A Japanese Sea captains chest

  • Advertise with us
Project by madburg posted 03-08-2020 02:05 AM 1348 views 8 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

A Japanese Sea captains Chest

Those of you who have looked at my last few posts will now that I have been in Japanese mode. Well, I’m still in it …......

When I first saw these Japanese sea captains chest I knew had to make one. I love making complex things with hidden compartments. It would be a sort of simpler Japanese version of my Curiosity Cabinet – if you didn’t see it, then check it out here

So, this cabinet or in Japanese, ’tansu’ , is based on the sea chests (Funa Dansu) used by seafarers working the shipping trade routes around the coasts of Japan in the mid 1800’s. This particular style is a Chobako or ledger box, and would have been the property of a sea captain. Sea captains would purchase their cargo and then sell it on, as they sailed around the coast – a very profitable venture, worth far more than just charging the freight costs for someone else’s cargo.

This portable chobako would be used by the ships master to store all the documentation relating to his voyage: rites of passage, ‘passports’, licenses, and trading papers. It would also house his official seals, writing paraphernalia in a traditional Suzuri-bako, and a strong box or zenibako, for his money. It would be taken ashore when trading, where it was designed to impress the land-based merchants, with its innovative construction, multiple locks, numerous drawers, boxes in boxes, secret compartments, and decorative yet functional external iron work. Sea captains would try to outdo each other with grander and more complex designs.

The design for this one is based on ideas from a range of images found on the internet, and in three excellent books – Traditional Japanese Cabinetry by Ty & Kiyoko Heineken, Traditional Japanese furniture, A definitive Guide, by Kazuko Koizumi, and Traditional Japanese Chests, A definitive Guide, also by Kazuko Koizumi.

This one appears to have a full width locked top drawer – actually a false drawer front behind which is a proper locked drawer, and the Suzuri-bako to the right. Below are three locked doors – the left and right are hinged, while the middle one is a drop fit kendon door.

These doors open onto eight ‘drawer’ spaces, some with drawers and some with drop-fit, kendon, doors.

Behind these doors are a range of; drawers, more locked kendon’s, covering boxes with false fronts – sahsi-do, boxes-in boxes, and four secret compartments. The whole lot is secured by fifteen locks, which on an original would have had different keys!

The writing box, Suzuri-bako is on the right, with its ink stone, ink stick, water dropper for grinding/mixing the ink, and brushes in its bottom drawer.

The small lidded boxes on the left, with ring pull handles, are from two of the secret compartments hidden behind two of the drawers and further hidden behind kendon’s.

A ‘bare’ paulownia box-in-box, is in the middle of the of picture on top of the jarrah strong box – secured with a ‘fish’ pad lock.

There are two ‘box-in-box’ drawers, each with a sliding front. The internal boxes are locked in place. One has a another box hidden behind.

This shows the secret compartment hidden behind the writing box. The drawer needs to be removed to gain access to this, and also for the kendon door hiding the secret compartment in the left hand drawer below, to be raised. However, the top drawer is prevented from being totally removed by two wooden latches which can just be seen in the roof of the main chest.

The chest has a traditional protective fabric cover, which has the ships crest on the front replicating the crest on the middle door of the chest.

As in an original chobako mine is made almost entirely of paulownia, the inside of which was traditionally left largely unfinished. Paulownia is a very light weight stable timber almost totally unaffected by changes in humidity, so it is not prone to warping or cupping. The main outer chest and the internal boxes and drawers are all constructed using traditional pegged finger joints. While I used traditional Japanese wooden nails on the larger cabinetry, for the smaller boxes and drawers I used toothpicks! The main paulownia doors, and the internal drop fit doors use a traditional Japanese ‘mitered-clamp joint’ construction.

The front of the chest together with many of the internal drop-fit doors and drawer fronts are faced with a thick decorative burl. The originals would have used Japanese zelkova or chestnut burls, this one uses a jarrah burl, booked matched across the front. The outer chest is veneered with jarrah, substituting for straight grained zelkova or cryptomania (cedar) on an original.

Traditionally the whole chest was covered with a range of reinforcing metal strap work, with decorative escutcheons, and embossed metal plaques to add to the grandeur of the chest. These were produced by exceptionally skilled metalwork masters, using repoussé techniques to produce the intricate designs.

Alas my metalwork work uses a range of items from Lee Valleys Tansu range, and reworked hasps, staples and hinges, purchased off the AliExpress website. Most of the later were then sprayed black to match the Lee Valley items.

The outer chest together with the doors and drawer fronts are finished with an oil-based satin polyurethane. Some parts have been stained . The originals would have used urushi lacquer.


The chest would normally have been carried ashore in an outer Paulownia box and placed on the floor, in a typical Japanese working fashion. However, I have given this one a stand. Its design is based on the form of a traditional Japanese Tori gate, seen at the entrance to many Japanese temples and shrines. The flat ‘feet’ are a typical Japanese table element, used to prevent table legs digging into and damaging the traditional Tatami mat floor coverings. The stand is made of Jarrah and has a pull-out sliding shelf as somewhere to place the contents removed from the chest.

Thank you for looking – I hope you managed to follow the description, and enjoyed it as much as I did making it. It will be entered in the Out of The Woods competition and exhibition at this years, 2020 Western Australia Wood Show, along with a few more Japanese style boxes, that I’ll post later.

Martin Burgoyne
Jarrahdale. WA
November 2019

-- Madburg WA

21 comments so far

View Redoak49's profile


4724 posts in 2758 days

#1 posted 03-08-2020 02:46 AM

Absolutely incredible!

View swirt's profile


5217 posts in 3741 days

#2 posted 03-08-2020 02:46 AM

Wow. Your work on this is quite extraordinary. Amazing.

-- Galootish log blog,

View WhattheChuck's profile


402 posts in 4330 days

#3 posted 03-08-2020 05:11 AM

Crazy awesome, as usual!

-- Chuck, Pullman, WA

View pottz's profile


9845 posts in 1754 days

#4 posted 03-08-2020 05:30 AM

interesting to say the least!

-- working with my hands is a joy,it gives me a sense of fulfillment,somthing so many seek and so few find.-SAM MALOOF.

View shipwright's profile


8554 posts in 3567 days

#5 posted 03-08-2020 05:35 AM

You’re making my head hurt Martin!
This is another testament to your passion for detail and for all things complex.
There is little I can say other than to give you the greatest compliment I ever got. It came from my boat building mentor when I was much younger. You do nice work!

-- Paul M ..............the early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese!

View Jim Rowe's profile

Jim Rowe

1114 posts in 3082 days

#6 posted 03-08-2020 08:28 AM

Superb! Your workmanship can only be admired by we lesser mortals.
It’s a pleasure to explore this piece through the photos. Just incredible.

-- It always looks better when it's finished!

View ronstar's profile


598 posts in 4480 days

#7 posted 03-08-2020 09:55 AM

Very nice!

-- Ron, Northern Illinois

View Peteybadboy's profile


1952 posts in 2719 days

#8 posted 03-08-2020 11:24 AM

Excellent work!

-- Petey

View wildwoodbybrianjohns's profile


1638 posts in 317 days

#9 posted 03-08-2020 01:10 PM

Whoa. I dont even know where to begin. So I will just say, incredible.

-- Wildwood by Brian Johns: Because cheese isnt a healthy source of cheese, I will use grated cucumber to top off this raw food vegan pizza.

View EarlS's profile


3730 posts in 3117 days

#10 posted 03-08-2020 01:48 PM

Crazy awesome seems to just about sum it up. I spent quite a bit of time looking at all of the pictures and admiring your work. I’m always reminded of what superior woodworking, craftsmanship, and creativity can produce when I see something like this. Well done.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View doubleDD's profile


9459 posts in 2812 days

#11 posted 03-08-2020 02:28 PM

Excellent. The detail is shows proudly and and the craftsmanship is astounding. Well done.

-- Dave, Downers Grove, Il. -------- When you run out of ideas, start building your dreams.

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

5370 posts in 1351 days

#12 posted 03-08-2020 02:32 PM

Wow! Superlative! Exclamation!

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View splintergroup's profile


3774 posts in 1992 days

#13 posted 03-08-2020 02:35 PM

The detail is incredible! (as are the number of hours I assume 8^)

Absolutely stunning work!

View AJ1104's profile


1090 posts in 2429 days

#14 posted 03-08-2020 03:48 PM

Your description of your project is incredible. Your project is beyond incredible. Well done and definitely inspiring. I wish the best of luck at the Australia show.

-- AJ

View Mike's profile


114 posts in 1469 days

#15 posted 03-08-2020 04:06 PM

That’s a jaw-dropper. Fantastic work on a real treasure!

-- Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired. --Jonathan Swift (1721)

showing 1 through 15 of 21 comments

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics