urushi lacquer

The Use Of Urushi 漆

Lacquer is a material totally unlike the paints, varnishes and so-called ‘lacquers’ used in the West. Real lacquer or urushi is obtained from the sap of the tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum, by making cuts in the trunk and scraping off the viscous sap as it exudes. After filtering and evaporating excess water, the sap forms an aqueous varnish that hardens irreversibly when exposed to warm moist conditions to form a hard, dark brown yet flexible coating that is waterproof and unaffected by solvents, acids and alkalis.

The process of lacquering an armour is a complex and slow process involving multiple coats of ground layers made from raw lacquer mixed with fillers such as rice flour, chopped hemp fibres, clay and powdered stone and finally layers of pigmented intermediate and finishing lacquer. The range of pigments that can be used with lacquer is very limited. Black is obtained using either carbon or by reacting lacquer with iron compounds. Brown and red involve mixing the lacquer with iron oxide or the pigment vermilion. A metallic finish can be obtained by applying gold leaf or dusting gold powder onto wet lacquer.

Various textured finishes were obtained by modelling the base coats before the pigmented top coats were applied. One of the most common was to add very fine particles to brown lacquer to imitate russet iron with none of the attendant problems of further rusting.

urushi tools

The Restoration Path 修復の仕事

My study of urushi covered a wide spectrum of applications. From the artful Maki-e and shibu-nuri techniques to the robust finish required for smooth high gloss. Urushi is unlike any medium I have every worked with and to date I have never been able to find a suitable alliterative that can create the same finish with its hardened yet flexible composition. I have seen other restorers use cashew lacquer due to its self levelling qualities and fast drying capabilities, however I would never recommend or use it on real armour. Natural urushi is able to flex, there is a saying in Japan among katchushi that armour is living, therefore it needs to bend. This really translates to the fact that armour was made from very thin iron, which will bend. Any hardened compound would simply break away from the substrait.

Most of my work involves the use of urushi to the degree that you cannot become an armour restorer without having a in-depth understanding of urushi-nuri. I had to study for a number of years before I gained the confidence to work on armour, and a great number of years have passed until I was happy with the result. I like to divide the use of urushi in armour restoration into two sections, ground and shell. The ground is the foundation, I use a twenty step process where I apply difference grades of sabi-urushi, each grade is polished back to eventually create a smooth surface. Once the surface is prepared I can apply the outer shell, the pure urushi, this again has to be applied very carefully with a brush, each layer is polished back and eventually a deep gloss is obtained.

One of my favourite areas of working with urushi is  recreating the speciall lacquer effects found on armour. These include tataki-nuri which is a stipple effect, tetsu sabiji-nuri, a russet iron effect. I am now working more on the techniques that are common to kaga armours where flour, egg whites and tofu are used to create a wide variety of abstract patterns.

事例紹介 Example 1

This is an example of a Zunari Kabuto that I had to restore. Most of the original lacquer was damaged and the odoshi lacing needed replacing. After consolidating any surface areas I begun to rebuild the ridges and fill any dents with a mixture of kokuso. After which a number of sabi-urushi layers were applied. Finally a special process called tetsu-sabiji-nuri coats the entire helmet to create a russet iron appearance. During this process I add special powders that create a patina to make the lacquer older than it is.  

事例紹介 Example 2

The process of lacquering can be timely and difficult. Each layer once dried has to be cut back with charcoal to remove the brush marks. After serval applications the final stages are polished with special compounds such as dried clay and powdered deer horn. In some cases if requested I can create an aged patina within the layers of the urushi.