Echizen traditional chest Echizen tansu
Beautiful wood grain and magnificent solid structures
Deep lacquer coating and skillful joinery
Echizen Tansu are lacquer coated chests of drawers made in an area around Echizen City and Sabae City, Fukui Prefecture; they are mainly made of Japanese zelkova and paulownia, and decorated with iron fittings. Japanese zelkova, is a hard wood, with excellent durability and a beautiful wood grain, and paulownia has long been valued as a premium material of luxury tansu as it is moisture resistant, and not prone to cracking and warping. After the wood is naturally dried, sashimono-giho (joinery techniques) without using nails, so as to increase their strength, are used to assemble wakugumi (framed) tansu and itagumi (board-assembled) tansu. Natural urushi lacquer is used as a finish. There are three types of urushi: fuki-urushi with a simple texture; shunkei-nuri with a transparent finish ideal for showcasing the beauty of the natural wood grain; and roiro-nuri giving a deep glossy black.
These tansu are renowned for their massive imposing solidity and with use and age the wood develops an attractive antique patina. The protective fittings attached to the corners are heart shaped (inome), and along with embellishing the tansu, they are considered to bring good luck.
In the 7th century, an area known as Koshinokuni extended from present-day Fukui Prefecture into part of Yamagata Prefecture; it also included the present day towns of Noto and Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture known for producing urushi. In addition an area around present-day Echizen City was the kokuhu (the political center of the region). Koshinokuni was naturally a gathering point for administrators, artisans and merchants as seen during the Muromachi and Warring States Period, when the fuchu bugyousho (magistrate's office) of the Asakura family was located in Koshinokuni. Sashimonoshi (joiners) made tea utensils for the family, and sashimono (joinery) workshops prospered in this commercial center.
Tomimasa HONDA became the han-shu (feudal lord) in the Edo Period, and developed the town by attracting a variety of skilled artisans and establishing the basis for a flourishing Echizen Tansu industry drawing upon artisans skilled in wooden joinery, urushi lacquer, and metal fittings. By the mid-Meiji Period, professional tansu artisans played an active part in the commercial life of the region, and in Echizen City, there is still a Tansu Street home to many joiners and furniture stores.
General Production Process
- 1. Sawing and Drying Raw Wood
After felling, the annual rings of the trees are inspected to select the best Japanese zelkova, paulownia, and other woods for Echigo Tansu. Logs of Japanese zelkova and paulownia are sawn to provide solid boards and square timber, and then depending on their quality dried for around three to five years. Freshly sawn wood will contain at least 50% to 60% moisture, and cannot be used without drying, but too little moisture causes later expansion of the wood materials and warping.
- 2. Drawing Plans and Preparing the Timber
A plan of the tansu is drawn on paper and artisans work to the design. Dry wood is checked for woodworm and scratches, and sawn to the plan size.
- 3. Lateral Jointing, Marking, and Determining Dimensions
Boards used for the top board and similar are jointed in the depth direction. In order to ensure correct assembly, guide marks are drawn in ink on the cut ends, which are cross sections of the wood. In Echizen Tansu, the thickness of boards is specified. A width seen from the front of a frame is called mitsuke, and a depth of a part that can be seen from the front is called mikomi. The front and back surfaces of the boards are equally planed with a hand feed plane and a plane so that the boards are of the specified thickness.
- 4. Joint Process, Finish Planing, Temporary Assembly
Certain types of joints are always used for specific purposes: frames are joined by hirahozotsugi (mortise and tenon joints), and onihozo (mortise and tenon joint with wedges), which allow different thickness components to be joined easily without nails; and drawers use arigumi (dovetail joints) with hozo (tenons) that are wider at the end and excellent in tensile strength.
In the joining process, a pair of a nagate (longer board) and a tsumate (shorter board) are selected from the wood materials and marked. In order to prevent the wood materials from being planed too much, finishing lines are drawn with a pencil, and the wood materials are hammered in accordance with the lines to make tome. The wood materials are sawn along the finishing lines with a margin of around 1 mm, and the remaining sections are precisely planed by chisel or plane. The whole piece is temporarily assembled to check and correct any errors.
- 5. Final Finish Planing, Undercoating
After checking the whole appearance of the temporary assembly, the final finish planing is performed taking the wood down to a uniform thickness to enhance the beauty of the piece after lacquering. Urushi lacquering is divided into under-, middle- and over-coating; the undercoating determines the quality of the piece and coating and polishing are repeated a number of times.
- 6. Final Assembly
All the components are assembled for a final check.
- 7. Adjusting Unfinished Woodwork, Base Coating, Middle Coating, Overcoating
When adjusting the unfinished woodwork, it is polished before coating in order to eliminate any minor surface roughness and allow the coating to be applied evenly. Middle coating performed on the adjusted base ensures beautiful overcoating. There are three techniques of lacquer coating in Echizen Tansu.
In fuki-urushi-nuri, unrefined kiurushi (raw lacquer) is repeatedly applied and wiped off before finishing with a coating of sukiurushi (transparent lacquer). In Shunkei-nuri, wood filling made with polishing powder or red iron oxide is used to fill concave sections of uncoated wood and make the surface smooth. Next undercoating by applying sabiurushi obtained by mixing water-kneaded polishing powder with kiurushi is carried out. The surface is then planed smooth, and sukiurushi, a fine quality raw lacquer slowly heated to ensure greater transparency, is applied. In ro-nuri, undercoating is done with sabiurushi, and overcoating with black roirourushi, followed by uwanuri-togi (polishing after overcoating) and dozuri (surface polishing).
- 8. Attaching Fittings
Iron is beaten out with a metal hammer in the tanzo forging technique. A paper stencil is pasted to an iron plate beaten out on the hearth, and then cut with a cold chisel; the surface is adjusted with a file. The cutting and filing are performed manually and is a traditional part of making Echizen Tansu. Rivets are driven into knobs, and washers engraved with chrysanthemums and lotus flower patterns are attached to add elegance to the tansu. The heart-shaped fittings peculiar to Echizen Tansu are an essential part of the design. The fittings are heated, and fired with raw silk. After a final check and polish the piece is ready.