A One Day Apprenticeship

Photo:  Shin'ichi Shioyasu
When I was in Wajima last June, I spent a day working in the Shioyasu Kobo workshop (Snapshot 9:  Inspired 7th July 2015).  It was an eye-opener in many ways but extraordinarily satisfying.

In the post about that day’s work I gave a brief outline of my experience but I felt it would be a good idea to explain in more detail exactly what I did and pass on any thoughts that occurred to me at the time and subsequently.

Masahiko Sakamoto, sitting at the back of the picture, explained what I was to do and showed me how to do it.  He also suggest that I might use a flat lacquer brush to begin with but to try using a spatular when I was ready.

Flat boxed hair brushes are used a good deal.  They can cover a wide area with one sweep and the lacquer is forced into the pores of the wood, but this is something which a spatular does perhaps better.

Brushes made of horse hair are also used, especially for the technique known as tsuri-urushi or fuki-urushi, literally a “brush on” or “rub on wipe off” application method.  This technique can be used on small items like soup bowls just as easily as on large pieces of furniture.

That day, however, I was going to apply a flexible, openly woven cotton cloth to the back of a small hand mirror.  This is done to make items with a wooden core more robust and is a feature of Wajima lacquerware.

Top:  Finished blanks waiting to be put in a curing cabinet for the lacquer to harden.
From left to right:  Sprung reverse calipers with a mirror blank attached.  Some blanks.  A finger stall used wet to smooth out any wrinkles in the cloth.  A pool of lacquer from which a spatula can be charged.  Two wide spatulas for spreading lacquer and one thin narrow spatula used to lift a piece of cloth onto a mirror blank. Foreground:  Reinforcing cloth cut to size to cover the back of the mirror.
The equipment I used is consistent with the job of preparing a ground, onto which a number of coats of lacquer are subsequently applied.  At this stage the first thing to do was to cut some pieces of cloth to cover the back of the mirror.

Spreading a patch of lacquer to roughly match the size of the cloth.
The cloth is ready to be placed on the patch of lacquer.  A mirror blank attached to the sprung reverse caliper or clamp awaits the cloth.
Then, I spread out a patch of lacquer on the glass-topped workbench to roughly match the size of the cloth before placing the cloth on the patch of lacquer.  Next I applied more lacquer to its upper surface.

The cloth is laid on the patch of lacquer and charged with more lacquer until the blue of the cloth is hidden.
The next stage proved a little difficult to master at first.  I had to lift the lacquer charged cloth off the glass worktop with the thin narrow spatular and place the loose end of the cloth on one end of the back of the mirror blank.  It was then possible to lower the cloth gently down.

The cloth is laid on the back of the mirror and pressed down with a spatula and then smoothed out with the wet finger stall.  Excess cloth is then trimmed off following the shape of the mirror blank.
The cloth, of course, overlapped the mirror back and any wrinkles could then be flattened out with the narrow spatular.  Next, I wet the finger stall, which was on the index finger of my right hand, and smoothed out the cloth while also applying some pressure to make sure the cloth had completely adhered to the lacquer charged back of the mirror.

When lacquer is tapped from a tree it is a milky-grey.  After being refined it is a dark caramel colour but when disturbed, it turns the colour of a creamy caramel.
Finished blanks waiting to be placed in the curing cabinet.
After roughly trimming the cloth to the shape of the mirror back, it could be released from the reverse sprung calipers and laid on a board ready to be placed in a curing cabinet.  With a temperature of 25˚C and roughly 80% humidity in the box, the lacquer would harden.  And this is where my work finished.

While I was working I puzzled over the fact that true lacquer in its raw state contains some moisture and yet repels water in both its liquid and hardened state.  It can be diluted, however, with pure turpentine and some other spirits.  I am no chemist and there is much I still do not understand about this natural product.

The use of a reinforcing cloth seemed to me to be rather like a mordent, which is used when dyeing cloth.  In simple terms a mordent provides a bond between the dye and the textile.  Although lacquer will adhere to a piece of wood, the reinforcing cloth strengthens the carcass and provides a key for the subsequent layers of lacquer.

Making batches of items may be a little monotonous but it does have its advantages.  It is perhaps obvious to say that repeating a process means that we become better at doing it, and can as a consequence correct any mistakes or inconsistencies.

Working as a photographer for a Japanese magazine, I was seldom afforded such a luxury.  Sometime I had to resort to taking many photographs to be sure of producing a useable and pleasing shot.  Although I was completely familiar with the equipment, each location was a “first” and quite often the circumstances were never to be repeated.  I was required to get it right and experience gained at one location could not necessarily be reused at another.  I was in a sense always flying by the seat of my pants.  An unenviable situation really.

Having visited many craft workshops in Japan I have always been impressed by the ingenuity of craftspeople.  In many cases they “invent” something—like sprung reverse calipers or clamps—on the spur of the moment to deal with a situation.  Mind you, this may actually be a common factor amongst all kinds of creative people all over the world.

The Shioyasu Kobo was no different to others I have visited over many years, in that the staff display an unpretentious dedication to their work and have the kind of work ethic that many would say is envied the world over.

I do feel, however, that the dedication manifested is driven towards perfecting a skill or process per se.  Is this a bad thing?  Of course not.  Nevertheless, it does sometimes seem to stunt avenues of creative advancement, making the creation and development of “new traditions” much more difficult.  Fostering traditions is not a bad thing in itself but is dangerous.  Inevitably people want to see something “new” even though they may applaud tradition.

Kirin Beer Building, Osaka, by Shin Takamatsu.  Heroic architecture.
I must acknowledge, however, that there are a number of out and out avant-garde craftspeople as well as other creative people in Japan, too.  Some of the most “heroic” architecture of the last 50 years, for instance, has been designed by Japanese architects, so that spirit of adventure is there and need not compromise a search for technical perfection.  In truth is should not compromise any search for perfection of any kind.

There are in fact such adventurous individuals amongst the lacquer community working in Wajima, about whom I have yet to report.  Nevertheless, I do not wish to belittle or sneer at all those highly dedicated craftspeople who are maintaining an extremely high level of skill in their work.  Their pieces of craftwork are being used on a daily basis in homes up and down Japan, while also being so highly praised abroad.  As I have said once before, much of the lacquerware produced in Japan is beyond civilisation—it goes far beyond what is required in quality and function.

The National Trust in the UK is adamant about only using materials and skills consistent with the age of a building or monument needing repair.  This is undoubtedly a good thing and completely understandable as long as the materials and skills are still extant.

This approach is totally acceptable and appropriate for the sake of authenticity.  But there are some craftspeople even in the UK who insist on not only using traditional skills, methods and materials but also use traditional designs.  I would say by all means learn from the past but there is no real need to stubbornly reproduce furniture, for example, unless it is for the purposes of authenticity.

Which is the right course to follow?  Of course, there is no absolute answer to this dilemma.  We must believe in what we think is right.  Nevertheless, in the movie Kung Fu Panda, Master Oogway says “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery but today is a gift.  That is why it’s called the present”.  Make your choice.  Enjoy the present and go forward cognisant of the past.

Daitokuji Temple, Kyoto.  The past is the present and a future to be.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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