Iwayado traditional chest Iwayado tansu
Magnificent lacquered furniture with a beautiful wood grain
Dragons, flowers, birds, auspicious pines and bamboo ornaments
What is Iwayado traditional chest ?
Iwayado tansu is a traditional woodwork made in the cities of Oshu and Morioka, Iwate prefecture. Tansu means chest of drawers. In addition to clothing or organization chests, daily use items like tea cabinets, book shelves, and low tables are made. However, in the past, there were interesting chests like one that can double as a staircase or a chest that could be pushed to safety in the event of a fire.
Iwayado traditional chests are distinguished by their elaborate designs and beautiful metal ornamentation on the corners and handles. They come in two types: hand-embossed metal work and Nambu ironware fittings. A single chest of drawers may include sixty to one hundred metal fittings with embossed pictorial designs. In addition, Iwayado tansu is lacquered in one of two different ways: fukiurushi-nuri (repeated lacquering and polishing) and kijiro-nuri (clear lacquering). Both techniques enhance the beautiful wood grain finish, give substance to the furniture, and help the wood develop a rich deep coloring with time and use.
The origin of Iwayado traditional chests is thought to go back to the 1100s, when the Hiraizumi area of Iwate prefecture was thriving under the control of the Fujiwara clan, which supported the local industry, especially chest making. In those days, mainly large furniture like oblong clothing chests were produced. In the 1780s, the lord of Iwayado Castle decided to change the economy from being solely reliant on rice production. He first concentrated on encouraging the skills needed for the production of wooden furniture and the development of lacquer coating. Then he made every effort to produce high quality chests of drawers that are the model of present-day Iwayado tansu. This is when unique chests of drawers like ones with a staircase or wheels attached were produced.
Iwayado traditional chests with embossed metal fittings and ornaments, were initially produced in the 1820s and still much admired today. After entering the Meiji period (1868-1912), even ordinary households had chests of drawers, leading to an increase in demand for lacquered Iwayado tansu with beautiful hand-chased fittings. Although production began to decline in the 1950s, demand for these substantial pieces of furniture has revived in modern times.
General Production Process
- 1. Preparing the timber
Iwayado tansu is renowned for its beautiful wood grains, especially zelkova wood; paulownia, and Japanese chestnut wood. Out of the zelkova trees that have been growing abundantly for centuries in the Kitakami Mountains located in eastern Iwate, those that are around three hundred years old are lumbered. Logged timber is set aside for a few years and then sawn into planks, which are piled up and left in the open-air to dry naturally for several more years. This is an important process to reduce any warps or cracks in the wood. When the planks are fully seasoned, a cutting plan where planks are cut to size with minimum waste is made.
- 2. Joinery and assembly
Cutting joints, planing to size, and assembly all require great skill from the artisan, especially as the main tools are chisels and saws. After the assembly of the main unit, the surface is planed smooth.
- 3. Semi-finishing
The drawers are made during this step. First, the wooden joints are cut and then the surface is planed smooth with a hand plane. The outer frame is assembled, and the bottom board is attached. The drawers are planed until they perfectly fit the main unit, with no irregularity or warping.
- 4. Lacquer coating
The exterior of the chest and drawers is coated with lacquer. Coating with lacquer not only adds beauty and strong presence, but the item's durability is also increased. Lacquering techniques are divided into two types: fukiurushi and kijiro-nuri. In fukiurushi, lacquer is applied with a brush, then polished with a cloth, and repeated a number of times. For kijiro-nuri, the plain wood is smoothed by a whetstone, lacquer mixed with polishing powder is applied, and the item is left to dry before being smoothed again.
Next, raw lacquer is applied and after drying, the chest is smoothed; this process is repeated multiple times. Kijiro lacquer is applied as a bottom, middle and topcoat, left to dry and smoothed. This repetition of lacquering and smoothing gives the wood its beautiful and distinctive transparency.
- 5. Drawing the design
There are two types of ornamental metal fittings: hand-engraved metal fittings and Nambu ironware fittings. For hand-engraving, a design is pasted on to a coated iron or copper plate. The traditional designs of lions, dragons, or arabesque patterns have been kept alive for generations. The Nambu ironware casting technique is about eight hundred years old, and involves pouring molten iron into a mold and leaving it to cool before removing and finishing.
- 6. Engraving
The design is engraved by beating with a chisel from the reverse side of the iron or copper plate.
- 7. Embossing
The engraved plate is embossed with a hammer from the reverse side to give a more three-dimensional finish. Then the metal fittings are cut out and filed and an antirust coat and color is applied.
- 8. Attaching metal fittings
The engraved ornamental fittings and pulling handles are attached to the chest of drawers completing the craft. From the cutting of the tree up to the final decoration, Iwayado tansu are made both beautiful and durable by highly-skilled craftsmen.
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