Kamo traditional chest Kamo kiri tansu
Beautiful polished wood, bark like silk
Paulownia’s attractive gentle texture
KamoKiri Tansu are chests of drawers made of paulownia wood and produced in Kamo city in Niigata prefecture. Today about 70% of all paulownia chests made in Japan come from Kamo. The characteristics of KamoKiri Tansu are that they can keep clothes safe from insect pests and humidity and are fire and water resistant, all qualities largely the result of the paulownia wood.
Paulownia planks are so light, flexible and highly hermetical that they are ideal for making perfectly fitting chests. In fact, there is an old story that, one day when a paulownia chest washed away in a flood was opened, despite the dirty water and the mud, the clothes inside were still clean and dry. In addition, the wood does not catch fire easily, even if the surface is burned and carbonized, because the low heat transfer rate is a marked characteristic of this versatile wood. It is ideal in the humid climate of Japan for storing clothes because thanks to such natural chemicals as tannin, paulonin, and sesamin it suppresses bacteria and insect pests, and is resistant to humidity.
In addition to being highly practical, KamoKiri Tansu is warm and beautiful to look at; the white wood bark is likened to silk and the wood grain has a dignified presence. KamoKiri Tansu are still made today by highly skilled artisans.
About 220 years ago, during the Tenmei era in the Edo period, Kouemon Maruya, a cabinet maker made a chest using cedar wood, and this is said to be the origin of KamoKiri Tansu. A little later on the back board of the earliest paulownia chest we find the words, “Purchased in 1814”. Around 1820, paulownia boxes and chests were said to have been carried by boat to Niigata prefecture or the Tohoku district by way of the Kamo and Shinano rivers.
At the beginning of the Meiji period, Kamo Tansu had gradually made their way by ship to the Hokkaido and Tohoku areas; Kamo was becoming famous for the production of paulownia chests. The Kamochoshishiryo (Kamo city’s topography materials), compiled in 1877 attests, “number of chests of drawers: 400, number of oblong chests for clothing: 200 produced” and is suggestive of the prosperity of Kamo. Yashatoso (a type of finishing varnish), which is an important part of the manufacture of the current paulownia chests, was developed at the beginning of the Showa period. KamoKiri Tansu are shipped country wide even today.
General Production Process
- 1. Lumber production
In Kamo, there are many sawmills turning trees into planks, but unlike other production centers every operation from felling to completion of the product is done in the one site. At first, felled trees are cut into planks and naturally dried for 3 years, which requires much land and labor. The timber is constantly turned and left out in the wind and rain to remove the astringency and avoid discoloration and warping.
- 2. Cutting to Size
Experienced artisans classify the planks to the appropriate parts of the chest and assemble them. Artisans need years of experience to select and make use of good planks, which make up only one third of the paulownia planks cut. Planks are sawn giving consideration to the wood grain and overall quality of the wood, this will greatly affect the final chest and focus is given to the layers of the wood grain.
- 3. Assembly
Artisans cut the dovetail tenons to strengthen the joints and make the body robust using wood pegs instead of nails.
- 4. Processing of drawers and doors
Drawers and doors are first made bigger than the outer frames, and then they are planed to size.
- 5. Coating
After adjusting the wood grain, artisans scrape off the softer wood and leave the hard parts. Since the paulownia planks are soft and vulnerable, this uzukurikake process makes them durable and the wood grain stands out. The chest is then brushed with several coats of a mixture of tonoko (polishing powder) and yashanomi (a kind of varnish).
After natural drying, the chest is polished by evenly waxing along the wood grain.
- 6. Attaching metal fittings
To finish the chest, artisans carefully attach the metal fittings including pulls, hinges and locks.