Lanterns are a classic component of the Japanese garden and a worthwhile addition to the bonsai display area. There are many distinct types, in sizes and styles to suit most tastes. Authentic carved stone lanterns are very expensive due to the craftsmanship involved, the fragility of parts and their weight adding to the shipping costs. Some companies now replicate the originals in resins, reconstituted stone or concrete. Some of these can look quite pleasing but the knowledge that it is a mass-produced lantern may detract for the purist. There are many that are far less pleasing, produced in garish colours and with cliched “oriental” and usually overly ornate styling. As one of the desirable features of a Japanese garden is the appearance of age and mellowness, the red and green ones are definitely to be avoided.
I feel that the simplest, rustic lanterns are often the most attractive. Designing and producing your own, makes yours unique and can be a pleasurable and productive pastime. Aim for a simple, pleasing shape that blends in rather than dominating.
Types of Lantern
Pedestal Lantern (Tachi-gata) 1 to 3 M high used mainly in larger gardens. Due to their size they can be the focal point of the garden.
Buried Lantern (Ikekomi-gata) Usually about 1 M high. Rise on a shaft buried in the ground and therefore lack a pedestal. Often sited near to a water basin but can be used anywhere in the garden to good effect.
Small Lantern (Oki-gata) Up to 50cm high. Often used to illuminate the edge of a pond, paths or in smaller gardens.
Snow Lantern (Yukimi-gata) Usually about 1 M to 1.5 M high, with a broad cap stone designed to hold snow. Most frequently used close to a water feature.
Types of Construction For DIY:
This is the most fun and definitely results in the most unique appearance for your lantern.
Decide upon the size and style that you would like to achieve. Bear in mind that the stones you require will need to be readily available so you have a wide choice of pieces. Weathered stones are preferable, as any recently broken stone will take a long time for ageing to hide the scars. It would be sensible to try drilling a piece, using a hammer drill and masonry bit, to determine its hardness before proceeding further.
Select the stones and try building them roughly “in the field”. This will help you to decide on their stability. Stones with strongly horizontal strata will have split with two parallel faces that can be used as the top and bottom. If no pieces with level bases can be found a visual check will have to be performed by laying them all out on their sides, roughly in the shape of the lantern. Five pieces of stone are the minimum required but select a few extra pieces, if you can, to allow some flexibility. Some thin slivers of the same stone may also be useful later.
All except the lamp housing should need no extra work, other than perhaps a little unobtrusive levelling of the tops and bottoms. Use the slivers of similar stone and some isopon if a more permanent structure is required.
For stone with more irregular bases or tops, a stone cutting disk on a steel saw may be used. Safety equipment must be used and sensible precautions taken. Rest the stone securely on a sandbag while cutting.
To finish the piece, the lamp housing needs to be carved out. This is the most ambitious task, but not beyond the average handyman so long as the stone selected is not too hard.
Mark the intended design on the top and outside faces of the stone, making sure that the corner pillars that you are leaving are thick enough to remain intact. Then, using a hammer drill with a sharp, broad, masonry bit (and wearing safety goggles of course) drill holes, as close together as you can manage, around the inside perimeter of the lines. Drill further lines of holes to subdivide this. Very gingerly break up the stone mass contained within the lamp enclosure, using a small cold chisel and light taps with a hammer. When finished, gingerly use a bolster or a small grinding attachment in your drill to flatten the remaining stumps. Geometrical perfection is not required, but a well executed, rustic appearance is the aim.
I was recently shown a material new to me for lantern making – Thermalite blocks. These are the aerated cement type of breeze blocks used for thermal insulation in new buildings. Sizes up to trench blocks are available relatively cheaply from builders’ merchants. Most lanterns will cost less than £5. The blocks cut fairly easily with an old saw and can be worked with great ease when compared to real stone. The blocks can be stuck together with a cement and block dust fondue, to make a larger piece to work from. They make a very lightweight lantern, which may require securing to prevent wind damage. This would make an ideal first time experimental lantern and the results can be so good that you may be happy to stop there.
Authentic Japanese lanterns are usually made using granite. Unless you have some skills in stone-masonry, or are willing to experiment and learn, this type is best purchased from a specialist Japanese garden supplier. A highly skilled stonemason, if you can locate one, will charge quite a lot to replicate an authentic Japanese lantern. If you take this option you will have to provide working drawings of the style you want.
If you do want to have a go at stone carving, try a small project first. This will allow you to make mistakes and learn from them. It will also allow you to work out whether the stone available to you is suitable for a larger project such as a lantern. The best stone would be granite, as this is what many of the original lanterns were carved from and it is very resistant to erosion by weathering. It is also one of the more difficult to carve, being very hard. More suitable for beginners would be a stone with medium hardness such as limestone especially an oolitic limestone or recently quarried sandstone. Sandstones tend to be easier to carve when “fresh” but harden with time.
The blocks should be roughly shaped at the point of purchase, if at all possible. This is usually done by machine in the mason’s yard. It cuts down the weight that you have to transport and avoids much tedious removal of waste stone later. It also allows you to be more sure that the stone is a piece from a single strata and doesn’t contain any bedding planes that will be weak.
Soft stones such as most sandstones, limestones and chalk are easier to carve but will weather and erode more rapidly (and break more easily!).
The few tools required are a soft iron hammer, a tungsten tipped chisel or two, a pitcher and point chisel for roughing out and a claw chisel with a toothed edge. A piece of carborundum is needed for sharpening tungsten tipped chisels or gritstone for softer chisels. Wearing safety goggles is essential, as the unskilled worker is likely to have stone chips flying in unpredictable directions for quite a while.
The piece of stone must be fixed securely but in such a way as to allow it to be moved around when necessary. Again sandbags can help in this. Larger pieces will be held in position by their own weight. Some form of trolley may be required to allow convenient movement. Smaller work can be held in a vice, with the jaws padded with wood offcuts or a sturdy wooden “cradle” built around the foot of the work.
Roughing out is the removal of most of the remaining waste stone and is done with the hammer and pitcher or point. Hold the tool at a steep angle to the surface of the stone and direct blows strong enough to stun pieces off.
The development of the shape is usually done with the claw chisel held at a shallower angle.
The finishing of the work may be as coarse or polished as you wish. Using just the point chisel will leave a coarse surface of parallel lines. The claw will result in a finer textured surface and this may be finished to a very fine surface with a sharp chisel. Hold this tool at a shallow angle to the stone to avoid plucking small pieces out of the required finished surface. Fine finishing or polishing with abrasives would be inappropriate for the surface of a lantern.
Other interesting possibilities are rustic hardwood, hypertufa (Concrete with peat added), concrete with an exposed aggregate finish (blast the surface with a strong water jet straight after stripping off the mould) or fibreglass.
Whatever method you try, you can derive a great amount of satisfaction and pleasure from completing your display with a well-crafted piece.