Applying urushi, from the undercoats to the outer layer
The smooth texture of lacquerware is arguably the central part of its attractiveness. The rich, soft texture of Kawatsura lacquerware and the warmth of its luster are the result of a unique production technique known as hananuri (flower coating), the finish of which is realized by applying the urushi without having to burnish or polish it. A sophisticated technique is required to apply the urushi smoothly and evenly without leaving any brush marks, with meticulous attention paid to prevent dust from accumulating during the production process. It is vital for the initial piece of bare wood to be selected properly and made more robust by filling in any defects in the wood to reinforce it, after which various undercoats (substrate layers) are applied and dried repeatedly, wearing down the rough edges, so to speak. One cannot appreciate how much toil and effort have gone into a lacquerware piece just by looking at its completed state, which exudes both the beauty and strength of a flower.
Applying wood putty
Since a piece of raw wood is made up of small tubes known as trachea, they must be filled in with wood putty—composed of a kneaded mixture of crude urushi, rice glue and powdered wood shavings—before the piece is to become lacquerware. If a piece of wood contains defects that are larger than normal trachea, the “dough” of the wood putty is first made firmer before being applied. After drying, the wood is sanded down with sandpaper, resulting in a rough surface that makes it easier for urushi to be applied in the next step. Thereafter, the steps of drying and polishing each layer are repeated in each stage of the production process until the final urushi coating is applied.
Reinforcing the wood and applying the ground coating of urushi
Urushi is applied over the whole surface of the piece of wood and left to sink in, preventing moisture from seeping in. A mixture of crude urushi and a polishing powder (made up of a moistened fine soil dust) is then kneaded and applied to the entire surface of the wood, reinforcing the piece further in a process called sabitsuke. Next, a ground coating of urushi is applied atop the sabitsuke layer, thereby affixing it, in a process called jinuri. That ends the various steps involved in applying the ground coating.
Seen in chronological order from upper left to lower right, several layers of ground urushi coating are applied to the wood.
Applying the intermediate urushi coating
The oil-free urushi to be used in the intermediate layers of coating is first filtered through traditional Japanese washi paper to remove its impurities, then applied evenly over the whole surface of the wood. This is repeated two times, after which the piece is left to dry for two to three weeks until the final coating is applied, allowing the urushi to sink in firmly.
Applying the final urushi coating
An oily layer of the best-quality urushi is liberally spread over the whole surface of the piece. If the urushi starts to flow or drip off, the artisan flips the piece repeatedly at steady intervals until the urushi hardens evenly. This final coating of urushi is called the hananuri (flower coating). As the coating attains its finish without the surface being polished, the oil in the urushi becomes even more lustrous, giving the piece its trademark urushi gloss.
Various blends of urushi pigment are used for the upper surface layer, offering different modes of color expression.
Before the surface layer is applied, the urushi is strained through traditional washi paper to remove dust and other impurities.
Before applying the final (upper) coat, the artisan uses a wooden spatula-like instrument to repeatedly stroke the brush dipped in urushi, so as to completely remove any dust or other impurities.