Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wood You Happen to Know?

I find it somehow ironic that the two trees that cause the most allergy-related grief in this country are also the ones whose wood is most commonly used for building. In my native Oregon houses are usually made of fir or spruce lumber. Here in Japan, however, the overwhelming majority use sugi (Japanese cedar, though it's actually related to the redwood) and/or hinoki (Japanese cypress).

I have discussed this issue (between sneezes) before, but the main reason sugi and hinoki are so prevalent in Japan is because of the post-war reconstruction effort. In fact, they were originally nowhere near as widespread as they are now, but virtually all of Japan's forests were logged into extinction from the closing months of WWII on account of a chronic shortage of wood. All of these were subsequently replanted with sugi and/or hinoki, partly because of their value as timber, but mainly because they grow so fast. However, though both trees are notorious for their evil pollen attacks on humanity, the wood they produce is really quite different.

Planks of sugi

Sugi wood is the cheaper of the two and by far more common. It is reddish-pink in color, coarse grained, and has a wonderful, sweet, oily fragrance similar to cedar (which may be why it's called the "Japanese cedar" even though it's more closely related to the California redwood). It is lightweight, resilient, and highly resistant to decay. However, it is actually kind of brittle. Though it holds up well against constant pressure, it is relatively easy to split with a sharp blow and easy to cut with a saw. That makes sugi a very workable wood but also limits its reliability in some applications.

A hinoki board

Hinoki wood is less common, of course, and it is highly prized. High-quality types can be very expensive. It is a very beautiful, yellow-white or pale pink wood with a smooth or marbled grain, and it has a tangy, lemon-like scent when fresh cut. Like sugi, it resists both decay and insect pests, but it is also a heavier and far stronger wood. It can be quite hard to split with impact alone and can withstand a considerable amount of bending. Depending on the quality and the grain, it can also be hard to cut with a saw. Needless to say, hinoki is an excellent wood for building, but its expense and sometimes limited availability mean it isn't universally used.

When my home renewal project started, I noticed that the overwhelming majority of the boards that we tore out, including the main beams, were sugi (albeit of good quality). The rebuild, however, has mainly made use of hinoki for the main beams and planks (mainly because my wife and I are more willing to pay for it!). Some of those new support pillars are as beautiful as they are heavy...and hopefully will last a long time. Meanwhile, sugi's role has mainly been restricted to the smaller planks and slats in the walls and ceiling. Those do tend to get cut a lot, meaning the area around the saws tends to smell pretty good!

My only regret was that the house used to have beautiful hinoki plank flooring. We had a small child when we first moved in, so I decided to reduce the draftiness and hardness by covering all of it with vinyl on the ground floor. I'd hoped simply to take the vinyl off later, but when the renewal project started we found the flooring tape had made mincemeat of the hinoki's surface. My uncle-in-law declared it useless and replaced it with veneer flooring (which he claims is stronger and safer anyway). The original hinoki floor can still be seen in the upstairs hallway, however, so I guess it's not a total loss.

Incidentally, cleanup has also revealed another important difference between the two woods. Sugi ignites readily and burns both very quickly and very hotly, making it an excellent firestarter. As for hinoki, its shavings and chips burn well, but boards of any size don't ignite so easily and tend to burn only very slowly. A lot of older and/or cheaper Japanese houses use sugi as their primary (if not sole) building material, which probably explains why they tend to wind up piles of ash quickly if any fire breaks out. Newer homes, on the other hand, tend to have hinoki frames, making them a bit more fire resistant. Even so, the best way to avoid having one's house burned down is not to do anything that might cause it to catch fire in the first place!

The main construction is DONE!!! All we have left is the little tidbits of interior decorating...and figuring out where to put everything. Then I promise I'll post some pictures!


  • Well done!

    Thanks for the descriptions of sugi and hinoki. I guess apart from being more fire resistant, a hinoki house is more likely to come out of an earthquake in better shape.

    It must be comforting to know that your extension is made up of the better wood.

    Looking forward to the pics.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 9:23 PM  

  • the wood story is a scientific reasons.visit my blog

    By Anonymous raghu ram prasad, at 9:44 PM  

  • You mean you're NOT going to be posting pictures of the "mess"??!!

    I mean, that's the best part! Mostly because it'll give the rest of us some hope of digging through our own piles at some point!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 11:40 PM  

  • Ahhhh interior deco is fun!

    Well at least for me =P I like to go around and shop and arrange and re-arrange interiors =D

    By Anonymous angele, at 2:11 AM  

  • I have always liked wood. Did you have woodshop offered in your high school? I took two years of it and enjoyed working with oak. I made an entertainment center, a coffee table, an end table, and a small bowl. All of these are still at my parents house. The coffee table and end table actually turned out pretty nice (the last things I built, so I guess practice came into play...) Anybody else have good experiences working with wood? My sister (being clumsy) has several bad experiences, including one with a sander just a month or so ago.

    By Anonymous The Intrepid Adventurer, at 6:26 AM  

  • As the snow continued to fall and the embers in the old iron stove dimmed, Pinocchio could feel Japeto's eyes on him. 'Am I made of sugi or hinoki?', he thought. He didn't know and he was afraid to ask.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:15 AM  

  • Glad to hear your project is nearly finished. I hope you are feeling better too. I love working with wood, but the sawdust makes me sneeze. Do you suppose the Hinoki would make a good guitar or a bad one? I don't think the Sugi wold be good for one because it isn't hard or strong enough.


    The sound Moody makes when a Sugi goes poof with pollen.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:58 AM  

  • Yeah, my SO was good for the first 3 years then the hay fever caught up with her, now she’s back like she was in Japan. :(

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 10:04 AM  

  • I love the smell of wood too. Whenever I buy a plank shelf from ikea and install it it my room, it gives out that woody scent. Not sure which type of wood though. Could be pine. And woodworking is fun, I enjoy small projects. If only I have the space, tools and time to make it work wonders.

    By Blogger agus, at 6:17 PM  

  • It's somehow comforting to know that wood interests so many people!

    Yes, it is comforting. I never knew there was so much difference between the two woods. However, even sugi comes in different quality levels, and good stuff is a lot better than your average hardware store variety. I know that furniture builders use both woods a lot, and the hinoki types are obviously more expensive (though the sugi can be very beautiful!).

    Raghu Ram Prasad
    Welcome! Link?

    We're just now starting The Big Cleanup (Dm7[-5,-9]). We're almost through it, though. I can hardly wait.

    Oh, I can see how interior decorating can be a blast...but not after living in a skeleton of a house for two months, crawling through boxes of your personal belongings, having to wrap up in blankets because a wall is missing in late winter, breathing sawdust, having to wipe everything off two or three times a day, being scared to death guests might arrive and find you covered in dust and paint, etc...

    Justice is served! I took shop class once in junior high. A mixture of idiot classmates, a teacher who was a total jerk with a hideous reputation, a piss-poor supply of wood that was shot before I even got to it, tools that were in poor condition, rapidly-increasing apathy, and me spending much if not most of my time flirting with a female classmate led to results that were less than impressive (though my mother still uses the spice rack I made...out of a piece of wood that was twice as thick as it should have been and too hard for the jigsaw to cut properly...). I've always liked making things, though, so I may try my hand at it now that I'm a bit more mature.

    Hi-diddly-dee, the minstrel's life for me!

    We've ALL been sneezing from all the dust still permeating our house! Skilled instrument craftsment will tell you that knocking on a piece of wood will tell you its resonant quality. None of the sugi boards I tried "sang", but some of those hinoki planks sure do! I wonder if anyone has ever tried making a guitar or any other musical instrument out of either type of wood.

    I was exactly the opposite. I had mild hay fever in Oregon (mainly oak, birch, and elm), but I was fine in Japan for the first 9-10 years I was here. Then it started hitting me.

    I'm sure most Ikea furniture is probably made from white pine. Pine is a light and easily workable wood, so it's popular for making furniture that doesn't have to bear a lot of weight. A lot of Japanese furniture is made from pine, as well.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:02 AM  

  • Great article. You sure know a thing or two about the subject. Impressive ! (particularly for a leftie)

    By Blogger shlemazl, at 11:11 AM  

  • Shlemazl, I have only two words to say in reply to that:

    sustainable logging.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 12:56 PM  

  • MM, thanks for the lesson on sugi and hinoki. Hinoki reminds me of pine. Are there hard pine too? I've come across some crates that look like pine but are really hard. It gives out a very sweet fresh fragrance though. Looking forward to the pictures.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 1:18 PM  

  • you know, one of my all time favorite smells is freshly cut wood. there's just something about it, and i'll tell ya, the way you describe this wood.... aaaahhh, i'd love to smell it. the lemony one sounds like it would smell wonderful, as well as the other cedar one.

    your house sounds like it's going to be beautiful. i can't wait to see pics. you mention your flooring and having put down something different when the kids were little. i'm starting to think about this myself. we have tile flooring but i'm worried about him falling and such... so we've discussed putting down carpet or something until he gets older.

    i've missed reading your blog. sounds like you guys have been really busy. hope you're having a good spring - start of summer.

    By Blogger tooners, at 12:27 AM  

  • Hi there! Interesting read. I was researching on Hinoki and came across your blog, unfortunately none of the images on your later post showcasing your home seem to load. Is there a way for me to contact you directly? I have a few questions if you don't mind.

    By Blogger kaelawoods, at 4:02 PM  

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