Shoji Woodworking’s Japanese-style sliding doors let users work with light and space.


Japanese-style Shoji doors are gaining popularity in American homes, says Shoji Woodworking of Wisconsin.

Looking to the Far East for inspiration, Mark and Emi Miller of Shoji Woodworking in Slinger, WI, have found a successful niche for themselves here in the United States, by building and selling Japanese-style Shoji sliding doors.

Shoji doors are built of wooden lattices with sheer paper attached. They were first brought to Japan from China in the 7th or 8th Century. Their popularity grew as the result of practical considerations. Japan’s small size meant that space was an important consideration, and Shoji screens require less space to operate than other door styles. In addition, Japan had extensive forests, so that homes were built of wood rather than the stone that often supported Western structures.

Also, in Western architecture, the outer and inner walls bear the building’s load, whereas traditional Japanese architecture uses a post-and-beam construction with central pillars providing for support, without any load-bearing walls. Besides supplying flexibility and protection against earthquakes and typhoons, this type of structure means that the interior is one large room. To allow for privacy and to utilize different areas of the room in different ways, folding screens were sometimes used, as well as opaque interior sliding doors called “fusuma.”

With Japanese homes open to the elements in the hot, humid summer months, Shoji were used as sliding doors between the interior and the veranda outside. The paper “windows,” replaced by wood in the winter, allowed for diffused natural light, an element much desired in Japanese aesthetics. The clean lines, simplicity and natural look of Japanese architecture has been much admired by Western architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work clearly showed an Eastern influence.

The Millers have found that many people are drawn to adding the Shoji look in American homes today. Mark Miller says his company’s customers are often “people building custom homes or remodeling, who are looking for a unique and functional product with an Asian twist.”

No longer made with “washi,” or handmade Mulberry tree paper (often mistakenly called “rice” paper by Americans), Shoji screens now use synthetic fibers, available in a wide range of thicknesses, transparency-ratings, colors and textures. The Millers assist customers with their choices. Besides building Shoji panels, doors and window coverings, along with the rail system used with the sliding doors, they also handle the paper itself.

“We started to import Shoji paper and related materials for our Shoji panels,” Mark explains, “but now we are also selling Shoji paper products to other Shoji makers and other design/build pros.”

Shoji doors are often used in 2- or 4-door combinations.

The Millers started making Shoji when wife Emi, of Japanese descent, and her husband Mark were living in Hawaii. “We had an extra room that was hardly used,” says Emi Miller. “Mark said he could make a Japanese room for me, and he really did, with Shoji sliding doors, window coverings and tatami mats.”

They started their business in Hawaii in 2001 and sold it when they decided to move back to Mark’s native Wisconsin in 2005. There they started back up under the Shoji Woodworking name.

The couple now works out of a 1,000-square-foot shop, with Mark handling the woodwork and Emi the paperwork and sales.

Shoji Woodworking’s niche involves some special challenges, some involving dealing with an entirely different culture. As Mark explains, “It was hard to get Shoji paper materials from Japan. Emi is Japanese, but still, business is done very differently over there. Also, Japanese doors are very standardized, so I’ve had to be pretty creative to fit them into American homes, including making rail systems and installing them, which involves a bit of rough carpentry.”

Another challenge comes from the language barrier. “When I was learning how to make Shojis in Japan,” says Mark, “I had to have Emi be the go-between and translate everything, since I can’t speak the language. But I liked doing woodworking to begin with and was used to working with machinery, so I caught on pretty quick, even with the language barrier.”

Fitting Shoji doors into Western-style homes can be a challenge, but the rail systems Shoji Woodworking uses offer some interesting possibilities. Top rails run between corner posts that support beams, while the bottom rail lies on the floor, sticking up about a half-inch. Deep grooves, slightly narrower than the door stile, are present in the top rail with a shallow groove in the bottom. The top and bottom of the doors are cut with a matching L-shaped tenon.

According to the Millers, the doors are so light they can be opened with one finger, while sliding along the groove quietly and smoothly. The doors can stay open or closed for privacy and can even be taken off the rails and put away to accommodate larger gatherings. By combining two or four panels with one of two rails, Shoji doors can be used in various combinations, including sliding into wall pockets.

The lattice work involved in Shoji is the “kumiko” (or “woven”) lattice work. The beautiful woodwork seems delicate, but because the wood is interwoven, the frame is surprisingly strong. The structure of Shoji uses a lightweight combination of wood and paper to create maximum strength from its form. Mark’s favorite wood for frames and lattices is Alaskan yellow cedar, but he also has used maple, cherry, basswood, poplar, fir and other woods.

Choosing the right Shoji paper is also a consideration and depends on several factors, including location within the home, eco-friendliness and desired appearance. Varied patterns and color tones are available. Washable, tear-free, PVC-coated paper is gaining popularity, and these laminated papers work well for closets, pantries, screens, lamp shades, windows and doors. Waterproof acrylic paper is available for bathrooms, kitchens and even outdoor uses, such as gardens and enclosed hot tub areas. In all cases, the goal is to achieve an attractive, clean and natural look with a soft diffused natural light glow seeping gently through the translucent paper.

Shoji Woodworking also handles the opaque, non-translucent paper used in fusama doors and offers a wide range of hardware from Japanese-style door pulls to the double-sided tape used to secure the paper in place.

Interestingly, in selling this traditional product, Shoji Woodworking uses a modern technique. As Mark explains, “We did some shows around Milwaukee and put some ads in the newspapers and magazines, but it seems the Internet works the best.” The company’s Web site is:

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