Nagoya traditional paulownia chest Nagoya kiri tansu
Beautiful paulownia and high-quality materials
Traditional techniques ensure decades of use
Nagoya Kiri Tansu (paulownia chests of drawers) are masterpieces of traditional woodwork made in an area around Kasugai City and Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. Nagoya Kiri Tansu are traditional craftwork originating from when Nagoya Castle was built in 1610; they are a popular and indispensable item for dowries. Nagoya, in particular is known for its regional custom of spending large sums of money on dowries. For this reason, Nagoya Kiri Tansu have been much appreciated as luxurious articles perfect as gifts for such auspicious occasions.
Nagoya Kiri Tansu are around 20 cm wider than the Tansu of other regions and have a luxurious and splendid finish with gold leaf paintings on the surface and fittings chased with gold and silver. Paulownia is an ideal wood for chests which can be used for generations as they are heat and moisture proof and repel insects; indeed some families are still using their paulownia chests of drawers which were made some 200 years ago. Nagoya Kiri Tansu, much loved for many generations, were designated as a traditional craft by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry in 1981.
In olden times Tansu were not needed since common folk did not have any extra clothes to store; shelves first appeared as furniture for storing kitchen utensils in the Kamakura Period, and isho tansu (wardrobes) finally started to be made in the Edo Period. In the 17th century, as the demand for cotton fabrics and the like rapidly increased, more clothes were made giving rise to the need for storage chests.
It is commonly said Nagoya Kiri Tansu were first made by artisans building Nagoya Castle. After the Tokugawa shogunate unified the whole country, society stabilized and trade and commerce prospered; with more money to spend the demand for high-quality clothes increased, resulting in the spread of high-quality Tansu as furniture for storage. In Nagoya, high-quality Tansu used to be an indispensable item for dowries, although today this custom is slowly dying out; there is also the current problem of a shortage of successors for the artisans to pass on their traditional skills.
General Production Process
- 1. Drying and Sawing
Each Nagoya Kiri Tansu is made from start to finish by just one artisan and it takes about a month; the work includes as many as 134 processes. The first task after felling the tree is drying, this may take one or two years after which the wood is sawn into planks, which are then dried for another six to twelve months. It is important to make sure the wood is exposed to rain, as this removes aku (substances that cause discoloration) and helps prevent the wood from warping in the later stages of production.
- 2. Preparing the Timber
Paulownia wood has an infinite variety of attractive color patterns, and after careful inspection planks will be cut for drawers and doors, keeping in mind the final chest and the wood grain patterns; ideally the front of the work will look as if it is cut from one piece of wood with well-matched grain.
- 3. Warpage Correction
Being a relatively soft and supple wood any warping is corrected by gently warming the paulownia boards over a fire. At this stage the wood is selected according to strict criteria so as to improve the quality of the finished chest.
- 4. Joining
Several boards can be joined to make one board. Surfaces to be joined are planed smooth and coated with glue and then bound and held together while drying naturally.
- 5. Making the Body
The joined boards are assembled. The technique called hozokumi (mortise and tenon) is used; a tongue and hole are cut and mated. The life of a Tansu is determined by the quality of the assembly, and the skillful artisan will spend a long time carefully cutting joints and assembling the pieces; any mistake or rushing in this stage will ruin the whole chest. Once the chest is assembled Japanese cedar pegs are used to strengthen its rigidity.
- 6. Making the Drawers
Drawers are made after the body is made. A bottom board is fitted into a frame to complete the assembly of a drawer.
- 7. Finishing
Fine adjustments are made by a final planing of the whole body. The surface is also polished with a scrubber-like tool made of grassroots called an uzukuri to bring out the wood grain of outstanding beauty. Polishing powder is mixed into a liquid made by boiling the seeds of yashabushi (Japanese green alder) in water, and the mix is applied to the body with a brush as a stain. The chest is given two coats and then waxed to protect and polish the wood.
- 8. Attaching Fittings
Fittings taking into account the proportions of the chest are carefully attached as the final finishing. The Nagoya Kiri Tansu is given a thorough inspection to ensure all the draws are working smoothly and there are no flaws or rough edges.