Akita cedar sake pail & barrel Akita sugi oke taru
Master craftsmanship turning the circle
Traditional tubs and barrels with the fragrance and warmth of cedar
Since around the late Heian period (11th century), handmade Akita cedar tubs and barrels have been produced from locally grown cedar timber in the cities of Odate and Noshiro of Akita Prefecture. Products made of masame (straight grain) wood and with a bamboo or copper hoop are called oke (tubs) and lidded products made of itame (flat grain) wood are classified as taru (barrels). The beautiful grains are characteristic of these tubs and barrels, which are still made in the time-honored way using the skills passed down through the generations. However, they are not just pleasing to the eye, having superb water absorbency, and the distinctive pleasant cedar fragrance is said to enhance the taste of sake rice wine. They are also very resistant to damp and scarcely shrink in use, qualities which help to make products with little warping. One much appreciated advantage is the wood adjusts the concentration of salt, making them ideal for pickling vegetables.
Around 1744, woodblock printing techniques further improved with the development of a new technique which consisted in adding red or green highlights by hand after the printing (called benizuri-e); the first steps toward the multi-color printing of the Edo period. The main problem, however, was developing the techniques to prevent the misalignment of separate woodblocks, and in those days two colors were the limit.
General Production Process
- 1. Preparing the Timber
Firstly, from the center of a cedar log, using a wedge and hammer, fan-shaped blocks are split to fit the product circumference and depth. The blocks are then further split with a hatchet to make small panels (kure), which are then naturally dried for about 100 days, followed by a further 30 days or so of artificial drying. According to the purpose of the final product, maseme-gure (straight grain panels) or itame-gure (flat grain panels) are prepared.
- 2. Sengari (Shaving)
Using a sen (two-handed special blade), the artisan sits astride an uma workhorse and shaves the prepared kure to the desired size.
- 3. Shojikitsuki (Planing)
A shojiki is a large plane used to align the joints of kure; to complete one tub, 17 to 18 kure are needed. After further planing, a kegata ruler is used to mark out the sizes and angles of the kure, and further planing reduces the kure to the precise dimensions and shapes.
- 4. Kuretate (Assembling Kure)
Kure are secured with bamboo pegs and gradually the tub shape is formed; attention is paid to matching and harmonizing the grain and color of adjacent kure, so that the tubs are both perfectly fitted and pleasing to the eye. A temporary hoop is wrapped around the circumference to prevent any loss of shape to the perfect tub circle.
- 5. Plane Finish
To finish the surface, convex and concave planes with round blades are used to plane the inside and outside of the tub. When planing the inside with a convex plane, the artisan rotates the tub with their feet. Later a groove to fit a base plate is cut on the inside with a kehiki tool.
- 6. Fitting the Hoop and Bottom Plate
After finally fitting the bottom plate and a permanent bamboo hoop, the artisan turns the tub using their hands and feet and tightens the hoop with a mallet. Madake bamboo is the best material for hoops and they need careful shaving to ensure a smooth surface. Finally, the kure are worked and tightened from the outside to complete.
- 6. Glazing
Glazing refers to the application of glaze to pieces that have been through the bisque process. Glaze melts when baked and produces a glass-like film on surfaces, which eliminates permeability and increases hardness. The role of glazing is to decorate pieces by applying color and luster. There are three basic types of glaze: ash glaze, fieldspar glaze and lead glaze. Various other glazes can be produced by adding iron, copper and metals to these basic glazes. The main glazing techniques include complete application, ladle application and spray application.
- 7. Glost firing
Firing carried out at high temperature after glazing is known as glost firing. Pieces are carefully placed inside the kiln, and care is taken in the baking process so that the kiln as a whole has an equal density. The main types of kiln include the climbing kiln, gas kiln, and electric kiln.
- 8. Overglazing
After glost firing has been carried out, pictures and patterns are overglazed using paint. Forms of overglazing include aka-e, overglaze enamels, and five-colored porcelain. Paints mix metals such as iron, copper, cobalt and manganese with the addition or soda or lead, etc. After filling delicate lines, firing is carried out at around 700 to 800 degrees, a temperature even lower than that used for glost firing, so that the colors do not scatter.
- 9. Completion
After the end of the final firing, the pieces are finished with filing.