Woodworking with a lathe
No time or effort is spared in producing Kawatsura lacquerware, starting with the stage of creating the initial wooden block. Kawatsura is renowned for bowls and other rounded pieces from wood prepared with the traditional method of smoking and drying. After the piece has its approximate shape formed, it is placed in low-temperature smoke—gentle on the wood—to reduce cracking and warping, and to increase resistance to water and insects. The technique of fumigation derives from the ancestral wisdom of Akita Prefecture, where smoked food is a longstanding tradition. The wooden chips emanating from the process are recycled to the fullest extent—the reflection of a strong ecological spirit. The artisan who takes the wood after it is dried and works it on the lathe is the kijishi, who utilises handmade planes, templates, and other utensils to scrape, whittle and shave down the raw wood into a beautiful shape and smooth surface in a matter of moments. What you see is truly a product of master craftsmanship.
Selecting and cutting the wood
The optimum type of wood for round lacquerware pieces is beech or Japanese horse chestnut. Virgin wood is first cut into blocks matching the measurements of the piece to be produced. A notable characteristic of Kawatsura is the yokobiki style of cutting the raw wood at right angles to the grain, which yields stronger lacquerware pieces that are less vulnerable to cracking.
Rough “grinding” or shaping
Turning a lathe, the artisan carves the wooden piece into a coarse, approximate shape.
In the drying room, the rough-shaped piece of wood is smoke-dried very slowly at low temperatures. After two to three months in that smoky condition, the wood is left to rest for one month or so.
The raw wooden blocks for use as lacquerware bowls are first smoke-dried for several months in a special fumigation chamber.
Final “grinding” or shaping
The master artisan first places an iron template matching the shape of the final lacquerware piece on the lathe, which is then turned. While tracing the template, the artisan uses various long hand planes to fashion the exact shape of the block. In the case of a small-lot production, however, the artisan does not use a template as reference, but instead shapes the wood freehand. Lastly, he or she polishes the surface of the wood to a smooth finish using paper, a scraper, or a similar tool.
The artisan follows the contours of a metal template (center of photo) affixed to the work table, letting it guide the plane (held in both hands) that is used to whittle down the wooden piece, affixed to the lathe (bottom right of photo), as he or she turns it.
The level of veteran artisans’ techniques is so sophisticated that some can even shape the piece freehand.