Black Forest Zendo ceiling 

by Mathieu

After almost five years of preparation and planning we have finally finished the installation of the interior carpentry work on this project. It has been very pleasant to work for a community of people where everyone is so involved and appreciates our efforts to create something beautiful and long lasting. Here is the story of how we put together the ceiling (tenjo).

Often the craftsmen who conduct the actual work do not receive any credit and I have come across plenty articles where it sounds like a building project is realized by a single person. Let’s bring some attention to all the people involved. It gives a more complete account of the story don’t you think? Shawn McVeigh and Maxime Ducharme are two carpenters who have been working on the ceiling installation. Shawn is a Hawaiian carpenter trained by Dale Brotherton, he also helped us with some of the shopwork at East Wind in California. Max is a Canadian carpenter living in the UK who took one of my courses and worked on another project with me in the past. It is great to have competent and committed people to work with and they certainly deserve to be mentioned.

A traditional ceiling in a temple in Japan would often be a go-tenjo or checkerboard ceiling. However the design of this zendo is based on a similar design of a zendo in Crestone Colorado built by East Wind and designed by Len Brackett many years ago.

This design is quite unique with the 45 degree horizontal hip rafters running from the corner of the mume into the corner of the room. It allowed us to create a different feeling where the lower ceiling and the direction of the sao-bo wraps around the room and the upper ceiling. This type where the boards are held up by ceiling rods can be referred to as sao tenjo.

The frame to support the ceiling was accurately constructed on the ground before being raised into position. The location was critical since the hiprafters needed to land exactly in the corner of the room.


Preparation is everything…


For this project we used shaku as a measuring unit, and we always try to use gloves not to mar or stain the wood with our hands.


The ceiling boards are held in place with screws and wedges in such a way that they are able to move with changes in humidity. We used several thousands screws to construct this ceiling. I guess we are not doing the real thing since Japanese carpentry is conducted without the use of nails or screws..

JvN_8020After the center ceiling was raised we could continue on the perimeter ceiling installing the hips first, then the sao-bo and the tenjo-ita.


Sao detail around the Sierra-yama sugi (as opposed to Kitayama-sugi). We had to cut into the post to give the ceiling boards a ledge to land on.


The Ceiling board are laid down exactly in the same sequence as they are milled out of the tree. This ensures that the grain pattern is continuos. I am sure you can imagine that it takes a lot of care and attention during construction not to damage the soft Western Red Cedar boards. This is very unique material we are working with here! Long perfectly clear fine grained wood, there is only so much of it on the planet.


It is almost impossible to see on the picture but with the construction of a ceiling like this the center is slightly lifted, creating a very subtle dome shaped arch in the ceiling. this creates a feeling of loftiness. If you would make a ceiling perfectly flat it actually feels sagged and tends to weigh down on you and lifting the ceiling in the center eliminates this effect. Because of all the different parts of this ceiling creating that arch was a bit more challenging but it came out exactly how we envisioned it.

Below an illustration of which ceiling parts are perfectly straight and which ones are slightly curved. The green lines represent the mawaribuchi that are straight. The pink lines the mume which are curved and the yellow lines illustrate the arch of the ceiling. The curves are exaggerated for clarity.


Stay tuned for the completion of this project soon.

© All the pictures in this article where made by Jonas V. Nottbeck and are protected by copyright.