Several projects ago, I made a simple kumiko, the asanoha pattern, or hemp leaf, using a kit that I purchased from Johnny Tromboukis Woodworking. It came with the jigs needed to make all the little pieces, and the strips of wood to use for them. It also had the pieces to make the grid already notched for the half lap joints. My job was to assemble the grid, and then cut all the little pieces using the jigs and my chisel, to fit them all nicely together. I enjoyed doing it, and it was nice to be able to jump right in, but now it was time to take another step forward.
I purchased a nice big piece of basswood from a local lumberyard, so that I would have something to make the strips with. They needed a bit of thicknessing (which generally means making them less thick) on the planer. Next time, I think I should plane them down even more, but these still worked out. When I started this project, I was still using my old saw and was not comfortable with trying to cut accurate strips, so I cut them roughly to size (all oversized) on the bandsaw, which probably also gave me more strips from the board since the kerf is so much smaller on the bandsaw. Then to get them to the proper thickness (they need to be exactly the same thickness as the kerf of a sawblade), I drove out to my father’s shop with my handful of 18 inch strips of basswood.
Dad had a new drum sander and I was eager to give it a try. Line the strips up on the infeed, pass them all through the sander, flip them all over, run them again, and slightly lower the sander. Repeat, repeat, repeat. You get the idea. Each time I would take one of the strips and test fit it in a board that I cut a groove in with my tablesaw, so I could make sure they fit nice and snug. This worked out well. The traditional method is to make a jig and hand plane them all to the right thickness. I might try that in the future, when I own a decent hand plane, but for now, the drum sander worked out well.
Now I had a pile of basswood strips that were the right thickness. Now I needed to make my own notches for the half laps to make the grid. For that I turned to the instructions in Matt Kenney’s “The Basics of Kumiko” book, which I highly recommend if you are interested in trying this https://mek-woodworks.myshopify.com/collections/for-your-shop/products/the-art-of-kumiko-signed-softcover?variant=32569101058148. He explained how to make a sled for the tablesaw that would allow for you to make many different patterns, and to a bigger or smaller scale with the same sled. It works like a box joint jig with an indexing pin, but it adds another layer where you can reference a second element off the first indexing pin to make a gap an exact multiple of the original – and allowing you to size you grid for the patter you wish to make. The first strip I made, I did wrong – but that also helped me get my head around what was supposed to happen, and I was able to make the rest without additional mistakes. The pattern is a mix of an outer grid that stays “empty” and three inner sections that will later be filled in with the little handcut pieces to make the asanoha pattern side by side by side. I made enough parts to make two of these. If it is worth making, it is probably worth making two, right?
There are 28 little pieces needed to make each of the patterns, and I had six altogether, so about 150 little parts to cut with a chisel, and fit in to place. That’s a lot more than the first one I made, but some I have seen on YouTube have thousands, so I have a long way to go. That said, it was still an undertaking to work out the size for each, to cut them to length with a small Japanese hand saw called a dozuki, and then to cut bevels of different angles on the ends of each piece. Actually, all of the pieces needed two bevels cut on each end. Then you fit them in place with a tiny dab of glue. I would listen to music and just make each piece, one after another. It was almost meditative as before I realized it, an hour, or two, or so would have passed, and I was stiff from standing in nearly the same position that whole time while I worked. I think that is a key part of what I enjoy about the process making a kumiko pattern. That mental state where the world around fades away and my focus is on one simply task at hand. Cutting each bevel so that the piece fits just right. When it does not, cut it again, or make a new piece, and keep plugging away at it. After a while it suddenly dawns on you that the pattern is emerging, that you are making progress. It’s hard to see at the beginning, but a little faith in the process, and a good helping of patience and then it just comes together.
Once the pattern was complete, there was still work to do. First I had to sand the front and back carefully to be sure everything was flush and even. Then I had to carefully flush trim the uneven grid pieces that extend past the main outer rectangle of the grid. The wood is very soft, so it sands super quick. I did it all by hand so as not to go too fast with the random orbit sander. Even by hand, that part didn’t take long. My next step was to build a frame around them. My thought was to use a contrasting wood. I had purchased a sapele board at the lumber yard, when I bought the basswood, and I have never used sapele before, (it is part of the mahogany family), so I thought this would be a good place for it.
Now right about this time is when my wife surprised me with a SawStop as documented previously in a post. So all of my projects kind of went out the window as a flurry of work in the shop – the new floor, assembling the saw and a new dust collector. Rearranging stuff, you get the idea. Eventually I got back to this project and tried to make the frame on the fancy new saw. First was to make a recess, a dado, in the side pieces of the frame for the kumiko to fit in to ever so slightly. That part went nice and smooth on the new saw. Now I had no jigs at this point so I just tried to make it work on the miter gauge. I attempted to get an accurate 45 degree angle set, and then to get them to just the right length. Then the all important dry fit.
It failed. The miters were off, and the length was not quite right, so the frame simply didn’t come together. You can see the big gaps at the joints, and no amount of clamping was going to bring them together, so once again, I set this project aside, and went to work on other odds and ends, until I set my mind on making a picture frame jig. In this case I followed the instructions in the Michael Alm youtube video https://youtu.be/Mr0p2DLPTts to build a sled, with a 45 degree angle and a movable stop to replicate cuts. Then a few test cuts later, I moved on to trying to make the sapele frames for the kumiko again. This time if was much more successful. Of course having tried it once before helped, and I was able to avoid the mistakes of the first attempt This time I was please with the results and could move on to glue up.
This was a little trickier than usual, as the frames were made to view the kumiko from both sides so the normal “larger” opening on the back of a picture frame was not present here. I had to to assemble the frame around the kumiko in one step, rather than build the frame, apply the finish, and then insert the kumiko from the back. In my head, I had an “order of operations” problem. How to apply the finish to the frame, without getting it on the kumiko – but how would I glue it up, if the finish was already on? Glue squeeze out was pretty much assured, so how to address that if it was already finished?
To solve the issue, I decided to use Odie’s Oil as my finish – something I had used once before on my patterned plywood practice box. It was pretty quick to apply, and to be ready to handle, and something I thought would let me finish in stages. I applied a tiny bit to the inside edge of the recess – on both front and back edges, and also to the small edge that faces inward – but masked off the actual front and back of the frame with blue painters tape. The idea was to apply the finish only to the surfaces that would touch, or be adjacent to the basswood, and let the finish dry before assembly, so it would not get on the basswood. It only needs a short time, but I let it go overnight before assembly. Before going to sleep I applied a 50% mixture of wood glue and water to the cut ends that will make that will be glued up when assembled. This acts to seal the end grain and make the regular glue up stonger. In the morning I made a quick pass or too with 400 grit sandpaper just to smooth it out after the water raised the grain, and then it was time to assemble.
I went about things a bit differently. To try and keep everything neat and square, I clamped them up at the same time, between two 4 foot levels to have a good straight edges. I used some clamps to hold some blocks on the sides, and then reversed the heads on a pair of clamps to make them spreaders, and squeezed in from the sides. A little unconventional, but it all worked out. Then of course there was the usual waiting for the glue to dry, and when that was complete, I could remove the clamps and we’re nearly there. I cleaned up the glue squeeze out and then hand sanded the fronts and backs up through the grits. I learned that the sapele is nearly as soft and sands almost as quickly as the basswood. All hand sanding here as well. On the last past at 320, I ever so slightly rounded the edges so they were no longer sharp and then it was ready for finish. I covered the kumiko with blue painters tape, and then broke out the Odie’s Oil once again. I rubbed it on with a white scotch brite pad, and then buffed it off with a bit of terry cloth and they were complete.
This project was a bit of a surprise, as the kumiko basically went together according to plan, but making the frame turned out to be quite a challenge. That was not what I would have expected, but projects go that way sometimes. I am quite pleased with how this one came out, and I look forward to making more. Thanks for reading along.