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 complex 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 topcoats 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.

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 ever 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.

Most of my work involves the use of urushi. I had to study for a number of years before I gained the confidence to work on armour as a katchushi. 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 special 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.

Some examples of urushi used on armour