Iwayado traditional chest Iwayado tansu
Magnificent lacquered furniture with beautiful wood grain
Lavishly ornamented with dragons, flowers and birds, and auspicious pines and bamboos
What is Iwayado traditional chest ?
Tansu means a chest of drawers and Iwayado Tansu are masterpieces of traditional woodwork made in the Esashi Ward of Oshu City, and in Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture. In addition to chests of drawers for storing clothing and the like, the present-day furniture range includes tea cabinets, book shelves, and low tables; however, in earlier times, a variety of very interesting chests were made some with other functions such as a chest that can be used as a staircase, ship’s chests used as a safe box for keeping valuables, or even wheeled chests that could be pushed to safety in the event of a fire.
Iwayado Tansu are distinguished by their elaborate designs and beautiful metal ornamentation in the form of corners, handles, and the like. They come in two types: hand-chased metal work and Nambu ironware fittings. A single chest of drawers may include 60 to 100 metal fittings with beautifully embossed pictorial designs; they are truly magnificent pieces of furniture. In addition, Iwayado Tansu is lacquered, in one of two different ways: fuki-urushi-nuri (repeated lacquering and polishing) and kijiro-nuri (clear lacquering); both techniques enhance the beautiful wood grain finish and give substance to the furniture and with time and use and polishing the wood develops a rich deep coloring.
In the 1100s, the Hiraizumi area was thriving under the Fujiwara clan, and at that time Fujiwara no Kiyohira encouraged industry, especially chest making; this is considered the origin of Iwayado Tansu. In those days, large-sized furniture such as oblong chests for clothing were mainly produced. In the 1780s, the middle of the Edo period, Iwaki Muramasa, the lord of Iwayado Castle, decided to reform 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; he made every effort to produce high quality chests of drawers that were to be the model of the present-day Iwayado Tansu. It was at this time that the characteristic chests of drawers such as those used as staircases, on ships, or with wheels were produced.
The 1820s saw the production of the first chased metal fittings and ornaments, which are still much admired today. After entering the Meiji period (1868-1912), chests of drawers became popular in ordinary households, leading to an increase in demand for lacquered Iwayado Tansu with beautiful hand-chased fittings. Although at one point in the 1950s production declined, demand for these substantial pieces of traditional 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 are also used often for interiors. Zelkova trees have been growing abundantly for centuries in the Kitakami Mountains, and trees often aged around 300 years old are felled. Logged timber is first left 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 later warps or cracks in the wood. When the planks are fully seasoned, a cutting plan is worked out with minimum waste and planks are cut to size.
- 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
In this stage, the drawers are made. Firstly, joints are cut and then the surface is planed smooth. 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. Urushi (Lacquer) Coating
The outside of the chest and drawers is coated with lacquer. Lacquer coating gives beauty and strong presence as well as providing durability. Lacquering techniques are divided into two types: fuki-urushi and kijiro-nuri. In fuki-urushi, lacquer is applied with a brush, followed by polishing with a cloth; this process is repeated a number of times. In kijiro-nuri, the plain wood is smoothed by a whetstone, on which lacquer mixed with polishing powder is applied, and then left to dry before being smoothed again.
Next, refined lacquer is applied and after drying, the chest is smoothed; this process is repeated. As a final coat, kijiro lacquer is applied, left to dry and smoothed; it is this repetitive lacquering and smoothing that gives the wood its beautiful and distinctive transparency, so typical of Iwayado Tansu.
- 5. Making Metal Fittings (1): Drawing the Design
There are two types of ornamental metal fittings: hand-chased fittings and Nambu ironware fittings. The Nambu ironware casting techniques are some 800 years old, and involve pouring molten iron into a mold, leaving it to cool before removing and finishing. In hand-chasing, firstly a design is pasted on a coated iron or copper plate. The traditional designs of lions, dragons, arabesque patterns or the like have been preserved and passed down with great care through the generations.
- 6. Making Metal Fittings (2): Chasing
From the reverse side of the iron or copper plate, the design is shaped by beating with a hammer. On the front side of the plate, lines are cut to raise and animate the pictorial design.
- 7. Making Metal Fittings (3): Embossing
The chased 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 before applying an antirust coat and color.
- 8. Attaching Metal Fittings
Chased ornamental fittings and pulling handles are attached to the chest of drawers to complete. From the cutting of the tree through to the final decoration, Iwayado Tansu are a testament to the highly-skilled craftsmen who make such substantial, beautiful, and durable furniture, which will certainly be passed on as family heirlooms.
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