Echizen traditional chest Photo:Echizen City

Echizen traditional chest Echizen tansu

Beautiful wood grain and magnificent solid structures
Deep lacquer coating and skillful joinery


What is Echizen traditional chest ?

Echizen Tansu are lacquer coated chests of drawers made around Echizen City and Sabae City of Fukui Prefecture. They are mainly made of Japanese zelkova and paulownia, and decorated with iron fittings and lacquer. Japanese zelkova is a hard wood with excellent durability and a beautiful wood grain, and paulownia has long been valued as a premium material for luxury chests of drawers as it is moisture resistant, and less prone to cracking and warping. After the wood is naturally dried, the wooden parts are assembled without using nails. This joinery technique increases the strength of the chest and is used to assemble wakugumi (framed) tansu and itagumi (board-assembled) tansu. Natural urushi lacquer is used for lacquering, and there are three different ways of lacquering: fuki-urushi brings out a simple texture, shunkei-nuri is using a transparent lacquer which brings out the beauty of the natural wood grain, and roiro-nuri is using a deep glossy black urushi lacquer. Echizen Tansu are renowned for their massive solidity, and the wood develops rich patina by being used over the years. The heart shaped protective fittings attached to the corners called inome are charms against evil spirits. These unique fittings are also an attractiveness of Echizen Tansu.


Echizen traditional chest - History Photo:Echizen City

In the 7th century, an area known as Koshinokuni extended from present-day Fukui Prefecture into part of Yamagata Prefecture. It also included Noto and Kaga in Ishikawa Prefecture which are areas known for producing urushi. In addition, as the area around present-day Echizen City was the political center of the region, many cultures and technologies gathered in this area. Koshinokuni was naturally a gathering point for administrators, artisans and merchants as seen during the Muromachi and Warring States Period, when the magistrate's office of the Asakura family was located there. Cabinetmakers or joiners called sashimonoshi in Japanese, made tea utensils for the family, and sashimono workshops prospered in this commercial center. When Tomimasa HONDA became the feudal lord in the Edo Period, he gathered a variety of skilled artisans to develop the town, including those that were skilled in wooden joinery, urushi lacquering, and metal fittings, which resulted in establishing the base for a flourishing Echizen Tansu industry. 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 street full of joiners and furniture stores.

General Production Process

Echizen traditional chest - General Production Process Photo:Echizen City

  1. 1. Sawing and drying The tree rings of the raw wood logs are inspected and the best logs are selected. Japanese zelkova and paulownia are mainly used for Echigo Tansu. The logs are sawn into solid boards and square timber and are dried. Freshly sawn wood contains at least 50% to 60% of moisture and cannot be used without drying, but too little moisture causes later expansion of the wood materials and warping. Therefore the wood is dried for three to five years depending on its moisture content.
  2. 2. Drawing plans and preparing the timber A plan of the tansu is drawn on paper and artisans work to the design. The dried wood is checked for worm holes and scratches, and sawn to the designated thickness and width based on the plan.
  3. 3. Lateral jointing, marking, and dimensioning Boards used for the top board and the like are jointed. In order to ensure correct assembly, guide marks are drawn in ink on the cut ends. The thickness of the boards are specified for Echizen Tansu. The width seen from the front of a frame is called mitsuke, and the depth of the part that can be seen from the front is called mikomi. The front and back surfaces of the boards are equally planed with a planer so that the boards become the specified thickness.
  4. 4. Joint process, finishing cut and temporary assembly Certain types of joints are used for specific purposes: frames are joined by mortise and tenon joints without using nails. Flat mortises and mortises with wedges are used. This allows different thickness components to be joined easily. For drawers, dovetail joints with tenons that are wider at the end and have high tensile strength are used. In the joining process, a pair of a long board and short board are selected from the wood materials and are marked. In order to prevent excessive planing of the wood materials, finishing lines are drawn with a pencil, and the wood materials are hammered in accordance with the lines. The wood materials are then sawn along the finishing lines with a margin of about 1 mm, and the remaining sections are precisely cut with a chisel. The whole piece is temporarily assembled to check and correct any errors.
  5. 5. Final finish planing and base coating After checking the whole appearance of the temporary assembly, the surface of the wood is planed as a final finish planing. The beauty of the finished lacquered piece is enhanced by taking the wood down to a uniform thickness. The urushi lacquering process is divided into base coating, intermediate coating and top coating. As the base coating determines the quality of the piece, lacquering and polishing are repeated a number of times.
  6. 6. Final Assembly All the components are assembled for a final check.
  7. 7. Fixing unfinished woodwork, base coating, intermediate coating, and top coating The unfinished woodwork is polished before coating in order to eliminate any minor surface roughness and to allow the coating to be applied evenly. Applying the intermediate coating on the smoothened base ensures beautiful top coating. There are three techniques of lacquer coating in Echizen Tansu. Fuki-urushi-nuri is applying raw lacquer, wiping off and repeating this process before finishing with a coating of transparent lacquer. Shunkei-nuri is using polishing powder or red iron oxide to fill concave sections of uncoated wood and making the surface smooth. Next a mixture of water-kneaded polishing powder and raw lacquer is applied as a base rust lacquer coating. The surface is then polished smooth, and transparent lacquer made by slowly heating fine quality raw lacquer is applied. Ro-nuri is applying a rust lacquer base coating, and overcoating with black roiro lacquer, followed by whetting and surface polishing with charcoal powder.
  8. 8. Attaching metal fittings Iron is beaten out with a metal hammer. This is called forging. A paper stencil is pasted to the iron plate beaten out on the hearth, then cut with a chisel, and finally the surface is smoothened with a file. This whole process is done by hand, and doing this manually is an indispensable condition for 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 unique 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.

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