Fixing and replacing Japanese shoji (paper panel doors) can look like a somewhat difficult task for the uninitiated. The fact is however, it is quite a simple project that requires very little expertise or equipment.
To ensure a professional looking job, a few tips and specific cautions do need to be noted before attempting the project. But the task is simple enough that it is usually undertaken as a standard DIY project by many householders in Japan. The act of changing a set of paper doors in an afternoon is not a big deal. The improvement the task offers to a tatami room however, is usually significant and extremely satisfying.
The full paper renewal process is done in two stages.
Stage 1 – Removing the old paper and allowing the wooden door frames to dry, and then stage 2– replacing the paper, trimming and then again allowing the frames to dry.
- a bowl of warm water
- a kitchen sponge (rough)
- optional rubber gloves
And for the refitting of the fresh paper:
- a roll of fresh shoji paper
- rice based glue (or specifically suited water dis-solvable double sided tape)
- sharp scalpel or trimmer
- a long straight edge ruler or piece of metal for trimming edges.
- a fine mist spray bottle filled with water
- a small amount of sticky tape
Gluing and sticking options
The paper on Japanese shoji doors is traditionally attached using a rice based glue. This glue is used both because it forms only a medium strength bond between the wood and paper, and because it is water soluble.
Other types of glue SHOULD NOT go anywhere near a Japanese door! Especially normal wood, plastic, or instant bond glues that are not water soluble, or leave a difficult to remove residue after drying. They are likely to leave unsightly stains on the paper (only) side of the door upon project completion. These glues would also make the next paper removal task a difficult and messy job.
Suitable rice paper glue can be purchased as a powder that requires premixing, or as a ready made clear gum mix.
Many DIY stores usually also carry a relatively weak sticking, water dissolveable double sided tape suitable for use with paper doors. This is arguably easier to use, but is usually somewhat more expensive in comparison to rice glue. (Personally, we prefer the rice glue for the job!)
If you are wanting to get totally traditional with your project, there are recipes for home made rice glue mixes available that will also do the job just fine. If taking this DIY avenue, be sure to add a suitable anti-molding agents, so the glue lines do not discolor with within the first Summer.
Remove the door or window from the door frame by lifting the entire door upwards. At the same time, angle the bottom out of the frame channel.
Lay the panel flat with the paper side up, in an area where you have suitable access and space around the door.
Stripping off the old paper
Using a damp (not wet!) sponge, moisten the paper side of the panels along the wooden panel lines and let soak for a few minutes. This helps dissolve the rice based glue that is used to stick the old paper to the door.
Use care. The less water that soaks into the backing wood during this process, the better! It usually takes a very small amount of water to leave permanent water stains on the raw pine wood. The resulting mottled look of the wood on the inside of the door as a result of this step, looks ugly! Older, or more strongly glued paper panels however, may take a little more water or a second light soaking before the old paper can be peeled away freely. Don’t get too impatient and start using too much water before absolutely necessary.
Once the glue is dissolved, it should be a simple process to peel away the old paper.
Once the paper is removed, the wooden backing still usually has old slimy glue or remnants of paper stuck to it. This needs removing before application of the new glue and paper. Use a rough kitchen sponge and warm water to lightly rub away this old glue and unevenness. The wood backing does not need to be spotlessly clean, but the surfaces do need to be even and preferably not too discolored. Again, try not to use more water than is necessary in this process.
It is often tempting to use a scraper or similar for this cleaning, but it is not necessarily recommended. The wood is usually extremely soft. Doubly so after being soaked with water. The edges of the wood are easy to dent, break, or scratch permanently.
Tip: Avoid sandpaper no matter how good the idea might seem. The dust generated will only cause headaches as it easily discolors any newly glued or wet paper with wood tannins, even if great efforts are made to clean all dust from the wood.
Once the wooden backing of the panels are mostly cleaned up, leave the door to dry.
Preparing the Paper Roll
The rolls of washi (paper) used for renewing Japanese doors and windows is usually the approximate width required for standard sized Japanese doors and windows (allowing for a little trimming).
Lay the paperless door on the floor, or other flat workspace with the paper side up. DO NOT start gluing anything yet!
Place the fresh paper roll at the head or side of the door. The roll should be oriented so the end of the paper is facing the outside edge of the door and the roll itself sits on top of the door. The feed-out edge of the paper is at the bottom of the roll as it sits flat on the wood and the natural curve of the paper faces up.
Positioned like this, we can effortlessly unroll the paper over the door without having to grapple with it (as we would have to if the feed-out edge of the roll was on top … Get what we mean?).
Tip: It is usually a mistake to cut pre-prepared lengths of paper from the roll before gluing.
Line one paper roll edge up so it exactly matches the edge of the door panel wood-line. At this roll position, tape the overhanging end of the paper roll to the outer side of the door.
Do a test roll-out of the paper again (without glue!) after the tape has been applied and ensure the paper rolls out and lines up with the panel boarder all the way along the door, as required.
With the roll end now taped accurately and the roll position determined so it is accurate later, the roll can be moved off the edge of door for convenience sakes while we apply glue.
Ready to Glue
We now take the glue bottle (or thin brush with bowl of glue if you prefer) and carefully apply it to the upward facing surface of the wooden frame.
Tip: Note that it is customary for the paper to go on the outside side of the door, so when inside a tatami room you see the wood and paper panels, not just the paper.
Use a limited amount of glue to get the best and most professional looking results! It is usually a fine balance between too little and too much glue. We need enough glue so as to stick the paper to the door, but not so much that we end up totally soaking the paper through with glue.
Without enough glue, you will find yourself needing to re-stick edges of the paper at a later time, which can be a hassle.
The latter scenario of too much glue however, can potentially ruin a job. Too much glue tends to cause discoloring from leaching of tannins from the wood, and also causes wrinkles and unsightly glue lines on the paper (only) side of the door.
Try to lay only a fine and continuous beading of the glue along all wood lines. Flatten the beading with a finger tip or plastic edge and be careful to ensure the glue does not spill over the sides of the wood. Be particularly careful with the width of the glue run on the outer edges. You do not want messy discoloring on the outer parts of the door.
The trick is to try and get the finished job to look like it is dressed with one large sheet of white paper on the outside, rather than having it show up divided panels. The glue will show through a little and does dry clear, but just don’t overdo it.
Applying the paper
After application of the glue, we apply the paper.
Ensure the tape and roll direction of the paper has not been disturbed. Then gently and gradually roll the paper out across the door, ensuring the paper remains straight, flat and reasonably well tensioned. The weight of the roll should help push the paper into the glue as it goes.
Aim for relatively tight and unwrinkled panels as the paper first contacts the glue on the wood. The paper does not need to be stretched out hard over the door as it is rolled on though. Attempting to do so will likely result in more wrinkles. Do however, try to make the paper as naturally tight off the roll as possible, without tugging.
Do not be concerned if there is some slack in the paper panels after the paper sticks down over the wood, as we will deal with the slack later.
Once the paper is in place, use a clean fingertip to carefully press the paper into the glue along all glued wood lines, being careful not to cause wrinkles or rips in the partially glue soaked paper.
Allow the glue to partially dry.
Alternative Option – Using Double Sided Tape
If using double sided tape, stick down runs of tape along all lines of woodwork.
Trimming the Edges
After 10-20minutes, the paper should have partially dried. Take a sharp trimmer blade and a long straight edge ruler and trim the edges of the paper back to the required door boarders. Leave around 5-8mm width of paper contacting around the outer boarders. If the overhang paper is already dried and too well stuck to the wood, carefully moisten it again and the peel off offcuts. Cut carefully so as to not wrinkle or rip the drying paper and to ensure you do not damage the wood below.
Tip: When trimming edges, always draw the blade along the rule, rather than pressing down into the paper. Also, make the cut by using three or more passes of the blade. This will reduce the risk of wrinkling or ripping the moist paper.
Removing Slack and Wrinkles in the Paper.
Once the door and panels are completely dry, use the misting spray bottle to dampen the paper between the panels. Try to avoid re-wetting the glue lines themselves, unless there are specific areas which have tensioned unevenly or have formed wrinkles.
Do not over wet the paper panels in this process and do not squirt the spray bottle too hard – you will potentially tear the paper! The moist paper will become relatively slack, but tightens tighter than before upon drying again. Repeat this process until all panels no longer show any noticeable sag or wrinkling.
Once totally dry, you’re done! Replace the door in it’s tracks.
You will no doubt notice a significant change in the whiteness and brightness of the paper. This adds a general vibrance to the refreshed Japanese styled room. How ever did you let the doors become so discolored and tattered looking when this job was so easy?!