates a corresponding tension in the beam and does not create possible flaws in the cutting planes that may be present with other glue joining techniques.

Joining beams like this would have been the traditional method used throughout Japanese architecture at that time. This would have allowed them to create more considerable stretches through ceilings and create taller structures without the need for additional supports.

Construction techniques have evolved quite a bit thanks to the modern industrial revolution, but there are still groups that perpetuate the beautiful and ancient methods of construction.

Advantages of Woodwork Entirely in Wood

Most projects can be easily disassembled for shipment or transport. Piece all-wood gaskets and fasteners allow the wood to move with shrinkage and seasonal expansion. The nails and screws hold the wood quickly, allowing a small movement that eventually breaks the wood around the metal fastener. The movement of the wood, the humidity and the deterioration of the glue eventually loosen any glued wooden board.

When done correctly, projects made entirely of wood can last as long as wood, which can be more than a thousand years. If you want to build for your children and grandchildren and beyond, you can try using only wood joinery.

Video by More China – How to Make Chinese Furniture Without Nails

Make pieces of furniture without any screw, nail or fastener of any kind using glue, mittens and wood joints. That’s why this kind of carpentry generally takes longer. It has been abandoned by speed and volume. Although the construction of furniture with these specific methods is not superior, it is recognized as the mark of an artisan.

By using these old techniques, you can save on the cost of fasteners and expensive power tools.

Miter joints are still universal and are used by many woodworkers to build furniture. The strength of a miter joint lies in the exposed area of ​​the glue surface. The diagonal cut of hard solid wood or plywood through the grain is usually the best for bonding glue.

Miter Joint
Miter Joint – Image Source

Pegs are commonly used to connect wooden furniture. The dowels are very strong and one of the best carpentry joints which are used for braces, panels, legs, or any type of furniture joint.

The pegs are appreciated for their deep penetration into the wood and for the fact that they are invisible when installed correctly. Another benefit of building furniture with dowels instead of screws is the fact that you can cut or drill a furniture joint with dowels without damaging the blades or the bits.

The fluted joints of furniture are similar to the joints with pins. The grooves are long instead of circular and long pegs with thin and flat hardwood or plywood. The grooves run the entire length of a wood determined to align the panels or to connect pieces of wood that must be joined side by side. The groove joints can be made with a router, or a table saw with a cutting blade. The parts of the furniture have long coordination channels on both sides.

Bottom Line

Indeed, the Ancient Chinese woodworking without nails is very inspiring and impressive, influencing the different cultures of the world. We are mesmerized with every technique, passion, and time invested by hardworking Chinese woodworkers. It’s no surprise why Chinese architecture influenced the world because of the ancient Chinese magic of nailless woodworking.

The art of Chinese nailless joinery has evolved over the years, and the techniques used became more advanced and practical to cater different wood masterpieces. Now, we are more aware and knowledgeable why nailless joinery was a major influence in the world’s entire human civilization and practice of woodworking.

Art Of Chinese Nailless Joinery
Image Source