Making a Floor in the Traditional Chinese Way






The craft of making wood materials has a long history. Ancient people planted trees, felled them for timber, and used them to build houses and make furniture. They lived next to the trees and lived "among the wood", eating on wooden tables and sleeping on wooden beds. In those days, although people did not have advanced industrial machines, but only traditional handcrafts passed down from generation to generation, they were able to build some wooden structures that have remained intact for thousands of years, which draws our attention to this traditional method of making wood.




Traditional Chinese Woodworking





Traditional Chinese wooden products are made with great care, from the selection of wood to the treatment process. For example, when the guqin, China's oldest wooden musical instrument, is being made, the luthier will listen to the resonance of a tree during a thunderstorm to determine whether the tree can be a good material for making the guqin. Then, after dozens of complex processes such as embryo making, lacquer painting and assembly, a good guqin can be made, and a well-made guqin is good enough to be kept for thousands of years.In addition, in the course of working with Fan Jianjun , a lacquer craftsman, on the project [The Lacquer of Traditional Chinese Handicrafts], we learned that it is generally best to use cypress wood for the embryo of lacquer woodwork. Fan Jianjun observes the wood before treating it, and according to the direction of growth of the wood's conduit , he treats the wood with the grain along the root to the tip of the tree (bamboo is treated in the opposite direction). Moreover, a board is actually has a positive and negative side, in the splicing process, not only to pay attention to the size and proportion, but also to consider its positive and negative sides, as well as the "stress cracking".









This process is different from modern industrial technology, which is based on the law of efficiency, but it reflects the concept of making things by following the trend and respecting a tree. So we began to think that we could start with a tree and reinterpret the process of creating a wooden floor using traditional Chinese wood craftsmanship. With the help of Jianjun Fan and Chengdu carpenter Dana Huang , we began to explore and document " How to make a floor in the traditional Chinese way". 




Wood treatment: From trees to timber








In the traditional Chinese method of making wood, a piece of wooden flooring begins with the planting of a tree. People intervene at the very beginning of a building block's growth, and latitude, altitude, light, and moisture all influence its growth. Interestingly, our ancient people tended to cut down trees that their grandparents had planted, so perhaps they lived on wood for generations.











Pine, cedar and cypress were all commonly used wood building materials in ancient China, with cypress being decorative and tough, making it a good wood for flooring. When a cypress tree grows up and has a heartwood of sufficient size, it can be used to make flooring. Only a few of the more robust cypress trees have a core of sufficient size to make a floor 900 millimeters long and 95 millimeters wide.










In the traditional Chinese method, the felling of trees is based on the time of the year and the laws of nature, and it is generally believed that felling trees in winter is better than in summer. In addition, at the waning moon, the nutrients circulating in the tree's body converge at the roots, and the trees cut down at this time are less susceptible to rotting, attracting insects, and the material will be better.












Felled trees need to undergo a preliminary preservative treatment. Soaking in water is one of the oldest methods of wood preservation: The whole tree is put into the water, and different types of trees require different lengths of soaking. Under the soaking of water, nutrients and insect eggs in the trees are naturally removed, thus achieving the effect of preventing insects and corrosion; at the same time, sufficient water nourishment can weaken the biting force of the tree fibers, so that their resistance to change and stability become stronger.












After the soaked wood is dried naturally, it is sawn by craftsmen into log materials of the right size, and the bark with high sugar content (including the vascular bundle formation layer and bast) is scraped off with a curved scraper to prevent woodworm. 










After removing the bark, the wood needs to be split by quarter sawing from the root to the tip of the tree in the direction of the wood conduit grain: first of all, perpendicular to the cross-section of the whole piece of wood, split a slit in the wood with a machete and whack the back of the machete with a mallet and drive in a wedge to hold the slit wide and create a crack. As the crack naturally expands under force, the wood is split in half. Next, continue splitting and tearing the cracked wood in the same way to get pieces of boards.



传统径切方法劈解木头 图示





















This primitive, natural way of splitting wood allows the wood to stress crack without destroying its fiber and conduit structure, so boards made from this method are straight-grained, stable, and not prone to rotting and disintegration over time. We found that in the mountainous regions of Southwest China, there is a kind of wooden shingle laid on wooden houses, which are made by this traditional splitting and tearing process, and can be on the roof for many years to experience the wind, rain and snow without rotting.














Wood treatment: From timber to floor





The initial split of the wood board can not be used directly for the production of flooring, but also need to be flattensandedlacquered and other processes to become a floor.In the days before industrial machines, carpenters used traditional woodworking tools to work with wood, including adzes, planes, and so on.







The surface of boards made by traditional splitting and tearing is rough, and needs to be preliminarily processed first. Since the boards are large and not easy to cut with a knife, they can be hitted with an adze to remove the large knots and bumps. In the process of adzing the wood, the boards are left with adze marks, creating a special texture.












 Scraping with Chinese spear plane




The roughly treated uneven board can be treated in more detail with an ancient woodworking tool called "Chinese spear plane". The Chinese spear plane is a double-edged scraping tool, with the front of the blade cocked slightly upwards. The carpenter first uses a whetstone to sharpen the blade, then holds the handle in one hand and the back end of the blade in the other, and scrapes backward with the side of the blade on the surface of the board, so that the board further becomes smooth, but there are still long scrape marks, and thin flutes between the marks.














The plane is also a traditional woodworking tool that removes roughness and saw marks from wood board, leaving it fine and clean. When using a flush plane, you need to hold the planer on the board to scrape the board along the grain; the process starts with rough planing to flatten the board, then adjusting the angle and scale of the blade, and then fine planing to make the board more flat. The boards are heated by the repeated friction of the plane and naturally secrete oil, gradually achieving a smoothness that cannot be achieved by modern industrial machines. At this point, the floor has been basically molded, the surface is flat and smooth.


















After all these processes, the floor can not be painted directly, but also needs to be sanded to a smoother finish. Ancient craftsmen used a burly grass, known as horsetail grass, to polish woodFirst soak the horsetail grass in warm water, flatten it and stick it on a small wooden square and use it to rub the surface of the board repeatedly until it is clean and shiny.This type of sanding is natural, environmentally friendly and does not damage the wood.












The last step in the process of making a floor is lacquering. We use the traditional Chinese process of lacquering, which is the application of natural lacquer extracted from the lacquer tree to the sanded floor. After the first lacquer application, the floor is allowed to shaded-dry in a shaded room at a specific humidity and temperature; once the lacquer is dry, the surface of the floor is rubbed with leaves moistened with water, and then a second lacquer is applied. After this step has been repeated several times, the lacquering process is complete. At this point, a wooden floor made by traditional methods is complete.




























Reflection, Interpretation and perpetuation




Nowadays, the global forest resources are limited, the environmental protection concept and the popularity of underfloor heating make the original wood floor can no longer meet the current use requirements. At the same time, with the development of technology and the innovation of tools, the traditional method of wood flooring production is replaced by efficient machine production methods. Undeniably, efficient industrialized production does make our lives easier and faster, and based on the traditional craft of wood construction may be far from now so quickly can be built, but it is more durable than the current house, can last for thousands of years without rotting. This is worth thinking about: an original wood stuff can be used for thousands of years, or other wood products with a few decades, hundreds of years will have to be replaced once, which way is more environmentally friendly?





With this in mind, we sought to trace this ancient craft and collaborated with Fan Jianjun to present the results of our research as a work consisting of nine wooden floors, each showing the nine steps of the process from splitting to lacquering, with grooves in the form of ancient mortise and tenon joints between adjacent floors to serve as connections.










With this work, we try to bring the focus back to the wood material itself, offering a forgotten possibility for the making of wood. This traditional method can be used to make not only wooden floors, but also chairs and tables.This is a figurative reproduction of traditional wood craftsmanship that follows the laws of nature, as well as an interpretation and perpetuation of the life of a tree.




图片&视频|Vincent Kuan

 Picture&Video | Vincent Kuan



Acknowledgement | Fan Jianjun Huang Dana