Sensu: Experiments in making a folding fan 

It's sticks and paper, 
How difficult could it be?
A year's study says:
Engineering is easy.
True artistry is hardest.
    - March 7, 2005, by the author.


UPDATE:  It LOOKS like a sensu, but it's a flimsy imitation. How much else have I gotten wrong?
In the summer of 2005, I finally got my hands on a real Japanese-made sensu. When time permits, I will continue my experiments with materials and design, and update this page with my findings. 

Legend tells of a man named Toyomaru from the Tamba province having been inspired by observation of the wings of a bat to invent an articulated fan. Another legend credits a lady who nursed the abbot of the Miedo temple in what is now Kyoto, treating his fever by chanting incantations and fanning him with a piece of paper folded into pleats. Whatever their true origins, references to fans abound in the literature of tenth century Asia. A Japanese dictionary compiled circa 935 AD mentions the ogi, or folding fan, and the paddle-like uchiwa. The Song Shu, the official chronicle of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) states that a Japanese monk named Chonen presented fans to the Chinese court as gifts. Hiogi, fans made of slats of cypress wood threaded with silk and elaborately painted, were used in the Imperial court on formal occasions. Fans are also mentioned in much of the literature of the Heian period (710-1185 AD), such as Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book and Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, where a sensu, or paper fan, with a poem calligraphed on it might be gifted to a lover. 

The earliest fan papers that survive were never actually mounted for use. There are several 12th century fan papers decorated with gold or silver foil, paintings of scenes of everyday life in the yamato-e style, and sutra texts, such as this one in the Tokyo National Museum. The so called "sutra fans"  were left as votive offerings at temples. (Links to additional images on the web are provided at the end of this article.)

Would an early medieval fan intended for everyday use be covered with sutras? I can't prove it, but I suspect not. These fan paintings survive precisely because they were left as offerings at shrines. Copying sutras was a devotional exercise for medieval Japanese Buddhists, not unlike copying Bible verses would be for a Christian. 10th century diarist Sei Shonagon complained, "One needs a particularly beautiful fan for some special occasion and instructs an artist, in whose talents one has full confidence, to decorate one with an appropriate painting. When the day comes and the fan is delivered, one is shocked to see how badly it has been painted. Oh, the dreariness of it!" Heian literature mentions fans as media for poems and love tokens. It seems reasonable to assume that a fan with sutras on it would not be something in every day use. Possibly these paintings were the artists' rejects and writing religious texts on them simply a form of recycling valuable paper.

Based on the dimensions of these earliest surviving fan papers, a kawahori (bat wing) fan probably had only about five to seven bones. I can find no clues as to whether backing paper would have been used, especially as artwork and modern reproductions used in festivals and dance show exposed bones. Later fan styles exhibit a much wider arc and need a greater number of bones. While we do know that Edo period (1603-1867) fans can have front and back papers and even guard sticks at either end, I have not yet found evidence to indicate whether such fans existed prior to 1600. I did note in my experiments in trying to build a working fan that if an odd number of fan bones is used, the resultant folds and bones end up in the right places without the need for extra guard sticks. 

Judging from the extant period fans or fan art I’ve been able to track down, it’s safe to assume that painting styles on fans were similar to those employed on scrolls and other media. The stylized figures in the sutra fans are not unlike those in emaki (picture scrolls) from the same period. This Muromachi  (1333-1573 AD) fan paper from the Kyoto National Museum has a scene done in ink. The shape of the paper looks more like that of an uchiwa or paddle fan, however, I've included it here as evidence of decorative style from that period. Two Muromachi period fan papers in the private collection of Mary and Jackson Burke (see bibliography below) are scenes done in ink, one a misty fishing village, the other depicting a herder riding a water buffalo across a stream. The latter shows definite creases and, with its wider arc, would appear to have required 11 bones for mounting.

While the origin of folding fans in Japan may be shrouded in legend, I know exactly who to blame this project on. Upon seeing a photo of me in my informal court outfit, Baron Master Edward of Effingham AKA Hiraizumi Tourokurou Tadanobu commented, "The fan's wrong." He never explained why either. He just gave me enough of an excuse to make my brain itch. (Thanks, Sensei!)  I began wandering the internet, trying to find more information. I found vendors in Japan who sell beautiful sensu for festivals, traditional dance and tea ceremony. I balked at the prices and thought, "It's sticks, it's paper, how hard can it be?" It turned out to be much more complicated than I realized as I tried to work out the mechanics of reducing a folding fan to its component parts and then trying to build one from scratch.  What follows is the result of my exploration thus far.

What you need to make a kawahori style fan:
This is NOT a period or even traditional construction technique, however, it utilizes tools and inexpensive materials that should be readily available from a well supplied art and craft store. You might have to shop the internet to find the larger size of origami paper, but it does exist.



Japanese fan makers use a paper called gampi, made of plant fibers that are only available in Japan. Thus it is very expensive and difficult to find. Frankly, I'm not ready to spend that much money on paper until I'm sure my craftsmanship justifies it.

My early prototypes used a combination of colored drawing paper (too thick and stiff) and sumi-e paper (too soft). Even common 70 lb. drawing paper is a bit too stiff to for the completed fan to fold and unfold easily. Prototype 3 used 13 ¾” inch sheets of origami paper for both the face and the backing and proved to be thin enough, yet durable enough to stand up to being sharply pleated even when doubled and glued together. Origami paper usually comes with one side white, the other colored – again it’s also thin enough if you want to glue two sheets together either to get all the same color or to use a second sheet as a liner.  Recent tests with 16 lb. layout bond have been promising in terms of weight, durability and paintability. Depending on if and how you want to decorate your fan, you may want to experiment with other papers.

Decoration:  If you are going to paint a design on your fan paper, do it before you glue it to the bones. It will be harder to decorate once you’ve corrugated your drawing surface by gluing sticks to the back of it. Read the instructions below on how to lay out your fan bones and create a template for your fan paper. Precutting your paper to the right size will allow you to lay out your artwork properly.

Make certain that the paint or ink dries thoroughly before you mount or fold it. You don't want your artwork to smear or stick together after you fold the fan. See that pretty red and gold fan that serves as the "Return Home" button at the very bottom of this article? That was my second fan prototype, made on red art paper with gold craft paint. That fan has many things wrong with it: balsa too flimsy, paper too beefy and cheesy gold craft paint that sticks to itself when the fan is folded closed, even months after it should have dried. 

I’ve provided links to the Kyoto and Tokyo National Museums at the end of this article. Exploring period artwork will give you ideas on decorative styles and subjects for your fan painting.                                                              Decoration of a two sided fan. Acrylic on origami (red) and layout bond. 

Construction: If you can find it through your local craft or hobby shop, or via the internet, Midwest Products produces precut scale lumber in a variety of sizes for model making. A recent test with #8025 (fourteen strips to the pack .0416" x .208" x 11") is a good size for fan bones and saves you the step of cutting your own fan bones.

Your other option is to get sheet basswood and cut your own. (Make sure you don't buy balsa by mistake. It's a little too flimsy.) Start by marking the basswood with a pencil and ruler to be cut into strips 3/16" x 11" (or 12" if you prefer). Using the steel ruler as a cutting guide, score the basswood firmly with your Exacto knife. Each piece should snap apart very neatly. We'll start with a classic 7 bone kawahori, but it's never a bad idea to cut a couple of extras in case you end up with uneven cuts or splitting. (If you decide you want to use double bones at each end to act as fan guards and/or add backing paper, we'll talk about these variations later.)

Mark the center of each stick with a dot one inch from the end as a guide for where you’ll pierce each stick for a pivot hole. I used the end of a compass, though a sturdy needle or other sharp object will do. Push as gently as you can to avoid splitting the stick. The hole only needs to be large enough to pass the 2” head pin through. You don’t need a very big hole. Should a stick split, you might be able to salvage it and pierce the other end. Or you can use those extras you cut.

Thread your sticks together using a 2” head pin, then line them up as they would be when the fan is folded closed. Use an emery board or fine sandpaper to smooth any rough edges and round the ends nearest the pivot. Basswood is very soft, so you don’t need to work very hard to get a neat finish.

If you want to paint or varnish the sticks, unthread the wire at this point and do so. A black paint with a glossy finish looks like lacquer. Once dry, you may need to poke a pin through the pivot holes to clean them out again and give them a gentle rub with the emery board to smooth any rough bits.

 Rethread the pin through the pivot holes until the pin head is resting snugly against the outer bone. From the other side, use needle nosed pliers or round nosed pliers to bend the long end of the pin into a neat knot or spiral – again keeping your knot as snug as you can. The looser your pivot joint is, the less stable your fan will be. Cut off any excess wire sticking out. Bend it back against the outside bone as flat as you can. If you have any rough edges from the wire pin end, you can add a small bead of glue and let it dry.

While some people may not need a template for their fan paper, I find it's better to make your mistakes on scrap paper than to beat yourself up because you spent hours painting a design on a sheet of paper you just ruined. The easiest way to make an accurate paper template is to lay a sheet of draft paper on your workspace and set the assembled fan bones on top. For a seven bone fan, set Bone 1 and Bone 7 at the approximate angle you want your fan to be (no greater than 90 degrees). Using a ruler or compass to help you measure evenly, separate Bones 2 through 6 until the distance between each is the same, adjusting the position of Bones 1 and 7 as well. Tape them into position with a strip of tape between the pivot joint and just below where the fan paper is going to go to keep them from shifting out of position. I actually tape mine down to the countertop for this part of the process. On the draft sheet of paper, mark the upper and lower edges of the curves you want your fan paper to follow and mark straight edges at each side, leaving ample margins at the top arc and sides so you can trim the paper once the fan is assembled. In particular, give yourself a good inch from the edge of the outermost fan bones and about a half inch from the bone tops along the top arc. Mark the edge of the bottom arc as close as possible to what you want it to be in final form. Once the paper is glued to the bones, trying to trim the bottom edge is really difficult. Get the bottom one right and you can make your adjustments at the top and outer edges as needed. In the photo below at right, the bones have been taped in place with transparent tape (I know, hard to see!). The bottom arc has been cut in the paper and the top and sides left as is.

Slide the draft paper out from under the bones and trim along the marked edges, then you can use it as a template to cut out your fan paper. (Again, be sure to leave a margin at the top arc and on the sides as you will trim them to shape AFTER gluing and folding.)

 Apply glue to the bones - lightly. You don't want it to run through your paper. Apply your fan paper and weight it with a book. This will keep the paper from curling. Once it is dry, gently untape your fan bones from the workspace.

The easiest way to fold your fan is to work from one end. Bring  Bones 1 and 2 into alignment and crease. Then line up Bone 3 and crease, and so on, lining each bone up as you go. Go slowly – you can always go back and pinch your creases more sharply once you’re certain everything’s lined up correctly. When all your bones are aligned and the folds are in place, neatly trim off the excess at each end so the edge of the paper lines up with the folds and trim the top edge flat 1/4"  from the tops of the bones.

  Left: The first fold. Right: Trimming the left edge.

Below: Fan prototype 4, single ply origami on basswood.

Construction variant - guards and backing paper: For people who are hard on their toys and want a sturdier fan that still looks like a kawahori, here's how to beef up construction using guard bones and backing paper.

You’ll need nine bones for a "seven bone" fan and two sheets of origami and/or layout bond paper. Follow the instructions above for cutting and assembling your fan bones and pivot.

Lay your sheet of draft paper out on your work space, then lay the assembled fan bones on top. Move bones 1 and 9 out of the way for now as they will form your guards (see photo left). Set bones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 at the approximate angle you want your fan to be. Using a ruler or compass to help you measure evenly, separate Bones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 until the distance between each is the same. Tape them into position with a strip of tape between the pivot joint and just below where the fan paper is going to go to keep them from shifting out of position. Mark your draft paper to make a template as instructed above.

Slide the draft paper out from under the bones, trim along the marked edges, and cut out your front and back papers. Again, be sure to leave a margin at the top arc and on the sides as you will trim them to shape AFTER gluing and folding.

Apply glue to Bones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9, apply your fan paper, weight it and let it dry. Once dry, untape the assembly, turn the whole thing over and apply glue to Bones 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9 and the back of the fan paper then lay the lining paper on top and weight it with a book if needed. Once both layers are attached and dry, apply glue to Bones 1 and 8 and line them up with Bones 2 and 9 respectively. Weight it with a book until dry if it seems to need it.  I can't prove this was done on pre-Edo sensu, however, guards do appear on hiogi and later sensu and they do add structural strength. 

Once the glue has dried, follow the same procedure described above for folding creases into your fan and trimming the edges.

Left: Prototype 5A, origami and layout bond with guard bones.

Right: Prototype 3, double ply origami with guard bones. This early prototype used knotted nylon filament for the pivot joint. As a result, the fan flexes like a Slinky. 

About the artwork:  Prototypes 4 and 5B The original drawing of this elegant court lady in her karaginu-mo comes from a picture scroll in the Saiku Historical Museum. As I am unable to read Japanese and haven't found the equivalent link in English, I can't tell you more. However, this monochrome ink-only style is called hakubyo or "white pictures" and was popular for picture scrolls at about the same time period that the sutra fans date from. While I admire hakubyo, I decided to add color to approximate the look of the sutra fans, minus the scriptural text.  Prototype 4 was done with watercolor markers which did not do well when exposed to moisture. Prototype 5A uses the same design, this time rendered in acrylics.

Below: Prototypes 5B and 5C, acrylics on layout bond backed with origami paper, with guard bones.


Prototype 5A:  A gift for a friend, it depicts his kamon (crest)  done in acrylic on origami (red) and layout bond (white).  Prototype 5C: Also intended as a gift, the archer figure was "stolen" from a scene of an archery contest in an early 13th century hand scroll called the Kitano Tenjin engi emaki, then "dressed" in imitation of the intended recipient.

Hutt, Juliana and Alexander, Helene. Ogi: A History of the Japanese Fan (Dauphin Publishing Ltd., London, 1992) ISBN-1-872357-08 3.  Most of the lavish color plates in this book are fans from Edo period and later, however, this yummy art book sent me searching for the oldest extant Japanese fan papers: some 12th century sutra fans.

Murase, Miyeko. Jewel Rivers: Japanese Art From The Burke Collection (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 1993) ISBN 0-917-046-35-8. This 1994 museum exhibition of Japanese works from a private collection includes two fan papers from the Muromachi period. It also contains two 19th century fan paintings of Heian style scenes. Now mounted on panels,  these paintings of poet Fujiwara no Kinto searching for plum blossoms in the snow were clearly once glued together as the front and back of a folding fan. 

Hickman, Money L. Japan's Golden Age: Momoyama (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996) ISBN 0-300-09407-8. Includes a 16th century fan painting of a Jesuit church and a handscroll of women's kabuki from the early 17th century with details of the entertainers holding fans.

Gitter, Kurt A. Japanese Fan Paintings from Western Collections (New Orleans Museum of Art, 1985) ISBN 0-89494-021-X. The lush full color plates are all of post 17th century fan paintings, but certainly worth a look if this subject interests you.

Morris, Ivan, translator. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (New York, Columbia University Press, 1991) ISBN 0-231-07337-2. This chatty, often catty diary of a 10th century lady is a marvelous view over the back fence into the Imperial Court of Heian Japan. You’ll love her or hate her, but you will not be bored. Also of interest is Ivan Morris’ The World of the Shining Prince (Kodansha Globe, 1994) ISBN 1-568-36029-0, which discusses daily life and customs of the Heian court.

Some sutra fans and early Japanese paintings. 

12th century collection of Hoke-kyo sutra fans in the Tokyo National Museum

Another sutra fan.

Traditional Crafts of Japan: Kyoto Folding Fans includes a description of how traditional Kyoto sensu are made.

A hiogi or court fan made of cypress wood laced together with silk.

Hiogi from the Kyoto National Museum
Hiogi from the Kyoto National Museum
Hiogi from the Kyoto National Museum

Muromachi period fan painting from the Kyoto National Museum

Muromachi screen paintings depicting fans, Kyoto National Museum

Momoyama screen painting depicting fans, Kyoto National Museum

Muromachi period mirror with fan motif, Kyoto National Museum

"Painted Fans Mounted on an Screen" by Tawaraya Sotatsu (early 17th c.), Freer Collection

The Freer also owns a number of Edo period fan paintings. Browse the collection at

English language links to Japanese museums:
Kyoto National Museum

Tokyo National Museum

Tokugawa Art Museum

Questions? Comments? Email me!

Copyright Lisa A. Joseph 2005


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