Glossary of Chinese Antique Furniture Woodworking, Joinery Construction Terms

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Chinese Antique Furniture Joinery

(Note: this article is a reprint which seems to be widely circulated on the internet. I think it is reprinted from the book “Classic Chinese Furniture: Ming and Early Qing Dynasties” by Wang Shixiang – though I could be mistaken.)

  • Introduction to Joinery
  • Overview of Styles
  • Glossary of Relevant Terms

Understanding joinery and construction further enhances the connoisseurship of Chinese hardwood furniture. To the aesthetically inclined observer, the study of joinery may seem at first an unusual approach, yet the techniques employed play an important part in the overall effect. The animation and harmony experienced when viewing masterpieces is often the result of a unity that lies beneath the surface members are not only connected together to form a functional object, but also manifest integrated conceptualization. Techniques of wood joinery were born from an ancient technological culture and developed through continuous evolution of timber architectural systems. Further heights of sophistication and refinement were reached during the Ming and early Qing dynasties along with the manufacture of hardwood furniture.Classic Chinese furniture is unique for many reasons, including its exquisite carvings, rare woods and joinery. Each type has joints that are suited for the particular strains and stresses that will be placed on it.

An almost infinite combination of joints is possible in Chinese furniture. Familiarity with the major types and typical aplications is essential for anyone interested in Chinese furniture. It is important to remember that joinery should be consistent, and construction logical. If it is not , there is a good possibility that the object is a copy or that it has been altered.

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The most basic joint in Chinese cabinet making is the mortise and tenon.

Mortise and tenon

The most basic joint in Chinese cabinet making is the mortise and tenon.

A mortise is a cut-out receptacle. A projection from the piece to be attached fits into the mortise. There are many types of mortise-and-tenon joints. In the most basic – the butt-joined mortise and tenon – the ends of both the members to be joined are squared. If the ends are cut at an angle, it is called a mitered joint. A joint can be mitered on only one side or on both sides.

Frame-and-panel Construction

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This ‘tongue-and-groove’ system secures the panel without nails or glue

The ‘frame-and-panel’ evolved as a more efficient use of material, and is typical of most panels in Chinese furniture, whether tabletop, door, or cabinet panel. The frame is joined with mitered, mortise-and-tenon joints. A groove is cut around the upper, inside edge of the frame, while the panel is shaped with a corresponding tongue around its outside edge.

This ‘tongue-and-groove’ system secures the panel within the frame without glue or nails and permits the panel to float within the frame to accommodate its slight expansion and contraction due to changes in humidity. Additionally, transverse braces¡ªwhose number depends on the length of the panel¡ªslide into shallow dovetail housings cut into the bottom of the panel, both supporting the thin panel and preventing its warping.

Recessed-leg Construction

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The practical and minimalistic ‘recessed-leg’ form was established by the Song dynasty and continued to be reproduced throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. This basic construction pattern, which was closely related to traditional post-and-beam architecture, was commonly applied to the creation of stools, chairs, tables and cabinets.

The ‘recessed-leg’ technique employs legs joined at points inset (or ‘recessed’) from the corners of a mitered frame. The legs generally splay outward toward the base, and are connected by various configurations of stretchers and/or aprons. The aprons in this example are joined to the single-piece spandrel heads with a blind dovetail. Double tenons on the top of each leg fit into the underside of the frame.

Corner Leg Construction

Corner-leg construction can be divided into ‘waisted’ and ‘simianping’ (literally flush-sided) styles. The corner-leg form is self-descriptive with legs generally set flush to the corners of the top frame. The legs can be of straight, c-curved, or cabriole style; they typically terminate with some a horsehoof or variation of ruyi -shaped motif, animal claws, or scrolled foot.

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Furniture of ‘waisted’ style retains architectural characteristics of the classical Greek pedestal, which migrated eastward to Gandhara where, as a dignified support, it became associated with the seat of Buddha. As Buddhism spread into China, so did the classical pedestal form. Early tables of ‘high-waisted’ form tended to be used for religious or ceremonial purposes. By the late Ming period, waisted furniture had become incorporated into the common vernacular of furniture design.

Early furniture of this style commonly required intermediate or base stretchers for reinforcement, and decorative taohuan panels were fitted to the ‘high-waist’ section. During the late Ming period, the development of sophisticated joints with dovetail keys permitted the abandonment of supplementary braces and stretchers. The waist section can be various design. Sometimes it is one piece with the apron as illustrated here; sometimes it is a separately joined to the apron with dovetail wedges from the back; alternatively, it may be comprised of early-style taohuan panels. The use of supplementary giant’s arm braces, humpback stretchers, or decorative spandrels is also common to cornerleg furniture.

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Simianping forms likely developed from early box-style constructions, whose use as tables and platforms are evident in Tang period paintings. Tables, beds, and stools of minimalistic, simianping-style were produced as early as the Song dynasty, and remained popular throughout the Ming dynasty. Such flush-sided tables that could be placed side-by-side were also convenient for creating large banquet arrangements. The configuration of simianping corner joints differ from those of waisted construction because of the greater apron thickness. In this variation, long tenons are shaped onto the leg members penetrate through the aprons and into the seat frame or table top.

Bamboo-style Construction

ome of the earliest Chinese furniture was made from common bamboo. However, the use of hardwood or lacquered softwood to simulate the construction of bamboo furniture was popularized during the transitional 17th century, and likely entered into the mainstream during the Qing dynasty when the imitation of materials and finishes was practiced throughout the decorative arts.

‘Bamboo-style’ furniture employs rounded, bamboo-like members that are configured to simulate the wrap-around and layered construction techniques of furniture made from real bamboo. Sometimes the members are smooth without carving; sometimes they are carved with bamboo-like nodes. This category, which has its own logic and origins, falls somewhere between the traditional systems ‘recessed-leg’ and ‘corner-leg’ construction.


The development of traditional Chinese furniture went from the simple to the intricate, and was closely linked to the Chinese lifestyle and cultural and economic changes in China. In early antiquity, the Chinese sat mostly on straw mats on the floor. After the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), beds and couches began to come into widespread use as seating. During the Wei-Chin (220-420 A.D.) and the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 A.D.) period, Western-style chairs, folding stools, and other seating gradually entered China. From this point on, Chinese everyday living began to be conducted from chairs rather than sitting cross-legged on the floor. Straw mats came to be used as coverings for beds and couches.
Beginning in the late Ching Dynasty, foreign living styles began to be adopted in China, with the result that originally predominant Chinese-style furnishings gradually became collector’s items. Not only chairs, but also Chinese tables, cabinets, bookcases, and decorative screens reached the summit of their development during the Ming ( 1368-1644 A.D.) and Ch’ing dynasties.
Ming furniture features simple, smooth, and flowing lines, and plain and elegant ornamentation, fully bringing out the special qualities of frame-structure furniture. Influenced by China’s burgeoning foreign trade and advanced craftsmanship techniques, furniture of the Ch’ing Dynasty period turned to rich and intricate ornamentation, along with coordinated engraved designs. Because of the high level of development of Chinese furniture in the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, most Chinese furniture design today follows in the tradition of pieces from these two periods.
As in traditional Chinese architecture, wood is the major material used in the manufacture of furniture. This was in response both to needs arising from Chinese lifestyles, and to China’s rich forest resources. The two main types are lacquered furniture and hardwood furniture. Lacquered furniture was commonly used in palaces, temples, and in the homes of the wealthy. It includes the t’i-hung , or carved lacquer style; t’ien-ch’i in which lacquer is used to fill in an engraved design, then rubbed flat; miao-ch’i , or outlined lacquer style; and luo-tien , or furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Two or more methods might also be combined in the same piece. Hardwood furniture was frequently found in the homes of the wealthy, but was even more common in the homes of nobles and officials. Woods employed include red sandalwood, pearwood, padauk, ebony, and nanmu. Of these, red sandalwood is the most highly valued material for use in furniture making; it is dense, hard, and resistant to decay.
Bamboo and rattan furniture also have a long history. Bamboo is a product unique to Asia, and is an especially developed industry in hot and sunny Taiwan. Simple and ingenious techniques are used to make clever and useful products that can be “knocked down,” and modular pieces that can be used together or separately. Bamboo may be used in combination with other materials, such as wood, rattan, metal, and ceramic tile, in endless variation. Much bamboo and rattan furniture is exported to Europe and the United States, where it enjoys great popularity.
Chinese are fond of furniture with inlaid and carved work. In addition to shells and enamel chips, brilliant, colorful, and artistically grained jade, stones, ivory (and other animal teeth), horn, agate, and amber are used for inlaid desi gns. Marble, for example, is a stone often used for inlaid work; colorful ceramic plates are also a popular material for ornamentation. Another elegant technique used since ancient times is the inlaying of different kinds and colors of woods in a single piece. The methods of carving include relief carving, negative engraving, and free-style carving. Common subjects for furniture carving are flowers; dragons and phoenixes; the ch’i-lin, a Chinese mythical beast; and stylized cloud and leaf patterns.
Traditional Chinese furniture is generally arranged in symmetrical suites or sets. These are, however, supplemented with other more flexible arrangements to prevent the room from having too staid an atmosphere. For example, paintings or examples of calligraphy might be hung on the wall; ceramic, enamel or other knick-knacks might be placed in an antique display cabinet; or flower arrangements made of jade or stone might top a square occasional table. Any or all of these can add splashes of color and elegant form to the room. These delicate additions set off the heavy furniture to give a rich composite effect.

Glossary of Relevant Terms


Constructed with dovetail or other joints instead of nails

Chinese lattice or fretwork :
a type of openwork pattern originating in Chinese art

Molding :
decorative pieces of wood, often carved, attached by joinery to the joints of a piece

Low -relief engraving :
decoration made by carving away the surrounding wood

Caning :
weaving with split rattan or bamboo fiber for seats or beds

Plain hardwood :
furniture made of woods such as hua li, which are waxed but left unlacquered

Lacquer :
red or black coating that imparts a high gloss to surfaces. Asian varnish made from tree gum.

Waisted :
the indentation just below the top of a table, stool or bench

Spandrel :
corner support between top or seat and legs

Feng Shui :

Chinese practice of arranging elements to achieve the greatest harmony and balance Apron
A skirt of wood running between the legs of a chair or cabinet.

Cabriole leg
A leg that is curved in an ogee shape.

The main body or understructure of a piece of furniture, onto which a veneer or other covering is laid.

Case furniture
Furniture — cabinets, chests and cupboards — made for storing objects.

Western decorative imitations of Asian designs found mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A wooden peg used to hold early mortise-and-tenon joints in place.

A horizontal ornamental strip.

Coating of gold leaf or gold dust.

A pattern that is formed in wood by its fibers.

Timber from any tree that is not a conifer; wood known for its strength and durability.

Style of table or chair leg that resembles the hoof of a horse of chinese antique furniture.

Decorative design set into the surface of a piece of furniture.

Western method of imitating Asian lacquering techniques.

mitre : a corner joint in which two pieces of wood are cut so that when joined they form a right angle before being nailed or glued in place.

mortise-and-tenon :
a joint formed by hollowing out a hole (mortise) in one piece of wood and inserting a second, projecting piece (tenon); sometimes glued or held in place with a dowel.

dovetail : a refinement of the mortise-and-tenon joint; a right-angled joint secured by interlocking, fan-shaped tenons.

Low -relief engraving
Decoration made by carving away the surrounding wood of chinese antique furniture.

Use of veneer and other wooden inlays to make decorative patterns featuring naturalistic motifs.

A distinctive feature or theme in a composition.

A decorative fitting attached to furniture (often of metal, ormolu or ceramic).

Mortise and tenon structure
A type of joinery which connects furniture components with an extended tongue (tenon) fitted precisely into a cutout (mortise) of chinese antique furniture.

Surface texture of furniture that develops with age.

Plain hardwood
Furniture made of woods such as hua li, which are waxed but left unlacquered of chinese antique furniture.

A horizontal bar running between the legs or uprights of a piece.

Timber of coniferous trees; wood that is easy to cut.

The central upright of a chair back.

The horizontal bar joining and stabilizing the legs of a chair or table.Supports between legs of chairs, tables or benches – shape is straight or Humpback of chinese antique furniture.

Thin sheets of wood laid on top of a piece’s carcass for decorative purposes.

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