Traditional Chinese Woodworking #1: Liu Shifu

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Blog entry by chscholz posted 06-14-2009 05:47 AM 17379 reads 5 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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Forgive me, I don’t hang out here all that often. I finally had the opportunity to visit a master woodworker who still uses traditional methods and tools. So I thought I share a few snapshots with y’all.

In fact traditional Chinese woodworking has been quite illusive. A few times a almost had the opportunity to visit a traditional shop it turned out that the woodworker retired and gave all his tools away. Finally, three weeks ago and with the help of good friends we were able to locate a traditional woodworker. Let’s just say it took a fair amount of preparation. few packs of cigarette and a quite a few cups of baijiu (bai: white, jiu: generic term for liquor, be warned baijiu is quite potent stuff at least 55% alcohol I have been told) before we finally were ready to visit Liu Shifu.

When we entered his workshop (roughly equivalent to a single car garage), Liu Shifu (Shifu: respectful title for Master craftsman, roughly equivalent to Saint for galoots, Liu: last name) was busy pounding mortises into a rain that was to be come an yigui (yi: cloth, gui: cabinet, looks to me as if built-in closets are a very American invention).

Liu Shifu was so kind to empty his toolbox for me, All together I estimate he had about 50 different planes as well as various other tools (more on that in a later blog in case anybody is interested). All tools are made by himself, whatever was needed for a by specific projects. Liu Shifu explained the use of various planes for various purposes, the importance of different bedding angle, demonstrated his collection of hollows and rounds, molding planes etc, amazing stuff, indeed.

In the West we often hear that Chinese planes, similar to Japanese planes are pulled. Not so. Chinese planes are pushed, never in pulled (at least that’s what the Master says).

Another typical Chinese tool is the bamboo ink brush, a highly effective marking tool, simply cut out of a piece of bamboo (which is plentiful in the region). .

It is certainly instructive to compare tools and methods of current traditional Chinese woodworkers with tools and methods that we (notably Roy Underhill, Adam Cherubini and otheres) believe our ancestors used not too long ago. Obviously there are many differences in the details (e.g. not a single drop of glue in Liu Shefu’s shop) but my hunch is that, looking at the overall picture, we might discover many similarities.

Thank for listening!

Chris, Arlington, TX

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

11 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


117722 posts in 4085 days

#1 posted 06-14-2009 06:06 AM

very interesting thanks for sharing.

View Don K.'s profile

Don K.

1075 posts in 3834 days

#2 posted 06-14-2009 07:07 AM

Agree with Jim…VERY interesting…and I for one am looking forward to the follow up about the different planes.

Also, you say you do not post much…please start doing more, I find things like this (Old style traditional wood working) fascinating. His old work bench looks like it has seen several life times of woodworking do upon it

-- Don S.E. OK

View kiwi1969's profile


608 posts in 3950 days

#3 posted 06-14-2009 07:56 AM

Thanks for the insight. I,m about to restore a chinese plane and wasn,t even sure how you held it!. It was the Chinese that basically ran the furniture trade here in the Philippines, in Quiapo, which incidentaly is the oldest china town outside of china, untill the 1920,s when cheap American imports pretty much wiped them out, some irony there I think. Looking forward to the next instalment.

-- if the hand is not working it is not a pure hand

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


18671 posts in 4184 days

#4 posted 06-14-2009 09:30 AM

Interesting insight to a different world.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View Splinterman's profile


23074 posts in 3869 days

#5 posted 06-14-2009 03:40 PM

Now this is very interesting Chscholz…....keep these posts coming….....nice work.

View John Gray's profile

John Gray

2370 posts in 4393 days

#6 posted 06-14-2009 05:30 PM

Great post!!! Can you buy the bamboo ink brush or does he make his own?

-- Only the Shadow knows....................

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4607 days

#7 posted 06-14-2009 07:11 PM

That is amazing! Thanks for sharing such an interesting insight to the Chinese woodshop.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4584 days

#8 posted 06-15-2009 08:25 PM

Thank you y’all for the kind comments.

look forward to hear about the progress of your plane restauration. Not sure what to say about us wiping out the furniture trade in Quiapo. It looks to me as if we a going full-circle on that: various chatter about “Chinese inspired” design, Chris Schwartz honing his woodworking skills on to joinery for a simple (looking) Chinese stool…

Liu Shifu made the brush (as well as most[?] of his planes) himself. The irons for the molding planes were a bit more difficult to make he said. You take a strip piece of bamboo and slice it up until it is a brush (wish it was that simple!). I guess the Chinese carpenters learn a thing or two during their 5+ years apprenticeship.


-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View chscholz's profile


36 posts in 4584 days

#9 posted 06-15-2009 08:45 PM


poked around the web a bit,

In the US Japan Woodworker has a modern rendition of the ink brush for $31.95
In Europe, Dieter Schmid sells a more traditional rendition for about $2 (scroll down to bottom of page).

-- Chris Scholz, Arlington, TX,

View kiwi1969's profile


608 posts in 3950 days

#10 posted 06-16-2009 06:39 AM

Hey chris, next time you fly over the Philippines, drop a few of those laminated irons out the window, Stephen shepard on his full chisel blog gave them a great review and when i,m on my feet again I would love to get some.

-- if the hand is not working it is not a pure hand

View SubVette's profile


76 posts in 2053 days

#11 posted 03-14-2014 05:52 PM

This is truly fascinating, I would love to see some of the finished products. Thanks for sharing

-- John in Florida

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