I've made a fair number of kumiko panels now. I am not an expert by any means, but I have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of the art. Here's something that I've figured out. The technical challenge kumiko presents, at least the patterns you're most likely to start with, is not that great. The frame parts can be made quickly at the tablesaw with a finger joint jig. The pieces for the infill pattern are not tough to make either. A set of guides ensures that you pare the correct angles on the pieces' ends. But this doesn't mean that you can be thoughtless when making kumiko. In fact, you must be insanely focused, because the simplicity of what you are doing can lull you into sloppy work. The challenge of kumiko isn't a matter of skill or technique, but of precision, and that just doesn't happen when you're giving your work all the care of a goth teenager doling out frozen yogurt for a summer job.
Certainly, there are things you can do in terms of technique to improve precision, but I've found that even the best technique falls short if you are not patient, and do not give your work attention. In this way, making kumiko is no different than making furniture (and so many other meaningful activities we undertake in life).
What does it mean to be patient? I think it's allowing the work that you are doing to dictate the pace at which you do it. There's a cadence, a rhythm to all the work we do in the shop. To be patient with your work you must consider each individual task and distill it, so that you see it's essential components, so that you understand where you can work quickly, and where you must slow down. You can cut tails very quickly, for example. Get that backsaw humming and knock them out. However, when it comes time to transfer the tails to the pin board (only savages cut pins first), you must slow down, get the boards aligned properly, hold the pencil or knife just right, and make a careful stroke. So, patience is always moving at the correct speed for the work you're doing.
Attention is just as important, and it's not just a matter of being focused on the work at hand. You also must have a clear mind. If you're thinking about how your mother-in-law always smells like cabbage, your thoughts and the actions that flow from them will be muddled. When you are paring angles on the infill pieces of the asa-no-ha pattern, there should be nothing in your mind, but your hand and how it holds the chisel, how it pushes the chisel through the small part beneath your fingers, the resistance the wood gives or doesn't give, the sound made as its slices through the wood, etc. That level of attention enables you notice the smallest hiccup in the process, to notice minute blips that affect the precision of your work.
So, the big question is how do you go about acquiring patience and attention? Attention is probably easier to develop. When you go into the shop, don't start working right away. Put away the tools you left out last time. Sharpen a plane blade. Clean up your bench. Sweep the floor. Give your mind time to leave the world outside your shop. Patience comes through work. To truly understand a task like cutting dovetails or making tiny little boxes, you must cut dovetails and make tiny little boxes. And then do it some more, and, then, do it some more again. There is no shortcut here.There are no tricks. Perhaps that sounds daunting, but look at this way. You get to spend more time in the shop making furniture, boxes, spoons, bowls, or whatever. That's a good thing. The world's a better place when folks are using their heads and hands to make useful things.
I love furniture design, and smart techniques. This blog is about both.