Kasukabe traditional paulownia chest Kasukabe kiri tansu
Graceful simplicity and wood grain
Warm appearance and the texture of wood
Kasukabe Kiri-tansu (paulownia chests of drawers) are masterpieces of traditional woodwork made in an area around Saitama City and Kasukabe City, Saitama Prefecture. The paulownia used to make Kasukabe Kiri-tansu has excellent moisture-barrier and flame-retardant properties, and is light in weight compared to other woods. Paulownia wood expands when the weather is humid and contracts when dry, this property makes it ideal for safely storing clothes, which are badly affected by humid conditions. Paulownia is also renowned for being flame-retardant making Kasukabe Kiri-tansu an excellent choice for storage compared to chests made of other woods.
Kasukabe Kiri-tansu are distinguished by their simple design based on the straight lines of wood, and by not using iron nails, the feeling of a natural wood article is carefully preserved. The warm design utilizing the beautiful wood grain of paulownia still continues to be loved by many people today.
According to a widely-accepted story, the origins of Kasukabe Kiri-tansu are found among a group of artisans building the Nikko Toshogu shrine from 1624 to 1644 that settled in Kasukabe, and started to make small boxes.
When Kasukabe Kiri-tansu were first made, many artisans made them only in the quiet farming season as a supplementary income, and there were only a few joiners who made Tansu fulltime. However, everything changed around 1830 with the opening up of the Furutone and Edo Rivers to the transport of goods to Edo, the prosperous capital city of Japan. At that time, there were an increasing number of joiners who were specialized in making Kiri-tansu.
In the Meiji period, with improved transportation, the market was expanded to a wider area, including Osaka, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, beyond Tokyo resulting in Kasukabe Kiri-tansu becoming known across the whole country. At present, the traditional form of Kasukabe Kiri-tansu still continues to find a place in modern life as an elegant interior accessory.
General Production Process
- 1. Cutting Raw Timber
Paulownia of excellent quality is grown across the Tohoku region, and wood mainly from Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture is used as the raw material of Kasukabe Kiri-tansu. Other than paulownia, Japanese big-leaf magnolia and mulberry wood grown in Hokkaido are also used as supplementary materials. Trees are carefully inspected and felled ready for sawing. Very careful consideration is given to ensure the best use of each log. The thickness of the wood planks is 9 to 21 mm for namiki (wood used for side plates and drawer cases) and 5.5 mm for masaki (straight-grained wood) which has been divided into four pieces.
- 2. Drying
The cutout materials are placed on top of each other in a double cross, and exposed to wind and rain to dry naturally for three to four months. Natural drying is important to remove aku (substances that cause discoloration) from the wood; the process brings out the beauty of the flesh color of the wood peculiar to Kasukabe Kiri-tansu.
- 3. Preparing the Timber
The timber is cut to size a little larger than the actual dimensions. At this time, straight-grained boards used on the surface of Tansu are adjusted so the lines of wood grain match up. This adjustment allows Kasukabe Kiri-tansu to be finished with a balanced and beautiful wood grain.
In this preparation stage, the boards are marked to ensure they are arranged correctly for the beautiful finish.
- 4. Warpage correction
Any warped boards are heated over a fire one by one, and warps are corrected with a plane. This task is delicate and requires a good eye and much skill; it is said to require at least three years to master the warpage correction technique.
- 5. Planing
When the warps have been removed the cutout boards are still a little larger than the actual dimensions. The boards are planed until they fit to size.
- 6. Assembly
After planning to size the separate components are assembled. Nails made of strong and durable deutzia wood are a feature of Kasukabe Kiri-tansu. The wood nails are strong, but obviously not as strong as metal, so holes are first drilled in the boards and the wooden nails tapped home.
- 7. Finishing
The assembled Tansu is adjusted by using water to correct any warping. With careful adjustments, drawers and doors can be opened and closed smoothly to ensure everything is easy to use and works well; any further fine adjustment is made with a plane.
Only now the chest is perfect, is it considered ready for uzukuri coloring which will really bring out the simplicity of the wood grain; this is followed by an application of polishing powder mixed with a dye called yasha. After the coloring, the Tansu is waxed for water resistance and given a final polishing.
Fittings are attached and an overall adjustment is made to add that special finishing touch before the Kasukabe Kiri-tansu is declared ready for many lifetimes of work.