David Thatcher – Japanese Armour Restorer
My first introduction to samurai armour was at the age of eight. Living in London, my primary school had arranged an outing to the Geffrye museum located in Shoreditch just off the Bethnal Green Road. Back in the seventies, the museum held somewhat of a diverse collection or items ranging from vintage toys to Victorian clothing. Japanese armour back then had fallen slightly out of favour with the public eye due to the aftermath of World War Two. Therefore the Geffrye became the secondary host for the Victoria & Albert Museum Samurai Gallery. I can still recall gazing upon an armour, being magnetised by its terrifying appearance, majesty and alien appearance compared to the European knight, this imagery of the samurai would stay with me forever.
By luck, my aunt lived nearby in Stepney, each Saturday my mother would visit her so that they could commence their regular crawl of the famous Roman Road market. Their compulsion to visit every clothes shop and stall granted me the excuse to avoid dying of boredom and wander off to visit the Geffye. I would gaze at the armours for hours upon end. Over the years I became more and more interested in the samurai, their fighting arts and of course their armour.
During my twenties, I had been able to acquire two full suits of, both of which were in a terrible state of the preserve. I attempted to repair and repaint them using boot lacings, modelling putty and enamel paints. The result was pretty convincing for the viewer but looking back with what I know today I feel somewhat guilty about my level of incompetence and naivety of my cosmetic repairs. The study of Japanese martial arts took me to Japan where I was begun to learn the sword arts of iaido and kendo, while in Japan I was again able to visit many museums and discover new armours to notate. Upon my return to the UK, I needed to find a dojo to continue my study of swordsmanship, and by chance, there was a local instructor who was none other than Jock Hopson, the co-author of Samurai Arms and Armour written together with Ian Bottomley. Jock naturally introduced me to Ian and his outstanding collection. Ian and Jock at the time were restoring some armours from an American collection, and as I lived close to Jock’s workshop, I was able to visit and sit on the sidelines and observe his work, gilding and small repairs. Jock was experimenting with urushi and introduced me to his teacher, Miss Miho Kitagawa. I showed an interest in learning about urushi and Jock gave me a spare tube of black urushi to take away and experiment with. I made a small section of a hand guard (tekko) from some mild steel which I hammered out for hours. Having no idea about how to make the ground layers I mixed up some PVA glue with plaster and after a month of rubbing down and applying the urushi, I had an example to return with for review. I remember Miss Kitagawa looking at the piece in disbelief; she asked me if I had done this. I explained that I had and exactly how I had applied the urushi and she seemed very impressed which boosted my confidence levels.
Due to my willingness to learn Miss Kitagawa agreed to become my sensei for urushi and I therefore begun my journey towards learning the traditional arts. I studied the application of urushi for years, learning first how to lacquer bowls and wooden spoons which proved to be a little off track to armour but never the less I studied as instructed and paid attention to the rules. Miho sensei told me, you learn the traditional way first after that do what you want. So the notion of suggesting alternatives and shortcuts was very much stamped out.
Armour incorporates many different effects created with urushi many of which are no longer applicable to the lacquering of tableware. Based on the Edo period writings of Sakakibara Kozan and the many original items that I was acquiring I was able to alter the traditional techniques making them suitable for armour. Even now I spend a lot of time experimenting with mixtures, applications and techniques that will mimic the originals, as examples, variants of tatakinuri stippled effects which are present on kaga works, others have russet iron effects and so on. Old examples are rather unadventurous and mainly black coated, but during the Edo period, there was more desire to wear flamboyant and flashy suits that reflected wealth and status over functionality. With no instruction manual to follow the rediscovery of such techniques is exciting and rewarding.
I’ve worked on many armours over the years, picking up tips and techniques from many well known and established craftspeople. My main work was part-time for friends that had damaged items, but the demand grew, therefore in 2015, I decided to become a full-time restorer working from a custom-built studio workshop in Northamptonshire. I have been very fortunate to have worked on some precious pieces from such schools as the Myochin, Bamen, Saotome, Nagasone and Haruta. My clientele grew from friends to private collectors, dealers and eventually museums.
Learning how to restore Japanese armour for a person that is not a native or resident in Japan is difficult, there is hardly anything in writing that will aid any form of guidance or instruction on the subject. It requires research and handling of hundreds of items of real armour. Most of my understanding of the construction of Japanese armour has come from the examination of damaged items where I have been able to pull apart and the layers and gain an insight into the materials and techniques that were originally used.
Since the publishing of Chukokatchu Seisakuben by Kozan, there has never been another publication that explores original samurai armour in any great detail.
Therefore I have been motivated to produce this website with the aim of providing such an insight for those that are interested in this subject.
I would like to point out that my journey into restoration is one of self-improvement and discovery, I am not in any way deemed to be an expert and am very much the student on the subject, and all mistakes made are my own. I now train in Japan now every year making regular visits to study and learn new Katchushi skills. I would also like to make that point that anything is within reach for those that truly wish to grasp it. Love, motivation, determination and pig stubbornness have been my key to this, what began as a fascination became a profession. For anyone that is on social media I operate a group on Facebook about the craft of armour restoration, please feel free to join it and interact.
I’ve always been fascinated by the samurai warriors of Japan. This interest has taken along a wonderful journey where through the martial arts I have been able to gain a valuable insight into the warrior’s mindset. Since the age of eight, I began studying the budo Japanese arts of Jiu-Jitsu, Jodo, Kendo, Iai-do and Ken-Jitsu. As a young man, I would train every evening and weekend without fail. Over the years I have been able to study under many renowned masters, some of which who have taken me under their wing as a personal student, to whom I am gratefully indebted.
I have won UK National and European championships in the sword arts and have been a member of the British squad for Iaido and Jiu-Jitsu. For me, I feel that the study of budo is very close to the art of restoration in terms of personal discipline and concentration. I also believe that there is honour in repairing armours that once were owned by warriors, and that it brings good karma कर्म.
I am also an avid collector of Japanese arms. My favourite armours are from the sengoku jidai, the age of war. I prefer the basic robust armours used through the Muromachi and Momoyama period to the arty armours of the edo period. Function over flamboyance is my choice.
Working as a restorer I have been able to handle thousands of items of armour, from the high ranking daimyo grades to the lowly ashigaru foot soldiers.
御連絡 CONTACT ME
Please feel free to contact me by phone or email. Callers in person to the studio by appointment only.
Towcester, Northants, UK (Full address withheld for security purposes.)