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How to tie Japanese Knots, make bamboo fences and trellis

How to tie Japanese Knots, make bamboo fences and trellis

For over 2,000 years, bamboo has symbolized the intimate link between humanity and nature in the Far East. Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, has described bamboo as "yielding but triumphant." In the centuries since, the unique physical characteristics and fast growing habits of bamboo have made it a desirable building material that offers unparalleled strength in a graceful form.

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Building Bamboo Fences by Isao Yoshikawa

Before You Begin
While bamboo canes may simply be driven into the ground and tied together in any number of patterns, bamboo is a natural plant fiber that will rot when it is in continuous contact with the soil. The designs offered in this bulletin were chosen for maximum durability and therefore we recommend the use of hardwood posts for ground-contact supports. If you use bamboo for the support posts, it will probably last 2-3 years (longer in arid climates).

Traditional Japanese structures use a dark twine known as 'shuro nawa' to hold the smaller bamboo pieces together. For each design you will find a list of variations that we hope will spark your creativity when working with this beautiful plant material.

Bamboo canes very naturally in their color, straightness, cracking and position of joints. You will want to take all these factors into account when laying out your design. Canes often appear much straighter from one angle, and rotating the canes before attaching them may give you the best look.

Before beginning your project, please review our list of construction hints and knot tying illustrations. Lay your design out on the ground before you start tying the finished piece. One final hint: practice tying knots with a couple of bamboo canes until you develop some skill. No matter what knot you use, remember that if it looks good to you, it is good.

Open Work Fences
These two fence designs are meant to frame the beauty of your landscape and define an edge. They can also be used beautifully to complement existing hedges or shrubbery. The fences should last for many years without substantial replacement. As you lay out the designs, you will notice that there is a different look to each side of the fence, and you should consider which direction the front and back will face before beginning construction.


'Yotsume' Style

This basic fence design is the most popular form in Japanese landscape architecture, having been used since ancient times. Its simple, open lines blend well with any landscape. The design illustrated here is constructed for maximum durability using naturally rot-resistant wood posts (such as cedar) into which bamboo crosspieces are inserted and vertical canes are then tied on. Our design uses 1-1/2" dia. structural bamboo for the crosspieces and alternating vertical canes, along with shorter lengths of 3/4" dia. bamboo. Posts as shown are 4" x 4" but a smaller diameter may also be used.
STEP 1: Use a spade or post hole digger to dig holes to a depth of at least one foot. In the illustration our posts are 3 feet above the ground and are spaced 4 feet apart. The finished fence will look much better if you use a level to ensure posts are straight, and a taut string and level between the tops of each post to ensure that they are of the same height. Backfill post holes and tamp down well.

STEP 2: Mark the inside of each post at points 1 and 2 feet down from the top of the post. Choose the straightest 1-1/2" canes to use as cross members and cut them to the inside dimension of your fence panel plus another inch to allow them to be inserted 1/2" into each of the posts. Determine the position of each crosspiece and drill a hole in the post with the appropriate sized drill bit. (The diameter of each end may vary, and you will need to adjust the size of the holes so they're large enough for the poles to slide in easily.) To make it easier to place your crosspieces, drill the holes on one post to a depth of 1" and to a depth of 1/2" on the other, so that you can use the deeper holes to place the first end of each crosspiece.

STEP 3: Insert the crosspieces 1/2" into each post and rotate each one if necessary so it looks as straight as possible. As shown in the detail illustration above, drill a pilot hole at the an angle on the back side of each crosspiece about 1/2" from each fence post, and nail each crosspiece to the post. Use a drill bit slightly larger than the nail you use and make sure your nail is long enough to go into the post. Be careful not to strike the bamboo with the nail as it may crack.

STEP 4: Now that your crosspieces are in place, simply tie on each vertical cane or canes as shown. If you wish to get a uniform height, use a taut, level string again between each post to help line up the vertical canes. Don't forget to trim the canes facing upwards to the nearest joint end! Tying works best with a partner, but you may use a simple loop and square knot to hold your pieces together while you finish the other knots.

STEP 5: 1-1/2" vertical cane can be added to each post end, tying a knot around the post and crosspiece as shown for a more finished appearance. If you are adding additional fence panels as shown in the illustration, you will want to wait to tie on the vertical can in the middle until the second panel is in place. This added crosspiece is optional and not structurally necessary.


Vertical canes may be tied all on one side or alternating front and back of the crosspieces.
A taller stockade type fence may be constructed up to 6 feet or more using this same design.
Try using paired 3/4" vertical canes for a more elegant appearance.
For a lighter looking fence, with less work and less durability, you may tie the crosspieces to 1-1/2" bamboo posts instead of hardwood posts. Such posts should last 2 or 3 years.

'Yarai' Style

This trellis design is slightly more difficult to assemble than the 'Yotsume' style fence, largely because of the angles involved. Our illustration above shows a simplified 3 foot high fence panel that can be easily varied in length or in the number of canes used in the trellis.

This low fence design is popular in the Kansei region of Japan where it is often used as a property border fence, and is sometimes mounted on an existing stone wall. In our illustration, the fence panel is four feet long between posts allowing for the 'X' at the center of the trellis to fall exactly at the midpoint of height and length of this panel.

STEP 1: Use a spade or post hole digger to dig holes to a depth of at least one foot. In the illustration our posts are 3 feet above the ground and are spaced 4 feet apart from the inside of one post to the inside of the other. The finished fence will look much better if you use a level to ensure posts are straight, and a taut string and level between the tops of each post to ensure that they are of the same height. Backfill post holes and tamp down well.

STEP 2: Each crosspiece of this fence is attached to the back of the posts, using a pilot hole and nail. Measure in 1/2" from each end of the cut crosspieces and drill pilot holes straight through the cane. Nail one end in place, and then using a level or a very good eye to ensure correct placement, nail the other end into the other post.

STEP 3: Once your crosspieces are in place, choose the straightest possible canes for the center of your trellis pattern. Measure and mark the two canes which will form the center X carefully so that they can be cut diagonally to lie flush against the inside edge of each fence post as shown. Drill a pilot hole perpendicular to the post 1/2" from the end of each diagonal and nail the top and bottom to the inside of each fence post.

STEP 4: Now measure, cut and add trellis pieces as shown in the illustration. Don't forget to trim the upper end of each diagonal at the nearest joint! Use a taut, level string tied between each post to guide you in aligning the top ends of the diagonals with the height of the fence panel. All four trellis knots will be tied where the two diagonals cross the back crosspiece. Tying three thicknesses of cane tautly can be tricky, so we recommend using a figure 8 loop of wire twisted tightly with a pair of pliers for extra strength. The wire can then be covered with your knot. If working alone, it's a good idea to temporarily tie each angled trellis cane, before wiring. Check the measurements and angle and adjust if necessary, before tightening the wire. When all connections have been made, trim the edges of the wire, and cover it with twine, using the traditional knots. You may wish to add four knots, where the shorter diagonals adjoin the fence post for a more symmetrical, finished appearance.


The same techniques used in fence construction apply to the design and construction of trellis pieces. For longer lasting trellises, minimize contact between the soil and bamboo, and store them away during the winter. Trellis designs may also be adapted as fence gates between hardwood posts or as screens to hide utility boxes or other unsightly features.

The trellis design shown here uses three widths of bamboo in a door style frame. The three long vertical posts are 1-1/2" canes, interior verticals and upper horizontal pieces are 3/4" canes and the panel at the bottom is made with pairs of thinner 3' canes.

This trellis can be attached to an existing structure or it can be mounted on anchor posts driven into the ground. (If you choose anchor posts, the interior membranes of the canes may be 'punched' out using a hammer and screwdriver to allow the canes to be slipped over metal anchor posts.) The trellis can be constructed flat on the ground if it is to be attached to an existing structure, or constructed standing if you are using anchor posts. The following steps concentrate on how to make a trellis for an exterior wall.

STEP 1: You will need to use a measure and/or level along the vertical posts as you assemble and tie them on the ground.

STEP 2: Attach the upper 3 bamboo crosspieces to the 3 uprights. In the illustration, the outside dimension from post to post measures 2'8" across. Allow the top cross piece, tied just below the top of each vertical post, to extend 6" on either side, while the two lower crosspieces should extend just 2" on either side.

STEP 3: Now begin adding pairs of 3' bamboo to the lower 2 feet of the trellis. Since the width of these canes varies, dimensions are approximate. Our illustration has eight pair of canes spaced 3" apart. If the outside dimension of your vertical canes is 2'8", then each pair of 3' bamboo will extend out 2" on either side in line with the crosspieces in the upper part of the trellis. The spacing and dimensions of this design may be altered to suit your taste, (and your patience for tying knots!) keeping in mind that you have no more than 5'10" in height to work with overall, and slightly less if you have trimmed your 1-1/2" uprights.

STEP 4: Attach the remaining interior vertical canes equal distance between the upper crosspiece and the top pair of 3' canes below.

STEP 5: If you are attaching your trellis to an existing structure, you may want to consult your local hardware store for the most appropriate hardware for your application.


For a lighter, taller trellis, use our 7' canes. Because of this additional height, this works best for trellises that will be attached to an existing structure or to wooden support posts.
Create a paravent or fan-like screen by placing two freestanding trellises together at an angle, or string together several smaller panels as an informal fence.
Trim all edges close to outside posts. This design can alternatively be mounted on hardwood posts at its full or reduced height for use as a gate or door.

Additional Support for Climbers and Twiners

Bamboo towers, teepees or tripods are traditionally used to support climbing plants and this practice can be elegantly applied to the home garden as well to create everything from tomato trellises to arbors of annual climbing vines.
Simply form a circle of 3 to 6 bamboo poles in the garden, and tilt the ends into the center. Wrap the ends with any strong twine or use a bamboo connector to secure the ends together (see our Bamboo Teepee Kits or Connector). Once you create a tower, twine can then be attached to create a web for climbing plants.

You can connect multiple towers together by positioning a horizontal bamboo pole between them at the top and bottom. Attach twine to these horizontals to create a web for climbing plants.

Connecting towers can be used to create a living arbor that will be completely covered by foliage by the end of summer. Such an arbor will create a 'grand entrance' or elegant folly in your vegetable or flower gardens. Some good vines to plant on your arbor are scarlet runner beans, morning glories, hyacinth beans, and cardinal creeper.

The Ibo Knot

This knot is a variation on a standard looped square knot. While any tight knot will hold most bamboo joints, this style of knot gives a neater finished appearance and is the standard in most Japanese construction.

Construction Hints

Top Tip: Always use wetted twine, for when it dries, it tightens - giving you a far tighter knot and binding

Never nail directly into bamboo. You'll need a drill to create pilot holes slightly larger than the nail to allow for expansion, and a nail driver to avoid crushing the cane with your hammer.
For cutting, use a bamboo saw or a fine hacksaw.
Always wear gloves when working with bamboo (except when tying!) to avoid splinters.
For maximum durability, bamboo should not come into contact with the ground.
Natural preservatives like hemp oil or tung oil may be applied to the bamboo to increase its longevity. Petroleum-based preservatives may also be used.
Unfinished bamboo naturally ages to a light weathered gray. Cracking of the canes through expansion oand contraction will not diminish their strength.
The top of any cane which will be used vertically or diagonally should be carefully cut above tne nearest joint. The interior membrane at the joint will help keep water from collecting in the hollow cane thus avoiding rot.
When choosing fence posts, use rot-resistant wood such as cedar or pressure treated lumber, no bigger than 4" x 4". Round fence posts seem to blend more harmoniously than square ones. A dark wood stain may be applied to simulate the scorched appearance of traditional Japanese designs.