A shoji panel provides a lightweight and elegant way to divide a room, create privacy or simply add an Oriental touch to your home decor. The traditional method of constructing shoji avoids screws or nails, but if you want to avoid using complex joining techniques, you can substitute dowels. You can install shoji panels in a doorway track or you can also join them together with cabinet hinges to make free-standing room dividers. When made with traditional Japanese paper, or washi, they give a room an airy, minimalistic feel and are also effective for accentuating lighting.
Rip the frame of the panel on a table saw, using cedar, redwood or hardwood stock. Use lumber that is knot-free and straight -- kiln-dried wood is preferable. The top and bottom rails should be 1 by 2 inch and the side stiles 1 by 1 1/4 inch. The panel can be as high and wide as you choose, but typical dimensions are 6 to 7 feet high by 3 to 3 1/2 feet wide. Cut the rails and stiles to the appropriate lengths with a pull saw.
Create rebates, or notches, in the end of each rail and stile so you can overlap the stiles onto the rails when you assemble the frame. Lay out the frame on a flat surface, mark the width needed for each notch, and cut the notch by lowering the blade of the table saw to the appropriate depth and repeatedly passing the wood through the blade.
Sand the rails, stiles and mullions by hand with 120-grit sandpaper.
Rip grid mullions for the lattice of the panel from the same material as the frame. The mullion dimensions should be 3/8 by 3/8 inches. The length of the horizontal mullions should be 3 inches less than that of the top and bottom rails and the length of the vertical mullions 1 1/2 inches less than that of the stiles.
Lay out the lattice on a flat surface and make a mark on each mullion where it intersects with a perpendicular one. Cut a notch at each mark with a pull saw. The notch should be 3/8 inches wide and 3/16 inches deep. Make the vertical cuts for each notch with the saw, then use a 3/8 inch chisel to knock out the cutout.
Assemble the frame temporarily, lay the assembled lattice on top and mark where the ends of the mullions intersect the frame. Chisel a hole for the end of each mullion with a 3/8-inch chisel. It should have the shape of the mullion cross-section and be slightly more than 1/2 inch deep. Place the holes closer to the back of the panel than the front so you can glue paper to the frame and lattice.
Spread carpenters glue in the rebate on the end of each rail and stile and reassemble the panel. Drill a 1/2-inch hole in each corner of the frame, spread glue on a 1/2-inch dowel that is longer than the thickness of the frame and tap it into the hole so that one end extends from either side of the panel. Let the glue dry overnight.
Cut off the ends of the dowels with a pull saw, then sand the dowels with 120-grit sandpaper to smooth them.
Spread mucilage on the back edges of the frame and lattice and lay a piece of washi on the panel. It should be large enough to completely cover the panel. Let the mucilage dry for several hours, then trim the washi with a sharp utility knife.
Lean the panel against a wall and spray the washi with water from a spray bottle. The washi will shrink as the water evaporates and tighten onto the panel.
The wood in shoji panels is traditionally left unfinished or painted with black lacquer. If you plan to paint the wood, do it before you assemble the panel. You can substitute translucent plastic for washi. It will make the panel more sturdy, but may not have the same traditional elegance.
Follow all safety rules when using a table saw. Push stock through the blade with a push stick and keep your hands away from the blade whenever the saw is running.