Sendai traditional chest Sendai tansu
Dragons, lions, and peony, magnificent metal ornamentation
Superb lacquered furniture with a deep wood grain
Sendai Tansu are chests of drawers made in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture.
Sendai Tansu are usually made of Japanese chestnut, cedar, and zelkova wood, and they are renowned for their highly ornamented iron fittings and beautiful urushi (lacquer) coating, which give these furniture pieces a strong and commanding presence. The making of Sendai Tansu involves three crafts: carpentry with no nails or screws; lacquerwork to bring out the beauty of the wood grain; and the metal chasing of the intricate designs. To complete a single chest of drawers, an average of 100 to 200 metal fittings are made in a variety of shapes with pictorial designs and motifs, such as dragons, lions, or peony, traditional bringers of good luck and fortune.
Sendai Tansu are commonly thought to originate from the time when Date Masamune, a daimyo in the Warring States period (1467-1568), ordered the building of Aoba Castle, and a master carpenter made doors for the castle.
At the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), samurai in the Sendai domain produced Sendai Tansu to supplement their income and also to store their weaponry, haori (half-coat), kamishimo (ceremonial dress), and valuable documents. Therefore, the common size of the early Sendai Tansu, known as yarogata (men’s chests), was about 120 cm wide and 90 cm high, the perfect size for storing such military equipment. From the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) through to the middle of the Taisho period (1912-1926), other articles of furniture came to be made and overall production increased, in part due to exports to Germany and other European countries. This was a golden age and the elaborate style of furniture was much appreciated both in Japan and abroad. With the coming of World War II, production was temporarily suspended, but in the post-war period craftsmen resumed production and the traditional skills are still much in evidence today.
General Production Process
- 1. Preparing the Wood
Trees are felled and cut into logs, which are left to season for 3 to 4 years.
- 2. Owari (Cutting Thick Planks)
The logs are roughly cut and turned into about 12 cm thick planks and naturally dried for some 15 years in a well-ventilated storage place.
- 3. Kowari (Cutting Thin Planks)
The naturally dried planks are cut into thinner planks of about 24 mm, and naturally dried indoors for a further 10 years or so.
- 4. Cutting to Size
The planks are measured and cut according to the size of the chest. Zelkova wood with its beautiful grain is used for the exterior surface, cedar wood for the main body, and the interior parts are made of cedar and paulownia wood.
- 5. Processing
Particularly beautifully grained wood is cut into thinner sheets of veneer, which is backed with paulownia wood; this is to ensure the chest will adapt to a modern air-conditioned environment with no shrinkage or warping.
- 6. Assembly
The surface of the wood components are roughly planed, joints cut and the chest assembled. The drawers made of paulownia and cedar wood are now planed to ensure a smooth fit.
- 7. Urushi (Lacquer) Coating
Raw natural lacquer is collected and prepared according to the purpose. There are several different lacquer types: akaro, kuroro, shuai, and kuronuritate.
The sap (raw lacquer) is collected from 15 to 20 year old lacquer trees, and dried in the sun; the 95% or so water content evaporates to make akaro lacquer.
Kuroro lacquer is made by adding about 3 to 5% of iron powder to the akaro lacquer. Shuai lacquer is made by adding about 30% of rapeseed oil, pine resin, thick malt syrup, and other ingredients to the akaro lacquer. Kuronuritate lacquer is made by adding more iron powder to the shuai lacquer.
The chest is smoothed and polished and receives its first coat of lacquer. There are three types of lacquering techniques: fuki-urushi-nuri (repeated lacquering and polishing), kijiro-nuri (clear lacquering), and shuiro-urushi-nuri (vermilion lacquering).
- 8. Drying
After lacquering, the chest is placed in a high-humidity muro room to dry; this lacquering and drying process is repeated about ten times.
- 9. Making Chased Metal Fittings
Designs are drawn on washi (Japanese traditional paper) and chased using hand gravers; depending on the design, scores of hand-made gravers may be used.
Patterns with complicated lines are chased line by line, and embossed sections are hammered and raised from the reverse side.
- 10. Coating Metal Fittings
Each chased fitting receives an individual and carefully applied coat of antirust, followed by color coating.
The metal fittings may receive an oxidized finish or be copper- or silver-plated to give them an attractive patina.
- 11. Finishing
In this last stage, rust-resistant brass nails are used to affix the metal ornaments and fittings to the lacquered chest and after a final and careful inspection, the chest is completed.