East Meets West
Photos/Words by Logan Hall
Dávid Sipos has a skill not many possess. He can make paper by hand. As impressive as that may sound, it’s just a byproduct of his true talent — hand planing and crafting wood pieces for structures and furniture.
Using specialized Japanese methods and hand-made tools, the wood shavings from his planing seem like ribbons of smoke lifting from the blade as he runs it over the wood. They’re thin enough to see through and pull apart like single-ply tissue paper.
After spending many hours on a piece of wood like Alaskan Yellow Cedar, the end result is a flawless surface. A surface that, without any finish or sanding, is smooth, shiny, and reflective. A surface that could be mistaken for glass if you were to touch it blindfolded.
“When you hand plane the wood, you don’t need to apply any finish,” he said. “When done correctly it actually makes the piece waterproof. That’s how smooth the surface is, and it’s all done by hand planing. Sandpaper is actually forbidden to be used in Japanese woodworking.”
Sipos didn’t learn his trade overnight. It took years of hard work and dedication. In 1991, he was first introduced to the ancient art of Japanese woodworking at Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, where he studied furniture making. While attending a seminar on Japanese methods and tools, the style caught his attention.
“The Japanese refine everything to a level and standard that is just higher than in other places,” he said. “The history of these tools goes back to the Shoguns. All the craftsmen that were making swords and other weapons started making tools. The methods were passed down through the generations, and some of these people making tools now are considered national treasures in Japan. When you buy one of these really high quality tools, it’s going to serve you for the rest of your life.” Keeping those tools in top condition is a never ending job for Sipos. Hours go into just sharpening the planers and chisels that lie on his workbench. Like the rest of his work, the sharpening is done by hand with Japanese water stones. When marveling at the smooth, slick surface of one of his planed pieces, it’s easy to appreciate how much effort is required both in working with the wood, and maintaining the tools themselves.
The other dominating part of his style is much less visible on his finished projects. In fact, it’s not visible at all, and that’s the point. Using wood-to-wood joinery, Sipos is able to hide all of the joints that bring various pieces of wood together. Whether used on a small piece of furniture or an 18-by-6-foot walking bridge, all of the joints are concealed. In California, state law requires him to use metal fasteners
for anything that needs to be up to code, but the wood joints themselves are designed to hold up under just about any condition. In some cases, for centuries.
“Most of the time, Japanese architecture doesn’t use fasteners,” he said. “They have more than 1,500 kinds of joints to make, to fit pieces of wood together. If the material is being used properly, it will have a certain strength that will last. Japan’s oldest pagoda is still standing. It’s 785 years old.”
Honing his craft over the years, he’s been involved in many projects that require the expertise of trained Japanese woodworkers. Many of his pieces of furniture and structures are found around Ojai on the properties of those who demand the high quality attention to detail that Sipos offers. He’s also worked on projects for Japanese gardens and structures across the country.
“I was working on a long project at a private resi-dence in the Bay Area,” he said. “It’s one of the largest Japanese style compounds in the
world outside of Japan. I was lucky to find projects in the U.S. where I could hone my skills and learn by working beside top Japanese craftsmen.”
Sipos doesn’t exclusively deal in the Japanese style, though. He has the chops to tackle any number of different woodworking styles, depend-ing on a client’s needs. But he’s quick to point out that the attention to detail and delicate refine-ment are still present for all his projects.
“I still hand plane all my pieces, no matter what,” he said, sending the point home. “No matter what.”
For more on Sipos’ woodworking techniques and projects, check out minkawoodwork.com.