Kyo laquerware

Kyo laquerware Kyo shikki

Elegant, subtle and durable handicrafts
Tradition handed down from the Heian period


What is Kyo laquerware ?

Kyo lacquerware (called Kyo shikki in Japanese) is produced in the Kyoto area. Since it developed at the same time as the tea ceremony culture, this craft possesses a wabi-sabi* quality. Kyo lacquerware has a thinner and more delicate wood grain than the grain of other lacquerware. This thinness strongly emphasizes the uniquely delicate nature of the craft. Kyo lacquerware is not limited just to dining ware like chopsticks and multi-tiered food boxes, but there are also tea utensils such as small tea caddies, hearth frames, and shelves for the storage of tea utensils. There are also congratulatory gift items such as trays and letter boxes, and furniture items such as cabinets, display cases, and flower vases.
Not only are these beautiful, but they are also highly durable as there is no use of rice glue in the base coat. The high ratio of lacquer in the base coat produces solid, sturdy lacquerware. However, the higher the ratio of the lacquer, the greater the cost and time it takes for lacquer to harden.

*Wabi-sabi are two key aesthetic concepts of wabi or rustic beauty, both man-made and in nature, and sabi or change making things more valuable. They are strongly associated with the art of the tea ceremony.


In Japan, lacquering was established in the Jomon period (14,000–300 BC) but began to flourish in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Kyo lacquerware dates back to 794 and developed alongside the tea ceremony.
Maki-e is one of the decorations of Kyo lacquerware and was produced during the Nara period (710-794). This technique was handed down through the Heian period (794-1185), when techniques such as hiramaki-e, embossed gilt lacquering and scraped maki-e were produced. This is because during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), temples and aristocrats started to employ maki-e artists. The design of maki-e also came to reflect the characteristics of each era. Kyo lacquerware in the Azuchi-Momoyama period was elegant but at the same time featured gorgeous designs that suited the tastes of samurai warriors. In the Edo period (1603-1868), designs retained their gorgeous side but became more delicately balanced, rich with meaning. The designs of Koetsu HONAMI were particularly novel, even influencing other artists like Korin OGATA. The techniques established by Korin OGATA are still in use now as part of the Rimpa school of painting.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wood base production Wood forms the base of this craft. Various wood bases are produced to fit the material: round (or wood turned piece) wood bases for bowls, plate bases for boxes, and bentwood bases for curved forms like magewappa (steam bent wood lunchboxes). The wooden material used in these bases are cypress, cedar, zelkova, horse chestnut, and paulownia.
  2. 2. First lacquer coating A base coating is applied to strengthen the pieces and give a beautiful finish. In order to prevent thinning, the coating is applied over six processes.
    First, in order to reinforce the seams of the wood grain, grooves are made and filled with kokuso liquid (a mixture of lacquer, rice glue, wood grain powder, and cotton). Next, to strengthen the base and prevent wood from absorbing moisture, raw lacquer is applied to the surface, which also increases the strength of the lacquerware. When the raw lacquer has hardened and the base has solidified, linen is applied with lacquer paste to prevent thinning and strengthen the base. After applying fabric, the next step is applying a mixture of polishing powder, soil powder, lacquer, and water which moderates any unevenness or rough texture of material applied in the fabric dressing process and further strengthens the lacquerware base. Once the lacquerware mold has been prepared, the piece is dried by applying a rust mixture of polishing powder, lacquer, and water.
  3. 3. Polishing first coating of lacquer and application of intermediate coating After base coat application, the surface will have a rough feeling so it will be polished with water and grindstone. As the rust hardens, raw lacquer is rubbed in. After drying for at least one day, lacquer in the same color is used to apply a base and intermediate coating, after which grinding is done with charcoal to give a smooth finish. Since time is required until lacquer dries, lightly coating lacquer prevents it from dripping.
  4. 4. Final coating Dust particles are removed from the overcoat lacquer with filter paper, Yoshino paper. Various techniques are used according to different purposes like shinnuri when using black lacquer for the final coat, colored lacquer, and transparent lacquer for pieces that emphasize the beauty of the wood grain.
  5. 5. Removing dust Quills of birds’ feathers are used to carefully remove any dust that has become stuck to the surface. Since dust cannot be removed once it has dried completely, this process is done when the brush marks have settled.
  6. 6. Black lacquer finishing This process produces the glossy surface that is characteristic of lacquer ware. The surface is polished with charcoal, then with oil polishing powder, and lacquer is rubbed on with cotton. These three steps are repeated multiple times and finally the article is carefully polished with canola oil and horn powder.
  7. 7. Decoration Generally, there are three lacquerware decoration techniques: maki-e (gold/silver lacquer), raden (mother-of-pearl), and aogai (blue shell). Maki-e is a technique of applying gold or silver powder on pictures that have been drawn with lacquer. Also, hiramaki-e (flat gold/silver lacquer), takamaki-e (embossed gilt lacquer work), and togidashimaki-e (scraped gold/silver lacquer) are three sub-types of maki-e. Raden is a technique of applying shells with beautiful luster, such as green turban, to a lacquered surface. The aogai technique is the same as the raden technique, except for the fact that it uses thin shells.

Where to Buy & More Information

Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design

Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design

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